Start Up No.1281: the roots of the 5G conspiracy, has Google found a new Covid-19 symptom?, a child’s unpredictable future, getting gamers to stay in, and more

Does this mobile phone mast have 5G equipment? Most people can’t tell – but that doesn’t stop some CC-licensed photo by Ivan Radic on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Intensive. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube moves to limit spread of false coronavirus 5G theory • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


YouTube will reduce the amount of content spreading conspiracy theories about links between 5G technology and coronavirus that it recommends to users, it has said, as four more attacks were recorded on phone masts within 24 hours.

The online video company will actively remove videos that breach its policies, it said. But content that is simply conspiratorial about 5G mobile communications networks, without mentioning coronavirus, is still allowed on the site.

YouTube said those videos may be considered “borderline content” and subjected to suppression, including loss of advertising revenue and being removed from search results on the platform.

“We also have clear policies that prohibit videos promoting medically unsubstantiated methods to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment, and we quickly remove videos violating these policies when flagged to us,” a YouTube spokesperson said.

“We have also begun reducing recommendations of borderline content such as conspiracy theories related to 5G and coronavirus, that could misinform users in harmful ways.”

The company’s decision to reduce the visibility of content linked to the false theory came as Vodafone said that two of its own masts, and two it shares with O2, were targeted. Three other masts were subjected to arson attacks last week.


That was Sunday; the count is now up to 20. But how do you reduce the infectivity of stupidity? What’s more is that it’s rarely 5G kit that’s actually being damaged.
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May 2019: Mapping the anti-5G campaign • Global Disinformation Index

Ben Decker in May 2019:


Fifth generation (5G) wireless technology has become a flashpoint of conflict dominating our news and social feeds – from the EU to the US. Arguments against 5G range on everything from health concerns to national security.

Mainstream media has even entered into the discussions. Just on May 21, Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers: “Are 5G networks medically safe?” Carlson was not alone in publicly voicing these concerns in recent weeks. On Facebook, anti-5G Pages promoted over a dozen Irish politicians who were “against 5G” and running in European and local Irish elections in May.

But it is a narrative arc whose design demonstrates a large-scale disinformation campaign that dates back at least two years. The New York Times has tried to trace some of its genesis, based on its investigation into RT America’s latest “reporting”  around “the coming ‘5G Apocalypse.”

At the GDI, we have mapped the anti-5G narrative being pushed across both American and European social media echo chambers, producing a chronological timeline which starts in 2017. This broader overview helps to demonstrate the slow and steady impact of what we’ll refer to as an adversarial narrative against 5G. A forthcoming GDI study will look at this in more detail.


So basically the idiots just needed something to latch onto.

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1998: Immune system ‘attacked by mobile phones’ • BBC News


Radiation from mobile phones can severely damage the human immune system, a scientist has claimed.

Biologist Roger Coghill has long campaigned for health warnings to be attached to mobile phones, which he has already linked to headaches and memory loss.

His latest research suggests the microwaves generated by mobile phones may damage the ability of white blood cells to act as the “policemen” of the body, fighting off infection and disease.

Mr Coghill took white blood cells, known as lymphocytes, from a donor, keeping them alive with nutritients and exposed them to different electric fields.

He found that after seven-and-a-half hours, just 13% of the cells exposed to mobile phone radiation remained intact and able to function, compared with 70% of cells exposed only to the natural electromagnetic field produced by the human body.


Ah, Roger Coghill. Read a couple of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science entries about him: one and two. Go on, you deserve a laugh.
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Google searches can help us find emerging Covid-19 outbreaks • The New York Times

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz:


To see the potential information lying in plain sight in Google data, consider searches for “I can’t smell.” There is now strong evidence that anosmia, or loss of smell, is a symptom of Covid-19, with some estimates suggesting that 30-60% of people with the disease experience this symptom. In the United States, in the week ending this past Saturday, searches for “I can’t smell” were highest in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Michigan — four of the states with the highest prevalence of Covid-19. In fact, searches related to loss of smell during this period almost perfectly matched state-level disease prevalence rates.

Google searches for the phrase “loss of smell” align closely with the number of positive cases of coronavirus. The inability to smell could be an early warning sign that someone is infected.

Vasileios Lampos, a computer scientist at University College London, and other researchers have found that a bevy of symptom-related searches — loss of smell as well as fever and shortness of breath — have tracked outbreaks around the world.

Because these searches correlate so strongly with disease prevalence rates in parts of the world with reasonably good testing, we can use these searches to try to find places where many positive cases are likely to have been missed.


He thinks, based on Google search data for symptoms – what people are asking Google – that “eye pain” might be another symptom. (I think it’s more like “joint pain”; that people feel generalised pressure and pain from the infection ahead of it getting bad.)
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How the cell phones of spring breakers who flouted coronavirus warnings were tracked • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan:


Facebook and Google confirmed to CNN Business in March that they were exploring ways to use aggregated, anonymized data to help in the US coronavirus effort. The location data conversations were part of a series of interactions between the White House and the tech industry about how Silicon Valley could can contribute to the response to the pandemic.

The potential embrace of such technologies by the US government is leaving privacy advocates feeling uneasy.

David Carroll, an associate professor at The New School in New York and a privacy campaigner who has worked for years exposing Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, warned the coronavirus pandemic could be used as a way to undermine American civil liberties.

“Pandemics offer an urgent justification to surrender to surveillance that informs response efforts. But privacy protections, especially related to health data, are among the first to be rescinded in this type of emergency,” Carroll told CNN Business on Wednesday.

“Beyond taking pains to exploit our location data responsibly and temporarily, we need to ensure that when we return to normal, we do the work of dismantling the pandemic panopticon and finish overdue reform in the United States, which includes improving how we enforce fundamental data protection rights around the world,” he added. “Otherwise pandemic-level surveillance capabilities will surely be abused.”


