When skateboarding video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater arrived on the PlayStation in 1999, no one could have expected the cultural impact it would have or how much muscle memory it would ingrain into dedicated fans. It was an enormous hit with skaters and non-skaters alike, helping to usher in a more-mainstream acceptance of skateboarding culture, define a new video game genre and teach tens of thousands the words to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.”
Twenty-one years after the release of the first game, publisher Activision and developer Vicarious Visions will release Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, a ground-up remaster of the first two games, on Sept. 4, for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. And while it sticks very closely to its source, the new game feels like it belongs in 2020, with a greater focus on representation and a firm grounding in that angsty skate culture aesthetic. Tony Hawk himself couldn’t be more excited about the release.
“You don’t understand how many people ask me about [Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2],” Hawk told TIME. “That is a consistent request on social media, ‘Why don’t you remaster these games?’”
If you’ve never played a THPS game, they fit neatly into that “easy to learn, lifetime to master” category. And if you’re not sucked in by the sheer fun, the score chasing and incredible soundtracks will probably get you. As the 20th anniversary of the first game’s release approached, Hawk and Activision thought it was the right time to remake what had become a video game classic. And though they couldn’t foresee what 2020 would become, the game is a bright spot in a dark year.
As I pushed off into the fan-favorite Warehouse level, the first park from the series’ original game, I instantly remembered countless hours playing with friends, trying to set new high scores. The muscle memory snapped back and I began landing combo after combo like
no time had passed at all. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 has crisp, updated visuals (that look great in HDR), adds in a variety of moves that showed up in later games and includes other features common in modern video games, like online multiplayer and a mode to build your own skatepark.
But the game feels just like you remember it, just like you want it to feel. It transports you back to those Halcyon days of 1999 when the only thing you had to worry about was making sure your friends passed you the controller when your turn came up and there was a never-ending supply of Dorito’s and Mountain Dew.
The THPS series has had a rough decade. Its initial success continued through the mid-2000’s, but when longtime developer Neversoft passed the baton to developer Robomodo, review scores fell fast. The past 10 years have seen disappointments like 2009’s Tony Hawk: Ride, which used a plastic skateboard as a controller, and 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5, which has one of the lowest aggregated reviews scores of any game in the current console generation, according to Metacritic. The series went mostly dark after that, with only a free-to-play mobile game released in 2018 to show for the last five years.
Fixing THPS, it turns out, meant going back to what made the original games so much fun. Developer Vicarious Visions has succeeded in recreating the flow of mastering combos and playing in the skateparks. New additions also include an extensive list of challenges, costume unlocks and the ability to make your own skater. The game retains 22 of the artists from the original beloved soundtrack, including Dead Kennedys, Primus and Rage Against the Machine. And it includes songs from 37 newly added artists like A Tribe Called Quest, MXPX and Screaming Females.
The remaster isn’t just a breath of fresh air for the series, but also for the gaming world’s efforts towards inclusion. Hawk said it was important to bring representation in this year’s release that didn’t exist in the old games.
“In the original game I wanted the roster to represent all styles of skating, but skating didn’t have a very diverse lineup back then, those are just the facts,” Hawk said. ”As we evolved and as skating started to become more popular in different areas, then there were no more barriers like that.”
Hawk says it was important to him that the remaster include wider representation not only racially or socio-economically, but also through gender identity—and so Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 features the series’ first non-binary skater in Leo Baker.
It’s possible that original games helped inspire communities that are now featured in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. Hawk said it was “probably the most surprising outcome” of the first game that it introduced so many people to skateboarding, even if they weren’t interested in skating themselves. He believes the game helped more people become fans of skateboarding and lessened any social stigma it carried.
“Before that, the only people who cared about skating were skaters themselves,” he said. “I like to think that [Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater] helped people who were not clued in to the benefits of skating or the popularity of skating and helped them to understand that this could be a positive outlet for kids and communities to embrace.”
While Hawk believes the THPS games brought skateboarding to new people, real-life skaters who grew up with the series have helped change the sport along the way, he said.
