Start Up No.933: Twitter’s Russian data, Facebook’s video flaw, Essential thins out, NPC explained, and more

Futurism hasn’t been as good at predicting social trends as technological ones. Howcome? Photo by Luke Jones on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. Your 2020 presidential campaign slogan is the last text you sent: mine is “I’ll clean that up.” Vote! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter just published millions of Russia- and Iran-linked tweets so researchers can study election interference • Buzzfeed News

Davey Alba:


Twitter published data sets Wednesday containing millions of tweets, photos, videos, and the names of thousands of accounts with potential election-meddling information operations that the company found on its platform since 2016.

Twitter had previously disclosed that election-meddling information operations had been detected, but said in a new blog post that opening up the data sets for scrutiny by independent researchers, academics, and journalists could help bring more understanding about foreign interference in political conversations on the platform.

“It is clear that information operations and coordinated inauthentic behavior will not cease,” wrote Vijaya Gadde, the legal, public policy, and trust and safety lead at Twitter, and Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity, in the blog post. “These types of tactics … will adapt and change as the geopolitical terrain evolves worldwide and new technologies emerge.” But, Gadde and Roth said, the company would continue to “proactively combat nefarious attempts to undermine the integrity of Twitter” and partner with civil society, government, researchers, and industry peers to understand nefarious online political campaigns.


From the Twitter post:


These large datasets comprise 3,841 accounts affiliated with the IRA, originating in Russia, and 770 other accounts, potentially originating in Iran. They include more than 10 million Tweets and more than 2 million images, GIFs, videos, and Periscope broadcasts, including the earliest on-Twitter activity from accounts connected with these campaigns, dating back to 2009.


It’s about 365GB in total, so get those hard drives ready. There’s also some Brexit stuff in there too.
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Did Facebook’s faulty data push news publishers to make terrible decisions on video? • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:


“We’re entering this new golden age of video,” Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed News in April 2016. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you fast-forward five years and most of the content that people see on Facebook and are sharing on a day-to-day basis is video.”

But even as Facebook executives were insisting publicly that video consumption was skyrocketing, it was becoming clear that some of the metrics the company had used to calculate time spent on videos were wrong. The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2016, three months after the Fortune panel, that Facebook had “vastly overestimated average viewing time for video ads on its platform for two years” by as much as “60 to 80 percent.” The company apologized in a blog post: “As soon as we discovered the discrepancy, we fixed it.”

A lawsuit filed by a group of small advertisers in California, however, argues that Facebook had known about the discrepancy for at least a year — and behaved fraudulently by failing to disclose it.

That could have had enormous consequences — not just for advertisers, who were making decisions about whether to shift resources from television to Facebook, but also for news organizations, who were simultaneously grappling with decisions about how to allocate editorial staff and what kinds of content creation to prioritize. Publishers’ “pivot to video” was driven largely by a belief that if Facebook was seeing users, in massive numbers, shift to video from text, the trend must be real for news video too — even if people within those publishers doubted the trend internally based on their own experiences, and even as research conducted by outside organizations continued to suggest that the video trend was overblown and that readers preferred text.


Sometimes the overestimation was far bigger: inflated from 2 seconds average to 17.5s. That’s the difference between “damn, stop and go back” to “let’s see what this is like”. And also an ad shown, or not.

There are also extracts from court filings, because a number of advertisers are extremely pissed off with Facebook. But it’s the publishers, and the journalists who lost their jobs because they were writing text rather than shooting video (I’m thinking of you, Mashable), who should be more pissed off.
link to this extract

Trivial authentication bypass in libssh leaves servers wide open • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:


There’s a four-year-old bug in the Secure Shell implementation known as libssh that makes it trivial for just about anyone to gain unfettered administrative control of a vulnerable server. While the authentication-bypass flaw represents a major security hole that should be patched immediately, it wasn’t immediately clear what sites or devices were vulnerable since neither the widely used OpenSSH nor Github’s implementation of libssh was affected…

…A search on Shodan showed 6,351 sites using libssh, but knowing how meaningful the results are is challenging. For one thing, the search probably isn’t exhaustive. And for another, as is the case with GitHub, the use of libssh doesn’t automatically make a site vulnerable.

