Start Up No.1258: Facebook’s fake news label trouble, India unbans cryptocurrency, how China censored coronavirus chat, and more


Dear aliens: your message is important to us, but SETI@Home is now closed. Please stay on the hydrogen line. CC-licensed photo by jtalle on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Consume feverishly. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s fake news labeling has a big catch • Fast Company

Mark Wilson:

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In 2016, after coordinated propaganda on Facebook helped Trump win the election, the social media giant introduced a program for independent fact-checkers to flag fake news as “disputed.” In theory, this was a good thing. While Facebook still wasn’t running every story through a fact-check, deleting false information from its service, or banning unreliable blogs and media outlets from sharing stories on Facebook, it was using the flags to make people think twice before believing a headline or sharing false information. At least Facebook did something.

But according to new research out of MIT published in Management Science, that something was the wrong thing. When only some news is labeled as fact-checked and disputed, people believe stories that haven’t been marked as fact-checked more—even when they are completely false, the researchers found. They dubbed this consequence the “implied truth effect.” If a story is not overtly labeled as false when so many stories are labeled as false, well, then it must be true. “This is one of those things where once you point it out it looks obvious in retrospect,” says David Rand, associate professor of management science and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT Sloan, who led the study. “But in our understanding of years of research people had done on fact-checking, no one had pointed it out before.”

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That’s probably because nobody had needed to employ labelling like that before they had a social network where (intentional) untruths could spread virally and be amplified by the system.
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Samsung to quadruple foldable display production by the year end • SamMobile

SamMobile:

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Samsung is reportedly planning to increase the production of foldable displays for smartphones. The company’s display manufacturing arm makes around 260,000 units per month, and it plans to increase it to about 600,000 units per month by the end of May 2020 and take the number even higher, up to a million units, by the end of the year.

Since the demand for phones with foldable screens is increasing, Samsung Display wants to supply foldable display panels not only to Samsung Electronics but also to other smartphone makers. The South Korean company is going to build additional facilities with its module plants in Vietnam. The company will continue to develop additional facilities to ramp up the production of foldable display panels.

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A tiny question, but: is “units per month” a measure of QA’d units, or units that have yet to pass assurance tests? It seems like a lot for a product whose market remains niche, and to some extent unproven.
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Protein discovered inside a meteorite • Phys.org

Bob Yirka:

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A team of researchers from Plex Corporation, Bruker Scientific LLC and Harvard University has found evidence of a protein inside of a meteorite. They have written a paper describing their findings and have uploaded it to the arXiv preprint server.

In prior research, scientists have found organic materials, sugars and some other molecules considered to be precursors to amino acids in both meteorites and comets—and fully formed amino acids have been found in comets and meteorites, as well. But until now, no proteins had been found inside of an extraterrestrial object. In this new effort, the researchers have discovered a protein called hemolithin inside of a meteorite that was found in Algeria back in 1990.

The hemolithin protein found by the researchers was a small one, and was made up mostly of glycine, and amino acids. It also had oxygen, lithium and iron atoms at its ends—an arrangement never seen before. The team’s paper has not yet been peer reviewed, but once the findings are confirmed, their discovery will add another piece to the puzzle that surrounds the development of life on Earth. Proteins are considered to be essential building blocks for the development of living things, and finding one on a meteorite bolsters theories that suggest either life, or something very close to it, came to Earth from elsewhere in space.

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If confirmed, quite a discovery. The reason they’ve found it is because spectrometers are improving by leaps and bounds.
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SETI@home search for alien life project shuts down after 21 years • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

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In an announcement posted yesterday, the project stated that they will no longer send data to SETI@home clients starting on March 31st, 2020 as they have reached a “point of diminishing returns” and have analyzed all the data that they need for now.

Instead, they want to focus on analyzing the back-end results in order to publish a scientific paper.

“It’s a lot of work for us to manage the distributed processing of data. We need to focus on completing the back-end analysis of the results we already have, and writing this up in a scientific journal paper,” their news announcement stated.

Users who wish to continue to run the SETI@home client may do so, but will not receive any new work until the project decides whether they wish to start sending work to clients again.

For those who wish to donate their CPU resources, SETI@home suggests users select another BOINC project that also supports distributed computing.

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Used to love running the SETI client: it felt like I was actually getting something cosmically important done when I went for lunch.
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Aerogel from fruit biowaste produces ultracapacitors with high energy density and stability • ScienceDirect

A team at Sydney University, Australia:

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the fibrous, fleshy portions of organic wastes with good mechanical stability were considered as candidate precursors compared to hard, dense ones. The waste fruit cores of durian (Durio zibethinus) and jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) were selected as candidates based on their structures and their prospect of intrinsic nitrogen doping.

Here, we present our synthesis approach followed by characterization and testing of aerogels derived from durian and jackfruit biomass scraps. The formation of carbon aerogels from these materials are yet to be reported in the literature. As hypothesized, the synthesized durian carbon aerogel (DCA) and jackfruit carbon aerogel (JCA) revealed high surface areas and specific capacitance and displayed excellent long-term cycling stability and rapid charge–discharge process in an EDLC setup.

