PICKS are stories from many sources, selected by our editors or recommended by our readers because they are important, surprising, troubling, enlightening, inspiring, or amusing. They appear on our site and in our daily newsletter. Please send suggested articles, videos, podcasts, etc. to picks@whowhatwhy.org.

Meta Battles TikTok Threat With Negative Press Campaign in US: Report (Maria)

The author writes, “If you can’t beat ’em, smear ’em. That appears to be Facebook’s approach when it comes to countering the threat from TikTok, according to a new report in The Washington Post. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, has hired Targeted Victory, a large Republican consulting firm, to place stories in op-eds in local newspapers and on local TV newscasts around the US, according to the report. TikTok poses perhaps the most existential challenge to Meta and Facebook yet. The video-based social media platform has gained users at a swift pace, and it’s especially popular among younger users, a demographic that Facebook and Meta’s other platforms have struggled with in recent years.”

Russian Oligarchs Keep Getting Screwed Over by Yacht Selfies (Sean)

The author writes, “Three weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, a series of Instagram photos showing a young Russian woman making a duck face into the camera from the back of a luxurious yacht and posing in a bikini next to an emerald-green pool went viral on Twitter. Within days, Polina Kovaleva, said to be the unofficial stepdaughter of Russia’s foreign minister, was banned from entering the UK and all her property there was frozen. There’s a lesson here: Partying can be dangerous in the age of Instagram. Ask any oligarch.” 

How You Can Help All Refugees — From Ukraine and Beyond (Laura)

The author writes, “The war in Ukraine has captured the world’s attention, and that’s as it should be. The devastation is tragic, and it’s been heartening to see governments and ordinary citizens taking a real interest in Ukrainian refugees and giving generously to help them. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves why we aren’t just as attentive and altruistic toward other refugees around the world in circumstances that are just as desperate. Many of us are donating time, money, and even Airbnbs to help Ukrainians — but how many of us have done the same for refugees from Iraq? Myanmar? South Sudan? Yemen?”

What a Single Metric Tells Us About the Pandemic (Sean)

The author writes, “There is one data point that might serve as an exceptional interpretative tool, one that blinks bright through all that narrative fog: excess mortality. The idea is simple: You look at the recent past to find an average for how many people die in a given country in a typical year, count the number of people who died during the pandemic years, and subtract one from the other. The basic math yields some striking results, as shown by a recent paper in The Lancet finding that 18.2 million people may have died globally from COVID, three times the official total. As skeptical epidemiologists were quick to point out, the paper employed some strange methodology — modeling excess deaths even for countries that offered actual excess-death data and often distorting what we knew to be true as a result. A remarkable excess-mortality database maintained by The Economist does not have this problem, and, like the Lancet paper, the Economist database estimates global excess mortality; it puts the figure above 20 million.”

How California’s Court System Wasted Millions (Reader Steve)

From The Mercury News: “California’s state government offers many — too many — examples of botched attempts to make itself more efficient by adopting high-tech data systems. The current poster child for information technology projects that either failed to work or have become bottomless pits of expense is something called FI$Cal, supposedly a comprehensive state government finance control system. Originally begun in 2005 and costing nearly $1 billion to date, FI$Cal has yet to function as envisioned.”

Beirut Artists Interpret Experience of Nonconformance in Middle East (Mili)

From Al-Monitor: “Beirut artists are at the forefront of the gender and sexual identity conversation in the Middle East, telling different stories of queer cultures that at times are tolerated but often repressed.’“Beirut is a microcosm for the complexities of homosexual relationships in contemporary Lebanon,’ Sofian Merabet told Al-Monitor. Merabet’s book Queer Beirut examines the notion of ‘queer space’ and the role that colonial history and religion have played in the story of Lebanese queer people.”

At Age 101, He Finally Got His High School Diploma (Russ)

The author writes, “Merrill Pittman Cooper, 101, had a distinguished career as one of the first Black trolley car drivers in Philadelphia, and a powerful leader in the union. But when he was a teen during segregation in the 1930s, his single mother was too poor to pay his school tuition. In 1938, he had just finished his junior year of high school at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a boarding school founded after the Civil War that initially educated formerly enslaved children. Cooper said he realized that his mother, who worked as a live-in housekeeper, couldn’t afford to make the final tuition payment for his senior year. He encouraged her to move them to Philadelphia, where she had family.”

Monkeys Near Florida Airport Delight Visitors (Dana)

The author writes, “As departing jetliners roared overhead, an aging vervet monkey moped on a mangrove branch one recent afternoon in the woods he inhabits near a South Florida airport, his ego bruised. Mikey, as he is called by his human observers, has long been the laid-back alpha male of a troop of monkeys ruling this tract of land, tucked off a busy runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. But this day he lost when challenged by a feisty youngster called Spike. Mikey fled screaming and was now sullenly staring at humans watching him from 15 feet (4 meters) away. … The United States has no native monkeys, but the smallish vervets have roamed Dania Beach since the late 1940s after a dozen brought from West Africa fled a now long-closed breeding facility and roadside zoo. Today, 40 descendants are broken into four troops living within 1,500 acres (600 hectares) around the airport.”