“It made a new generation of kids believe [the games’ trick combos] are possible, and now they are,” Hawk said. “If you look at a skater like Shane O’Neill, who’s in the new game, if you look at the tricks he’s doing, they’re Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater combos that we didn’t think were possible back then.”
In 1999, the series might have introduced many new people to skating, but it also tapped into youth and counterculture malaise, which feels just at home in 2020 as it did 21 years ago. In particular, the series honored skate culture’s distrust of authority and has long dunked on the police. The very first game introduced the character “Officer Dick,” a cop stereotype complete with aviators, mustache and a beer belly who players can control in place of the professional skateboarders. He appeared in much of the series, and might show up in the new game, too.
To Hawk, skate culture embodies much of what has been seen over the summer as thousands of young people across the United States have demonstrated against police brutality and for racial equality. Just last week, Anthony Huber, a 26-year-old avid skateboarder, was shot and killed while protecting others from a gunman during protests in Kenosha, Wis. that came after police shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back several times. Huber was holding his skateboard when he died.
“I think skaters have always taken pride in being different and not following the status quo. And so in terms of being effective or voicing for equality, then they fall right in line with that,” he said. “[Y]ou saw plenty of skateboards especially in the Black Lives Matter protests, because those are people that are not afraid to speak out.”
The Tony Hawk series was meant to embody those 1990s VHS skate tapes that my friends and I dubbed and passed around. The series, in turn, became its own version of those tapes for a new generation. It’s easy to be cynical about remastered games as an effort to tap into older gamers’ fond memories to make a quick buck. But Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 honors what the original games were, and what they helped create. And yes, there’s comforting nostalgia here. But it’s a return to form with plenty of growth along the way, resulting in something that’s perhaps even better than the original—and it reminds you that Less Than Jake exists, too. This year being what it has been, I might enjoy Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 because it taps into that familiar, comfortable teenage soul of mine, always ready to blast Bad Religion while doing dangerous stuff. Or I might enjoy it on its own merits, as a solidly enticing game that plays great and has me planning the cosmetics I’ll unlock next. All I know is that I want to keep playing it.
In July 2019, Alaphia Zoyab was on a video call with Facebook employees in India, discussing some 180 posts by users in the country that Avaaz, the watchdog group where she worked, said violated Facebook’s hate speech rules. But half way through the hour-long meeting, Shivnath Thukral, the most senior Facebook official on the call, got up and walked out of the room, Zoyab says, saying he had other important things to do.
Among the posts was one by Shiladitya Dev, a lawmaker in the state of Assam for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He had shared a news report about a girl being allegedly drugged and raped by a Muslim man, and added his own comment: “This is how Bangladeshi Muslims target our [native people] in 2019.” But rather than removing it, Facebook allowed the post to remain online for more than a year after the meeting, until TIME contacted Facebook to ask about it on Aug. 21. “We looked into this when Avaaz first flagged it to us, and our records show that we assessed it as a hate speech violation,” Facebook said in a statement to TIME. “We failed to remove upon initial review, which was a mistake on our part.”
Thukral was Facebook’s public policy director for India and South Asia at the time. Part of his job was lobbying the Indian government, but he was also involved in discussions about how to act when posts by politicians were flagged as hate speech by moderators, former employees tell TIME.
Facebook acknowledges that Thukral left the meeting, but says he never intended to stay for its entirety, and joined only to introduce Zoyab, whom he knew from a past job, to his team. “Shivnath did not leave because the issues were not important,” Facebook said in the statement, noting that the company took action on 70 of the 180 posts presented during the meeting.
Shivnath Thukral at the Moving to Better Ground session during the India Economic Summit in Mumbai, November, 2011.
Eric Miller—World Economic Forum
The social media giant is under increasing scrutiny for how it enforces its hate speech policies when the accused are members of Modi’s ruling party. Activists say some Facebook policy officials are too close to the BJP, and accuse the company of putting its relationship with the government ahead of its stated mission of removing hate speech from its platform—especially when ruling-party politicians are involved. Thukral, for instance, worked with party leadership to assist in the BJP’s 2014 election campaign, according to documents TIME has seen.
