Start Up No.1318: Facebook defends on polarisation, Australia’s irrelevant tracking app, judges back social media on speech ban, and more


The pandemic is making days melt together. Which isn’t good. CC-licensed photo by Mike Hyde on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Fact-checking. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A Monday is a Tuesday is a Sunday as COVID-19 disrupts internal clocks • Scientific American

Jackie Rocheleau:

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people seem to be experiencing time more slowly, according to data that are beginning to be compiled. In a not yet peer-reviewed preprint paper, Sylvie Droit-Volet, a time perception researcher at the University of Clermont Auvergne in France, and her colleagues show that people there report the clock moving more slowly during the lockdown. The researchers also document feelings of sadness and boredom and tie them to the overall feeling of deceleration.

“Their findings directly support the emotional connection with time perception,” says Philip Gable of the University of Alabama. He is also using survey data to examine how people across the U.S. experience time during the pandemic. “It’s a societal event that’s going to have a profound psychological influence on us,” Gable says, adding that the temporal shift is an integral part of our feelings about what is happening. He plans to collect data over the next nine months, but so far has found evidence that the everyday tempo now lags. Nearly 50% of people experienced time dragging during March, whereas about 24% perceived it to be speeding up.

For some individuals in quarantine, time stretches but also compresses. Jennifer Peirson, a school counselor in New Jersey who now works from home, perceives she is caught in a time warp. “The days feel much longer,” she says. “But when you get to a holiday, it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed.”

These perceptions may be attributed to a tug-of-war between two concepts: retrospective and prospective time. Dan Zakay, a professor at the Baruch Ivcher School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, explains that retrospective time perception evokes the recollection of past events and how long they lasted. Prospective time involves judging the duration of an event at the present moment.

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I definitely felt like this on March the 54th.
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Jonathan Haidt on the pandemic and America’s polarization • The Atlantic

Peter Wehner:

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Around 2008, Haidt [who is the professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business] became increasingly concerned by how politically polarized America was becoming, and polarization has only worsened over the past dozen years. “I’ve gotten more and more alarmed every year since then,” he told me, “and there are several trends that are very disturbing,” including the rise of “affective polarization,” or the mutual dislike and hate each political side feels for the other. “When there’s so much hatred, a democracy can’t work right,” he said. “You can’t get compromise. You get exactly the situation that the Founders feared, that [James] Madison wrote about in ‘Federalist 10,’ which is faction, which is people care more about defeating the other side than they do about the common good.”

For some time now, Haidt has been saying that if current trends continue, the United States may somehow come apart—but he always adds that trends never continue forever. Things change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; you can’t just extrapolate from the present. “When the COVID-19 crisis hit, at first I was very optimistic that no matter how bad things get, there’s a real chance this could throw us off of the downward trajectory we were on,” he said. “There’s a real chance that this could be the reset button. So that’s the framework that I bring to all of my thinking about the implications of this crisis for the country, that we were headed in a very bad direction and a lot is going to change. And so I am more hopeful now than I was before—but that isn’t saying much.”

…But Haidt pointed out that several surveys, including one in April by More in Common, show that the pandemic is having the sort of unifying effect that major crises tend to have. Feelings toward Donald Trump are almost perfectly polarized, as one would expect. But on other important questions, there’s not that much polarization. For example, 90% of Americans believe that “we’re all in it together,” compared to just 63% in the fall of 2018. The share of Americans who describe the country as “unified” has grown from 4% in 2018 to 32% today, while the percentage of Americans who regard the country as “very divided” has dropped from 62% to just 22%.

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Investments to fight polarization • About Facebook

Guy Rosen is VP of Integrity at Facebook:

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Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published a story claiming that Facebook “shut down efforts to make the site less divisive” and “largely shelved” internal research on whether social media increases polarization. Unfortunately, this particular story wilfully ignored critical facts that undermined its narrative.

The piece uses a couple of isolated initiatives we decided against as evidence that we don’t care about the underlying issues — and it ignored the significant efforts we did make. The piece disregarded how our research, and research we continue to commission, informed dozens of other changes and new products. It also ignored other measures we’ve taken to fight polarization. As a result, readers were left with the impression we are ignoring an issue that in fact we have invested heavily in.

Here are just some of the initiatives we’ve made over the past three years to address factors that can contribute to polarization…

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Specifically, “recalibrating the News Feed” (to prioritise stuff from friends and family), building a bigger “integrity team”, and restricting how it recommends people to join groups. There’s more too, but none of it quite feels like a rebuttal of the WSJ story: that Facebook realised its algorithms were encouraging division, that they realised that reducing that would penalise right-wing voices in particular (because they were overwhelmingly the divisive ones), and that they decided not to act.