Rob Graham, who is CEO of the Errata Security firm, said the vulnerability “is a big deal to us but not necessarily a big deal to the readers. It’s fascinating that such a trusted component as SSH now becomes your downfall.”

[A researcher at the security firm NCC, Peter] Winter-Smith agreed. “I suspect this will end up being a nomination for most overhyped bug, since half the people on Twitter seem to worry that it affects OpenSSH and the other half (quite correctly!) worry that GitHub uses libssh, when in fact GitHub isn’t vulnerable.”


The bypass is: when it asks you for verification, you tell it you’re verified. Like that. A four-year old bug in open source code used all over the place.
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Android Creator’s startup Essential Products cuts about 30% of staff • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


The reductions affect staff in the company’s hardware, marketing, and sales divisions, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private moves. The company has about 120 employees, according to its website.

The cuts come several months after the company canceled plans for a second version of its smartphone and paused development of a home smart device that would compete with Inc. and Google.

“This has been a difficult decision to make. We are very sorry for the impact on our colleagues who are leaving the company and are doing everything we can to help them with their future careers,” an Essential spokeswoman wrote in an email. “We are confident that our sharpened product focus will help us deliver a truly game changing consumer product.”


There’s confidence, and there’s being wrong.
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Futurism’s blind spot: why could we predict self-driving cars, but not women in the workplace? • Nautilus

Tom Venderbilt:


as the economist Robert Fogel famously noted, if the railroad had not been invented, we would have done almost as well, in terms of economic output, with ships and canals. Or we assume that modern technology was wonderfully preordained instead of, as it often is, an accident. Instagram began life as a Yelp-style app called Burbn, with photos an afterthought (photos on your phone, is that a thing?). Texting, meanwhile, started out as a diagnostic channel for short test messages—because who would prefer fumbling through tiny alphanumeric buttons to simply talking?1

Transportation seems to be a particular poster child of fevered futurist speculation, bearing a disproportionate load of this deferred wish fulfillment (perhaps because we simply find daily travel painful, reminding us of its shared root with the word “travail”). The lament for the perpetually forestalled flying car focuses around childlike wishes (why can’t I have this now?), and ignores massive externalities like aerial traffic jams, and fatality rates likely to be higher than terrestrial driving.

The “self-driving car,” it is promised, will radically reshape the way we live, forgetting that, throughout history, humans have largely endeavored to keep their daily travel time within a stable bound.4 “Travelators,” or moving walkways, were supposed to transform urban mobility; nowadays, when they actually work, they move (standing) people in airports at a slower-than-walking speed. In considering the future of transportation, it is worth keeping in mind that, today, we mostly move around thanks to old technology. As Amazon experiments with aerial drone delivery, its “same day” products are being moved through New York City thanks to that 19th-century killer app: the bicycle.

Edgerton notes that the “innovation-centric” worldview—those sexy devices that “changed the world”—runs not merely to the future, but also the past. “The horse,” he writes, “made a greater contribution to Nazi conquest than the V2.” We noticed what was invented more than what was actually used.


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Genome hackers show no one’s DNA is anonymous anymore • WIRED

Megan Molteni:


the amount of DNA information housed in digital data stores has exploded, with no signs of slowing down. Consumer companies like 23andMe and Ancestry have so far created genetic profiles for more than 12 million people, according to recent industry estimates. Customers who download their own information can then choose to add it to public genealogy websites like GEDmatch, which gained national notoriety earlier this year for its role in leading police to a suspect in the Golden State Killer case.

Those interlocking family trees, connecting people through bits of DNA, have now grown so big that they can be used to find more than half the US population. In fact, according to new research led by Erlich, published in Science, more than 60% of Americans with European ancestry can be identified through their DNA using open genetic genealogy databases, regardless of whether they’ve ever sent in a spit kit.

“The takeaway is it doesn’t matter if you’ve been tested or not tested,” says Erlich, who is now the chief science officer at MyHeritage, the third largest consumer genetic provider behind 23andMe and Ancestry. “You can be identified because the databases already cover such large fractions of the US, at least for European ancestry.”


