Start Up No.1195: Facebook under attack, the election polls to watch, does your site fit on a floppy?, and more

Antarctic ozone hole 2019
The 2019 ozone hole over Antarctica is the smallest since 1982. Credit: Nasa Goddard Space Laboratory.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Have a gander. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Read Sacha Baron Cohen’s scathing attack on Facebook in full: ‘greatest propaganda machine in history’ • The Guardian


I’m just a comedian and an actor, not a scholar. But one thing is pretty clear to me. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history.

The greatest propaganda machine in history.

Think about it. Facebook, YouTube and Google, Twitter and others – they reach billions of people. The algorithms these platforms depend on deliberately amplify the type of content that keeps users engaged – stories that appeal to our baser instincts and that trigger outrage and fear. It’s why YouTube recommended videos by the conspiracist Alex Jones billions of times. It’s why fake news outperforms real news, because studies show that lies spread faster than truth. And it’s no surprise that the greatest propaganda machine in history has spread the oldest conspiracy theory in history – the lie that Jews are somehow dangerous. As one headline put it, “Just Think What Goebbels Could Have Done with Facebook.”

On the internet, everything can appear equally legitimate. Breitbart resembles the BBC. The fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion look as valid as an ADL report. And the rantings of a lunatic seem as credible as the findings of a Nobel prize winner. We have lost, it seems, a shared sense of the basic facts upon which democracy depends.

When I, as the wannabe gangsta Ali G, asked the astronaut Buzz Aldrin “what woz it like to walk on de sun?” the joke worked, because we, the audience, shared the same facts. If you believe the moon landing was a hoax, the joke was not funny.


It’s a remarkable speech; a must-read.
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Sacha Baron Cohen’s anti-Facebook rant at the ADL summit was pure moral panic •

Robby Soave:


without Section 230, social media companies would have to resort to being wildly censorious across all corners of the internet. Section 230 is the web’s First Amendment—the very thing that has allowed unfettered free speech to flourish in the years since online conversation became the norm.

It’s fine to note that this climate of free expression has come at a cost—that yes, horrible people can say things that are evil and false, and Facebook may not be obligated to do anything about it (though Section 230 does not apply in all cases). But we should not overstate these downsides. Cohen, for instance, warned that “hate crimes are surging” as a consequence of our society’s tolerance for intolerance speech. This is an oft-expressed fear by progressives, but the notion that hate crimes are being committed more frequently than ever before isn’t actually supported by the available evidence.

Similarly, another free-speech skeptic, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz, claimed in a well-read New York Times op-ed that “Free Speech Is Killing Us” and something must be done. But violent crime is lower than ever, and politically-motivated violence is especially rare. We have more protections for free speech, more ways to express ourselves than ever before, and if anything, less violence.

Cohen concluded his remarks with a call to stop “the greatest propaganda machine in history,” by which he means the cumulative impact of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Google. That’s ridiculous hyperbole: The companies are not engaged in some coordinated effort to spread lies or promote an agenda.


The Section 230 point is relevant, but he’s wrong about hate crime. The FBI statistics show those as:
2018: 7,120 cases
2017: 7,106 (on the same page)
2016: 6,121
2015: 5,850
2014: 5,479.

That’s a pretty clear upward trend: up 30% in four years. And propaganda machines? They’re really good at it.
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White nationalists are openly operating on Facebook. The company won’t act • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:


Just a few weeks earlier, Red Ice TV had suffered a serious setback when it was permanently banned from YouTube for repeated violations of its policy against hate speech. But Red Ice TV still had a home on Facebook, allowing the channel’s 90,000 followers to stream the discussion on Facebook Watch – the platform Mark Zuckerberg launched as a place “to share an experience and bring people together who care about the same things”.

The conversation wasn’t a unique occurrence. Facebook promised to ban white nationalist content from its platform in March 2019, reversing a years-long policy to tolerate the ideology. But Red Ice TV is just one of several white nationalist outlets that remain active on the platform today.

A Guardian analysis found longstanding Facebook pages for VDare, a white nationalist website focused on opposition to immigration; the Affirmative Right, a rebranding of Richard Spencer’s blog Alternative Right, which helped launch the “alt-right” movement; and American Free Press, a newsletter founded by the white supremacist Willis Carto, in addition to multiple pages associated with Red Ice TV. Also operating openly on the platform are two Holocaust denial organizations, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust and the Institute for Historical Review.

“There’s no question that every single one of these groups is a white nationalist group,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, after reviewing the Guardian’s findings. “It’s not even up for debate. There’s really no excuse for not removing this material.”


