Start Up No.1339: America’s young Covid deaths, how to win big on Facebook, Myanmar internet blackout continues, sayonara Wirecard?, and more


Is $100bn enough to outfit the US with the fibre broadband it so sorely needs? Democrats hope so. CC-licensed photo by kip on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Leonine? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Daily chart: when covid-19 deaths are analysed by age, America is an outlier • The Economist

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Data released on June 16th by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) show that the country’s death toll skews significantly younger. There, people in their 80s account for less than half of all covid-19 deaths; people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, meanwhile, account for a significantly larger share of those who die. The median covid-19 sufferer in America is a 48-year-old; in Italy it is a 63-year-old.

Why is America such an outlier? Part of the explanation surely lies in the fact that America has a younger population than Europe does. America’s median age is just 38; Italy’s is 45. Another reason, perhaps, is that middle-aged Americans may be less healthy than their European peers, eg, because they tend to be more obese.

Whatever the cause, the relative youthfulness of America’s covid-19 victims means that the coronavirus is robbing Americans of more years of precious life. A recent study by a group of Scottish researchers estimated the number of years of life lost to covid-19 by age, taking account of the victims’ underlying health conditions. It found that in Italy, people who died in their 50s, 60s, and 70s typically lost 30, 21, and 12 years, respectively. Those in their 80s lost five years, on average.

Applying these estimates to the victims of America’s outbreak, a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that covid-19 has so far shortened the lives of its American victims by 11 years, on average, compared with about nine years in the hardest-hit European countries.

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Related, in some ways: Coronavirus cases rise in states with relaxed face mask policies.
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The dirty secret behind Ben Shapiro’s extraordinary success on Facebook • Popular Information

Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria:

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What explains The Daily Wire’s phenomenal success on Facebook? Popular Information revealed part of the answer last October. But the full story is much darker. 

Popular Information has discovered a network of large Facebook pages — each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and violence — that systematically promote content from The Daily Wire. These pages, some of which have over 2 million followers, do not disclose a business relationship with The Daily Wire. But they all post content from The Daily Wire ten or more times each day. Moreover, these pages post the exact same content from The Daily Wire at the exact same time. 

The undisclosed relationship not only helps explain The Daily Wire’s unlikely success on Facebook but also appears to violate Facebook’s rules.

The network of large Facebook pages promoting The Daily Wire are all run by Corey and Christy Pepple, who are best known as the creators of Mad World News. Facebook pages controlled by the Pepples include Mad World News (2,176,003 followers), The New Resistance (2,857,876 followers), Right Stuff (610,809 followers), America First (577,753 followers), and American Patriot (447,799 followers).

…How did the pages like Mad World News and The New Resistance grow so big? They did it by exploiting racism, religious bigotry, and violence.

Here is how it works. Most of the content on the five pages in this network consists of links to MadWorldNews.com and TadHaps.com, two websites owned by the Pepples. These sites identify incendiary stories — that are frequently months or years old — that prey on prejudice and fear. The sites then rewrite the stories with no indication that the story is old. This generates a “new” link that is able to thrive in Facebook’s algorithm.

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How CO2 boosters’ op-ed slipped by Facebook fact-checkers • E&E News

Scott Waldman:

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A team of climate scientists working as approved fact checkers for Facebook evaluated a post last year by a White House-connected group that claims the world needs to burn more fossil fuels.

The researchers found that the post by the CO2 Coalition was based on cherry-picked information to mislead readers into thinking climate science models are wrong about global warming. The post, which was published originally in the conservative Washington Examiner, was an opinion piece that had been marked as false, in accordance with Facebook’s standards. The coalition, which is funded by groups that oppose regulations on fossil fuels, was prevented from advertising on the site.

It didn’t last long.

A “conservative” Facebook employee quietly intervened, overturning the fact check, and the misinformation was no longer labeled as false, according to the CO2 Coalition. The post was free to be shared, and a new loophole was created for the coalition and other groups that attack mainstream climate science.

After the quiet decision by Facebook, the coalition says it and other groups that attack consensus climate science can share content that climate scientists have labeled as misleading because Facebook will consider it “opinion” and therefore immune to fact-checking.

The CO2 Coalition is increasingly focused on using Facebook to reach more people with its message that climate change fears are overblown and that burning more fossil fuels would help humanity, Executive Director Caleb Rossiter told E&E News this week. He sees the battle over its climate-related posts as part of a larger proxy war over how to reach an audience outside of conservative media.

“It’s a huge reach. You can reach so many people both with your posts and your advertisements,” Rossiter said. “We’re kind of like Donald Trump. We’re not happy with the treatment we’re getting from the mainstream media, we resort to social media. That’s where our action is in larger part.”

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I wonder if the “conservative” Facebook employee was Joel Kaplan, formerly of the GWBush administration. However I’m told by an Authoritative Source that Facebook doesn’t interfere in fact-checking, but that the CO2 Coalition appealed to the fact-checking org, which allowed that “opinion” didn’t qualify for fact-checking. Quite a loophole.
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Military stands firm in defense of western Myanmar’s internet blackout • Eurasia Review

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A Tatmadaw [Myanmar’s official military] spokesperson said the leaking of sensitive information about military operations and positions was one of the primary reasons for an internet ban in parts of Arakan State that entered its second year over the weekend.