Facebook’s managing director for India, Ajit Mohan, denied suggestions that the company had displayed bias toward the BJP in an Aug. 21 blog post titled, “We are open, transparent and non-partisan.” He wrote: “Despite hailing from diverse political affiliations and backgrounds, [our employees] perform their respective duties and interpret our policies in a fair and non-partisan way.
The decisions around content escalations are not made unilaterally by just one person; rather, they are inclusive of views from different teams and disciplines within the company.”
Facebook published the blog post after the Wall Street Journal, citing current and former Facebook employees, reported on Aug.14 that the company’s top policy official in India, Ankhi Das, pushed back against other Facebook employees who wanted to label a BJP politician a “dangerous individual” and ban him from the platform after he called for Muslim immigrants to be shot. Das argued that punishing the state lawmaker, T. Raja Singh, would hurt Facebook’s business prospects in India, the Journal reported. (Facebook said Das’s intervention was not the sole reason Singh was not banned, and that it was still deciding if a ban was necessary.)
Those business prospects are sizeable. India is Facebook’s largest market, with 328 million using the social media platform. Some 400 million Indians also use Facebook’s messaging service WhatsApp — a substantial chunk of the country’s estimated 503 million internet users. The platforms have become increasingly important in Indian politics; after the 2014 elections, Das published an op-ed arguing that Modi had won because of the way he leveraged Facebook in his campaign.
But Facebook and WhatsApp have also been used to spread hate speech and misinformation that have been blamed for helping to incite deadly attacks on minority groups amid rising communal tensions across India—despite the company’s efforts to crack down. In February, a video of a speech by BJP politician Kapil Mishra was uploaded to Facebook, in which he told police that unless they removed mostly-Muslim protesters occupying a road in Delhi, his supporters would do it themselves. Violent riots erupted within hours. (In that case, Facebook determined the video violated its rules on incitement to violence and removed it.)
WhatsApp, too, has been used with deadly intent in India — for example by cow vigilantes, Hindu mobs that have attacked Muslims and Dalits accused of killing cows, an animal sacred in Hinduism. At least 44 people, most of them Muslims, were killed by cow vigilantes between May 2015 and December 2018, according to Human Rights Watch. Many cow vigilante murders happen after rumors spread on WhatsApp, and videos of lynchings and beatings are often shared via the app too.
TIME has learned that Facebook, in an effort to evaluate its role in spreading hate speech and incitements to violence, has commissioned an independent report on its impact on human rights in India. Work on the India audit, previously unreported, began before the Journal published its story. It is being conducted by the U.S. law firm Foley Hoag and will include interviews with senior Facebook staff and members of civil society in India, according to three people with knowledge of the matter and an email seen by TIME. (A similar report on Myanmar, released in 2018, detailed Facebook’s failings on hate speech that contributed to the Rohingya genocide there the previous year.) Facebook declined to confirm the report.
But activists, who have spent years monitoring and reporting hate speech by Hindu nationalists, tell TIME that they believe Facebook has been reluctant to police posts by members and supporters of the BJP because it doesn’t want to pick fights with the government that controls its largest market. The way the company is structured exacerbates the problem, analysts and former employees say, because the same people responsible for managing the relationship with the government also contribute to decisions on whether politicians should be punished for hate speech.
“A core problem at Facebook is that one policy org is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping governments happy,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, tweeted in May. “Local policy heads are generally pulled from the ruling political party and are rarely drawn from disadvantaged ethnic groups, religious creeds or castes. This naturally bends decision-making towards the powerful.”
Some activists have grown so frustrated with the Facebook India policy team that they’ve begun to bypass it entirely in reporting hate speech. Following the call when Thukral walked out, Avaaz decided to begin reporting hate speech directly to Facebook’s company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. “We found Facebook India’s attitude utterly flippant, callous, uninterested,” says Zoyab, who has since left Avaaz. Another group that regularly reports hate speech against minorities on Facebook in India, which asked not to be named out of fear for the safety of its staffers, said it has been doing the same since 2018. In a statement, Facebook acknowledged some groups that regularly flag hate speech in India are in contact with Facebook headquarters, but said that did not change the criteria by which posts were judged to be against its rules.