As a result of writing this piece, Carrie Wong was harassed by Breitbart News and the Daily Stormer, and white nationalist groups in between. Facebook talks the talk, but it doesn’t walk the walk.
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Slack’s new rich text editor shows that Markdown still scares people • VICE

Ernie Smith:


Slack just updated its longtime editor for its primary interface—and the rich-text result hints at a longstanding tension over how much of a helping hand users need from their text editors and communication programs.

Power users, like programmer Arthur O’Dwyer, make the case that they don’t really need any—and the rich-text interface they added just gets in the way. “I wish Slack would provide a way to disable the WYSIWYG rich-text-input box,” he wrote in a viral blog post. “I don’t think it’s useful, and it’s extremely annoying to have to keep backspacing to fix mistakes.”

After the decision was criticized by O’Dwyer and others (and after this article was published), Slack told Motherboard that it would switch gears and provide an option to bring the old interface back.

It noted that it was trying to make the app more palatable to the broader audience of users it’s gained in recent years since. But concerns from older users who liked the prior Markdown-driven interface led the company to rethink the decision, and bring the tool back in the coming weeks.

“Our recently introduced WYSIWYG formatting toolbar was developed with that broader customer community in mind,” the company said. “We thought we had nailed it, but we have seen an outpouring of feedback from customers who love using Slack with markup.”


Markup, markdown, can’t we all just get along?
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How a Facebook employee helped Trump win—but switched sides for 2020 • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman:


[During the 2016 US election, James] Barnes [who had joined Facebook’s political ad sales team in 2013] frequently flew to Texas, sometimes staying for four days at a time and logging 12-hour days. By July, he says, he was solely focused on the Trump campaign. When on-site in the building that served as the Trump campaign’s digital headquarters in San Antonio, he sometimes sat a few feet from Mr. Parscale.

The intense pace reflected Trump officials’ full embrace of Facebook’s platform, in the absence of a more traditional campaign structure including donor files and massive email databases.

The Trump campaign would give Mr. Barnes certain videos or images, such as a video of Donald Trump Jr. urging voters to help build the border wall. Mr. Barnes would experiment with different ways to display the ad. One might say “donate” while another would say “give.” Some videos would be vertical, others square. Buttons could be highlighted in red or green.

Each variation of the ad would be targeted to certain demographics. It could be as specific as 18-to-24-year-old men who visited the Trump campaign donation page and made it to the third step but never finished, according to Mr. Barnes. They tested all the variations and doubled down on those that raised the most money.

Trump campaign officials have said that some days the campaign churned out 100,000 separate versions of Facebook ads.

One official from the 2016 Trump campaign said it primarily relied on Mr. Barnes for troubleshooting and complained to Facebook about periodic technical issues that the campaign argued hurt its performance. The official, who is also working on Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, declined to comment further.

Mr. Barnes’s Democratic counterparts at Facebook weren’t getting the same reception. Tatenda Musapatike, a former Facebook employee who worked with Democratic PACs and other independent expenditure groups in 2016, said she felt many Democrats held Facebook at arm’s length.

“For James, he’d suggest something and they’d say, ‘Sure, let’s try it,’” said Ms. Musapatike. “It was a battle for us to get anything accepted at a much smaller scale.”


A key difference: the Democrats were still fighting like it was 2004.
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The Google tax • Seth’s Blog

Seth Godin:


Actually, there are two.

The first is the tax we each pay so that companies can bid against each other to buy traffic from Google. Because their revenue model is (cleverly) built on both direct marketing and an auction, they are able to keep a significant portion of the margin from many industries. They’ve become the internet’s landlord.

The difference between a successful business in New York and an unsuccessful one is just a few percentage points–the successful ones pay 95% of their profit to landlords, while the unsuccessful ones pay 105%.

It doesn’t matter if there are competitors to Google in search: the model of bidding for attention is so economically compelling (because attention is so scarce), that companies are going to be paying ever more to reach people in this way–or allow their competitors to do so.

The second is harder to see: Because Google has made it ever more difficult for sites to be found, previously successful businesses like Groupon, Travelocity and Hipmunk suffer. As a result, new web companies are significantly harder to fund and build. If you’re dependent on being found in a Google search, it’s probably worth rethinking your plan.


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Does your website fit on a floppy? • Fitonafloppy

Brendon Body:


A floppy disk’s capacity is 1.44MB.

Webpages are getting bigger and bigger. The internet is getting faster and faster but not everywhere at the same pace. A floppy is a physical reminder of filesize.

