Start Up No.1323: Facebook’s unmet Oversight board, Zuck transcribed, Beeb makes its own Alex(a), Snapchat downgrades Trump, and more

Coronavirus! But hydroxychloroquine won’t help fight it, according to a new study. CC-licensed photo by 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 Oversight Board won’t review Trump’s ‘shooting starts’ posts • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:


Facebook’s Oversight Board, an independent body that can overturn the company’s own content moderation decisions, announced on Wednesday that it will not review a controversial post from President Donald Trump that the company has refused to take down or moderate. 

“How Facebook treats posts from public figures that may violate their community standards are within the scope of the Board, and are the type of highly challenging cases that the Board expects to consider when we begin operating in the coming months,” the board said in the blog post

Trump’s post, which was published last week, addressed riots in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, saying that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

…Explaining its decision not to review the post, the Facebook Oversight Board said that posts like Trump’s fit the scope of the type of content that it will review, but the board is not yet operational and cannot review any cases at this time, according to a blog post.

“As an institution that announced our first members less than a month ago, and which will not be operational until later this year, we are not in an immediate position to make decisions on issues like those we see unfolding today,” the blog post said.


This is incredible. Are they not able to use Zoom? Skype? Telephones? Anything? What the hell are they waiting for – printed stationery? Personalised hoodies? Those who thought this Board would be no use at all already get some ammunition.
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Zuckerberg faces his critics • Revue

Casey Newton rounds up the key points from the internal Facebook call; these are near the end:


There is a red line Trump can’t cross, and Facebook already enforced it. Yesterday I wrote here that much employee frustration can be traced to concerns that there’s nothing Trump could do that would prompt Facebook to remove one of his posts. Zuckerberg noted for employees today that Facebook actually did remove Trump ads in March that misled users into thinking that a campaign survey was actually the US Census. That said, it’s generally much less controversial to remove an ad than a regular post — so far as I can tell, Trump never even commented about the ad situation.

Zuckerberg is worried that free speech will only ever ratchet down, and that we’ll regret it someday. “Over time, in general we tend to add more policies to restrict things more and more,” he said. “If every time there’s something that’s controversial your instinct is, okay let’s restrict a lot, then you do end up restricting a lot of things that I think will be eventually good for everyone.”

Employees I spoke with did not seem particularly moved by these answers. “Everyone’s grateful we have a chance to address these things directly with him,” one told me. “At the same time, no one thinks he gave a single real answer.” Another said Zuckerberg appeared “really scared” on the call. “I think he fears his employees turning on him,” the employee said. “At least that’s what I got from facial expressions and tone.”

At the same time, another employee told me that Zuckerberg’s decision was supported by the majority of the company, but that people who agreed with it were afraid to speak out for fear of appearing insensitive. (An employee who spoke on the call echoed this point.)


You can read the full transcript. I do wonder who, precisely, he consulted with, and who advised against action.
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‘Hey Beeb’: new BBC digital assistant gets northern male accent • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:


The BBC has given its new digital assistant a male voice to avoid the “problematic associations” of female-voiced rivals such as Amazon’s Alexa, which have faced criticism for reinforcing gender stereotypes.

The voice-activated service, named “Beeb”, will have a limited public release this week and the corporation said it put extra thought into what accent would make it distinct from other US-developed services.

As a result people who wake up the voice assistant by saying “Hey Beeb” will be greeted with a “warm and friendly” accent from the north of England, guiding them towards BBC programmes and offering localised news and weather reports.

Andy Webb, who is leading the BBC’s development of its voice technology, said this “reflected the diversity of the audience in the UK” and as a result it did not have the “sterile feel” or “problematic associations” of other assistants.

A Unesco report last year claimed that the often submissive and flirty responses offered by female-voiced digital assistants to many queries – including abusive ones – reinforced ideas of women as subservient.

Grace Boswood, the chief operating officer of the BBC’s design and engineering department, said a key reason for undertaking the project was to defend against encroachment from US tech companies and to maintain a direct relationship with licence-fee payers.

“It gives us a strategic edge if Amazon decide not to play fair in terms of how people access the content,” she said, suggesting the BBC had an 18-month window of opportunity to establish a viable voice assistant before habits were locked down.


The BBC, thinking strategically.
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Snap will stop promoting Trump’s account after concluding his tweets incited violence • The Verge

Casey Newton:


President Trump’s verified Snapchat account will no longer be promoted within the app after executives concluded that his tweets over the weekend promoted violence, the company said today. His account, RealDonaldTrump, will remain on the platform and continue to appear on search results. But he will no longer appear in the app’s Discover tab, which promotes news publishers, elected officials, celebrities, and influencers.

