Start Up No.1274: Facebook gets back to news, how the CDC screwed up, layoff by Zoom, drug dealing in the age of coronavirus, and more

An Intu-owned mall in the UK: unlikely to survive Covid-19. CC-licensed photo by JCDecaux Creative Solutions on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. I’m socially distant, you’re distant. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The coronavirus revives Facebook as a news powerhouse • The New York Times

Kevin Roose and Gabriel Dance:


As of Thursday, more than half the articles being consumed on Facebook in the United States were related to the coronavirus, according to an internal report obtained by The New York Times. Overall U.S. traffic from Facebook to other websites also increased by more than 50% last week from the week before, “almost entirely” owing to intense interest in the virus, the report said.

The report, which was posted to Facebook’s internal network by Ranjan Subramanian, a data scientist at the company, was a lengthy analysis of what it called an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” over the past several weeks.

According to the report, more than 90% of the clicks to coronavirus content came from “Power News Consumers” and “Power News Discussers” — Facebook’s terms for users who read and comment on news stories much more frequently than the average user. The company is now considering several options for targeting those people with higher-quality information to make sure it is “being spread downstream.”

“These users are having an extraordinary impact on the coronavirus information diet of other Facebook users,” Mr. Subramanian wrote.

The report shows that Facebook is closely monitoring people’s news habits during a critical period and actively trying to steer them toward authoritative sources in what amounts to a global, real-time experiment in news distribution.

At times, Facebook itself seemed unsure which news sources users would turn to in a crisis, with Mr. Subramanian noting that “fortunately” many people were clicking on links from publishers that the company considers high-quality.


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One brand’s block on ads around ‘coronavirus’ is starving some news sites of revenue • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:


Fears that its ads would appear next to news stories about the coronavirus pandemic led one major global brand to drastically reduce the number of digital ads it placed on the websites of the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and the Washington Post in March, according to internal data obtained by BuzzFeed News. In total, more than 2 million ads were blocked from appearing on these sites in the first three weeks of the month.

The data paints the first specific picture of how a broad advertiser pullout has damaged the bottom lines at news sites at the same time as readership on those sites has spiked. The data showed high ad block rates for the brand in March on dozens of global news sites, including Der Spiegel, the Guardian, Canada’s Global News, and BuzzFeed News. So far this month, the brand’s ads were blocked more than 35 million times across more than 100 news sites in 14 countries.

A source, who declined to be named for fear of professional repercussions, provided BuzzFeed News with ad placement data for a major product division within a global Fortune 50 company. The company, which cannot be named due to the risk of exposing the source, typically spends roughly $3m a month advertising its products on news and technology sites.


Killing the sites that it will need to advertise on in the future. Can’t be Corona beer, surely.

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A list of British and Irish institutions that might not survive coronavirus • Gizmodo UK

Holly Brockwell:


It’s not just human beings that might not see the other side of the covid-19 crisis. Sadly some British businesses, brands and institutions may not survive either. Here’s a list of the ones we think are potentially on thin ice.

(Note: clearly, small businesses are at much higher risk than the ones listed here, but we can’t realistically list all of those).

(Another note: if you’re going to buy from any of the websites of these businesses anytime soon, we would recommend using a credit card to get Section 75 protection (over £100), and not to spend any money you can’t potentially afford to lose if it goes belly-up.)


Amazingly, some of them are less than 60 years old. Can’t argue with any of them. Would love to see a similar list for the US.
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Mount Sinai to begin the transfer of Covid-19 antibodies into critically ill patients • Inside Mount Sinai


The Mount Sinai Health System this week plans to initiate a procedure known as plasmapheresis, where the antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 will be transferred into critically ill patients with the disease, with the expectation that the antibodies will neutralize it.

The process of using antibody-rich plasma from COVID-19 patients to help others was used successfully in China, according to a state-owned organization, which reported that some patients improved within 24 hours, with reduced inflammation and viral loads, and better oxygen levels in the blood.

Mount Sinai is collaborating with the New York Blood Center and the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center laboratory in Albany, with guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and expects to begin implementing the treatment later this week.


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Internal emails show how chaos at the CDC slowed the early response to coronavirus • ProPublica

Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen and Lexi Churchill:


The CDC’s initial response to COVID-19, particularly its failure to initiate swift, widespread testing, has drawn intense criticism.

Nonetheless, the correspondence ProPublica obtained shows that the CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, exuded confidence in communications with others at the agency.