Give it a few more years and governments trying to track people (spies? Murderous assassins?) down will publish DNA taken from the scene and, little sigh, say that they don’t seem to have any more leads and leave it to open source journalists.
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What Is NPC, the pro-Trump internet’s new favourite insult? • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


Last week, a trolling campaign organized by right-wing internet users spilled over onto Twitter. The campaign, which was born in the fever swamps of 4chan and Reddit message boards, involved creating hundreds of fictional personas with gray cartoon avatars, known as NPCs. These accounts posed as liberal activists and were used to spread — among other things — false information about November’s midterm elections.

Over the weekend, Twitter responded by suspending about 1,500 accounts associated with the NPC trolling campaign. The accounts violated Twitter’s rules against “intentionally misleading election-related content,” according to a person familiar with the company’s enforcement process. The person, who would speak only anonymously, was not authorized to discuss the decision.

If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Here, we try to unpack the NPC meme, what it means and why it’s causing trouble on Twitter.


Just doing my job keeping you informed of memeulations on the intertubes, folks.
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Kanye West and Donald Trump and the rise of human clickbait • NY Mag

Max Read:


The point, anyway, isn’t that Kanye’s seeming manic episodes are “actually” publicity stunts — or, for that matter, that his publicity stunts are “actually” manic episodes. The point is that, on Twitter, it was impossible for people to distinguish between the two. The connection between eccentricity, erratic behavior, celebrity, and attention is not, obviously, a new dynamic — think of Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen. But social media, and the news its dominance incentivizes, has created an environment in which the quickest and surest way toward blanket coverage of you and your output is acting in a way consistent with mental illness, regardless of whether or not you would be diagnosed as ill in a clinical setting. This is as true in business, where erratic behavior and market manipulation are two sides of the same coin — just ask Elon Musk — or in politics, where a particularly obsessive set of theories about Donald Trump can net you tens of thousands of followers, as it is in entertainment. What’s necessary to succeed in an economy where attention is the reserve currency is a set of attributes that appear with no small frequency in the DSM.


(The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by the American Psychiatric Association.)
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I’m an Amazon employee. My company shouldn’t sell facial recognition tech to police • Medium

It’s a great year for important anonymous letters to publications about what’s going on inside well-known but often impenetrable organisations:


When a company puts new technologies into the world, it has a responsibility to think about the consequences. Amazon, where I work, is currently allowing police departments around the country to purchase its facial recognition product, Rekognition, and I and other employees demand that we stop immediately.

A couple weeks ago, my co-workers delivered a letter to this effect, signed by over 450 employees, to Jeff Bezos and other executives. The letter also contained demands to kick Palantir, the software firm that powers much of ICE’s deportation and tracking program, off Amazon Web Services and to institute employee oversight for ethical decisions.

We know Bezos is aware of these concerns and the industry-wide conversation happening right now. On stage, he acknowledged that big tech’s products might be misused, even exploited, by autocrats. But rather than meaningfully explain how Amazon will act to prevent the bad uses of its own technology, Bezos suggested we wait for society’s “immune response.”

If Amazon waits, we think the harm will be difficult to undo.

After all, our concern isn’t one about some future harm caused by some other company: Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now…

…We know from history that new and powerful surveillance tools left unchecked in the hands of the state have been used to target people who have done nothing wrong; in the United States, a lack of public accountability already results in outsized impacts and over-policing of communities of color, immigrants, and people exercising their First Amendment rights. Ignoring these urgent concerns while deploying powerful technologies to government and law enforcement agencies is dangerous and irresponsible.


There’s also an interview with the article writer.
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Larger smartphones increase in consumer acceptance • Strategy Analytics


A new report from the User Experience Strategies (UXS) group at Strategy Analytics surveying consumers in the US, Western Europe, China and India has explored consumer smartphone size preference. Flagship device sizes between 5.0in and 5.5in continue to be preferred by most, especially in China and India where a device of 5.5in is considered ‘ideal’ by most. Consumers in all markets surveyed are showing greater interest in larger devices compared to 2017.

Key report findings:

• A larger percentage of respondents in the US and Western Europe found larger devices to be an ideal size in 2018, compared to 2017.
• Half of respondents in India found devices with a screen size of 5.5in ideal in 2018, compared to half of respondents citing 5.0in as ideal in 2017.
• Around half of respondents in China found devices with a screen size of 5.5” ideal in 2018, compared to only a third in 2017.