“We are not currently promoting the president’s content on Snapchat’s Discover platform,” the company said in a statement. “We will not amplify voices who incite racial violence and injustice by giving them free promotion on Discover. Racial violence and injustice have no place in our society and we stand together with all who seek peace, love, equality, and justice in America.”


Reasonable. The question is about amplification.
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Study: Hydroxychloroquine doesn’t prevent Covid-19 infection if exposed • Statnews



he malaria drug hydroxychloroquine did not help prevent people who had been exposed to others with Covid-19 from developing the disease, according to the results of an eagerly awaited study that will be published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Despite a lack of evidence, many people began taking the medicine to try to prevent infection early in the Covid-19 pandemic, following anecdotal reports it could be effective and claims by President Trump and conservative commentators. Trump, too, said he took hydroxychloroquine to prevent infection.

But the new study, the first double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial of hydroxychloroquine, found otherwise.

“I think in the setting of post-exposure prophylaxis, it doesn’t seem to work,” said Sarah Lofgren, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who is a co-author of the study.

Other studies of hydroxychloroquine are ongoing. Also Wednesday, the World Health Organization said it is resuming a clinical trial testing hydroxychloroquine as a treatment after pausing it over safety concerns.


Ah yes, let’s just go over to something about that clinical trial that was paused…
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Governments and WHO changed Covid-19 policy based on suspect data from tiny US company • The Guardian

Melissa Davey and Sarah Boseley:


A Guardian investigation can reveal the US-based company Surgisphere, whose handful of employees appear to include a science fiction writer and an adult-content model, has provided data for multiple studies on Covid-19 co-authored by its chief executive, but has so far failed to adequately explain its data or methodology.

Data it claims to have legitimately obtained from more than a thousand hospitals worldwide formed the basis of scientific articles that have led to changes in Covid-19 treatment policies in Latin American countries. It was also behind a decision by the WHO and research institutes around the world to halt trials of the controversial drug hydroxychloroquine. On Wednesday, the WHO announced those trials would now resume.

Two of the world’s leading medical journals – the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – published studies based on Surgisphere data. The studies were co-authored by the firm’s chief executive, Sapan Desai.

Late on Tuesday, after being approached by the Guardian, the Lancet released an “expression of concern” about its published study. The New England Journal of Medicine has also issued a similar notice.

An independent audit of the provenance and validity of the data has now been commissioned by the authors not affiliated with Surgisphere because of “concerns that have been raised about the reliability of the database”.


This story is wild, wild, wild. Guardian Australia smelt a rat when the Surgisphere data showed more deaths in Australia than had actually happened. Warren Buffett’s quip about who’s been swimming naked being revealed when the tide goes out applies in spades here: I’ve seen a suggestion that Surgisphere’s data is totally made up (await rebuttal). Every paper that ever relied on its data will now be suspect. It’s also hard to see how Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, comes through unscathed.
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Trump’s executive order targeting social media draws a lawsuit • The Washington Post

Tony Romm:


In its lawsuit, the CDT said the White House had run afoul of the First Amendment, which “prohibits government officials from using government power to retaliate against an individual or entity for engaging in protected speech.” Even though Trump’s order has not taken full effect, the CDT said the mere existence of the policy could “chill” speech, undermining efforts by Facebook, Google and Twitter to ensure that their platforms are used responsibly during the presidential race.

“We see the executive order as very clear retaliation that’s designed to deter social media companies from fighting misinformation and voter suppression,” said Alexandra Givens, the leader of the CDT. The group filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, asking it to invalidate the whole of the order.

Facebook and Google declined to comment. Twitter praised the lawsuit in an unsigned tweet, while blasting the president’s order as “reactionary and politicized.” All three companies have given money to the CDT in the past, the group’s public statements indicate.


The text of the CDT suit is pretty clear about what its objection is. Again, there isn’t a snowball in hell’s chance of this EO passing court muster.
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One Twitter account is reposting everything Trump tweets. It was suspended within three days • Mashable

Amanda Yeo:


“This account will tweet what the President tweets,” Twitter account SuspendThePres posted on May 29. “Let’s see if it gets suspended for violating twitters [terms of service].”

