Start Up No.1325: Facebook and the oligarchy, TikTok code stays in the west, Surgisphere in the spotlight, the last Civil War pensioner, and more

Baton rounds, aka rubber bullets, have risks that the US police don’t seem to have learned CC-licensed photo by Think Defence 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 and the creation of a US oligarch • Financial Times

Rana Foroohar:


Like most large, ubiquitous and systemically important companies that operate globally, Facebook aligns itself with the powers that be. If it wants to stay this big and unregulated, Facebook cannot afford to upset the rulers of countries where it operates, no matter how abhorrent their actions. We saw that in Myanmar, where military personnel used Facebook to help incite the Rohingya massacres. Now we see it in the US, where Facebook refuses to run afoul of a president who just called in troops to tear gas citizens.

It is a kind of oligarchic symbiosis that we haven’t really seen in the US since 1877. That was when then-president Rutherford B. Hayes, who had been helped into office by the railway barons, ordered 1,200 federal troops to Baltimore to put down what he called a labour “insurrection”. It was the first time that federal troops had been turned against American workers, and it transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Railway Strike of 1877.

Mr Zuckerberg says he doesn’t want to be an “arbiter of truth.” But he already is — as nearly three dozen early Facebook employees put it in a recent open letter that called for the company to fact check the president as Twitter does. “Facebook’s behaviour doesn’t match the stated goal of avoiding any political censorship,” they wrote. “It monitors speech all the time when it adds warnings to links, downranks content to reduce its spread, and fact checks political speech from non-politicians.”

So why isn’t Facebook warning its users about the untruths of a president who often seeks to embolden the hatemongers and racists that form a part of his base? Because its goals, to make Croesus-style profits and stay as big as possible, are aligned with Mr Trump’s goal of winning a second term.


Brutal. Zuckerberg’s position is obviously compromised, because in August 2018 Facebook deleted accounts belonging to the military leaders in Myanmar. Somehow it’s all been forgotten, because it was far away.
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Operation Carthage: how a Tunisian company conducted influence operations in African presidential elections • Atlantic Council


The influence operation, which for research purposes the DFRLab has given the designation Operation Carthage in reference to the ancient empire located in what is now modern-day Tunisia, was based around a collection of inauthentic Facebook pages targeting people in 10 African countries. According to open source evidence and a review of assets subsequently provided by Facebook, the operation exerted its influence in multiple African presidential campaigns, including supporting Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé’s February 2020 reelection campaign, as well as former Ivorian President Henri Konan Bédié’s campaign for the upcoming October 2020 election in Côte d’Ivoire. Approximately 3.8 million Facebook accounts followed one or more of these pages, with nearly 132,000 joining operation-administrated groups and over 171,000 following its Instagram accounts.

The DFRLab has previously reported on instances in which digital communications companies profit by engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and other platforms. In May 2019, Facebook removed more than 250 assets created by Archimedes Group, an Israeli-based digital influence company that had established inauthentic pages in at least 13 countries, including Tunisia. A similar takedown took place in August 2019, when it removed online assets connected to public relations companies in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

These examples, as well as others ranging from Russia to the Philippines, demonstrate how otherwise legitimate digital communications companies and PR firms have taken up disinformation campaigns and online influence operations involving coordinated inauthentic behavior as part of their suite of services.


Easy to forget that all this influence doesn’t just happen in the US or Europe.
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Facebook removes nearly 200 accounts tied to hate groups • Associated Press

David Klepper:


Facebook has removed nearly 200 social media accounts linked to white supremacy groups that planned to encourage members to attend protests over police killings of black people — in some cases with weapons, company officials said Friday.

The accounts on Facebook and Instagram were tied to the Proud Boys and the American Guard, two hate groups already banned on the platforms. Officials were already monitoring the accounts in preparation for removing them when they saw posts attempting to exploit the ongoing protests prompted by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“We saw that these groups were planning to rally supporters and members to physically go to the protests and in some cases were preparing to go with weapons,” said Brian Fishman, Facebook’s director of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations policy.

The company did not divulge details of the account users — such as their specific plans for protests or where in the U.S. they live. It said “approximately” 190 accounts were removed overall.

Both the Proud Boys and American Guard had been banned from Facebook for violating rules prohibiting hate speech. Facebook said it will continue to remove new pages, groups or accounts created by users trying to circumvent the ban.


