Start Up No.1308: Facebook’s AI beating hate speech, let’s make words!, Schmidt finally exits Google, media squeeze worsens, and more


Want one? Don’t trust the adverts on Facebook that shouldn’t be there anyway. CC-licensed photo by ~jar{} on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook banned mask ads, but it was still profiting from them • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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George Michailow was browsing Facebook on April 1 when he saw an ad for a forbidden product — a face mask.

Three weeks earlier, Facebook had banned ads for masks, over price gouging and first responder shortages. But when Michailow saw the video ad for the “MediCare Reusable Surgical Mask,” it seemed legit — and he was desperate.

“I’d been asked to get some masks for senior members of my church and I saw an opportunity to get them,” Michailow, the volunteer treasurer of his Virginia Beach church, told BuzzFeed News.

He bought 10 for $227.90.

An hour later, he was shown another Facebook video ad for masks. “They looked like better-quality masks,” he said, so Michailow bought three “AeroShield N95 Masks” for $118.95.

None of the masks, from either order, ever arrived. And contrary to what he thought, he didn’t buy from two separate US companies. Instead, PayPal receipts show the purchases came from the same entity: ZestAds, a company registered in Hong Kong with headquarters in Malaysia.

Founded in 2015, ZestAds sources cheap electronics, clothing, and household products from China to sell around the globe using slick and at times misleading Facebook ads. On its website, ZestAds claims to be one of the top e-commerce companies in Asia.

Since March, the company has made a mockery of Facebook’s ban by running ads that dangerously claimed its masks would “fully protect” from the virus, cited a fake expert, and falsely listed US companies as behind the ads.

Facebook’s inability to enforce its mask ad ban is a symptom of the company’s larger failure to police the scammers and shady e-commerce operators who use its powerful ad targeting tools to rip off people at scale.

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Facebook’s AI for hate speech improves; how much is unclear • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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In a call with reporters, Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer touted advances in the company’s machine learning technology that parses language. “Our language models have gotten bigger and more accurate and nuanced,” he said. “They’re able to catch things that are less obvious.”

Schroepfer wouldn’t specify how accurate those systems now are, saying only that Facebook tests systems extensively before they are deployed, in part so that they do not incorrectly penalize innocent content.

He cited figures in the new report showing that although users had appealed decisions to take down content for hate speech more often in the most recent quarter—1.3 million times—fewer posts were subsequently restored. Facebook also said Tuesday it had altered its appeals process in late March, reducing the number of appeals logged, because Covid-19 restrictions shut some moderation offices.

Facebook’s figures do not indicate how much hate speech slips through its algorithmic net. The company’s quarterly reports estimate the incidence of some types of content banned under Facebook’s rules, but not hate speech. Tuesday’s release shows violent posts declining since last summer. The hate speech section says Facebook is “still developing a global metric.”

The missing numbers shroud the true size of the social networks’s hate speech problem. Caitlin Carlson, an associate professor at Seattle University, says the 9.6 million posts removed for hate speech look suspiciously small compared with Facebook’s huge network of users, and users’ observations of troubling content. “It’s not hard to find,” Carlson says.

Carlson published results in January from an experiment in which she and a colleague collected more than 300 Facebook posts that appeared to violate the platform’s hate speech rules and reported them via the service’s tools. Only about half of the posts were ultimately removed; the company’s moderators appeared more rigorous in enforcing cases of racial and ethnic slurs than misogyny.

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Facebook’s numbers around hate speech (and fake users) are their equivalent of Jeff Bezos’s graphs – never including enough detail to give you a full picture, but always up and to the right.
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This Word Does Not Exist

Thomas Dimson:

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brunery, n.

1. (chiefly in reference to men) frequenting or taking part in large parties

“there can’t be any more brunery in the world”

2. a word that does not exist; it was invented, defined and used by a machine learning algorithm.

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The work of Thomas Dimson: you can generate your own word. They’re impressive. I do wonder whether you could use them in a book as a mountweazel (that one’s real, but you’ll have to look it up if you don’t know it).
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The Republic of Facebook • Just Security

David Kaye is the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, here considering the new Facebook oversight board:

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What happens when a government complains about a decision of the board? Who wins that fight?

Further, difficult content problems often take place at local levels, in languages and code that may be impenetrable to those outside. Will the board ever have the bandwidth to address the massive impact Facebook will continue to have in communities worldwide? Will the board, in other words, be more like a Band-Aid on a massive wound than an appellate body to solve the crises of online speech?