Assets Audited (On page load):
HTML; CSS/Fonts; JavaScript; Images (excluding inline data source)

How long to download on various mobile devices:
2G EDGE (0.1Mbit/s): 2 minutes
3G HSPA (~1.5Mbit/s): 8 seconds
4G LTE Category 4 (~15Mbit/s): less than 1 second
5G (~150Mbit/s): less than 1 second

« does; doesn’t (2.2MB); does; doesn’t (2.6MB); wouldn’t load.
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Los Angeles authorities warn travelers of charging-station hackers • The Washington Post

Drew Jones:


The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is warning travelers using Los Angeles International Airport of a new scheme targeting people who need a quick boost at public USB charging stations. The USB charging scam, also known as “juice jacking,” involves hackers spoofing charging stations to steal information.

Similar to credit-card skimming, fake charging stations are set up via port or cable, and unknowing users who plug into them expose their devices to malware attacks that can lock their devices and export sensitive contents such as passwords and bank account numbers into the hands of waiting information thieves.

“#ICYMI: Avoid using public USB charging stations at airports and other locations,” the district attorney’s office wrote on Twitter.

Deputy District Attorney Luke Sisak says investigators from his office have seen scammers whom they know to be involved in identity-theft schemes with the software and hardware capable of performing the “juice jacking” scam. He says his office wants to give travelers the information they need to protect themselves.

“It’s something that people should be aware is possible,” he said. “And they mostly don’t know that it is.”

Sometimes phone security is taken for granted, he says, along with the knowledge that the phone’s charging port is also how the phone sends and receives data…

…A key thing to look out for is whether your phone displays a “Do you trust this computer?” message when you plug into a USB outlet. Sisak said that’s an easy giveaway that a data device has been connected to it. On anything that’s not your home computer, the answer should always be “no.”


I think “Don’t Trust” on an iPhone, but perhaps Android offers “No”. Particularly relevant this week because lots of Americans are travelling for Thanksgiving.
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Brexit didn’t cause all our divisions • UnHerd

Freddie Sayers:


The most powerful data modelling technique in politics at the moment, is something called MRP. It stands for “multilevel regression with post-stratification” —  not exactly catchy — and the number of people who fully understand it in the UK can be counted on two hands.

But, roughly speaking, you conduct a huge survey, normally 10,000 or more so that you have sufficient numbers to look at small subsets of people, and you then analyse what the most predictive characteristics are behind the question you’re interested in, for example whether race, education or income is more predictive of how people are going to vote (that’s the ‘multilevel regression’ part).

Then, once you have identified the most predictive characteristics, you use what you know about the people in each constituency, and in combination with any local effects you observe in your sample, you can estimate the outcome in every constituency in the land (that’s the ‘post stratification’).

With this method, instead of crude national swings, you create something close to a simulated version of the whole electorate, in miniature, in all its complex glory.

The defining moment for MRP arrived during the general election of 2017. The conventional opinion polls had showed a dramatic narrowing, with most still showing Theresa May’s Conservatives significantly ahead on election day. The Westminster bubble was expecting her to build on, not lose, David Cameron’s majority.

But as well as their conventional poll, YouGov had also run an MRP model, and, instead of a majority this one pointed to something very different: a hung parliament, with the Tories losing ‘safe’ seats such as Kensington, Canterbury and Ipswich. Two weeks before polling day they gave it to the Times, who put it on the front page with the headline: Shock Poll Predicts Tory Losses.

Almost nobody believed it, but it turned out to be astonishingly accurate.


And YouGov has another MRP poll coming out some time this week. Watch for it.
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2019 ozone hole is the smallest on record since its discovery • NASA

Ellen Gray and Theo Stein:


Abnormal weather patterns in the upper atmosphere over Antarctica dramatically limited ozone depletion in September and October, resulting in the smallest ozone hole observed since 1982, NASA and NOAA scientists reported today [October 2019].

The annual ozone hole reached its peak extent of 6.3 million square miles (16. 4 million square kilometers) on Sept. 8, and then shrank to less than 3.9 million square miles (10 million square kilometers) for the remainder of September and October, according to NASA and NOAA satellite measurements. During years with normal weather conditions, the ozone hole typically grows to a maximum area of about 8 million square miles in late September or early October.

“It’s great news for ozone in the Southern Hemisphere,” said Paul Newman, chief scientist for Earth Sciences at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “But it’s important to recognize that what we’re seeing this year is due to warmer stratospheric temperatures. It’s not a sign that atmospheric ozone is suddenly on a fast track to recovery.”.


