Start Up: Facebook failing fake news crackdown, concerns on Face ID apps, Thiel’s legacy, Google’s romances, and more


What do MPs get up to when it comes to sharing passwords? Photo by Stuck In Customs on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Indefatigably. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Way too little, way too late’: Facebook’s factcheckers say effort is failing • The Guardian

Sam Levin:

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“I don’t feel like it’s working at all. The fake information is still going viral and spreading rapidly,” said one journalist who does fact-checks for Facebook and, like others interviewed for this piece, was not authorized to speak publicly due to the continuing partnership with the company. “It’s really difficult to hold [Facebook] accountable. They think of us as doing their work for them. They have a big problem, and they are leaning on other organizations to clean up after them.”

Facebook announced to much hype last December [2016] that it was partnering with third-party factcheckers – including the Associated Press, Snopes, ABC News, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org – to publicly flag fake news so that a “disputed” tag would warn users about sharing debunked content. A Guardian review this year found that the fact-checks seemed to be mostly ineffective and that “disputed” tags weren’t working as intended.

Now, some of the factcheckers are raising concerns, saying the lack of internal statistics on their work has hindered the project and that it is unclear if the corporation is taking the spread of propaganda seriously.

Another fact-checking source said it was rare to see the fact-checks actually lead to a “disputed” tag on Facebook, raising questions about how the tool was functioning. Factcheckers said they had queries about how often the tags were placed on articles, what effect they had on the content and what sites were most often targeted – but said that Facebook had not provided information.

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Related: NYMag’s take on this piece: Facebook’s fact-checking effort was always going to fail
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Lenses are being reinvented, and cameras will never be the same • MIT Technology Review

These are UV-etched silicon with sub-light wavelength features on their surfaces:

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Metalenses have a wide range of applications. The most obvious is imaging. Flat lenses will make imaging systems thinner and simpler. But crucially, since metalenses can be fabricated in the same process as the electronic components for sensing light, they will be cheaper.

So cameras for smartphones, laptops, and augmented-reality imaging systems will suddenly become smaller and less expensive to make. They could even be printed onto the end of optical fibers to acts as endoscopes.

Astronomers could have some fun too. These lenses are significantly lighter and thinner than the behemoths they have launched into orbit in observatories such as the Hubble Space Telescope. A new generation of space-based astronomy and Earth observing beckons.

But it is within chips themselves that this technology could have the biggest impact. The technique makes it possible to build complex optical bench-type systems into chips for optical processing.

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More detail at ArXiv. The article has much more explanation of what metalenses are.
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Google reckoning with history of interoffice romance by top execs • The Information

Reed Albergotti:

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The romantic relationships within the walls of Google made ideal fodder for gossip columns and magazine profiles.

Co-founder Larry Page dated Google lieutenant Marissa Mayer in the company’s early days, and co-founder Sergey Brin later drew attention for dating Amanda Rosenberg, a younger colleague. CEO Eric Schmidt dated publicist Marcy Simon when she did work for Google. The stories had sex, money and power against a backdrop of one of the world’s largest tech empires. It was like something out of a rebooted soap opera—Dynasty 2.0.

But an examination by The Information found that those interoffice relationships, and others featuring some of the company’s top leaders, have for years been a flashpoint of frustration and anger among Google’s employees. The relationships often violated at least the spirit of a company policy that prohibits superiors from secretly dating subordinates. But employees noted that there had been no apparent repercussions for the powerful, mostly male, leaders who had such relationships.

As a result, many Google employees expressed the opinion that the company’s culture appears to tolerate, or even endorse, such workplace relationships. In interviews with nearly 40 current and former Google employees, many said the issue had tainted the perception of women who earn promotions, created uncomfortable encounters at off-site events and had raised concerns over whether human resources would address inappropriate conduct. Some described their own experiences with sexual harassment at the company.

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Wow. The story goes on to name a senior married (male) Google figure who it says had a relationship with a junior colleague – and a child by her. She left the company. Ooooof.
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How Peter Thiel and the Stanford Review built a Silicon Valley Empire • Stanford Politics

Andrew Granato on Thiel, who founded the Stanford Review magazine when he was there in 1987:

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Thiel was asked [in January 2017] how he knew that Trump was going to win. After all, wasn’t it extremely risky to go all-in for Trump when he was down in the polls and Silicon Valley strongly supported Clinton? Thiel replied that, two weeks before the election, some of his closest advisors and confidants wondered to him if they had backed the wrong horse and if it was too late to back off supporting Trump. Thiel, according to his own retelling, responded, “Are we allowed any knowledge other than social scientific knowledge?” And he argued that while the polls did seem to indicate that Trump would lose, he was more confident in his personal assessment of how the world works than the polls. Thiel’s confidence, of course, was vindicated when Trump won.

A former editor described Thiel’s response as “very much in character” for him: “On every major platform he’s built in his life, whether fighting a government authority or an upstart competitor, he tends to come up with ideas and dig in deep to them, and he doesn’t walk away.”

