Start Up No.1307: Facebook paying PTSD moderators $52m, Twitter offers some permanent WFH, anatomy of a viral (video) outbreak, and more


Nope nope nope: crowded restaurants pose a huge potential risk for coronavirus spread CC-licensed photo by Kyle Mahan on Flickr.

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

Facebook will pay $52m in settlement with moderators who developed PTSD on the job • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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In a landmark acknowledgment of the toll that content moderation takes on its workforce, Facebook has agreed to pay $52 million to current and former moderators to compensate them for mental health issues developed on the job. In a preliminary settlement filed on Friday in San Mateo Superior Court, the social network agreed to pay damages to American moderators and provide more counseling to them while they work.

Each moderator will receive a minimum of $1,000 and will be eligible for additional compensation if they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or related conditions. The settlement covers 11,250 moderators, and lawyers in the case believe that as many as half of them may be eligible for extra pay related to mental health issues associated with their time working for Facebook, including depression and addiction.

“We are so pleased that Facebook worked with us to create an unprecedented program to help people performing work that was unimaginable even a few years ago,” said Steve Williams, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, in a statement. “The harm that can be suffered from this work is real and severe.”

In September 2018, former Facebook moderator Selena Scola sued Facebook, alleging that she developed PTSD after being placed in a role that required her to regularly view photos and images of rape, murder, and suicide.

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Pocket change for Facebook, but it’s the principle again: it has had to acknowledge the nature of some of the content posted on its site.

And a triumph for journalism: Newton was the journalist who broke this story after finding moderators who would break NDAs to talk about their experiences.
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Twitter will allow some employees to work at home forever • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz:

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey emailed employees on Tuesday telling them that they’d be allowed to work from home permanently, even after the coronavirus pandemic lockdown passes. Some jobs that require physical presence, such as maintaining servers, will still require employees to come in.

“We’ve been very thoughtful in how we’ve approached this from the time we were one of the first companies to move to a work-from-home model,” a Twitter spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “We’ll continue to be, and we’ll continue to put the safety of our people and communities first.”

Twitter encouraged its employees to start working from home in early March as the coronavirus began to spread across the US. Several other tech companies did the same, including Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.

That month, Twitter human resources head Jennifer Christie told BuzzFeed News the company would “never probably be the same” in the structure of its work. “People who were reticent to work remotely will find that they really thrive that way,” Christie said. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”

Dorsey had announced the company’s intent to work in a “distributed” way before the virus, but the pandemic forced the company to move the timeline up.

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I don’t think this will hold; people like being with people. More likely is that the trend will be towards satellite offices, perhaps with managers making scheduled visits. Could bring office and house prices down near some cities, particularly San Francisco.
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How the ‘Plandemic’ video hoax went viral • The Verge

Casey Newton:

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The ground was seeded by a book that Mikovits, the star of “Plandemic,” published last month. Plague of Corruption “frames Dr. Mikovits as a truth-teller fighting deception in science,” Alba writes, and it won approving coverage from far-right outlets including the Epoch Times, Gateway Pundit, and Next News Network.

But it was the “Plandemic” clip that turned Mikovits into a star (she’s gained more than 130,000 Twitter followers in a month.) And the two have benefited each other: searches for Mikovits drove views of “Plandemic,” and viewings of “Plandemic” drove searches for Mikovits.

Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher who specializes in data visualizations, offers some clues. Gallagher used CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool for analyzing public posts, to investigate when “Plandemic” began to surge on the network. She found that posts referencing it appeared most often in Facebook groups devoted to QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation, and conspiracy theories in general.

“The video spread from YouTube to Facebook thanks to highly active QAnon and conspiracy-related Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members which caused a massive cascade,” Gallagher writes. “Both platforms were instrumental in spreading viral medical misinformation.”

YouTube and Facebook both ultimately removed the video, but their responses differed in notable ways.

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Facebook “demotes” content, but that doesn’t kill it, and determined posters will keep stuff going. Which means things like this ping-pong between them, gaining virality. The sort that makes people stupid.
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Face masks against Covid-19: an evidence review[v1] • Preprints

A slew of people, including Zeynep Tufekci (who has advocated this for a long time):

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A primary route of transmission of COVID-19 is likely via small respiratory droplets, and is known to be transmissible from presymptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. Reducing disease spread requires two things: first, limit contacts of infected individuals via physical distancing and contact tracing with appropriate quarantine, and second, reduce the transmission probability per contact by wearing masks in public, among other measures.

The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low.

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Being a preprint, this has comments. And the first comment, oh my, says mask-wearing “impairs our quality of life. We like to feel fresh air on our faces.”

