Start Up No.1257: Facebook’s pharma madness, coronavirus hits conferences, Let’s Encrypt trips on certs, Amazon’s brand madness, and more

Facebook is scaling back its Libra program: it won’t be a global cryptocurrency. CC-licensed photo by Alpari Org on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Part of a calorie-controlled diet. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Why Facebook is filled with pharmaceutical ads • The Washington Post

Nitasha Tiku:


Jordan Lemasters keeps seeing ads in his Facebook app for an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drug called Vyvanse. When the Chicago-based audio branding consultant recently clicked on the ad’s drop-down menu and selected “Why Am I Seeing This Ad,” a pop-up said it was because of his age range, because he lives in the United States and because he may have visited

But Lemasters felt spooked. The 29-year-old had used another ADHD drug, Adderall, but never publicized it. The ads “just felt invasive,” says Lemasters, who says he quit Adderall in 2017 because it made him feel like a zombie. “What bothers me is how powerful those drugs are and how it’s pushed, rather than a doctor actually assessing a patient and suggesting a proper solution.”

After years of avoiding social media, drug companies are growing bolder about advertising on Facebook and other social networks, according to interviews with advertising executives, marketers, health-care privacy researchers and patient advocates. That is exposing loopholes around the way data can be used to show consumers relevant ads about their personal health, even as both social networks and pharmaceutical manufacturers disavow targeting ads to people based on their medical conditions.

Ads promoting prescription drugs are popping up on Facebook for depression, HIV and cancer. Spending on Facebook mobile ads alone by pharmaceutical and health-care brands reached nearly a billion dollars in 2019, nearly tripling over two years, according to Pathmatics, an advertising analytics company. Facebook offers tools to help drug companies stay compliant with rules about disclosing safety information or reporting side effects.


A billion dollars. Tiku got interested after a source contacted her about getting female Viagra ads on an Instagram account which has no account photo or content. So how did it decide to target her?

And – a side note – it points to the huge vested interest the pharmaceutical industry has in not seeing the US healthcare system reformed at all.
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Facebook scales back Libra plans, bowing to regulators • The Information

Alex Heath:


Facebook is scaling back its ambitious plan to upend the global financial system with a new digital currency.

Succumbing to pressure from regulators, Facebook has decided not to make the proposed Libra currency available on its own services for the time being, and will instead offer its users digital versions of government-backed currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the euro, according to three people familiar with the matter. Facebook still plans to go ahead with the launch of a digital wallet that would allow users to make purchases and send and receive money, though it will delay the rollout by several months.

The external Libra Association, which is made up of companies Facebook courted to help govern the project, still intends to introduce a Libra token separately that will be backed by a mix of government-issued currencies, another person familiar with the plans said. The association will also support the individual government-backed currencies. But it isn’t clear when or how the original Libra token backed by a mix of currencies will be used. 

Facebook has pushed the planned release of its digital wallet, dubbed Calibra, to October of this year rather than June as previously planned, the three people said.


Wow. Well, this considerably reduces the threat to global financial stability that Libra, in its original conception, would have been – because it could have moved money around between countries effectively with no oversight.

Quite what a risk it will now be is less clear, but regulators will definitely be breathing a sigh of relief.
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Will crypto conferences survive coronavirus? What about crypto media? • Amy Castor

Amy Castor:


on Monday, Facebook and Twitter pulled out of SXSW Conference & Festivals, a sprawling 10-day event in Austin set to kick off on March 13. The event drew more than 400,000 attendees last year. SXSW says the event is still going as planned, even though an online petition is in the works to cancel it.  

Similarly, the crypto world is feeling the pain. Tron has postponed indefinitely its Nitron Summit due to coronavirus concerns. The event was scheduled to take place between Feb. 29 and March 1 in Seoul, South Korea.

Paris Blockchain Week, originally set to kick off on March 31, is postponed until December. Even that is risky, though. December is when the cold and flu season starts up again, and a coronavirus vaccine isn’t due out until sometime in 2021.  

If the trend continues — and likely it will — conference cancellations could hit some crypto media publications hard. I’m talking about Coindesk in particular. The company pulls in 85% of its revenue from conferences, according to a May 2019 report in The Information. Coindesk doesn’t feature ads on its site anymore, so events are its bread and butter…

…In 2018, just coming down from the peak of the crypto hype cycle, Consensus drew in more than 8,500 attendees, each paying about $2,000 per ticket. Coindesk’s total revenue for the year was $25m, so do the math — that’s $21m in events alone.

Consensus 2019 saw less than half that with only 4,000 attendees. But even at an estimated $10m in revenue, that’s still a decent amount of money. Despite the drop-off, Kevin Worth, Coindesk’s CEO, told The Information that Digital Currency Group, which owns 90% of Coindesk, still planned on growing its media business.

Indeed, Coindesk has been on a bit of a hiring spree. Almost anyone who has been writing about crypto has gotten pulled into working for the media outlet.


Butter’s in short supply. Bread also. December should be safe, but will the money last?
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Simple systems have less downtime • Greg Kogan


The Maersk Triple-E Class container ship is 1,300 feet long, carries over 18,000 containers across 11,000 miles between Europe and Asia, and… Its entire crew can fit inside a passenger van.

As a former naval architect and a current marketing consultant to startups, I found that the same principle that lets a 13-person crew navigate the world’s largest container ship to a port halfway around the world without breaking down also applies to startups working towards aggressive growth goals:

Simple systems have less downtime.

Ships contain simple systems that are easy to operate and easy to understand, which makes them easy to fix, which means they have less downtime. An important quality, considering that “downtime” for a ship could mean being stranded thousands of miles from help.