As everyone says, the question is how you turn it off afterwards. The ratchet is hard to resist.
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Foursquare merges with Factual, another location-data provider • WSJ

Sahil Patel:


Foursquare, which first gained fame for an app that allowed people to share their location with friends, pivoted in recent years to providing location data and software to businesses including marketers and ad agencies, helping them see how well their ads steered people to their stores and restaurants.

While the Placed deal improved Foursquare’s ability to gauge the effectiveness of ads by measuring foot traffic, the merger with Factual will build on its ad-targeting capabilities, executives said.

Factual’s location software helps marketers home in on customer segments, for instance, people who have visited certain car dealerships in the last 30 days. Factual or Foursquare’s data is already integrated into the digital advertising platforms of companies that include Oracle Corp., Roku Inc. and The Trade Desk Inc.

“Location data has tremendous power because of intent,” said Factual founder Gil Elbaz.

Foursquare already allows advertisers to target different audience groups, but Factual’s underlying data set is better, said Foursquare Chief Executive David Shim, who will continue in the role after the deal closes.

“When it comes to audience segments, Factual is No. 1; we’re not No. 1,” Mr. Shim said. “Foursquare is No. 1 when it comes to attribution and ad effectiveness, when it comes to app developer tools.”

Foursquare, which is based in New York, and Factual, based in Los Angeles, together generated more than $150m in revenue last year, executives said. The combined company will operate as Foursquare Labs Inc.


When you let random apps have your location data, you’re basically giving them money. Lots of money, over time.
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AI can’t predict how a child’s life will turn out even with a ton of data • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:


Three sociologists at Princeton University asked hundreds of researchers to predict six life outcomes for children, parents, and households using nearly 13,000 data points on over 4,000 families. None of the researchers got even close to a reasonable level of accuracy, regardless of whether they used simple statistics or cutting-edge machine learning.

“The study really highlights this idea that at the end of the day, machine-learning tools are not magic,” says Alice Xiang, the head of fairness and accountability research at the nonprofit Partnership on AI.

The researchers used data from a 15-year-long sociology study called the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, led by Sara McLanahan, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton and one of the lead authors of the new paper. The original study sought to understand how the lives of children born to unmarried parents might turn out over time. Families were randomly selected from children born in hospitals in large US cities during the year 2000. They were followed up for data collection when the children were 1, 3, 5, 9, and 15 years old.

McLanahan and her colleagues Matthew Salganik and Ian Lundberg then designed a challenge to crowdsource predictions on six outcomes in the final phase that they deemed sociologically important. These included the children’s grade point average at school; their level of “grit,” or self-reported perseverance in school; and the overall level of poverty in their household. Challenge participants from various universities were given only part of the data to train their algorithms, while the organizers held some back for final evaluations. Over the course of five months, hundreds of researchers, including computer scientists, statisticians, and computational sociologists, then submitted their best techniques for prediction.

The fact that no submission was able to achieve high accuracy on any of the outcomes confirmed that the results weren’t a fluke.


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Quit trying to make Quibi happen • Engadget

Devindra Hardawar:


Nobody asked for Quibi. Nobody, that is, except for Jeffrey Katzenberg, the founder of Dreamworks Pictures and famed Hollywood producer. Where other mobile video startups failed, like Samsung’s long-forgotten Milk Video and Verizon’s own Go90 (RIP), Katzenberg figured he could succeed by pouring money (somehow he’s raised $1.75 billion so far!) into top talent and well produced shows. At CES in January, Quibi also revealed its core innovation, Turnstyle, which allows you to seamlessly switch between portrait and landscape video playback modes. 

I was intrigued by that technology at the time. The company’s chief product officer, Tom Conrad, the former CTO of Pandora and Snapchat product VP, also seemed excited about its potential. Still, it was hard to truly judge Quibi until I got a look at some of its shows. And after spending a few days with the app, which launches today, I can’t say I’m impressed. Sure, Katzenberg and crew managed to bring some professional-looking “quick bites” of entertainment to phones, but the shows I’ve seen aren’t nearly as compelling as anything on Netflix or Hulu. And their slick production values makes it harder to connect with Quibi shows than your favorite YouTube personality. 

Why, exactly, would anyone want to pay $5 a month (it’s also launching with a 90-day free trial) for this stuff – especially when you still have to deal with ads and can’t even watch it on other screens? Quibi CEO Meg Whitman had an answer for me at CES, though it’s not entirely convincing: “We think we’re a third category of this on-the-go viewing opportunity that people will make room for in their entertainment budget, because it’s going to be great content for a mobile use-case.”


Looks really smart now, launching an app for commuters at a time when nobody’s commuting.
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British government starts pushing social distancing via in-game ads • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:


As governments around the world urge their citizens to “Stay at home, save lives,” the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is using in-game advertising to get that message in front of a younger audience of video game players.

The messaging is already appearing through in-game banners in Codemasters’ Dirt Rally 2.0, which will be offered as a free PlayStation Plus title this month. Rebellion titles like Sniper Elite and Strange Brigade, meanwhile, will display the message before the start of each game. And King’s Candy Crush Saga will insert the PSA amid the usual interstitial advertising for millions of free-to-play players.

“At Codemasters we came to realize that technology within our games, which enables the remote updating of banners within the virtual environment, could be repurposed to assist with the coronavirus communication effort,” Codemasters VP of Business Development Toby Evan-Jones said in a statement. “It’s fantastic to see conversations already being sparked amongst our community.”


I’d have thought that the sort of people who are both playing games *and* noticing the ads in them are probably the least in need of any advice to stay home, but I guess every little helps.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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