Facebook is quoted in the original WSJ story. The quote is a short version of Rosen’s post. So my fact-check on “wilfully ignored critical facts” comes back as: not true. Maybe there should be a warning on the post.
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How did [Australia’s] Covidsafe app go from being vital to almost irrelevant? • The Guardian

Josh Taylor:

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It was sold as the key to unlocking restrictions – like sunscreen to protect Australians from Covid-19 – but as the country begins to open up, the role of the Covidsafe app in the recovery seems to have dropped to marginal at best.

“This is an important protection for a Covid-safe Australia,” the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said in late April. “I would liken it to the fact that if you want to go outside when the sun is shining, you have got to put sunscreen on.”

“This is the same thing … If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads when it comes to the Covidsafe app … This is the ticket to ensuring that we can have eased restrictions.”

The health minister, Greg Hunt, tweeted that it was the key to being allowed to go back to watching football.

Yet nearly a month since launch, the contact tracing app has barely been used – just one person has been reported to have been identified using data from it.

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About six million Australians have the app, which is about 32% of the population – well short of the 40% that the government wanted to have. Downloads have just about stopped.
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Why you shouldn’t make a habit of force-quitting iOS apps or restarting iOS devices • TidBITS

Adam Engst:

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I once sat next to a guy on an airplane who would open an app like Messages, look at it briefly, and then force-quit it as soon as he was done reading the message. (Having to watch this nervous tic behavior for the first 20 minutes of the flight drove me batty, so I asked him if he would be interested in a tip that would improve his iPhone’s battery life and performance. Happily, he was.) I’ve even heard of people shutting down their iPads at the end of the day, much as they might have shut off a Macintosh SE/30 in 1990.

…once she learned in a TidBITS Talk discussion that force-quitting apps was a bad idea, reader Kimberly Andrew found that her iPad lasted 4 days on a single charge instead of requiring nightly recharging. Your experience may not be so dramatic, but if you let iOS manage your device’s resources, you’ll get the best possible battery life for your usage patterns.

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Force-quit is OK if an app is really blocked, but in general leave them the hell alone. (I can’t find anything authoritative about whether this is also true on Android, which is a lot more generous than iOS about letting background apps keep running.)
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YouTube fixes error that deleted comments critical of the Chinese Communist Party • The Verge

James Vincent:

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YouTube says it’s begun fixing an error in its moderation system that caused comments containing certain Chinese-language phrases critical of China’s Communist Party (CCP) to be automatically deleted.

The issue meant that comments containing the phrases “共匪” (“communist bandit”) and “五毛” (“50-cent party”) were removed from the site in a matter of seconds. The former phrase is an insult dating back to China’s Nationalist government, while the latter is derogatory slang for internet users paid to defend the CCP from criticism online. It originates from the claim that these users are paid 50 Chinese cents per post.

YouTube told The Verge that the issue that caused comments containing these phrases to be deleted had been fixed for a number of these terms, but that it was still investigating the deeper causes of the error — suggesting other terms may still be affected. In The Verge’s tests, comments containing the two phrases above are no longer deleted from the platform.

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At Stratechery, Ben Thompson suggests an organised bombardment from China “reporting” such comments as bad persuaded the comment-deleting machine learning those characters must be a Bad Word. That makes more sense than my “malicious insider” hypothesis; far simpler. Wonder if YouTube will now get its systems to report to the humans what things it newly thinks are Bad Words, to spot attacks like this?
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Trump’s latest display isn’t just deranged. It’s also an abuse of power • The Washington Post

Greg Sargent:

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Now let’s also note that Twitter’s fact-checking also shared information with voters that could actually inform them about vote-by-mail, thus potentially giving them additional options to vote amid a pandemic.

Trump and his campaign are quite literally claiming the right to lie to the American people about potentially lifesaving voting options during a pandemic — entirely free of accountability. They are explicitly declaring that any effort to correct those lies will be cast as an affront to the free speech of conservatives.

And Trump is now intimating other forms of state action [saying he “will not allow it to happen”].

It might be argued that Trump won’t actually be able to take such concrete retributive action. But as Jonathan Chait points out, Trump has already threatened the parent companies of media organizations and has already taken concrete actions against the owner of The Post.

The key point here is that, even if these threats do not end up coming to fruition, the threats themselves constitute a serious abuse of power.

The threat of conservative rage via fake claims of “bias” and the threat of state action as retribution are two sides of the same coin: The latter constitutes a deeply corrupt wielding of institutional power in and of itself, and it’s also critical to helping mobilize the former. Such a threat is not somehow rendered meaningless if Trump cannot find a way to follow through.

