Start Up No.1,174: Facebook’s political advertising mess, TikTok under fire (again), is YouTube innocent?, Newsweek’s death spiral, it’s Wagileaks!, and more


The trouble with the youth of today is that they haven’t seen this often enough. If ever. CC-licensed photo by marksmanuk on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not dictated from a secure containment facility. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The problem of political advertising on social media • The New Yorker

Sue Halpern:

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Embedded in the First Amendment’s protection of political speech is the assumption that deceptions will be exposed and then rejected in the marketplace of ideas. In Zuckerberg’s view, Facebook, though a private company, is the public square where such ideas can be debated.

But when political ads with false claims circulate only among the people who will be most receptive to them, there is little chance that the veracity of those ads will be openly debated. Social media intentionally bypasses the marketplace of ideas. “We think people should be able to see for themselves what politicians are saying,” Zuckerberg said in a speech last week at Georgetown University, but that’s not how social media works.

To that end, he added, the problem with the ads pushed to American Facebook users by hackers in service to the Kremlin, during the 2016 election, many of which were deceptive and untrue, was that they came from a foreign country. They would have been permissible had they been pumped out by people in the US. More than 11 million Americans saw those ads. Zuckerberg also reiterated his view that Facebook users should be able to say whatever they want unless it puts others in harm’s way. But harm comes in many forms, as the fallout from the 2016 election demonstrates every day.

«

Zuckerberg was thoroughly filleted by the House of Representatives’ Financial Services committee, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s questions about political ads leaving him gulping like the hapless cousin Greg in the TV series Succession.

Zuckerberg might think he’s determined over political advertising, but there’s a wedge being driven in by politicians and journalists, and they’re going to start hammering on it.
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TikTok app poses potential national security risk, says senior Democrat • The Guardian

Adam Gabbatt:

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Chuck Schumer, the most senior Democrat in the Senate, has urged the government to investigate TikTok, describing the China-owned social media app as “a potential counter-intelligence threat we cannot ignore” and warning it could be used to interfere in US elections.

TikTok, which allows users to share short videos online, has enjoyed wild success since it launched in 2017, and has been downloaded more than 1bn times.

Schumer and Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, co-wrote a letter to the acting director of national intelligence on Wednesday. The pair said they were writing “to express our concerns about TikTok … and the national security risks posed by its growing use in the United States”.

They wrote: “TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of the Uighurs.

“The platform is also a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on US-based social media platforms.”

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I was going to quote the Washington Post’s version of this story, but it’s less concise and has a headline that is actually wrong: “TikTok raises national security concerns with Congress, as Schumer, Cotton ask for federal inquiry”. No, TikTok hasn’t raised any national security concerns. Schumer and Cotton have raised them. Do better, Washington Post.
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BBC at risk of losing young audiences, according to Ofcom • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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The BBC is at risk of losing a generation of younger viewers who have drifted away to services such as Netflix and YouTube, potentially putting the future of the licence fee at risk, according to the media regulator.

Ofcom said the corporation must do much more to make the case that the BBC is worth supporting to audiences who have grown up with YouTube as their main source of video and who now instinctively turn to social media channels for news.

Among the stark findings laying out the challenges for the BBC were that:

• Fewer than half of Britons aged between 16 and 24 watch a traditional live BBC television channel in the average week.
• Younger viewers are twice as likely to watch BBC programmes on Netflix than on the BBC’s own iPlayer service, suggesting they may not know that popular shows such as Doctor Who and Peaky Blinders were created using licence fee money
• Children in their early teens are more likely to recognise the YouTube and Netflix brands than the BBC
• Younger listeners are twice as likely to listen to commercial radio rather than the BBC’s stations

The regulator also concluded that the reputation of the BBC’s news output had come under attack during the Brexit debate, partly because the corporation has always tried to ensure “both sides” of a debate are heard. Ofcom said this could be problematic and urged the corporation’s journalists to be more willing to directly call out lies and fringe views rather than allow them to go unchallenged in the name of balance.

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Not only that, but kids know the brand names “Netflix” and “YouTube” more than they do “BBC”. A side-effect of the rise of the smartphone and YouTube.
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Maybe it’s not YouTube’s algorithm that radicalizes people • WIRED

Paris Martineau:

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according to new research from Penn State University, these [right-wing channels on YouTube] are far from fringe—they’re the new mainstream, and recently surpassed the big three US cable news networks in terms of viewership.

