We’re pleased to bring you “While You Were Out”—Verily's quick takes on the happenings of this week.

As Pornhub receives more attention for exploitative content, credit card companies depart

In breaking news, major credit card companies Visa and MasterCard have announced they will block use of their credit cards from the most popular pornography website Pornhub. This comes after a week of news coverage mounted regarding exploitation in videos on Pornhub, which has been growing all year. Paypal stopped allowing its services at Pornhub this summer.

In February this year, reports of trafficking and rape taking place on Pornhub grew in attention, and a petition was started to shut down the site. On December 4, 2020, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof brought attention to the problem of underage and coerced people depicted in sexual acts—exploitation that Pornhub benefits monetarily from. Days after his article, Pornhub announced reforms that all but mirrored Kristof’s requests, as the columnist shared in a followup article on December 7, 2020; the site vowed to only allow video uploads from people with verified identities, to improve moderation, and to disable the downloading of videos, which allows illegal material to proliferate.

Since Pornhub, a company that has repeatedly ignored girls’ requests to remove videos of their rape, is not a company that can be trusted to act ethically, U.S. legislators have introduced legislation that will equip victims to more easily sue the site, and Canada is developing regulations for the Montreal-based company. A lot more must be done to stop the exploitation, which Pornhub's reforms are insufficient to provide. But the credit card companies Visa and Mastercard, which will no longer allow their cards to be used at the website, have brought a huge financial blow to the porn giant.

“Visa and Mastercard have made the right decision to finally cut ties with a profiteer of rape. These companies are now standing on the side of human dignity and we applaud Visa and Mastercard for making this bold step,” said Dawn Hawkins, senior vice president and executive director of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an organization that has called for the U.S. Department of Justice, Congress, and all 50 state attorneys general to investigate and shut down Pornhub. —Mary Rose Somarriba

Civil unrest in Ethiopia becomes regional violence

A United Nations humans right chief said Wednesday that Ethiopia’s civil unrest is “spiraling out of control with appalling impact on civilians” and is urging outside monitoring after six U.N. staffers forces assessing the Tigray region of the country were shot at and detained by Ethiopian forces for trying to reach areas where “they were not supposed to go.”

The fighting between Ethiopian forces and the fugitive Tigray regional government has, in recent months, evolved into what some are calling a “large-scale massacre.” The Tigray region, which held great political sway in the country before the current Prime Minister ascended to power, is now “largely cut off from the world, with food and medicines needed by the population of 6 million—some 1 million now thought to be displaced.” Indeed, Tigray refugees are pouring into neighboring Sudan, seeking respite from ongoing violence by varying ethnic militias now engaging in guerrilla warfare.

At the same time, current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy faces mounting accusations of human rights violations, with one advocate for mass atrocity prevention warning that “when humanitarian aid is systematically blocked and denied to civilians in a war zone who desperately need it, then it starts to look less like ‘logistical problems’ and more like weaponizing hunger.” —Mariel Lindsay

U.S. government sues Facebook for anti-competitive behavior

Social media giant Facebook finds itself in the hot seat again, this time facing twin lawsuits filed by the U.S. government and the Federal Trade Commission that allege abuse of power in the digital marketplace. The chief prosecutor leading the coalition of 48 attorney generals who filed antitrust charges addressed the lawsuit at a press conference, alleging that “Facebook has used its dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals and snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users.” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reacted to the news of the lawsuits on Twitter: “Good. Facebook is absolutely an out-of-control monopoly—one that has abused its market power to squash competition, manipulate democracies, and crush journalism.”

Facebook vice president and general counsel, meanwhile, called accusations “revisionist history” and went on to address the plaintiffs’ targeting of the company’s acquisition of competitive products Instagram and Whatsapp, stating that "Instagram and WhatsApp became the incredible products they are today because Facebook invested billions of dollars, and years of innovation and expertise, to develop new features and better experiences for the millions who enjoy those products.”

If the states and FTC prove that Facebook violated the antitrust laws, the company could be required to divest assets including Instagram and Whatsapp, transforming both the face of social media and the digital marketplace. —ML

Trump joins Texas lawsuit alleging election fraud

Everything is bigger in Texas. Even, apparently, the legal battles. The Lone Star State is suing four other states—Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin—for mishandling the 2020 election. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton aims to bring the case to the Supreme Court, and as of Wednesday, Trump and his allies have joined in.

Paxton claims that these battleground states, which Biden won, “exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to justify ignoring federal and state election laws and unlawfully enacting last-minute changes, thus skewing the results of the 2020 General Election.” Trump and his team are hopping aboard, along with 17 pro-Trump states.

Trump’s allies want the four states to choose new presidential electors, but they’re running out of time to make their case. On Dec. 14 (that’s this upcoming Monday), the Electoral College will convene to vote for the new president.

Critics, however, dismiss the case as a publicity stunt. Pennsylvania’s response to the lawsuit was blunt: “Since Election Day, State and Federal courts throughout the country have been flooded with frivolous lawsuits aimed at disenfranchising large swaths of voters and undermining the legitimacy of the election. The State of Texas has now added its voice to the cacophony of bogus claims.” —Madeline Fry Schultz

Justice Department Investigates Hunter Biden

Hunter Biden, son of president-elect Joe Biden, is under investigation by the federal government for possible tax fraud and money laundering. Joe Biden is not implicated in the investigation, but if it reveals anything unsavory, that won’t be a good look for the new POTUS.