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Yes really: they’re making capacitors (for storing energy) out of fruit composts.
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India lifts ban on cryptocurrency trading – TechCrunch

Manish Singh:

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The Reserve Bank of India had imposed a ban on cryptocurrency trading in April 2018 that barred banks and other financial institutions from facilitating “any service in relation to virtual currencies.”

At the time, RBI said the move was necessary to curb “ring-fencing” of the country’s financial system. It had also argued that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies cannot be treated as currencies as they are not made of metal or exist in physical form, nor were they stamped by the government.

The 2018 notice from the central bank sent a panic to several local startups and companies offering services to trade in cryptocurrency. Nearly all of them have since closed shop.

In the ruling today, the bench, headed by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, overruled central bank’s circular on the grounds of disproportionality…

…“Historic day for Crypto in India. We can now innovate. The entire country can participate in the Blockchain revolution,” said Nischal Shetty, founder and chief executive of Bitcoin exchange platform WazirX.

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India tends to be quite quick to pick up on technological trends. Expect a bloom of crypto scams and pyramid schemes on the back of this. (Particularly pump-and-dump of bitcoin and other coins.) Still, there’ll be plenty of journalists who’ll warn people first… won’t there?
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Critical journalism in the crypto ice age • Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain

David Gerard:

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there’s no money for journalism in crypto — particularly for anything that even admits the possibility of rocking the boat as a whole.

(There’s not much funnier than some bozo who’s been caught out perpetrating shonky nonsense, furiously demanding to know what you’re BUIDLing instead of being so negative. I’d say not perpetrating shonky nonsense counts as a net positive, actually. Crypto journalists looking for a story should do Twitter searches for “buidl”, then go up the thread to spot whatever scam is being called out.)

I’m hearing more reports of writers leaving their publications in disgust when they are, literally in some cases, told to stop criticising crypto — meaning, even on an obvious 2+2=4 factual level — and “be more positive” — i.e., run the press releases unedited, because the boss is chasing that dwindling pool of crypto shill bucks.

The only decently-funded sources of critical journalism about crypto are in the mainstream financial press — who do well from paywalls, because their customer base has money.

It’s the same across all of journalism. I suspect subscriptions directly from the readers themselves is the least-unviable model — the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times do well with a low and easily-hopped paywall, and the Guardian is doing well with no paywall at all.

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After all the madness of “ICOs” in 2018, which essentially made the universe of possible coins infinite, and thus the value of any single coin zero, there’s been a growing feeling of desperation around the crypto world. The mainstream media had its fill, and more recently Facebook sucked all the attention away with Libra. Why would any ordinary person bother? Which leaves a small club who can’t make money opening doors for each other.
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Censored contagion: how information on the coronavirus is managed on Chinese social media • The Citizen Lab

Lotus Ruan, Jeffrey Knockel, and Masashi Crete-Nishihata:

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During the last week of December, 2019, doctors in Wuhan (such as the late Dr. Li Wenliang), began to notice a troubling unknown pathogen burning through the wards of their hospitals. They took to social media to issue warnings of this new disease thought to be linked to the Wuhan Seafood Market.

As the doctors tried to raise the alarm about the rapid spread of the disease, information on the epidemic was being censored on Chinese social media. On December 31, 2019, when the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issued its first public notice on the disease, we found that keywords like “武汉不明肺炎” (Unknown Wuhan Pneumonia) and “武汉海鲜市场” (Wuhan Seafood Market) began to be censored on YY, a Chinese live-streaming platform.

Between January and February 2020, as the outbreak spread, a wide breadth of content related to COVID-19 was censored on WeChat (China’s most popular chat app), including criticism of the Chinese government, speculative and factual information related to the epidemic, and neutral references to Chinese government efforts to handle the outbreak that had been reported on state media.

This report presents results from a series of censorship tests on YY and WeChat that show that Chinese social media began censoring content related to the disease in the early stages of the epidemic and blocked a broad scope of content.

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They’re able to figure this out because the censorship on the apps happens on the client – ie the phone app. By reverse-engineering it and tracking the blacklist (as they have since February 2015) they can see what’s being blocked. Fabulously clever. (Citizenlab has previously discovered malware attacks against civil rights activists in the Middle East and Asia.)
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WhatsApp’s role in spreading coronavirus misinformation alarms officials in Nigeria, Brazil • The Washington Post

Tony Romm:

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Hours after Nigeria confirmed its first case of coronavirus Friday, Olumide Makanjuola, who lives in the state of Lagos, opened WhatsApp and was bombarded with a “sense of panic.”

Users on the messaging service had copied, pasted and forwarded notes warning that local flights, hotels and schools might have been contaminated. None of the information had been verified, Makanjuola said, but multiple versions of it snaked their way through private WhatsApp groups, some with hundreds of participants.

“The virus is closer to us than we think,” two of the messages ominously concluded.

As government leaders and health professionals race to contain an outbreak on the verge of a pandemic, they are simultaneously battling another hard-to-defeat scourge: the explosion of half-truths and outright falsehoods online. Nowhere is the threat more dire than on WhatsApp, a service largely hidden from public scrutiny, vast in its global reach and often at the center of some of the world’s most panic-inducing conspiracy theories.