The revelations in the Journal set off a political scandal in India, with opposition politicians calling for Facebook to be officially investigated for alleged favoritism toward Modi’s party. And the news caused strife within the company too: In an internal open letter, Facebook employees called on executives to denounce “anti-Muslim bigotry” and do more to ensure hate speech rules are applied consistently across the platform, Reuters reported. The letter alleges that there are no Muslim employees on the India policy team; in response to questions from TIME, Facebook said it was legally prohibited from collecting such data.
Facebook friends in high places
While it is common for companies to hire lobbyists with connections to political parties, activists say the history of staff on Facebook’s India policy team, as well as their incentive to keep the government happy, creates a conflict of interest when it comes to policing hate speech by politicians. Before joining Facebook, Thukral had worked in the past on behalf of the BJP. Despite this, he was involved in making decisions about how to deal with politicians’ posts that moderators flagged as violations of hate speech rules during the 2019 elections, the former employees tell TIME. His Facebook likes include a page called “I Support Narendra Modi.”
Former Facebook employees tell TIME they believe a key reason Thukral was hired in 2017 was because he was seen as close to the ruling party. In 2013, during the BJP’s eventually successful campaign to win national power at the 2014 elections, Thukral worked with senior party officials to help run a pro-BJP website and Facebook page. The site, called Mera Bharosa (“My Trust” in Hindi) also hosted events, including a project aimed at getting students to sign up to vote, according to interviews with people involved and documents seen by TIME.
A student who volunteered for a Mera Bharosa project told TIME he had no idea it was an operation run in coordination with the BJP, and that he believed he was working for a non-partisan voter registration campaign. According to the documents, this was a calculated strategy to hide the true intent of the organization. By early 2014, the site changed its name to “Modi Bharosa” (meaning “Modi Trust”) and began sharing more overtly pro-BJP content. It is not clear whether Thukral was still working with the site at that time.
In a statement to TIME, Facebook acknowledged Thukral had worked on behalf of Mera Bharosa, but denied his past work presented a conflict of interest because multiple people are involved in significant decisions about removing content. “We are aware that some of our employees have supported various campaigns in the past both in India and elsewhere in the world,”
Facebook said as part of a statement issued to TIME in response to a detailed series of questions. “Our understanding is that Shivnath’s volunteering at the time focused on the themes of governance within India and are not related to the content questions you have raised.”
Now, Thukral has an even bigger job. In March 2020, he was promoted from his job at Facebook to become WhatsApp’s India public policy director. In the role, New Delhi tech policy experts tell TIME, one of Thukral’s key responsibilities is managing the company’s relationship with the Modi government. It’s a crucial job, because Facebook is trying to turn the messaging app into a digital payments processor — a lucrative idea potentially worth billions of dollars.
In April, Facebook announced it would pay $5.7 billion for a 10% stake in Reliance Jio, India’s biggest telecoms company, which is owned by India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani. On a call with investors in May, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke enthusiastically about the business opportunity. “With so many people in India engaging through WhatsApp, we just think this is going to be a huge opportunity for us to provide a better commerce experience for people, to help small businesses and the economy there, and to build a really big business ourselves over time,” he said, talking about plans to link WhatsApp Pay with Jio’s vast network of small businesses across India. “That’s why I think it really makes sense for us to invest deeply in India.”
But WhatsApp’s future as a payments application in India depends on final approval from the national payments regulator, which is still pending. Facebook’s hopes for expansion in India have been quashed by a national regulator before, in 2016, when the country’s telecoms watchdog said Free Basics, Facebook’s plan to provide free Internet access for only some sites, including its own, violated net neutrality rules. One of Thukral’s priorities in his new role is ensuring that a similar problem doesn’t strike down Facebook’s big ambitions for WhatsApp Pay.
