Over the last several years, Russian social media trolls have been skilled in peddling misinformation campaigns to divide the American public. That’s the message Capital Rotarians heard from guest speaker Dr. Patrick Warren in their Zoom meeting Oct. 21. Warren (in photo), an economics professor at Clemson University, has been researching state-affiliated propaganda operations. While media trolls often deliberately provoke others online, Warren said Russia’s effort – housed in its Internet Research Agency (IRA) – uses “friendly persuasion” instead. “They don’t start fights, but make friends,” Warren explained. “It causes division by pushing people in a direction they were already leaning.” The IRA’s trolling components include (1) fearmongers – circulating stories of “fake news” events that never happened as if they were real; (2) newsfeeds – hijacking real news media sites but emphasizing violent and divisive stories over those that are positive or uplifting; (3) hashtag gamers – where Twitter users build an audience by creating catchy hashtags and challenging others to come up with pithy comments; (4) right-leaning and left-leaning trolls – where the IRA amplified the volume of irritating tweets from real Americans of both political persuasions, adding more sarcasm and cynicism. The key to combatting IRA disinformation is our commitment to be better social media users. Warren offered a three-fold prescription: (1) be careful about accounts that play to political biases; (2) strengthen democracy by investing in civic, educational and international institutions; and (3) support high standards of truth and fairness for ourselves, for our politicians/policymakers and for media platforms/brands.
The South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic to help Palmetto State industries navigate issues including worker safety, lack of child care, supply chain interruptions, unemployment and a thicket of local, state and federal health/behavior guidelines and mandates. That’s according to John Wall (in photo), guest speaker for Capital Rotary’s July 29 Zoom meeting. He’s vice president of government relations and general counsel for the group that represents 400 manufacturing facilities and 880,000 employees. Wall noted that manufacturers have been proud to “fill in the gaps” by supplying personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, gowns and masks to combat the coronavirus. They also “stepped up in a big way to lead the charge for contact tracing in the workplace,” Wall said. While COVID-19 is today’s chief concern, Wall noted one of industry’s future legislative goals is business license tax reform setting a standard filing date, application form, appeals process, rate and class schedule and a portal for online access. Education reform is another goal, aiming to ensure that students “have the skills they need to fill these great-paying jobs here in our state.” Wall believes South Carolina’s future includes more investment by food marketing and processing businesses, growth in “life sciences” like pharmaceutical manufacturing, and growth in warehouse/distribution facilities. Wall is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of South Carolina’s School of Law. He joined the Manufacturers Alliance in 2018.
Over the past seven years, the Office for Innovation, Partnership and Economic Engagement has become a focal point for industries melding the University of South Carolina’s resources with doing business in the Palmetto State. The result has been nearly $800 million worth of economic development, 620 jobs and $86 million in job-related impact, according to Bill Kirkland, the office’s executive director (in photo) and guest speaker for Capital Rotary’s June 3 meeting via Zoom. Kirkland said the engagement office’s work includes (1) corporate outreach; (2 help in licensing intellectual property; (3) innovation assistance for entrepreneurs; (4) support at the Innovista research campus in downtown Columbia; and (5) recruiting companies to the state. In the past six months, over $7 million in small business research grants have come as a result of the university’s “strategic creative partnership with corporate America,” Kirkland reported. For the past eight years, South Carolina has been among the top 100 universities granted U.S. patents. “We’re also the fifth fastest-growing manufacturing state in the nation,” Kirkland said. A former head of the university’s Columbia Technology Incubator, Kirkland also held executive management positions with IBM and Pfizer and was a managing partner for South Carolina-based LK Global Consulting. Capital Rotary has been holding biweekly video meetings as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Capital Rotary’s Philip Flynn (at right in photo) presents a new lapel pin to Dr. Tommy Gibbons, recognizing him as a Paul Harris Fellow Plus-Five contributor to The Rotary Foundation, the international service club’s charitable fund to support programs for world understanding and peace. Gibbons has made an initial $1,000 donation to the fund, followed by five additional gifts of $1,000 each. Gibbons served as Capital Rotary president in 2016-2017. Flynn, the club’s immediate past president, is chairman of Foundation giving and international service during this year. Paul Harris Fellow honors are named for the Chicago attorney who founded Rotary International in 1905.
Columbia’s Capital Rotary Club has added two new members – an exercise trainer and a local school district director. Shown after their induction are (from left) Barbara Gelberd with sponsor Ann Elliott and (from right) Sandy Brossard with sponsor Ione Cockrell. Gelberd is a former healthcare executive, consultant and project manager who now owns The Movement Studio, a Five Points gym and physical fitness center. She’s licensed to teach the Gyrotonic exercise method that incorporates movement principles from yoga, dance, gymnastics, swimming and t’ai chi. A cum laude Furman University graduate, Gelberd has master’s degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Her past community activities include volunteering with Family and Children’s Services, United Way of the Midlands, South Carolina Contemporary Dance Company and the Project Management Institute’s Midlands Chapter. Brossard is Richland School District One’s Chief of Teaching and Learning, with an educational specialist degree from the University of South Carolina and a doctorate from Capella University. She previously worked in both the Berkeley County and Charleston County school districts, was an associate superintendent in Lexington School District Four, a Southern Regional Education Board consultant and president/CEO of Educational Services and Policies, Inc. A Paul Harris Fellow, she’s also been a member of Lake Murray-Irmo Rotary.