The paper, written by Penn State political scientists Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips, tracks the explosive growth of alternative political content on YouTube, and calls into question many of the field’s established narratives. It challenges the popular school of thought that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is the central factor responsible for radicalizing users and pushing them into a far-right rabbit hole.

The authors say that thesis largely grew out of media reports, and hasn’t been rigorously analyzed. The best prior studies, they say, haven’t been able to prove that YouTube’s algorithm has any noticeable effect. “We think this theory is incomplete, and potentially misleading,” Munger and Phillips argue in the paper. “And we think that it has rapidly gained a place in the center of the study of media and politics on YouTube because it implies an obvious policy solution—one which is flattering to the journalists and academics studying the phenomenon.”

Instead, the paper suggests that radicalization on YouTube stems from the same factors that persuade people to change their minds in real life—injecting new information—but at scale. The authors say the quantity and popularity of alternative (mostly right-wing) political media on YouTube is driven by both supply and demand. The supply has grown because YouTube appeals to right-wing content creators, with its low barrier to entry, easy way to make money, and reliance on video, which is easier to create and more impactful than text.

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Organise your research photos • Tropy

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Take control of your research photos with Tropy, a tool that shortens the path from finding archival sources to writing about them. Spend more time using your research photos, and less time searching for them.

When you return from the archives with hundreds or thousands of research photos, making sense of them can feel like trying to escape a labyrinth. Tropy brings order to this chaos by providing a common-sense way to organize and describe your research. Use Tropy to transform impenetrable folders of nameless photos into an adaptable organization system where it’s easy to find any photo.

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I understand that it’s also useful for journalists organising tons of screenshots. Available for Windows, Mac and Linux.
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Dropshipping journalism • Columbia Journalism Review

Daniel Tovrov:

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On March 20, Nancy Cooper, the editor in chief of Newsweek, sent an email to her editorial staff. The subject was “What is a Newsweek story?”—an odd question at an 86-year-old newsmagazine once considered one of the “big three,” alongside Time and the US News + World Report. The email contained four requirements for any story published on Newsweek.com. One, it must contain original reporting. Two, it must provide a unique angle or new information. Three, the reader must care about it. And four, the news must be news.

These should have been reasonable requests, if not bare-minimum standards, for any journalist anywhere. But Cooper allowed her staff no time to meet these goals. A few months earlier she’d told reporters they’d have to write a minimum of four stories per day, and now they felt she was asking for more while giving less. 

“We don’t want fewer stories or slower stories,” Cooper said in her email, “just to make every story we do better.”

«

The subtitle on this story is “No one working at Newsweek can tell me why it still exists”. The workrate described there is horrific: when I was working at The Guardian, I expected that I’d be able to write three stories a day, but anything requiring substantial amounts of original reporting would cut that to one or two. The workrate described in this story, and the bonus-for-pageviews structure, is the logical outcome of ad-driven internet journalism. Doesn’t make it any less depressing. The description of the downward spiral of the print magazine is appalling.

Plus read through to the part about the accountant invented to generate $35m so it could be laundered. Always the workers who suffer.
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Wagileaks: an investigation • Tortoise

Hannah-Jane Parkinson goes into the Coleen Rooney-Rebekah Vardy spat, and points out how it shows that we’re all online investigators now:

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What [Colleen] Rooney’s fellow gumshoes were learning is that it is easy to glean information from online activity alone. Triangulation can tell even a layperson a vast amount. The Bellingcat investigative team has used open source information to solve such huge stories as the Skripal poisoning. In 2017, then-Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg, in a few expert steps, discovered the secret account of the then-director of the FBI, James Comey. Geotags, time stamps, one tick, two ticks, likes and faves, those little green dots to indicate a live presence. Each tiny packet of digital information can be combed for clues.

Tech companies, keen to keep us on their platforms for as long as possible, facilitate this ability to scrutinise the activity of others with their default settings. But issues can arise with overactive, anxious brains reading too much into, for example, delayed responses (being “left on read”, in digital messaging parlance).