In Oct. 2016, shortly after Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump, Thiel publicly apologized for passages in his 1995 book The Diversity Myth, such as claiming that some alleged date rapes were “seductions that are later regretted,” saying in a statement, “More than two decades ago, I co-wrote a book with several insensitive, crudely argued statements. As I’ve said before, I wish I’d never written those things. I’m sorry for it. Rape in all forms is a crime. I regret writing passages that have been taken to suggest otherwise.” But three months later, during the after party of the 30-year anniversary event at Thiel’s home, according to a former editor, Thiel stated that his apology was just for the media, and that “sometimes you have to tell them what they want to hear.”

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Thiel isn’t immune from post-justification, then; Trump’s win was an accident of a tiny proportion of votes – less than 1% of those cast – in three states. An interesting article about a submarine in the seas of influence. (Thanks John N for the link.)

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Apple is sharing your face with apps. That’s a new privacy worry • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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Apple’s face tech sets some good precedents—and some bad ones. It won praise for storing the face data it uses to unlock the iPhone X securely on the phone, instead of sending it to its servers over the Internet.

Less noticed was how the iPhone lets other apps now tap into two eerie views from the so-called TrueDepth camera. There’s a wireframe representation of your face and a live read-out of 52 unique micro-movements in your eyelids, mouth and other features. Apps can store that data on their own computers.

To see for yourself, use an iPhone X to download an app called MeasureKit. It exposes the face data Apple makes available. The app’s maker, Rinat Khanov, tells me he’s already planning to add a feature that lets you export a model of your face so you can 3D print a mini-me.

“Holy cow, why is this data available to any developer that just agrees to a bunch of contracts?” said Fatemeh Khatibloo, an analyst at Forrester Research…

…It’s not clear how Apple’s TrueDepth data might change the kinds of conclusions software can draw about people. But from years of covering tech, I’ve learned this much: Given the opportunity to be creepy, someone will take it.

Using artificial intelligence, face data “may tell an app developer an awful lot more than the human eye can see,” said Forrester’s Khatibloo. For example, she notes researchers recently used AI to more-accurately determine people’s sexuality just from regular photographs. That study had limitations, but still “the tech is going to leapfrog way faster than consumers and regulators are going to realize,” said Khatibloo.

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Fowler’s point about the creep of creepiness is well made. (Though note it’s not detailed enough to hack your phone.)
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Hacking the House: do MPs care about cyber-security? • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones on the row over Nadine Dorries MP sharing her login details with her staff:

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does the House of Commons have a cyber-security policy? And if so, what does it say about logins? After all, this summer Parliament was hit by what was described as a “sustained and serious” cyber attack by hackers trying to access MPs’ email accounts.

It turns out there is a chapter in the House of Commons staff handbook which is very clear on this matter, and on the care needed to be taken with sensitive information stored on computers. Among a list of things it says “You MUST NOT” do is “share your password”.

Pretty clear then? Ah, but that applies to staff, not their bosses.

I consulted a couple of MPs – one Conservative, one Labour – about their attitudes to cyber-security. Both said that they would not dream of sharing their computer login – but admitted that most of their colleagues were far more lax. One told me that in general House of Commons cyber-security had been “really really bad”, although had improved since the July attack.

The MP went on: “Most MPs have that fatal combination of arrogance, entitlement and ignorance, which mean they don’t think codes of practice are for them.”

The other member – who had by the way come under attack from Russian hackers – said that it would be hard to enforce any code: “Ultimately this is a result of each MP and their office functioning as entirely independent small businesses. If one person wants to make daft decisions there is no way of forcing them not to.”

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The importance of the Dorries tweet is that it could explain how pornography got onto Damian Green’s computer, and yet he didn’t view it. Someone else on his staff was using his login.
link to this extract


Computational Propaganda in Poland: false amplifiers and the digital public sphere • The Computational Propaganda Project

Robert Goraw at the Oxford Internet Institute:

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This report provides the first overview of political bots, fake accounts, and other false amplifiers in Poland. Based on extensive interviews with political campaign managers, journalists, activists, employees of social media marketing firms, and civil society groups, the report outlines the emergence of Polish digital politics, covering the energetic and hyper-partisan “troll wars”, the interaction of hate speech with modern platform algorithms, and the recent effects of “fake news” and various sources of apparent Russian disinformation.

The report then explores the production and management of artificial identities on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks— an industry confirmed to be active in Poland—and assesses how they can be deployed for both political and commercial purposes. The quantitative portion of the report features an analysis of Polish Twitter data, and demonstrates that a very small number of suspected bot accounts are responsible for a disproportionally large proportion of activity on the sampled political hashtags.

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It’s getting slightly exhausting how full social networks are with lying crap.
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#KateSteinle hashtag visualizations • Medium

Erin Gallagher:

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Hashtags associated with the #KateSteinle verdict were megaphoned by at least 37 cyborgs that are tweeting between 47 to 739 tweets per day, including a brand new account that changed its “identity” mid-campaign. These supercharged accounts amplified hashtags that began as an angry public reaction to the Kate Steinle verdict but turned into a digital campaign of ethnic intimidation against immigrants.