Past District 7770 governor Gary Bradham told Capital Rotarians on Jan. 22 how recent projects spearheaded by the international service club improved life in Ghana’s impoverished communities. Bradham (in photo with Capital president Abby Naas) also celebrated the local club’s $1,000 contribution toward construction of a new elementary school. In addition to schools, Bradham said district projects included deep wells for clean water and installation of microflush toilets in place of pit latrines that smell bad and pollute water and soil. Over half of Ghana’s population lives in rural areas, and only 10% have access to basic sanitation. Two-thirds can obtain safe drinking water only after making a 30-minute round trip. Bradham said Rotary’s public works employed 300 people and totaled $1.6 million in donated and matching funds. Last year Capital Rotary was a contributor and lead club for building a new Nkrankrom Elementary School in the African nation. Bradham is a retired Air Force officer who’s been a Myrtle Beach Rotary member since 2005. He’s held numerous local and District 7770 leadership positions since that time.
Joey Von Nessen (right in photo with Rotarian Stephen West), a research economist at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business, shared the state’s 2019 market overview as Capital Rotary’s guest speaker Nov. 13. He said this year has been an economic roller coaster due to tariff and trade disputes, slowing global markets, fluctuating interest rates and waning of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 stimulus. Auto tariffs affect the Palmetto State via increased costs in the short run and potential changes in global production strategies in the long run. After peaking in 2015, our employment growth began to fall and is at 2% so far this year. But Von Nessen noted that every county has had employment gains at or above the state average since 2018. Labor costs, lumber costs and higher interest rates have negatively impacted the state’s construction industry, but the latter two are more positive recently. Although South Carolina is well-positioned for 2019, Von Nessen said the bottom line is that a “decaf” economy (lacking stimulus) combined with higher uncertainty worldwide means slower growth. Von Nessen serves on the advisory committee of the SC Board of Economic Advisors and is responsible for preparation and presentation of USC’s annual statewide economic forecast. He’s regularly invited to brief the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond on the state’s market conditions.
For 37 years The Cooperative Ministry has been working hard for the “working poor” of the Midlands – those with low-wage jobs who are sometimes unable to meet basic living expenses. Scott Vaughan, the non-profit’s community awareness director (pictured with Rotarian Neda Beal), was Capital Rotary’s Oct. 9 guest speaker. He said local churches founded and still support the mission of focusing on short-term crisis assistance while build long-term self-sufficiency. The Cooperative Ministry helped 12,380 people in 2018 including rent or utility assistance for 531 households. Vaughan said the ministry’s “hand up but not handout” aid also was comprised of (1) food assistance – 6,025 people served; (2) free clothing for 6,259 clients; (3) free tax return preparation – 8,362 people served; (4) insurance counseling for 807 people; (5) car donations – six clients got vehicles for work transportation; and (6) working with five local firms for job placement. The ministry provides Christian counseling and financial education classes as well. Nearly 500 volunteers donated over 11,000 hours of time last year, along with support from more than 1,300 individual donors. Vaughan is a University of Georgia graduate who completed a three-year executive program at Emory University. He joined The Cooperative Ministry in 2017 after careers in journalism, marketing and in faith-based consulting for 5,000 congregations throughout North America.
Freeing families from fears of domestic violence is the mission of Sistercare, a non-profit agency serving Richland, Lexington, Fairfield, Newberry and Kershaw counties, according to Cherisse Branch, guest speaker for Capital Rotary’s Aug. 21 meeting. Branch (shown with club president Abby Naas at right and member Mike Montgomery) noted that South Carolina ranks 6th nationally in domestic violence homicides and that 15 million children across the country live in homes affected by violence. Sistercare’s services include (1) individual and group counseling; (2) community support groups; (3) career development; (4) teen outreach and youth development; (5) community education and training about domestic violence; (6) advocacy in court; (7) emergency shelter for victims and transitional housing; and (8) a 24-hour crisis hotline. Branch said that in the past year, 354 adults and 196 children were served in shelters, 3,713 crisis line calls were received and 8,384 individuals took part in community-based programs. Branch is a native of Brooklyn, NY, and a 1998 graduate of Benedict College.
Stephen West takes part in Capital Rotary’s summer blood drive held July 24 in downtown Columbia. The drive collected 42 units of blood from 38 donors, including six first-time donors. Red Cross officials said the effort potentially saved 126 lives, and its success is especially welcome because of high blood demand and lagging donations in the summer. Over the past dozen years Capital Rotary’s annual drive has collected 624 units of blood, helping to save the lives of more than 1,800 people.