When I put a call out for stories of online-to-offline dramatics, one woman tells me a university friend “liked” a mean tweet about her. She blocked the friend. “She came up to me at a party and cried about it in front of everyone.” Whereas it used to seem trifling to bring up an online bugbear, now it’s a frequent occurrence with friends and partners. Eyebrows of suspicion might be raised at someone commenting on every single post of their friend’s partner, resulting in IRL confrontation. FOMO (fear of missing out) is rampant when it is so easy to see what every single person is doing – and we are encouraged to do so.

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When we’re policing ourselves and others to see what they think of us and we think of others, what space is left for secrets?
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Mitt Romney has a secret Twitter account, and it sure looks like it’s this one (update: it is) • Slate

Ashley Feinberg:

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Earlier today, the Atlantic’s McKay Coppins published a lengthy profile on Mitt Romney, apparently part of Romney’s effort to set himself up as the noble Republican foil to an out-of-control president. These sorts of pieces, which are more about narrative setting than anything else, typically don’t contain a lot of new information, but this had one notable exception. About midway through, the usually guarded senator revealed that, just like fellow lone-voice-of reason-haver James Comey, he was the owner of a secret Twitter account.

At one point, as Coppins asked him about the #IMPEACHMITTROMNEY hashtag Trump tweeted into being earlier this month, Romney said this:

»

“That’s kind of what he does,” Romney said with a shrug, and then got up to retrieve an iPad from his desk. He explained that he uses a secret Twitter account—“What do they call me, a lurker?”—to keep tabs on the political conversation. “I won’t give you the name of it,” he said, but “I’m following 668 people.” Swiping at his tablet, he recited some of the accounts he follows, including journalists, late-night comedians (“What’s his name, the big redhead from Boston?”), and athletes. Trump was not among them. “He tweets so much,” Romney said, comparing the president to one of his nieces who overshares on Instagram. “I love her, but it’s like, Ah, it’s too much.”

«

In other words, a wealth of information that would be highly useful to anyone hoping to track down the senator’s supposedly secret Twitter hideout— or more specifically, to me. The chances seemed high that Romney, a known family man, would want to keep close tabs on his offspring. And as luck would have it, Romney has plenty of offspring .

«

Feinberg has form on this, having previously tracked down ex-FBI director James Comey’s secret Twitter account. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s… Rebekah Vardy’s account.

Nah, it isn’t. You’ll have to read it. (The account has since been taken private, so you can’t see who follows Romney, nor who he follows in his secret lair.) I think I did notice some of these back when they were just from a seemingly random account, and thought to myself “someone like Mitt Romney more than they have any justifiable reason to”.
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LinkedIn now has a newsroom of 65 journalists. It’s hiring more • CNN

Kerry Flynn:

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In Dan Roth’s dream world, members of LinkedIn, where he has served as editor in chief since 2011, would habitually read the LinkedIn Daily Rundown with their morning cup of coffee. They’d then turn their attention to the site’s podcast or newsletter during their commute to work. When they get to their desks, they’d open LinkedIn.com on their browsers, where they can read from a carefully curated feed of professional and business news throughout their work day. Users who felt inspired by the content would share links on their own timeline. They’d check their notifications tab to see if others have engaged with the content they share.

Who knows? They might even talk about one of LinkedIn’s articles at their next staff meeting.
This is Roth’s aspiration for LinkedIn’s 645 million members and for workers who have yet to use the site. He envisions LinkedIn as the perfect “utility” for professionals.

“LinkedIn should help you be better at what you do or what you want to do. When you come to LinkedIn, you’re coming with a purpose. It’s not just to waste time or to check in on family,” Roth told CNN Business in a recent interview. “They’re coming here to get something done and everything we do is geared around making sure people are more effective at getting whatever it is they want done, done.”

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SIXTY-FIVE JOURNALISTS. Though some of them, apparently, do create original content. Might be a while before we turn to LinkedIn for investigative pieces on corrupt business, though, don’t you think?
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In Tulsa, a century-old race massacre still haunts Black Wall Street • The Washington Post

DeNeen Brown:

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The black city council member driving a black SUV came to a dead stop along a gravel road.