This is then taken apart by many other commenters who point out that you can’t feel the fresh air if you’re dead. The comments aren’t helpful. (Thanks Walt for the link.)
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The coronavirus risks: know them, avoid them • Erin Bromage

Bromage teaches and researches infectious diseases at UMass Dartmouth:

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When you think of outbreak clusters, what are the big ones that come to mind? Most people would say cruise ships. But you would be wrong. Ship outbreaks, while concerning, don’t land in the top 50 outbreaks to date.

Ignoring the terrible outbreaks in nursing homes, we find that the biggest outbreaks are in prisons, religious ceremonies, and workplaces, such as meat packing facilities and call centers. Any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and high density of people, spells trouble.

Some of the biggest super-spreading events are:
• Meat packing: In meat processing plants, densely packed workers must communicate to one another amidst the deafening drum of industrial machinery and a cold-room virus-preserving environment. There are now outbreaks in 115 facilities across 23 states, 5000+ workers infected, with 20 dead.
• Weddings, funerals, birthdays: 10% of early spreading events
• Business networking: Face-to-face business networking like the Biogen Conference in Boston in March.

As we move back to work, or go to a restaurant, let’s look at what can happen in those environments.

Restaurants: Some really great shoe-leather epidemiology demonstrated clearly the effect of a single asymptomatic carrier in a restaurant environment (see below). The infected person (A1) sat at a table and had dinner with 9 friends. Dinner took about 1 to 1.5 hours. During this meal, the asymptomatic carrier released low-levels of virus into the air from their breathing. Airflow (from the restaurant’s various airflow vents) was from right to left. Approximately 50% of the people at the infected person’s table became sick over the next 7 days. 75% of the people on the adjacent downwind table became infected. And even 2 of the 7 people on the upwind table were infected (believed to happen by turbulent airflow).

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Oh well, that’s your evening out spoiled.
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Former Apple engineer: here’s why I trust Apple’s Covid-19 notification proposal • TidBITS

David Shayer worked at Apple for 14 years, and experienced how insistent it was about not including identifying information in data sent back. The notification stuff, fine. But this caught my eye:

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I also wrote iPhone apps for a mid-size technology company that shall remain nameless. You’ve likely heard of it, though, and it has several thousand employees and several billion dollars in revenue. Call it TechCo, in part because its approach to user privacy is unfortunately all too common in the industry. It cared much less about user privacy than Apple.

The app I worked on recorded every user interaction and reported that data back to a central server. Every time you performed some action, the app captured what screen you were on and what button you tapped. There was no attempt to minimize the data being captured, nor to anonymize it. Every record sent back included the user’s IP address, username, real name, language and region, timestamp, iPhone model, and lots more.

Keep in mind that this behavior was in no way malicious. The company’s goal wasn’t to surveil their users. Instead, the marketing department just wanted to know what features were most popular and how they were used. Most important, the marketers wanted to know where people fell out of the “funnel.”

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And then pretty much anyone senior in the company could see everything that any user did, just by logging on. Marketing loved it. The engineers knew it was both a privacy and a security risk. Of course they were ignored.

Oh, the only company on Shayer’s LinkedIn profile that’s large and isn’t Apple is GoDaddy, where he worked from 2016 to 2019. You may think that that must be his mid-sized company. I couldn’t possibly comment.
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The secrets behind the runaway success of Apple’s AirPods • WIRED UK

Jeremy White:

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Compared with, say, the Apple Watch, which took years to gain momentum, AirPods are a much easier, and cheaper, product to market. “Everyone’s using a smartphone, and so therefore headphones,” says Neil Cybart, founder of Apple analyst firm Above Avalon, “whereas the younger demographic is moving away from wristwatches.”

According to [Apple vp of product marketing, Greg] Joswiak, Apple “had a vision for our wireless future for many years” before the first AirPods were unveiled. “We had this incredible wireless product, the iPhone,” he says. “And yet, what began to feel odd is when you saw somebody using wired headphones. Right then you thought, why would you attach the wire?”

One of the more interesting aspects of the AirPods’ development is one of the oldest. In 2009, Apple, eight years after subjecting consumers to its first (rightly maligned) earbuds, finally revealed a much-needed overhaul of its wired headphones, EarPods. Looking to combat the poor fit and sound bleed, the company worked with Stanford University in the US to capture data on ear dimensions. After the EarPods launch, Apple continued to map ears, building a larger data set to create a new, more accurate model that eventually led to the creation of the AirPod Pros, first in simulation then in physical prototype.