On Jan. 28, when the CDC had confirmed five cases of the coronavirus, all in travellers who arrived from outside the country, he emailed colleagues to acknowledge it posed “a very serious public health threat,” but he assured them “the virus is not spreading in the U.S. at this time.”

That actually may not have been the case. The CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in Washington on Jan 20. Trevor Bedford, a computational epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has said he believes that the virus could have begun circulating in the state immediately after the traveler arrived in mid-January, based on his analysis of genetic data from the initial Washington cases.

The CDC said in its statement that Redfield’s comments were based on the data available at the time. “At no time, did he underestimate the potential for COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic,” the agency’s statement said.


Before I saw this, I was looking up when I first linked to coronavirus stories here. The first was January 20th, with a Guardian article about what it was. The next was a day or two later, to a story about a man who had returned to the US and gone about for four days before showing symptoms and falling ill.

It’s coming to something when a science and tech journalist gets this stuff on the radar sooner than the head of the CDC.

But Redfield wasn’t even Trump’s first choice (she had to stand down because she bought tobacco stock). Clearly, he wasn’t and isn’t up to the job.
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What it feels like to be laid off on Zoom during this crisis • Protocol

Biz Carson:


On Tuesday morning, around 100 TripActions customer support and customer success team members dialed into a Zoom call. Many joined the call happily smiling, expecting another team meeting or bonding activity amid the new work from home culture. Instead, according to people on the call Protocol spoke with, their boss launched into a spiel about the economy and coronavirus.

Then she announced that everyone on the call was being laid off.

“People were crying and people were panicking,” said one employee who was abruptly let go on the videoconference. “It was like 100 different videos of just chaos.”

The workers on that call represent around one-third of the people TripActions laid off on Tuesday. The company confirmed it let go of nearly 300 workers, around a quarter of the total staff, with layoffs hitting customer support, recruiting and sales the hardest, according to several current and former employees Protocol spoke with…

…Though it’s not clear there’s a better way to deliver such awful news, the format caused TripActions employees pain. “Why would you get everyone on a Zoom and deliver that announcement?” the same laid-off employee said. “I’d invested so much in that place, and I feel so fucked over. That’s why it’s so frustrating. We didn’t follow any of our company values today.”


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Drug dealers say coronavirus is already affecting supply and demand • VICE

David Hillier:


with borders closing, a countrywide economic crisis, and social distancing keeping punters away from pubs and clubs, it must be a troubling time for our nation’s peddlers of party supplies. I spoke to a handful and got the skinny on drug-dealing in the age of coronavirus.

“At the moment everything seems great. More people are buying coke because they are in their houses, bored. They are drinking at home and they invite a friend over and one thing leads to another and it turns into a house party and they order some coke. People are stressed out, there’s nothing to do, there’s only so many movies you can watch. People want to chinwag. All it takes is one drink really and they call us up.

“I sell most of my coke in bars and clubs. One pub I sell in is still quite lively, but apparently they have to shut down soon. The football pub is deserted because there’s no football, no-one buys from there anymore.

“There hasn’t really been an impact on supplies because the drought hasn’t hit yet, but there will be one I think. Importing will be harder. I can see it happening soon. I’ll have to start watering it down or charging more. The people I buy off will do the same.” — Nev , 39, from London


This was published on March 20. Hillier seems to specialise in stories about drugs: he also has quote from a psychedelics dealer, an MDMA/ketamine/etc dealer, and a cannabis dealer. Probably a good bet that things have got a lot tougher since last week. Perhaps these dealers are all disguising themselves as construction workers?

Also, do dealers count as self-employed?
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Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, 6 other telcos to help EU track virus • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:


Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and five other telecoms providers have agreed to share mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus, lobbying group GSMA said on Wednesday.

The companies, including Telefonica, Telecom Italia , Telenor, Telia and A1 Telekom Austria met with EU industry chief Thierry Breton on Monday.

Worries about governments’ use of technology to monitor those in quarantine and track infections have intensified in recent weeks over possible privacy violations, with some raising the spectre of state surveillance.

The Commission will use anonymised data to protect privacy and aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the virus, an EU official said.

To further assuage privacy concerns, the data will be deleted once the crisis is over, the official said, adding that the EU plan is not about centralising mobile data nor about policing people.

While anonymised data falls outside the scope of EU data protection laws, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said the project does not breach privacy rules as long as there are safeguards.