Vanessa Hall-Harper pointed to a grassy knoll in the potter’s field section of Oaklawn Cemetery. “This is where the mass graves are,” Hall-Harper declared.

She and others think bodies were dumped here after one of the worst episodes of racial violence in US history: the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

For decades, few talked about what happened in this city when a white mob descended on Greenwood Avenue, a black business district so prosperous it was dubbed “the Negro Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington.

For two days beginning May 31, 1921, the mob set fire to hundreds of black-owned businesses and homes in Greenwood. More than 300 black people were killed. More than 10,000 black people were left homeless, and 40 blocks were left smoldering. Survivors recounted black bodies loaded on trains and dumped off bridges into the Arkansas River and, most frequently, tossed into mass graves.

Now, as Tulsa prepares to commemorate the massacre’s centennial in 2021, a community still haunted by its history is being transformed by a wave of new development in and around Greenwood.

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This article is from September 2018. I came to it via the fact that the new TV series Watchmen – set in an alternative timeline America – opened with a scene showing this event, which I thought was fiction. It’s not fiction.
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“The Talk” • Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

You want to know about quantum computing. You don’t feel comfortable reading about it without an adult who has been there.

This is the cartoon for you. Don’t be put off by the fact it’s a cartoon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,174: Facebook’s political advertising mess, TikTok under fire (again), is YouTube innocent?, Newsweek’s death spiral, it’s Wagileaks!, and more

  1. Chromebooks are rather successful, and Android apps on Chromebooks even more so. https://www.androidcentral.com/chromebook-owners-are-using-android-apps-4x-more-says-google

    Sometimes I want to bash some heads. Why did Google go and launch and 2nd ecosystem ? I understand Android was rushed and flawed and not-invented-here and fragmented and hard to update. But the first 2 are soft issues and get solved over time (quicker if you’re not distracted buy a second OS), the 3rd is why you go to a shrink, the 4th and 5th are because Google is letting OEMs do whatever and not even trying to brand a clean, updated Android and herd OEMs towards it. That’s solved by a stronger contract and some PR, to the effect of “Android Pro gets 5yrs of updates, direct from Google, OEMs are allowed to add apps but not to modify the OS+tools so that updates Just Work. Here’s the list of supported HW platforms. Here’s the list of optimized 1st- and 3rd-party apps. Here’s the admin tools. Welcome to 21st century IT, makers and buyers”.

    ChromeOS doesn’t solve any problem that Android-done-right doesn’t solve too. And costs hugely both in terms of dev effort within and outside Google, and in terms of skill acquisition by users. We all want to get rid of trop-heavy, complicated, clunky, fragile, vulnerable legacy OSes. We don’t want 4(*) very different ecosystems to chaotically jockey for position though. Simplify !

    (*) Android ChromeOS iOS Win/Metro.

  2. I was surprised how many American’s didn’t know the story of Tulsa, nor that one of the reasons why President Grant lost support a few years earlier was because he was about to send troops into states that had back the Union to stop lynchings. This lack of federal support led directly to the KKK being emboldened and more lynchings occurring. (Melvyn Bragg covers this quite well in a recent ‘In Our Time’ podcast on Grant. I originally learned about this shameful part of US history through an event at the African American Museum in DC. I had known some of the details but not just how widespread it was as a policy).

  3. Just came across a highly usable quote : “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”. From… Mae West.

    This one has drawers within drawers. Laws lock out competition and rise the cost for other competition. Navigating laws is a moatable skill. And the most value is extracted by skirting the law.

    I managed to fit Mae West, drawers and skirts in a very short and appropriate business comment. Bra-vo to me !

  4. A few years back, Moore’s law was supposed to be dead. I haven’t been keeping tabs, but it feels we’re not that far off: https://www.tomshardware.com/news/tsmc-fab-3nm-5nm-process-intel-samsung

    Also, in specific areas (AI, video, graphics, storage, encryption maybe network) it seems we’re doing even better than that, though it might be because a) more die area dedicated to that and b) it wasn’t a focus before, so low-hanging efficiencies. Probably not faring as well on the CPU / Apps Processor front (and doubtful about RAM even cache ?), especially once the overhead to neuter SPECTRE and such is taken into account (which it should: it’s not silicon-based, but that piece of code *must* run because flawed silicon).

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