And this surely works, at least to some degree. This is obvious when you consider how mild and tentative Twitter’s corrective efforts have been. The tweets spreading Trump’s lies about voter fraud remain posted, and he has already posted more such lies that do not yet have any such corrective appended.

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Trump’s tweets should have a label saying “not yet fact-checked” until they are. Twitter isn’t censoring; it’s enhancing. Quite how this is going to play out is hard to predict. Will Twitter be cowed? Trump is big on threats, small on followthrough. The two extreme endpoints are: Twitter shuts; alternate, Trump gets booted off Twitter (or leaves it). Where on that scale are we going to finish by November? (We’ll deal with the illegal “Executive Order” threat tomorrow when a little of the dust has died down.)
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Judges toss lawsuit alleging anti-conservative bias on social media • Engadget

Marc DeAngelis:

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In 2018, the nonprofit organization Freedom Watch and a conservative YouTuber named Laura Loomer tried to sue social media companies. They alleged that Twitter, Facebook and Google – which owns YouTube – broke antitrust laws and violated their First Amendment rights by conspiring to suppress conservative viewpoints. Their case was dropped last year, but they appealed the decision. According to Bloomberg, a federal appeals court today affirmed the decision to drop the suit, leaving the tech companies in the clear.

Bloomberg reports that the court agreed with the previous ruling and found that the First Amendment typically “prohibits only governmental abridgment of speech.” In other words, social media users shouldn’t expect to be able to say anything they want on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – all of which are private businesses with their own rules and regulations. Furthermore, the conservative group and Loomer didn’t provide substantial evidence of an antitrust violation.

…two of the three judges overseeing this appeal were appointed by Republican presidents, and the judge who originally dismissed the case was appointed by Donald Trump himself.

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Very good of the judges to come up with this verdict at precisely this juncture.
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China rules out animal market and lab as coronavirus origin • WSJ

James Areddy:

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The director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of allegations around a potential laboratory accident, Wang Yanyi, over the weekend told China Central Television that the coronavirus was significantly different from any live pathogen that has been studied at the institute and that there therefore was no chance it could have leaked from there.

Separately, China’s top epidemiologist said Tuesday that testing of samples from a Wuhan food market, initially suspected as a path for the virus’s spread to humans, failed to show links between animals being sold there and the pathogen. Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in comments carried in Chinese state media, “It now turns out that the market is one of the victims.”

…The comments from the Chinese scientists together target theories that originated in alternative media before being trumpeted by U.S. politicians that a problem at the lab could have leaked the virus into the city, and that its proximity to the market could have played a role in the spread.

“This is pure fabrication,” Dr. Wang said in the broadcast interview.

…While the lab has said all along that the virus causing Covid-19 wasn’t in its catalog of pathogens, Dr. Wang’s comments in this weekend’s interview are notable for stating that none of the three strains of live virus handled by the institute are genetically close to the coronavirus at the heart of the pandemic. Further, she said that Dr. Shi had no actual live sample of a coronavirus she discovered in 2013 in a bat, which her team this year found to be a 96% match to the pathogen behind today’s pandemic.

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So it’s less clearcut than it seemed. (I’m still going for pangolin delivery drivers.)
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Remaking the country • Scripting News

Dave Winer, the ur-blogger, on America’s predicament:

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We’re the country that went to war without a draft, whose citizens got tax cuts while at war, whose citizens expect more of that, to us it’s never enough. We expect to be able to inflict chaos around the world and somehow never to be touched by it ourselves. That’s why people are out partying with abandon this weekend. They can’t imagine they can pay a price. There’s a reason Vietnam is responding to the virus so incredibly well and we’re responding so poorly. They remember fighting for their independence. To us, independence is a birth right. A distant memory that’s become perverted. We have to fight for it again. The virus is giving us that chance. We can’t get out of the pandemic until we grow up as individuals and collectively. Trump is the right president for who we are. We won’t get a better one until we deserve a better one.

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One could point out that Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million or so, and that only a quirk of the electoral college (which, when it’s quirky, keeps quirking in favour of Republican presidential candidates) put him in office. But Winer has a point, which also finds some echoes in Ezra Klein’s article that I linked to a month ago, which is that America’s institutions “have become biased against action rather than toward it.” (Via John Naughton’s Memex 1.1)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1318: Facebook defends on polarisation, Australia’s irrelevant tracking app, judges back social media on speech ban, and more

  1. Also sort of goes back to personal responsibility, overlooking that it’s society’s interest to keep up the social distancing (i.e. In Maryland Gov Hogan says it’s the counties, the county leadership says it’s the town’s, the mayor of the town’s say it’s up to each individual, and they wonder why we have 100,000 dead?)

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