The investigation, which was underway before November 3, has picked up steam again now that it’s no longer constrained by a Justice Department guideline prohibiting efforts that could impact the results of an election, according to a source who spoke to CNN.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s shady business dealings, which was published in October. Other media outlets condemned the story as fake news, leading Facebook and Twitter to censor it.

Now that he’s back in the news, Hunter Biden maintains that he did nothing wrong. He claimed in a statement on Wednesday that he and his legal counsel just learned about the investigation this week. “I take this matter very seriously but I am confident that a professional and objective review of these matters will demonstrate that I handled my affairs legally and appropriately, including with the benefit of professional tax advisors,” he said. Biden acknowledged the investigation into his “tax affairs,” but left out mention that he is also being investigated for money laundering through his dealings in China. —MFS

Taylor Swift drops her second surprise album of the pandemic

This week on December 10, singer Taylor Swift, who already dropped a remarkable quarantine-made album folklore earlier this year (read our review of folklore here), dropped a second album, called evermore. “Ever since I was 13, I’ve been excited about turning 31 because it’s my lucky number backwards, which is why I wanted to surprise you with this now. You’ve all been so caring, supportive and thoughtful on my birthdays and so this time I thought I would give you something!” the singer wrote on Twitter. It’s fair to say you can stay tuned in the coming days for Verily’s thoughts on Taylor’s latest. —MRS

Mental health grew for one group in 2020

It’s no secret that 2020 was not a great year for mental health. In fact, just 34 percent of Americans say their mental health is excellent this year, down from 43 percent in 2019. According to a recent Gallup survey, everyone’s mental health is suffering in 2020, except for one group: those who attend religious services weekly.

Forty-two percent of weekly attendees of religious services rated their mental health as excellent last year. This year, the number increased to 46 percent. These findings are particularly poignant in a year when, for many religious people, weekly church attendance meant merely watching services live-streamed on YouTube.

Churches, synagogues, and other places of worship have been particularly impacted by the coronavirus lockdowns. Yet to those who attend them, their availability is more important than ever. More than 60 percent of Americans said faith has been important to them during the pandemic, according to the religious liberty advocacy group Becket.

Despite restrictions on the number of people who can congregate indoors, places of worship have still found ways to connect their congregants. (This writer’s church in Washington, D.C., has been offering communion in a local park.) During the holiday season, let’s hope more people of faith find ways to connect safely. —MFS

Woman Sues Boyfriend for Not Proposing

With growing numbers of women engaging in long-term relationships in place of marriages, females’ resentment at being denied a ring has taken a litigious turn, with one woman suing her boyfriend. A viral story first reported by Kenyan news site Tuko details how 26-year old Gertrude Ngoma is suing her boyfriend, also the father of her child, after growing tired of waiting eight years for him to propose marriage. In addition to wasting her time, the lawsuit alleges that he also texted romantically with another woman. As Gertrude told a Zambian court, “He has never been serious, that is why I [brought] him to court, because I deserve to know the way forward and our future.”

Gertrude’s boyfriend, 28-year-old Herbert Salaliki, defended himself, stating that he is not in a financial position to fund a wedding. What’s more, he claims that his girlfriend did not give him enough attention during their relationship.

But while the judge ultimately decided that the court could not take any legal action on Gertrude’s part, the story has nonetheless gone viral, calling to mind another recent internet marriage drama in which a woman speaking in Swahili complains on camera, “I’m tired of these games. A man courts you for one, two, five, others to eight years and when you ask them when you guys are getting married, he never lacks a reason,” the woman said in Swahili in the clip, “They claim they have not settled yet, all those years, when will you ever be ready?” —ML

A “Christmas star” will light the sky for the first time in 800 years

This Christmas season will be extra bright and beautiful as the “Great Conjunction of 2020” coincides with the winter solstice (day with the shortest period of daylight and longest night of the year). The Great Conjunction refers to the planetary alignment of Saturn and Jupiter, two of the brightest and largest lights in the galaxy whose orbits are growing increasingly closer as December 21st, the date of the winter solstice, approaches.

The event is extraordinarily uncommon, according to one astronomer at Rice University, who stated recently that “alignments between these two planets are rather rare, occurring once every 20 years or so, but this conjunction is exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to one another...You’d have to go all the way back to just before dawn on March 4, 1226, to see a closer alignment between these objects visible in the night sky.” This exceptionally close alignment, astronomers say, is what causes the two planets to appear to form a single bright star.

The Great Conjunction of 2020 should be visible from South Florida without a telescope. For the rest of us, Lowell Observatory, a National Historic Landmark and one of the oldest observatories in the U.S., will be offering a live stream of the event’s climax, sharing “spectacular live views of Jupiter and Saturn through observatory telescopes while discussing the nature of conjunctions.” —ML

Good News of the Week

This week, an Alabama police officer delivered new bikes to 16 kids at an elementary school who had none. Officer K.D. Nation bought the bikes and delivered them on Pajama Day at the local Martin Luther King Jr. school. “We're proud to have officers like Officer Nation who care so much about the community,” the Tuscaloosa Police Department said on its Facebook page. “We had so much fun seeing the kids choose their new rides!”

Watch of the Week

If you need a good laugh that can double as an ab workout, check out this video of a dad dancing behind his daughter’s craft video. Adding to the hilarity, he didn't know it was for her school project and that she sent it to her teachers.