This is unusual: so this isn’t a “threat of imminent violence”, but a “threat to call for imminent violence”. Also, I don’t see the difference between what those posts were planning to do, and what Trump posted in threatening looters. (Shooting looters is not a proportionate response to a property crime.) The tensions in Facebook’s moderation policy regarding Trump become ever more obvious.
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As Trump blames antifa, protest records show scant evidence • Associated Press

Michael Biesecker, Michael Kunzelman, Jake Bleiberg and Alanna Durkin Richer:


President Donald Trump has characterized those clashing with law enforcement after George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer as organized, radical-left thugs engaging in domestic terrorism, an assertion repeated by Attorney General William Barr. Some Democrats, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, initially tried to blame out-of-state far-right infiltrators for the unrest before walking back those statements.

There is scant evidence either is true.

The Associated Press analyzed court records, employment histories, social media posts and other sources of information for 217 people arrested last weekend in Minneapolis and the District of Columbia, two cities at the epicenter of the protests across the United States.

Rather than outside agitators, more than 85% of those arrested by police were local residents. Of those charged with such offenses as curfew violations, rioting and failure to obey law enforcement, only a handful appeared to have any affiliation with organized groups.

Those charged with more serious offenses related to looting and property destruction – such as arson, burglary and theft – often had past criminal records. But they, too, were overwhelmingly local residents taking advantage of the chaos.

Social media posts indicate only a few of those arrested are left-leaning activists, including a self-described anarchist. But others had indications of being on the political right, including some Trump supporters.


There’s lots of personal detail in there about the people who were arrested. The police seem to have largely ignored the thing in the First Amendment about allowing people to peaceably assemble.
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Exclusive: ByteDance cuts domestic engineers’ data access to TikTok, other overseas products • PingWest

Chen Du:


Multiple internal sources confirmed to PingWest that ByteDance has recently implemented a restriction on domestic employees’ access to code bases for overseas products.

According to the sources, the new internal policy means that those employees who are currently in China, working on apps and services for the home market, are now largely stripped of access to “sensitive data” of ByteDance’s slew of overseas products, including but not limited to TikTok. The sources spoke under the condition of anonymity because they were forbidden to speak to the press.

PingWest has reached out to ByteDance and will update this article when an official response is provided.

This is the latest move in the direction ByteDance has been on for more than a year, erecting administrative and technical firewalls between its China and global operations, so that not only management can be streamlined, but the public’s privacy and geopolitics-based concerns could also be better addressed, and regulatory risks minimized. 

TikTok, ByteDance’s flagship app for overseas markets, was previously under at least two separate US government investigations, one by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States for national security concerns, and another by the Federal Trade Commission for failing to protect the privacy of underage users.

ByteDance’s internal firewall efforts, tracing back as early as 2019, are being managed by its security and legal teams, and carried out by the entire workforce, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Different departments approach the goal at their own pace that result in minimum impact to the company’s continuous operation across the world.


Verrry interesting move. That’s not just saying it, that’s doing it: TikTok is clearly serious about its market in the west.
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Coronavirus: scientists are questioning past research by the founder of Surgisphere • Buzzfeed News

Peter Aldhous and Stephanie Lee:


The founder of Surgisphere, the little-known health data analytics company blamed for the retraction of two prominent scientific papers on COVID-19, is in more trouble.

On Friday evening, Elisabeth Bik, a consultant who specializes in analyzing scientific papers for signs of data manipulation, spotted multiple duplications in images from a paper published by Sapan Desai in 2004, four years before he founded Surgisphere.

Manipulating images to change their scientific meaning, sometimes involving subtle duplications using the clone tools in Photoshop or similar software, is a major cause of scientific misconduct.

BuzzFeed News asked two other independent experts in scientific data manipulation to review the images. Both confirmed Bik’s findings, and one said it was one of the most egregious examples he had seen.

“It’s like the guy went crazy with Photoshop,” Daniel Acuna, a computer scientist at Syracuse University in New York, who has developed software to spot image duplications in scientific images, told BuzzFeed News.

Desai did not immediately return requests for comment.

The paper in question was published by the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2004, as part of Desai’s graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The new concerns about its validity add to the growing number of questions about Desai and Surgisphere.