“We had done work with Stanford to 3D-scan hundreds of different ears and ear styles and shapes in order to make a design that would work as a one-size solution across a broad set of the population,” Joswiak says. “With AirPods Pro, we took that research further – studied more ears, more ear types. And that enabled us to develop a design that, along with the three different tip sizes, works across an overwhelming percentage of the worldwide population.”

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OK, though I’m struggling to understand why they needed to do all that scanning when cheap headphones have offered different tip sizes for ages. As a reminder, if you were quick you might have got a pair of the original AirPods in December 2016; they were announced in September 2016.
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LG is reportedly developing a dual-screen handset with a swivelling display • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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LG has a new dual-screen phone on the way, with a main display that swivels sideways to reveal a secondary screen underneath, the Korean Herald reports. The phone, which ETNews reports is codenamed “Wing,” will reportedly have a main 6.8-inch display alongside a smaller 4-inch screen with a 1:1 aspect ratio. It’s expected to cost a bit more than the new Velvet phone when it arrives later this year.

This wouldn’t be the first swivel phone that LG has released. Over a decade ago it released several phones using this form-factor, including the LB1500 and LU1400. In addition to their rotating displays, the other major selling point of these “DMB phones” was that they had the hardware to receive digital TV broadcasts. Unsurprisingly the hardware was basic by modern standards. Their main, non-touchscreen displays were tiny, and when they swiveled they tended to reveal a T9 keypad rather than a second screen.

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Seems that LG has decided that it’s not losing quite enough money, even though in the first quarter its revenues were down 34% to US$843m, on which it lost $201m (also worse than the year before). There’s no way this phone will make money: the engineering will be pricey, and the price will limit sales. LG’s phone division has been circling the drain for years now, not making a penny of profit. Wonder if Covid-19 will finally take it off life support.
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Behind the wall • Rest of World

Mara Hvistendahl:

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As the [Chinese] government introduced tighter censorship regulations, and the propaganda machine went into overdrive, that playfulness became a key form of subversion. This spring, some in the Chinese Communist Party attempted to redirect public anger by pushing the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 had been brought to China by the U.S. military. Authorities detained citizen journalists and activists, including three of the people who had been memorializing posts on GitHub.

But a group of activists doubled down on efforts to spread the truth, circulating articles about how the virus originated in Wuhan. To evade censorship this time, they wrote in Morse code and Braille, swapped out the simplified characters used in China with obscure classical script, and rendered text backwards, in an attempt to defeat censorship engines searching for specific character combinations.

One popular target was a deleted profile in the magazine Renwu of Ai Fen, the doctor in Wuhan who had inadvertently tipped off Li Wenliang about the SARS-like cases. “If I had known what was about to happen, I would not have cared about being reprimanded,” Ai had told her interviewer. “I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, wherever I could.” People circulated so many different iterations of the article that the journalist Isabelle Niu called its preservation a sort of “digital performance art project.” In the most imaginative version, someone told the story almost entirely using emojis. “SARS corona ☄️ illness ☠️,” read one sentence.

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Rest Of World is a new publication which aims to look at technology use in the rest of the world. The first set of features are a bit portmanteau – trying to cover the most ground possible rather than a narrow focus. That makes sense in trying to build up a catalog onto which shorter, fresher stories can be layered.

Definitely worth keeping tabs on. And, journalists, they’re hiring (or at least commissioning).
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1307: Facebook paying PTSD moderators $52m, Twitter offers some permanent WFH, anatomy of a viral (video) outbreak, and more

  1. Re: Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review.

    Yeah the case for wearing masks in confined spaces, where you are near people, is self-evident. But I was disappointed that there was no effort in the review to differentiate the value of mask wearing outdoors – as compared to the obvious benefits on public transport / indoors.

    I actually agree to an extent with that first commenter who champions the value of getting out to feel and breath the fresh air – particularly when exercising.

    The virus is not prevalent in fresh air. Yet I see people out for walks on near-deserted streets or cycling along spacious road whilst wearing masks. There is surely no need for this – and if it limits the amount of air you can draw into your lungs when exercising, it’s probably going to reduce the quality of that exercise.

    IMO the only possible benefit to insisting everyone wears a mask at all times when ‘out in public’ is outlined in the review;

    “Another important benefit of recommending universal mask wearing would be to serve as a visible signal and re- minder of the pandemic, and given the importance of ritual and solidarity in human societies (70), it is plausible that visible, public signaling via mask wearing can potentially in- crease compliance with other health measures as well, such as keeping distance and hand-washing.”

    I’m happy that at present the UK and Ireland both seem to be only recommending mask wearing in confined spaces and not at all times ‘out in public’.

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