Approximately 68 hours later, SuspendThePres was temporarily suspended for violating Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence. Twitter officially refers to this state as being “locked” or “temporarily unavailable.”

SuspendThePres began directly copying and reposting U.S. president Donald Trump’s tweets on May 29. Run by a user who also tweets as BizzareLazar, the experiment was prompted by Trump’s recent executive order calling for social media companies’ protections to be reconsidered. Trump issued the order after Twitter applied a fact-check label to two of his tweets.

“I wanted to see for myself if he was indeed violating [Twitter’s terms of service],” said SuspendThePres, speaking to Mashable via DM. They declined to give their real name, given current events and the nature of the experiment, but stated they are a U.S. citizen.

“Figured what better way to test out the hypothesis than to see if they suspended me for the exact same language.”

The tweet that triggered SuspendThePres’ suspension was an exact copy of Trump’s now infamous “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet from May 28, which threatened violence against citizens protesting police brutality. It was the first tweet SuspendThePres copied.


The account’s back on air now, but that’s a very clever experiment.
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Dear Facebook employees, from a former Facebook employee • Medium

Barry Schnitt:


In the four years I worked at Facebook [2008-2012], a lot of precedents were set that are still playing out today. Some of them made sense for the 2008 world but don’t make sense now. In 2008, the professional arbiters of truth–the press–were much stronger both in terms of resources and distribution. In 2008, Facebook’s reach was growing but it only touched a small percentage of the population. In 2008, people used Facebook more to keep up with friends than as a news or information source. Today, all of that has changed dramatically.

Newsrooms have been decimated and the press’ overall distribution has been similarly reduced. Meanwhile, Facebook has become a primary source of news and information for billions of people. In short, when we decided that Facebook would take a hand’s off approach to content, the world didn’t need Facebook to fact check or contextualize information. The world needs it now desperately.
I still believe that Facebook does more good than harm. There has been no better example than the emotional support for the current health crisis. The value of connection with family and friends during this time is incalculable. However, just doing more good than harm is not enough.

If you think of Facebook as the place where people get their information, it’s like the one grocery store in a town. Everyone shops there and its shelves are mostly filled with food that is nutritious, fun, entertaining, engaging, etc… However, sprinkled through the shelves are foods that look like regular stuff but are actually poison. I’m not talking about junk food with frivolous or empty calories. I’m talking about food that literally poisons one’s mind, turning him or her against science, facts, and other people. If that’s your mindset, what resources would you leave on the table to find the poison? Are there any risks you would not take? At the very least, you would not hesitate to put warning labels on the poison.

…The only way the stakes could be higher is if we were on the brink of a world war. Thankfully, we are not. However, I encourage you to ask yourself where a concerted and systematic undermining of science and truth and rampant divisiveness ends if it is left unchecked? A lasting peace? I doubt it.


Before Facebook, Schnitt worked in the PR department for Google, and after it he worked until 2018 at Pinterest, since which he’s been an independent. It’s a pretty damning piece.
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Downing Street plans new 5G club of democracies • The Times

Lucy Fisher:


Britain is seeking to forge an alliance of ten democracies to create alternative suppliers of 5G equipment and other technologies to avoid relying on China.

New concerns about Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant, have increased the urgency of the plan after security officials began a review into its involvement in the mobile network upgrade.

The government has approached Washington about a “D10” club of democratic partners, based on the G7 plus Australia, South Korea and India. One option would see the club channel investment to technology companies based within its member states. Nokia and Ericsson are the only European suppliers of 5G infrastructure and experts say that they cannot provide 5G kit as quickly or as cheaply as Huawei.

A Whitehall source said: “We need new entrants to the market. That was the reason we ended up having to go along with Huawei at the time.”

Britain has maintained that three suppliers are essential in 5G infrastructure, which meant Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson won approval. Britain has labelled a Huawei a “high-risk” vendor, however. When Boris Johnson approved its involvement in 5G early this year, he set a 35% market cap and banned its participation in the sensitive “core” of the network.

The review into Huawei, launched last week by the National Cyber Security Centre, followed the announcement of US sanctions to block the sale of American chips to the company. UK security officials fear that the ban will prompt China to use cheaper, less secure technologies, instead of verified US versions. Officials are examining proposals to curb the installation of Huawei kit in the 5G network from 2023. Ministers believe, however, that it would take longer to remove the company’s existing equipment.


So basically this is going to be super-state funding and guaranteed contracts for Nokia and Ericsson. They’re hardly going to turn that down.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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