This is all warming up nicely. A world where peer-reviewed papers are unreliable, and preprints on MedRxiv are the reliable source of information. There’s more to come, for sure, on Surgisphere.
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Death, injury and disability from kinetic impact projectiles in crowd-control settings: a systematic review • BMJ Open

Haar et al report on the injuries – sometimes fatal – that rubber bullets, aka baton rounds, aka kinetic impact projectiles – can inflict:


Of 3228 identified articles, 26 articles met inclusion criteria. These articles included injury data on 1984 people, 53 of whom died as a result of their injuries. 300 people suffered permanent disability. Deaths and permanent disability often resulted from strikes to the head and neck (49.1% of deaths and 82.6% of permanent disabilities). Of the 2,135 injuries in those who survived their injuries, 71% were severe, injuries to the skin and to the extremities were most frequent. Anatomical site of impact, firing distance and timely access to medical care were correlated with injury severity and risk of disability.

Conclusions Kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs), often called rubber or plastic bullets, are used commonly in crowd-control settings. We find that these projectiles have caused significant morbidity and mortality during the past 27 years, much of it from penetrative injuries and head, neck and torso trauma. Given their inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse and associated health consequences of severe injury, disability and death, KIPs do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings. There is an urgent need to establish international guidelines on the use of crowd-control weapons to prevent unnecessary injuries and deaths.


The data does include Northern Ireland, where they learnt that these should be fired to bounce off the ground to lessen their velocity. Seems the US police haven’t heard that.
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Irene Triplett, last American to collect a US Civil War pension, dies at 90 • The Washington Post

Ian Shapira:


The check arrived every month: $73.13.

Irene Triplett, who lived in a North Carolina nursing home, rarely talked about the source of the money. She was the last American to receive a pension from the Civil War — $877.56 a year from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The jaw-dropping fact that someone in the year 2020 was still earning a Civil War pension was the result of two factors: First, Triplett suffered cognitive impairments, qualifying her for the lifelong pension as a helpless adult child of a veteran. Second, her father, Mose Triplett, who’d served as a private in the Confederate Army before defecting to the Union, was on his second marriage when she was born in 1930. He was just a few weeks away from turning 84.

On Sunday, Irene Triplett died at Accordius Health, a long-term-care facility in Wilkesboro, N.C., at the age of 90. A relative said she’d broken her hip a few days earlier and died of complications. She never married, and her only brother had died in 1996.

Triplett’s story is a powerful reminder that the Civil War wasn’t that long ago, said Columbia University historian Stephanie McCurry. “Just like the Confederate monuments issue, which is blowing up right now, I think this is a reminder of the long reach of slavery, secession and the Civil War,” she said. “It reminds you of the battle over slavery and its legitimacy in the United States.”

Many more widows and children of other long-ago soldiers are still alive. According to VA, there are 33 surviving spouses and 18 children receiving pension benefits related to the 1898 Spanish-American War.


Even so, that’s just two lifetimes separating us from the US fighting its civil war. Unless, that is, we get a reprise some time in the next 12 months.
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No, coronavirus apps don’t need 60% adoption to be effective • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:


The [60%] number is taken from an Oxford University study released in April. But since no nation has reached such levels, many have criticized “exposure notification” technologies as essentially worthless.

But the researchers who produced the original study say their work has been profoundly misunderstood, and that in fact much lower levels of app adoption could still be vitally important for tackling covid-19.

“There’s been a lot of misreporting around efficacy and uptake … suggesting that the app only works at 60%—which is not the case,”  says Andrea Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Oxford team. In fact, she says, “it starts to have a protective effect” at “much lower levels.”

The Oxford models found that “the app has an effect at all levels of uptake” as illustrated by this graph which shows every level of adoption slowing to pandemic to some extent.  


That even 28% has such a big effect is remarkable. I wonder if it’s like the “birthday party” trick, where you need a far smaller number of people in a room to have a 50-50 chance that two share a birthday than you might guess.
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The Umbrella Man • The New York Times


On the 48th anniversary [in November 2011] of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Errol Morris explores the story behind the one man seen standing under an open black umbrella at the site.


This, via John Naughton, is absolutely mindblowing. You think you know conspiracy theories? How about the man who was standing beside JFK’s motorcade at the exact spot, more or less, beside the road with an umbrella open – the only person on that sunny day with an open umbrella? Isn’t it obvious? He was there for rangefinding and actually fired a flechette (multiple small weapons) at the car to kill JKFK… wasn’t he?

The truth is far stranger – and shows you just how conspiracy theories can be built not just on sand, but on crumbs.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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