‘No foreign company in India wants to be in the government’s bad books’
While the regulator is technically independent, analysts say that Facebook’s new relationship with the wealthiest man in India will likely make it much easier to gain approval for WhatsApp Pay. “It would be easier now for Facebook to get that approval, with Ambani on its side,” says Neil Shah, vice president of Counterpoint Research, an industry analysis firm. And goodwill from the government itself is important too, analysts say. “No foreign company in India wants to be in the government’s bad books,” says James Crabtree, author of The Billionaire Raj. “Facebook would very much like to have good relations with the government of India and is likely to think twice about doing things that will antagonize them.”
The Indian government has shown before it is not afraid to squash the dreams of foreign tech firms. In July, after a geopolitical spat with China, it banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat. “There has been a creeping move toward a kind of digital protectionism in India,” Crabtree says. “So in the back of Facebook’s mind is the fact that the government could easily turn against foreign tech companies in general, and Facebook in particular, especially if they’re seen to be singling out major politicians.”
With hundreds of millions of users already in India, and hundreds of millions more who don’t have smartphones yet but might in the near future, Facebook has an incentive to avoid that possibility. “Facebook has said in the past that it has no business interest in allowing hate speech on its platform,” says Chinmayi Arun, a resident fellow at Yale Law School, who studies the regulation of tech platforms. “It’s evident from what’s going on in India that this is not entirely true.”
Facebook says it is working hard to combat hate speech. “We want to make it clear that we denounce hate in any form,” said Mohan, Facebook’s managing director in India, in his Aug. 21 blog post. “We have removed and will continue to remove content posted by public figures in India when it violates our Community Standards.”
But scrubbing hate speech remains a daunting challenge for Facebook. At an employee meeting in June, Zuckerberg highlighted Mishra’s February speech ahead of the Delhi riots, without naming him, as a clear example of a post that should be removed. The original video of Mishra’s speech was taken down shortly after it was uploaded. But another version of the video, with more than 5,600 views and a long list of supportive comments underneath, remained online for six months until TIME flagged it to Facebook
It should come as no surprise to learn being stuck inside for months on end with minimal human contact is not good for your well-being. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt any semblance of normalcy throughout the U.S. and elsewhere, many people are feeling the effects of reduced employment and other disruptions of daily life—compounded by more visible instances of targeted police brutality and racial discrimination.
If you’re stressed out, exhausted by the stream of bad news, or just fell off whatever good habits you had in 2019, here’s how you can use your mobile device to get back on track. With apps that make chores fun, simple meditation tools, or services to address your mental health issues, you can, maybe, better prepare yourself for whatever else this year has in store.
Get your sleep schedule back on track with Pzizz
Platform: iOS, Android
There’s a good chance you’ve got a lot on your mind right now—which means counting sheep might not cut it when it comes to getting to sleep, and staring at your phone while doomscrolling is almost certainly even worse. And while there are a handful of apps designed to track your sleep, getting one meant to help you get to bed is just as important.
Pzizz is a sleep app that uses audio cues based on sleep research to help you fall asleep. It uses a mixture of speech, music, and audio to get you relaxed and prime your body for some down time, be it for a few minutes or a whole night. You can adjust the mix as well, leaning toward a more talkative or musical sleep aid for the allotted time period. Subscribing to the premium version of the app nets you access to a wider variety of sounds and guided sleep experiences.
Gamify your routines with Habitica
Platform: iOS, Android, Web
If you need a little motivation to get done what you need to get done on a daily basis, and don’t mind adding a little fantastical vibe to the mix, try out Habitica, a task management and to-do list service that gamifies the work you accomplish. You create an RPG-esque character, which “defeats enemies” and levels up whenever you confirm that you’ve accomplished on of your IRL tasks—whether those are daily activities, errands to run, or habits to build. You can play by yourself or team up with friends for a more social element (and to add accountability to the mix); in either case, you can obtain prizes and gear for your fictional avatar by checking off boxes on your to-do list.
Reflect for a moment with Enso
If you’re like me, and just want to practice sitting for a few minutes with no distractions, you should try out Enso. It’s a minimal but elegant iOS meditation app perfect for both beginning students or experienced practitioners. There are no voices to distract you, and no music to focus on or tolerate. Just set a timer, hit start, and wait until it runs out.