This is quickly going to become a default; going out in public without a smartphone (or a phone; in Taiwan the tracking is done by mobile mast triangulation, and that’s probably the case here) will become an act of rebellion.
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Redmi reveals how much power 5G consumes over 4G • Android Authority

Hadlee Simons:


Most 5G phones offer big batteries owing to the increased power consumption of early 5G modems and connectivity. But just how much more power does a 5G phone need over a 4G device?

Redmi general manager Lu Weibing has taken to Weibo to answer this question, claiming that 5G phones consume ~20% more power than a 4G phone. This suggests that a 20% increase in battery size is needed for a 5G phone to achieve the same endurance as a 4G variant (assuming everything else is equal).


Or that you’ll want an option to turn off 5G, which will give you a ton more battery life (or perhaps the same as you had before). Still unpersuaded that 5G will make any difference to our mobile lives for the next couple of years; the battery burnt on them will be wasted.
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Snopes on COVID-19 fact-checking • Snopes

Team Snopes (which fact-checks stuff):


in addition to encouraging social distancing (we were already a 100% remote work company), Snopes has:

• Rolled out several new policies allowing all employees to take the time they need to care for themselves and their family — all paid, and without impacting their accumulated time-off.

• Distributed unconditional cash bonuses of $750.00 to help our employees defray some immediate costs they face amid this public crisis.

• Begun scaling back routine content production and special projects, focusing our efforts only where we think we can have significant impact given our strained resources (e.g., we are temporarily reducing our Daily Debunker newsletter delivery schedule from six to two days per week).

We recognize there has never been a greater need for the service our fact-checkers provide, so publishing less may seem counterintuitive. But exhausting our staff in this crisis is not the cure for what is ailing our industry.

We don’t have all the answers right now, but we do know we need everyone’s help. Here’s where you can begin:

• Please: Keep checking with CDC or WHO for the latest guidance on how to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell your friends to do the same.

• Support Snopes directly as a Founding Member. The greater the resources we have, the more fact-checkers we can hire. Many fact-checkers have similar programs.

• Get the word out that we need help. Alert advertisers, lenders, investors, influencers, and anyone else you know that Snopes and other fact-checkers need support. If you can help support our mission, contact us immediately.


As you might expect, Snopes is overwhelmed with the load of utter rubbish that’s being passed around.
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How will the coronavirus end? • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:


The world is experienced at making flu vaccines and does so every year. But there are no existing vaccines for coronaviruses—until now, these viruses seemed to cause diseases that were mild or rare—so researchers must start from scratch. The first steps have been impressively quick. Last Monday, a possible vaccine created by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health went into early clinical testing. That marks a 63-day gap between scientists sequencing the virus’s genes for the first time and doctors injecting a vaccine candidate into a person’s arm. “It’s overwhelmingly the world record,” Fauci said.

But it’s also the fastest step among many subsequent slow ones. The initial trial will simply tell researchers if the vaccine seems safe, and if it can actually mobilize the immune system. Researchers will then need to check that it actually prevents infection from SARS-CoV-2. They’ll need to do animal tests and large-scale trials to ensure that the vaccine doesn’t cause severe side effects. They’ll need to work out what dose is required, how many shots people need, if the vaccine works in elderly people, and if it requires other chemicals to boost its effectiveness.

“Even if it works, they don’t have an easy way to manufacture it at a massive scale,” said Seth Berkley of Gavi. That’s because Moderna is using a new approach to vaccination. Existing vaccines work by providing the body with inactivated or fragmented viruses, allowing the immune system to prep its defenses ahead of time. By contrast, Moderna’s vaccine comprises a sliver of SARS-CoV-2’s genetic material—its RNA. The idea is that the body can use this sliver to build its own viral fragments, which would then form the basis of the immune system’s preparations. This approach works in animals, but is unproven in humans. By contrast, French scientists are trying to modify the existing measles vaccine using fragments of the new coronavirus. “The advantage of that is that if we needed hundreds of doses tomorrow, a lot of plants in the world know how to do it,” Berkley said. No matter which strategy is faster, Berkley and others estimate that it will take 12 to 18 months to develop a proven vaccine, and then longer still to make it, ship it, and inject it into people’s arms.

It’s likely, then, that the new coronavirus will be a lingering part of American life for at least a year, if not much longer.


Thorough piece (which also points out why even hiding all the over-70s won’t work).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1274: Facebook gets back to news, how the CDC screwed up, layoff by Zoom, drug dealing in the age of coronavirus, and more

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