People in Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Pakistan, Ireland and other countries say they’ve seen a flood of misinformation on WhatsApp about the number of people affected by coronavirus, the way the illness is transmitted and the availability of treatments. The messages and voice memos have instilled fear, troubled businesses and created public health headaches for governments, including Botswana, which pleaded with people last month to be wary of what they’re reading and sharing on the service.

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So it’s.. spreading virally? The problem with WhatsApp is that there’s really no way to report bad content. You could forward it – but how would you know who to send it to in order to report it? Group administrators can delete content, but that assumes people are in groups with administrators who want to do that.
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The growth of command line options, 1979-present • Dan Luu

Dan Luu:

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The sleight of hand that’s happening when someone says that we can keep software simple and compatible by making everything handle text is the pretense that text data doesn’t have a structure that needs to be parsed4. In some cases, we can just think of everything as a single space separated line, or maybe a table with some row and column separators that we specify (with some behavior that isn’t consistent across tools, of course). That adds some hassle when it works, and then there are the cases where serializing data to a flat text format adds considerable complexity since the structure of data means that simple flattening requires significant parsing work to re-ingest the data in a meaningful way.

Another reason commands now have more options is that people have added convenience flags for functionality that could have been done by cobbling together a series of commands. These go all the way back to v7 unix, where ls has an option to reverse the sort order (which could have been done by passing the output to tac).

growth in options in command line functions 1979 to 2017

Over time, more convenience options have been added. For example, to pick a command that originally has zero options, mv can move and create a backup (three options; two are different ways to specify a backup, one of which takes an argument and the other of which takes zero explicit arguments and reads an implicit argument from the VERSION_CONTROL environment variable; one option allows overriding the default backup suffix). mv now also has options to never overwrite and to only overwrite if the file is newer.

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Inevitably, there’s an XKCD cartoon about this. Simplicity doesn’t always win. This is confusing.
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We all wear tinfoil hats now • The New Atlantis

Geoff Shullenberger, reviewing Jeffrey Sconce’s book “The Technical Delusion”:

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recent technological developments have made it hard to discern where the actual machinations of states and corporations trying to influence behavior end, and where conspiratorial claims with similar content begin. Well before Cambridge Analytica appeared on the scene, fears once relegated to paranoia were coming true.

Consider that believing that the ads on your TV or radio were directed specifically at you would have been an unequivocal symptom of a delusional state twenty years ago. Today, the same belief about the ads on your smartphone is a recognition of fact. Amidst the expansion of surveillance, advances in virtual reality and artificial intelligence, and the emergence of possibilities such as machine–brain interfaces, what might once have been hallucinatory fever dreams have become plausible funding pitches for startups. In such circumstances, how do we know when we’re paranoid and when we’re justifiably concerned?

The worries stirred up by the Cambridge Analytica story — whether they were an outburst of irrational panic or a recognition of new political realities — were just the latest in a long history of anxieties about technologically enabled mass deception and manipulation. The potential for such an enterprise entered the realm of the imagination well before anything like it was technically feasible. But the earliest people to imagine it were not technology critics or political reporters. They were paranoids in the original sense of the word: individuals regarded as insane…

…If psychotic individuals from the past seem from the present-day vantage point to have anticipated aspects of our evolving technological reality, that’s partly because the ordinary ways we represent that reality to ourselves owe something to once-outlandish visions like theirs. It is questionable that Cambridge Analytica’s algorithms constituted a mind control device, but it was natural for us to think about it in those terms, because our cultural archive abounds in representations of this sort of technological affordance.

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It’s not a short article, but if those bits intrigue you, there’s plenty more.
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Can YouTube quiet its conspiracy theorists? • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:

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Climate change is a hoax, the Bible predicted President Trump’s election and Elon Musk is a devil worshiper trying to take over the world.

All of these fictions have found life on YouTube, the world’s largest video site, in part because YouTube’s own recommendations steered people their way.

For years it has been a highly effective megaphone for conspiracy theorists, and YouTube, owned and run by Google, has admitted as much. In January 2019, YouTube said it would limit the spread of videos “that could misinform users in harmful ways.”

One year later, YouTube recommends conspiracy theories far less than before. But its progress has been uneven and it continues to advance certain types of fabrications, according to a new study from researchers at University of California, Berkeley.

YouTube’s efforts to curb conspiracy theories pose a major test of Silicon Valley’s ability to combat misinformation, particularly ahead of this year’s elections. The study, which examined eight million recommendations over 15 months, provides one of the clearest pictures yet of that fight, and the mixed findings show how challenging the issue remains for tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The researchers found that YouTube has nearly eradicated some conspiracy theories from its recommendations, including claims that the earth is flat and that the U.S. government carried out the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two falsehoods the company identified as targets last year.

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Getting there, two lies at a time. But the real problem is that it’s impossible to study personalised recommendations – this was done on logged-out ones – which means only YouTube really knows. And it isn’t saying.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Rebecca Paltrow of WeWork infamy (they’ve all got it infamy, etc) is the cousin, not the sister, of Gwyneth. This doesn’t disprove theories that it’s genetic.

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