Christopher Dodge, Associate Director and report author commented, “The primary drivers for larger displays are likely to be stemming from greater productivity and entertainment capabilities, thinner more ergonomic smartphone designs, increased screen resolution, clarity, and quality, and the overall increase in resourcefulness. Smartphones are becoming the control hub for more and more connected devices/services.”


The fact that, without anything else happening, people are more accepting of large screens suggests that all this stuff is just custom and habit. Look back at reviews of the first Galaxy Note, such as this one (from 2011):


Now, those mobile devices we couldn’t live without have screens that are much, much larger. Sometimes, though, we secretly wish they were even bigger still.

Samsung’s new GT-N7000 Galaxy Note is the handset those dreams are made of – if you happen to share that dream about obnoxiously large smartphones, that is.


Obnoxiously large. FIVE POINT THREE INCHES. (The iPhone at the time was 4in.) Among the cons: “Awkward to use for phone calls.”

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Instagram has a massive harassment problem • The Atlantic

Taylor Lorenz on the problems at the only other social network with more than a billion users:


When Instagram introduces new features, the moderation-team members receive no warning, Andy [who works as a moderator; that’s not his real name] said. Consequently, they are left scrambling to understand how they work and what constitutes harassment on each format. “When the Questions feature rolled out, same way as every other new feature, we had no idea,” he said. “We didn’t know which part is the question, which is the answer, who says what? That makes such a big difference on whether you’re going to delete or ignore the post. The mods are just totally not kept up to date on how people use features.”

Alex, the current Instagram employee who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, said the company prioritizes growth above all else, often at costs to user experience. “The focus is still on getting people to spend more time, getting more users, getting more revenue. That doesn’t change much internally,” Alex said. “There’s been a lot of effort to shape the narrative, but the reality is that it doesn’t drive business impact.”

At Instagram and Facebook, Alex said, “features can make whatever progress … but can’t hurt the other metrics. A feature might decrease harassment 10 percent, but if it decreases users by 1 percent, that’s not a trade-off that will fly. Internally right now, no one is willing to make that trade-off.”

Allie, a former employee at Instagram, agreed. “Instagram has terrible tools. I think people haven’t really focused on it much because so many harassment campaigns are just more visible on other platforms,” she said. Throughout her time there, she said, “many of the efforts to reduce harassment were oriented toward PR, but very few engineering and community resources were put toward actually decreasing harassment.”


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Panasonic’s human blinkers help people concentrate in open-plan offices • Dezeen

Natashah Hitti:


Panasonic’s Future Life Factory is developing wearable blinkers, designed to limit your sense of sound and sight, and help you focus on what’s directly in front of you.

The prototype device, called Wear Space, is designed to keep people distraction-free when working in busy spaces or open-plan offices by blocking them off from their immediate surroundings.

It was created by Panasonic’s design studio Future Life Factory, in collaboration with Japanese fashion designer Kunihiko Morinaga.

Panasonic hopes that by using the partition to cut the user’s horizontal field of vision by about 60%, it will encourage them to concentrate on the work in front of them.

“As open offices and digital nomads are on the rise, workers are finding it ever more important to have personal space where they can focus,” said the company. “Wear Space instantly creates this kind of personal space – it’s as simple as putting on an article of clothing.”


Ian Bogost’s comment on Twitter: “now you’re a draft horse”. Amazing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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1 thought on “Start Up No.933: Twitter’s Russian data, Facebook’s video flaw, Essential thins out, NPC explained, and more

  1. Re Large Phones (my pet subject). Great they’re being accepted and successful. There’s a bit of confusion going on though:
    – screen size is not device size. With the trend to smaller or inexistant bezels, a larger screen need not mean a larger device. The 5.8″ iPhone X was smaller than the 5.5″ iPhone 8 Plus. Phones aren’t getting bigger, bezels are getting smaller.
    – diagonal is not proportional to screen size when the aspect ratio changes. That 5.8″ iPhone X actually has a smaller screen than the 5.5″ iPhone 8Plus, because 19.5:9 and cutout vs 16:9 straight. Screens aren’t getting bigger, they’re getting a bit longer and a lot narrower. And marred by a cutout.

    Roughly, today’s bezelless and elongated phones can have 0.5″ bigger screens with the same device size or at least width.

    No phone today is matching 2015/16 Huawei’s Mediapad X1/X2 for sheer screen size (7″@ 16:10). That 16:10 was very practical for a lot of things too.

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