#KateSteinle user-to-hashtag network 25,241 tweets November 30 — December 2

I started capturing tweets for hashtags associated with the #KateSteinle verdict on November 30 at 9:30pm est. From November 30 to December 2 at 11am est, I documented 37 accounts that are tweeting more than humanly possible and amplifying hashtags. There are more than 37 and they may not be intentionally coordinating together, however the effect of these cyborgs tweeting the same hashtags in the same time frame is like an engine running in the background, driving up the quantities of tweets and magnifying the reach of the trends.

The first account I looked at in this hashtag — Annon86368030 — was one of the top users for several hashtags and it appeared abnormal in gephi graphs. This is a brand new account that was created on November 30. Below you can see the account’s profile as it appeared when I found it on Friday morning December 1 and the after screenshot from December 2 when it changed to a plain black avatar and header image and changed its location from Kekistan to United States.

Despite being a brand new account, Annon86368030 managed to tweet 696 tweets in about one day.

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(For non-Americans, the Steinle verdict came from a murder/manslaughter trial of a Mexican national, deported multiple times from the US, who shot dead a woman in San Francisco in 2015. He didn’t deny the shooting but claimed it was an accident. He faces a prison sentence for handgun possession, but was acquitted of murder and manslaughter. As you’d expect, his immigration record was not part of the trial evidence.)

What’s surprising about this analysis is that accounts created on a day can tweet so much. I thought they’d be rate-limited. (Thanks Jim C for the link.)
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This robot aced an exam without understanding a thing • CNBC

Ruth Umoh:

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The Todai Robot, for example, was able to write a 600-word essay on maritime trade in the 17th century better than most students. Noriko Arai, AI expert and member of the team that built the robot, explains in her TED Talk “Can a Robot Pass a University Entrance Exam?” that this wasn’t because it possesses intelligence, but rather because it can recognize key words.

“Our robot took the sentences from the textbooks and Wikipedia, combined them together, and optimized it to produce an essay without understanding a thing,” Arai says.

“We humans can understand the meaning,” she says. “That is something which is very, very lacking in AI.”
Over the last year, there has been increasing concern over how smart robots are becoming and the eventual eradication of certain industries. However, most of the focus has been on the loss of blue collar jobs. But according to David Lee, vice president of innovation at UPS, it’s not just jobs like factory worker and truck driver at risk.

In his TED Talk titled, “Why Jobs of the Future Won’t Feel Like Work,” Lee says that even the smartest, highest-paid people will be affected by the “tremendous gains in the quality of analysis and decision-making because of machine learning.”

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Its essay was marked in the top 20% of students on an entrance exam to the University of Tokyo. I’m not sure this matters. Better questions are: can it act on what it reports? Can it decide whether the content is correct or not? Synthesizing human writing is, as this demonstrates, something lots of students learn to do. What’s more important is learning what to do next.
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Google Home Mini crash/reboot if volume is too high • Google Product Forums

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Not sure that this is the EXACT problem but it is the symptoms.

If I’m playing a song on Play music, then it will reboot after a few seconds.
After reboot, if I say “Set volume to 6” it will play the song ok.

Happens with multiple songs and extremely often.

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Confirmed by multiple people. (And at Reddit.) Hardware, or possibly software, is hard.
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If your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch unexpectedly restarts • Apple Support

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If your device with iOS 11 unexpectedly restarts repeatedly on or after December 2, 2017, learn what to do. 

Try to update your device to iOS 11.2. After you tap Download and Install, the download will continue even if your device restarts. Wait for the update to complete.
If you can’t update, turn off notifications for all the apps on your device, then update your device to iOS 11.2:
• Tap Settings > Notifications.
• Tap an app, then turn off Allow Notifications. Repeat this step for each app.
• Update your device to iOS 11.2.

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Software is hard.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up: Facebook failing fake news crackdown, concerns on Face ID apps, Thiel’s legacy, Google’s romances, and more

  1. I keep wondering how earnest those “anti fake news” efforts are. Money has no smell; alt-right clicks and views are clicks and views.
    A PR anti-fake-news paint job, fake enough to not lose the centrists and leftists while keeping the fakenewsers in the audience, seems the rational thing to do. Both the intra-bubbles lovefests and inter-bubbles flamewars are that most desirable of things: engagement. Apple vs Android on a whole other scale.

    • The “PR anti-fake-news paint job” idea sounds good as an Evil Scheme, but keeping it secret would be a hell of a task. It depends how important you think perception of your company is going to be over the long term.

      But yes, it really is “engagement” on a whole other level. Political beliefs rival only religious ones for the depth and irrationality – and resistance to alternative views – of their fixity.

  2. The most sensible Thiel explanation I’ve seen goes as follows: It’s a matter of *probability*. The best evidence put the chances of a Trump win at around 33% or so. Nowhere near certain a win, but not a certain loss. Clinton doesn’t like Thiel’s philosophy, both economic and political. Trump is not exactly in sync, but closer on both axes. A Trump win is thus going to be much more valuable to Thiel. Thus, back Trump even at a lower probability, since the expected payoff is much greater than backing Clinton. It’s a standard VC calculation.

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