You can customize your session with multiple bells to signify prep time, sitting time, and intervals for those engaging in a more advanced meditation practice. Buying Enso’s $2.99 pro version will net you some much-needed features, like Apple Health integration, an in-app audio player for custom meditation tunes, and extra alert tones you can pick to ease yourself in and out of your sitting practice.
For some good bedtime white noise, use Dark Noise
Trying to read a book or focus on some work while the outside world honks, shouts, and distracts is no fun. That’s why white noise is so useful, drowning out other sounds with a more predictable, familiar tone. That’s what Dark Noise is for.
The app features a wide array of sounds, from white, brown, pink, and grey noises, to heavy rains and waterfalls, crickets, wind chimes, and coffee shops. With such a selection, you’re sure to find a noise to keep you distracted, focused, or drowsy—whatever you need. And there’s a timer, so you can have the app shut down on its own after you finish work (or fall asleep).
Talk to someone with BetterHelp
Platform: iOS, Android, Web
Everyone needs someone to talk to—especially now. With in-person therapy currently out of reach for many thanks to the coronavirus, those seeking mental-health treatment might want to consider BetterHelp. Using the app, you can speak to a licensed psychologist or counselor via text, phone, or video. With no insurance necessary, pricing ranges from $40 to $70 per month, and there are over 10,000 therapists and counselors—all with over three years of therapy experience—to choose from (you’ll take a quiz to see which one is the best fit for you).
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The world of social media was a little quieter than usual on Wednesday: Celebrities ranging from Kim Kardashian West to Mark Ruffalo “froze” their Instagram accounts for 24 hours, to protest hate speech and misinformation being spread on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company.
“I can’t sit by and stay silent while these platforms continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation,” wrote Kardashian West, who has 188 million Instagram followers, in a tweet on Tuesday, before encouraging her fans to join her.
But while the boycott temporarily reshaped the Instagram feeds of the celebrities’ collective millions of followers, it was also met with criticism. The critiques paralleled similar concerns about two other major social-media activism campaigns in recent months: #BlackoutTuesday, for which Instagram users posted black squares to show support for Black Lives Matter, and #ChallengeAccepted, a campaign that involved users posting black-and-white selfies in a declaration of women’s empowerment.
For all three, a central question dogged the hashtags: what could short-term social-media action actually do to create long-term change?
In fact, argues Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim Associate Dean of Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, social media-activism can have a “major impact”—if it’s done right.
“Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement, people are taking to social media to voice their opinions and really call attention to some of the issues that have been problematic in U.S. society in past years and now,” Tyree says. “They’re able to get exposure in a different light because social media is so prevalent and pervasive in today’s world.”
According to Tyree, however, that power can only be realized if the campaign also exists offline. Despite the criticism, she thinks Stop Hate for Profit has the potential to be a good example of how an online campaign can go beyond a symbolic gesture. The Instagram freeze is part of a week of action organized by the coalition, which includes clear objectives like educating people about election disinformation and asking people to register to vote.
“These campaigns give everyday people a chance to do something larger than themselves, but there has to be online and offline goals and objectives,” Tyree says. “To offer up the idea that we’re not going to utilize a platform for a day is not a goal—it’s a tactic that should be used as an overall part of a bigger campaign to evoke larger change.”
The backing of an campaign like Stop Hate for Profit is not in fact necessary to make an impact, Tyree says, but it helps to have an established set of goals and ideas to back up the posts. She points to the way the hashtag #MeToo went viral when used in a tweet by Alyssa Milano. While Milano’s tweet brought the phrase to the mainstream, the movement gained momentum because the phrase’s creator Tarana Burke had long been doing the work of empowering sexual abuse and harassment survivors.
Ultimately, however, while social media can raise money and awareness, it’s only one part of a larger puzzle—one that won’t be solved by any single campaign. Tyree stresses that while the 24-hour Instagram freeze was created to draw awareness to the hate speech and misinformation on Facebook, the bigger issue that needs to be addressed is the existence of the hate itself and the realities of the world that produced it.
“Social media is a reflection of society,” she says. “We also have to put the mirror to ourselves and understand that this is really a reflection of who we are as a society.”
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