Don’t say there’s never any good environmental news. Though the graph below of the size of the hole, and the minimum ozone level isn’t super-encouraging. CFCs have multi-decade survival in the upper atmosphere, and related chemicals are still being produced (CFC and HCFC smuggling is quite common across Pakistan’s border, according to a paper I read while trying – and failing – to find data about world CFC production by year).

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The United States is starting to look like Ukraine • The New York Times

Bret Stephens:


Donald Trump ought to be impeached and removed from office. This isn’t what I thought two months ago, when the impeachment inquiry began. I argued that the evidence fell short of the standards of a prosecutable criminal act. I also feared impeachment might ultimately help Trump politically, as it had helped Bill Clinton in 1998. That second worry might still prove true.

But if the congressional testimonies of Marie Yovanovitch, Bill Taylor, Gordon Sondland, Alexander Vindman and especially Fiona Hill make anything clear, it’s that the president’s highest crime isn’t what he tried to do to, or with, Ukraine.

It’s that he’s attempting to turn the United States into Ukraine. The judgment Congress has to make is whether the American people should be willing, actively or passively, to go along with it.

I’ve followed Ukrainian politics fairly closely since 1999, when I joined the staff of The Wall Street Journal Europe. It has consistent themes that should sound familiar to American ears.

The first theme is the criminalization of political differences. Years before Trump led his followers in “Lock Her Up” chants against Hillary Clinton, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych did exactly that against his own political rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was sentenced to seven years in prison on a variety of byzantine charges after she had narrowly lost the 2010 election.

She spent three years in prison before her release during the 2014 Maidan Revolution. Key to Yanukovych’s efforts to discredit Tymoshenko was — who else? — Paul Manafort.


Manafort who is, of course, deservedly in prison now. But as an observation: when you’ve lost Bret Stephens..
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Florida dog drives in circles for an hour, video shows • The Washington Post

Hannah Knowles:


Anna Sabol, who lives across from the cul-de-sac, told the Sun-Sentinel she started watching the car’s strange doughnuts after her own dogs began to bark. She looked out her window to see officers gathered around.

It took her a while to realize that a canine was behind the wheel, she said. “First I thought I saw somebody backing up, but then they kept going and I’m like, ‘Okay, what are they doing?’ ” she recounted to local news station WPBF-TV. Her reaction when a dog got out of the vehicle: “This is turning weird.”

Sabol told the Sun-Sentinel that the car finally stopped after going up a lawn and hitting a mailbox. The dog’s owner has reportedly promised to fix the damage.

No one was hurt, and the silver 2003 Mercury Sable sustained only minor damage, the Port St. Lucie Police Department said. It described Max in a statement as “fine, healthy and happy.”

“They should give that dog a license,” Sabol told the Sun-Sentinel. “He drives better than some people I’ve seen on the roads here.”


Perfect payoff line. (I’d have linked directly to the Sun-Sentinel but apparently it hasn’t worked out how to show adverts to people in Europe without breaking the law about data collection.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1195: Facebook under attack, the election polls to watch, does your site fit on a floppy?, and more

  1. Re. Juice jacking.
    1- yes, Android has a “charge only” connection by default… But one can change the default.
    2- there are dongles to block data on USB cables, but since they also block Power Delivery handshakes, you only get slow charging.
    3- On the Android side, you’ve got cables with just the charging wires wired up, so no need for a data blocker.

  2. I’m still unclear why need/want private corps to police speech. I’m not saying speech doesn’t need policing (free speech kind of implies truthfulness or at least best-effort, which I think is lacking), but wondering why the rules should be determined by each individual media outlet. This makes the rules illegitimate ( elections, not page views, make stuff legit), unfair because they will vary by outfit, counter-productive because one can assume corps are profiting from fake news and their audience so the more stringent enforcers will lose money…
    This smacks of scapegoating. Blaming FB for Trump/hate is a shortcut.

  3. I’m not a fan of Cohen’s comedy. Too much of it strikes me as having a very ugly classist aspect. It peddles a mean-spirited mocking of the prejudices of supposed rubes, so as to stroke the snobbery of his target audience. This speech is not exactly that sort of gimmick, but there’s a similar flavor. He’s literally proposing government censorship via intermediary liability, but because he’s wrapped it up in applause lines for liberal intellectuals, they’re cheering him.
    (“Maybe it’s time to tell Mark Zuckerberg and the CEOs of these companies: you already allowed one foreign power to interfere in our elections, you already facilitated one genocide in Myanmar, do it again and you go to jail.” – you can almost hear villains, boo, jail, yay).

    I’ve been pondering that the free-speech talking point of “Don’t call call for a censorship system because it could be used against you” is actually a bad argument. This is a case study. The response is simply that they intend to be the people imposing the censorship.

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