There’s a corollary (which I’ve lost) which is that systems which must keep running tend to be brought down by auxiliary systems added to keep them running.
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Revoking certain certificates on March 4 – Help • Let’s Encrypt Community Support



Due to the 2020.02.29 CAA Rechecking Bug 3.4k, we unfortunately need to revoke many Let’s Encrypt TLS/SSL certificates. We’re e-mailing affected subscribers for whom we have contact information.

This post and thread will collect answers to frequently asked questions about this revocation, and how to avoid problems by renewing affected certificates early. If you’re affected, please: thoroughly read this thread, and search the community forum, for an answer to your question. If you don’t find one, please make a new post to the “Help” category, filling in the questions in the template that appears as you compose your post.

Q: How many certificates are affected?
A: 2.6%. That is 3,048,289 currently-valid certificates are affected, out of ~116 million overall active Let’s Encrypt certificates. Of the affected certificates, about 1 million are duplicates of other affected certificates, in the sense of covering the same set of domain names.

Because of the way this bug operated, the most commonly affected certificates were those that are reissued very frequently, which is why so many affected certificates are duplicates.


LE has issued about a billion certificates because it’s convenient for smaller sites that want to implement HTTPS. They’re on very short expiry periods – 90 days – so you have to renew them, ideally automatically, ideally every 60 days. But this is still going to be a big problem.
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Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19, 3 March 2020 • WHO

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus:


The second major difference is that COVID-19 causes more severe disease than seasonal influenza.

While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity. That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease.

Globally, about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected.

Third, we have vaccines and therapeutics for seasonal flu, but at the moment there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for COVID-19. However, clinical trials of therapeutics are now being done, and more than 20 vaccines are in development.

And fourth, we don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu – it’s just not possible. But it is possible for COVID-19. We don’t do contact tracing for seasonal flu – but countries should do it for COVID-19, because it will prevent infections and save lives. Containment is possible.

To summarize, COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu, transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick, it causes more severe illness than flu, there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics, and it can be contained – which is why we must do everything we can to contain it.


That 3.4% figure is high. The earlier estimate was 2%, or lower. So this becomes a much more dangerous problem.
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All your favorite brands, from BSTOEM to ZGGCD • The New York Times

John Herrman:


Mostly, you’ll notice gloves from brands that, unless you’ve spent a lot of time searching for gloves on Amazon, you’ve never heard of. Brands that evoke nothing in particular, but which do so in capital letters. Brands that are neither translated nor Romanized nor transliterated from another language, and which may contain words, or names, that do not seem to refer to the products they sell. Brands like Pvendor, RIVMOUNT, FRETREE and MAJCF. Gloves emblazoned with names like Nertpow, SHSTFD, Joyoldelf, VBIGER and Bizzliz. Gloves with hundreds or even thousands of apparently positive reviews, available for very low prices, shipped quickly, for free, with Amazon Prime.

Gloves are just one example — there are at least hundreds of popular searches that will return similar results. White socks: JourNow, Formeu, COOVAN. iPhone cables: HOVAMP, Binecsies, BSTOEM. Sleep masks: MZOO, ZGGCD, PeNeede.

These “pseudo-brands,” as some Amazon sellers call them, represent a large and growing portion of the company’s business. These thousands of new product lines, launched onto Amazon by third party sellers with minimal conventional marketing, stocking the site with disparate categories of goods, many evaporating as quickly as they appeared, are challenging what it means to be a brand.

They’ve also helped overwhelm the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which, not unlike an Amazon shopper, has for years found itself mystified by pseudo-brands as it continues to approve them.


The advantage of a barely known brand is that it can vanish in moments.
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The man behind Trump’s Facebook juggernaut • The New Yorker

Andrew Marantz on Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s 2016 media and social media campaign, and is doing it again in 2020:


The instant a Presidential election is over, everyone who worked on the losing campaign is recast as a dunce, and everyone on the winning side is reborn as a genius. In 2016, three weeks after Election Day, Harvard’s Institute of Politics hosted a panel discussion featuring leaders of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Trump’s campaign—the first public reunion of the now dunces and the now geniuses. It got heated.

“I would rather lose than win the way you guys did,” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s director of communications, said.

“No, you wouldn’t, respectfully,” Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s campaign managers, said.

Later in the discussion, Mandy Grunwald, another Clinton adviser, rephrased Palmieri’s rebuke as a backhanded compliment. “I don’t think you guys give yourselves enough credit for the negative campaign you ran,” she said, alluding to “the fake Facebook stuff, or the great dark-arts stuff you were pumping out there.” Turning to Parscale, she went on, “I’m fascinated to hear all about that, because it’s so hard for us to track.”

“I’d agree,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Facebook.”

…[Parscale] did not agree to be interviewed for this article, but dozens of people did, including people who worked with him and against him in 2016. Predictably, Parscale’s name elicited praise from most pro-Trump Republicans and scorn from nearly everyone else. “I can tell you with high confidence that Brad Parscale is not a genius,” Tara McGowan, a left-leaning strategist, told me. Nevertheless, “he undoubtedly had a massive impact on the outcome of the 2016 election, and he undoubtedly will again in 2020.” For better or worse, she continued, “you don’t need to be a genius to have a massive impact. You don’t even need to break the rules. An average person, given enough time and money and support, can use Facebook to help a demagogue win a national election.”


The extent to which Parscale understood Facebook’s position in the world in 2016, and Clinton’s campaign didn’t, will make you curse the gods.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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