And as laudable as Facebook’s effort is, it only solves Facebook’s problems of legitimacy. That is, it could help legitimize Facebook decisions but cannot legitimize content-moderation choices by all platforms. Neither can it legitimize practices that many find objectionable, such as the increased use of automation to make decisions about content. If the board’s decisions are rooted in the kinds of human rights standards that individuals around the world cherish, if they genuinely absorb the input of communities worldwide, Facebook’s legitimacy and influence may rise.

But that could come at an expense that other platforms, or platforms yet to be created, cannot afford. These other platforms, which also have massive impact on public speech, remain outside. Over time, an industry-wide process would build trust in content moderation and push them all toward transparency and respect for the public impact they have. It may even be that the Facebook Oversight Board could expand to take on that kind of industry-wide role. If it provides the possibility for small innovators to join at a lower cost, all the better. If it merely locks in the power of those companies that can afford it, it would be a net loss for innovation.

And even then, will the board – Facebook-only or beyond – be enough for governments and for the public worldwide?

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He also has a longer discussion with Mathew Ingram at CJR.
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Eric Schmidt, who led Google’s transformation into a tech giant, has left the company • CNET

Richard Nieva:

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Schmidt’s exit [quietly, in February] marks another stage in Google’s evolution, and comes as Schmidt’s participation in government projects has raised questions about conflicts of interest. Late last year, Page and Brin, who started Google as Stanford University grad students in 1998, handed leadership of Alphabet and its sprawling operations to Sundar Pichai, who had been running the core search business since 2015. David Drummond, the company’s 14-year legal chief, retired in January after scrutiny over past relationships.

As the original management departs, employees and industry observers have questioned whether the world’s largest search engine, with more than 120,000 employees around the globe, can maintain its famously freewheeling culture. In the past three years, tensions between management and employees have mounted over the handling of sexual misconduct allegations directed at top executives, a censored search engine project in China and initiatives around artificial intelligence for the US Department of Defense. 

Schmidt’s role at Google had gradually diminished after he stepped down as CEO in 2011. Still, his ties to the company have spurred blowback as Schmidt increases his work on US military initiatives. He chairs the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group aimed at bringing new technology to the Pentagon, including advancements in machine learning. He’s also chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which advises Congress on AI for defense. Critics, though, worry Schmidt could unfairly push Google’s financial interests when it comes to his work with the military. 

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In other Google news: Google and James Damore, who complained bitterly about its “ideological echo chamber”, have (also quietly) settled their legal fight which had rumbled on since summer 2017. Neither is speaking about it, but if I worked in real estate I’d be wondering if Mr Damore wanted to look around some desirable properties.
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In a first, renewable energy is poised to eclipse coal in U.S. • The New York Times

Brad Plumer:

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the coronavirus outbreak is pushing coal producers into their deepest crisis yet.

As factories, retailers, restaurants and office buildings have shut down nationwide to slow the spread of the coronavirus, demand for electricity has fallen sharply. And, because coal plants often cost more to operate than gas plants or renewables, many utilities are cutting back on coal power first in response.

“The outbreak has put all the pressures facing the coal industry on steroids,” said Jim Thompson, a coal analyst at IHS Markit.

In just the first four and a half months of this year, America’s fleet of wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric dams have produced more electricity than coal on 90 separate days — shattering last year’s record of 38 days for the entire year. On May 1 in Texas, wind power alone supplied nearly three times as much electricity as coal did.

The latest report from the Energy Information Administration estimates that America’s total coal consumption will fall by nearly one-quarter this year, and coal plants are expected to provide just 19% of the nation’s electricity, dropping for the first time below both nuclear power and renewable power, a category that includes wind, solar, hydroelectric dams, geothermal and biomass.

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The less of their capacity they use, the more likely they are to shut. And once you close a coal plant, it’s effectively shut forever.
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Wall Street mines Apple and Google mobility data to spot revival • Bloomberg Quint

Ksenia Galouchko:

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To navigate these unprecedented times, market participants are getting creative with how they monitor economic activity.

As some countries relax their lockdowns, investors and strategists are poring over mobility data from Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to track the pace of economic recovery and estimate consumer spending across different regions. Such information can provide early clues on which countries will exit the worst recession in decades faster than others, and which will fall behind.

“Covid-19 is like no other shock and so most investors are discounting the traditional indicators,” John Roe, head of multi-asset funds at Legal & General Investment Management, said by email, referring to data such as unemployment and retail sales that are reported with a lengthy lag. “Instead it’s all about the shape of the recovery and so we’re tracking a number of innovative data sources that we believe will be more real time.”

LGIM’s asset allocation team takes Apple users’ requests for travel directions and adjusts them for weekly seasonality before projecting the data onto estimates for gross domestic product. So far, their analysis shows that the U.S. economy is holding up better than other regions and is gradually reopening, while there are signs of improvement in southern Europe as countries like Italy relax their movement restrictions.

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But of course when Apple and Google published this data it was going to be used to try to make money. Of course. I almost kicked myself when I saw this story because, well, of course that’s what they’d do.
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BuzzFeed pulls plug on UK and Australian news operations • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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The company, which had been struggling before the coronavirus pandemic further hammered its lifeblood of advertising revenue, has furloughed its 10 UK news staff and four in Australia as part of the strategic cutback. BuzzFeed launched a local news operation in the UK just over six years ago.

According to sources, those furloughed are “highly unlikely” to return to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed UK will keep staff covering news with a “global audience”, such as its investigations operation and celebrity news coverage, for now at least.

“For economic and strategic reasons, we are going to focus on news that hits big in the United States during this difficult period,” the company said.

“Therefore, we will notify staff in the UK and Australia that we are not planning to cover local news in those countries. We will be consulting with employees on our plans regarding furloughs and stand-downs in these regions.”

The company said that the cuts would also hit its flagship US operation as it looks to hit savings goals while continuing to produce “kinetic, powerful journalism”. “We [want to] reach the savings we need and produce the high-tempo, explosive journalism our readers rely on,” the company said.

BuzzFeed maintained that it was still “investing heavily” in its news operation, with a projection of investing $10m more this year than the division makes, and $6m in 2021.

Launched by Jonah Peretti in 2006, the outlet is among a generation of start-ups, also including Vice and Vox, that took the media world by storm only to run into financial difficulty as the advertising climate collapsed.

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10 writers in the UK: hardly gigantically overstaffed. But with venture funding, how do you make the returns they demand?
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Condé Nast to lay off 100 U.S. staffers • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Condé Nast, the media publisher known for its high-end magazine products like Wired, Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, Glamour, Architectural Digest, Vanity Fair and more, said Wednesday that it plans to lay off 100 U.S. employees and furlough about 100 more.

It’s the latest media company forced to take drastic measures to survive the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Magazine publishers in particular have been hit hard, as their businesses were vulnerable to sweeping changes for years prior to the pandemic.

In a note to staff, CEO Roger Lynch, a former Pandora radio and and Sling TV executive, said, “These decisions are never easy, and not something I ever take lightly. I want to be transparent about the principles and approach we used.”

Lynch said the company tried to identify specific areas where it could “bring down our costs without limiting our growth priorities.”

He said the company is providing severance packages “to help provide a bridge to people’s next roles” as well as job placement resources. The company will cover the full cost of healthcare premiums for furloughed employees.

Lynch also noted that with the job cuts, there will also be a handful of people with reduced work schedules.

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My Twitter feed has been filled with laid-off staffers from Wired and Buzzfeed. Magazines and internet companies: the coronavirus meteor doesn’t discriminate.
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Podcaster Luminary seeks fresh cash to buoy struggling business • Bloomberg

Lucas Shaw and Priya Anand:

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Luminary, backed by investors such as Sinai Ventures, NEA and former HBO executive Richard Plepler, previously raised at least $130m to build what it said would be the Netflix of podcasts – a subscription service packed with top-notch, exclusive shows from journalists, TV hosts and celebrities. Its slate of original shows includes Guy Raz’s “Wisdom From the Top” and “The Trevor Noah Podcast.”

But the app has struggled to find an audience since its debut in April 2019. Only about 80,000 people who tried the app have remained paying subscribers, said the people.

Consumers have proven reluctant to pay for a service when so many of the top podcasts are available for free via Apple Inc. and Spotify Technology SA. What’s more, Spotify – the world’s top paid audio service – has bid aggressively for exclusive rights to shows, boosting the costs of many of the podcasts Luminary might have wanted.

Offering the most money in the market was a key part of Luminary’s initial sales pitch to podcast producers.

Luminary was burning through more than $4m a month before the coronavirus outbreak, while generating less than $500,000 in monthly revenue. To manage costs, the company has cut spending on marketing, new shows and staff.

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Amazed there are 80,000 people who would pony up $30/£30 per year. That means it’s only getting $2.4m in annual revenue (minus freebies and trials). That’s barely going to pay for the coffees.

Monetising podcasts is the new Big Idea, though. Fascinating contrast with the experiment by Ben Thompson and John Gruber, who are trying a 15-minutes thrice-weekly one called Dithering, priced at $5/mo or $50/year. Pricier than Luminary and less choice, but their overheads are WAY lower: they’ll never have to go cap-in-hand to venture capitalists.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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