The secretary of the Tatmadaw True News Information Team, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, was speaking at a news conference in Nay Pyi Taw on June 23.

“Military information such as which military column is moving from what location to which area is uploaded on social media,” he explained. “And there is some information that makes people in the country and abroad misunderstand the Tatmadaw. So, we have to shut down the internet in the region for security reasons.”

Zaw Min Tun described the internet embargo as also intended to put a stop to the dissemination of extremist rhetoric, hate speech and misleading information, saying the Tatmadaw had no plan as yet to recommend a lifting of the ban to the government.

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Essentially, the Tatmadaw is concerned that its aggression against the many minority ethnic groups in Myanmar would be revealed to the world. It’s still a brutal, repressive regime which now understands how to warp the internet to its own use. (Thanks Jim for the link.)
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Google blew a ten-year lead • Second Breakfast

Will Schreiber:

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something happened at Google. I’m not sure what. But they stopped innovating on cloud software.

Docs and Sheets haven’t changed in a decade. Google Drive remains impossible to navigate. Sharing is complicated. Sheets freezes up. I can’t easily interact with a Sheets API (I’ve tried!). Docs still shows page breaks by default! WTF!

Even though I have an iPhone and a MacBook, I’ve been married to Google services. I browse Chrome. I use Gmail. I get directions and lookup restaurants on Maps. I’m a YouTube addict.

Yet I’ve been ungluing myself from Google so far this year. Not because of Google-is-reading-my-emails-and-tracking-every-keystroke reasons, but because I like other software so much more that it’s worth switching.

At WWDC, Apple shared Safari stats for macOS Big Sur. It reminded me how much Chrome makes my machine go WHURRRRRR. Yesterday, I made Safari my default browser again.

…I’ve given up on Google Docs. I can never find the documents Andy shares with me. The formatting is tired and stuck in the you-might-print-this-out paradigm. Notion is a much better place to write and brainstorm with people.

The mobile Google results page is so cluttered that I switched my iPhone’s default search to DuckDuckGo. The results are a tad worse, but I’m never doing heavy-duty searches on the go. And now I don’t have to scroll past six ads to get the first result.

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That last point is quite a point, though, isn’t it. Mobile advertising is the curse of Google.
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Wirecard collapses into insolvency • Financial Times

Dan McCrum in London, Olaf Storbeck in Frankfurt, Stefania Palma in Singapore and John Reed in Bangkok:

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Wirecard filed for insolvency after the once high-flying payments group revealed a multiyear fraud that led to the arrest of its former chief executive.

In a remarkable collapse of a company once regarded as a European tech champion, Wirecard said in a statement on Thursday morning that it faced “impending insolvency and over-indebtedness”.

The first failure of a member of Germany’s prestigious Dax index is expected to inflict big losses on creditors and reputational damage on regulators led by BaFin and Wirecard’s longstanding auditors EY.

EY on Thursday afternoon said there were “clear indications that this was an elaborate and sophisticated fraud, involving multiple parties around the world in different institutions, with a deliberate aim of deception”, adding that “even the most robust and extended audit procedures may not uncover a collusive fraud”.

Wirecard’s admission a week ago that €1.9bn of cash was missing was the catalyst for the company’s unravelling. Founder and former chief executive Markus Braun was arrested on Monday on suspicion of false accounting and market manipulation before being released on bail.

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I have two questions: first, what would have happened if there hadn’t been a whistleblower? Second, what use were the auditors, exactly? People keep ripping companies off, and auditing systems keep missing them.
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$100 billion “universal fiber” plan proposed by Democrats in Congress • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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House Democrats yesterday unveiled a $100bn broadband plan that’s gaining quick support from consumer advocates.

“The House has a universal fiber broadband plan we should get behind,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon wrote in a blog post. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) announced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, saying it has more than 30 co-sponsors and “invests $100 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities and ensure that the resulting Internet service is affordable.” The bill text is available here.

In addition to federal funding for broadband networks with speeds of at least 100Mbps downstream and upstream, the bill would eliminate state laws that prevent the growth of municipal broadband. There are currently 19 states with such laws.

…The bill also has a Dig Once requirement that says fiber or fiber conduit must be installed “as part of any covered highway construction project” in states that receive federal highway funding. Similar Dig Once mandates have been proposed repeatedly over the years and gotten close to becoming US law, but never quite made it past the finish line.

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Infrastructure Week, but they’re saving it for after November. (The Republican-controlled Senate will surely block it, or not even discuss it – as has happened with lots of plans passed up since the Democrats took over the HoR.)
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Twitch reckons with sexual assault as it begins permanently suspending streamers • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Harassment and abuse issues have followed Twitch for years. In 2017, Kotaku said it was “incredibly easy” to find examples of harassment on the platform just by browsing around. A Fusion documentary looked at the sexist harassment a woman who is a top Hearthstone player faced on Twitch in 2016. Bloomberg called harassment “something female streamers have to deal with routinely” in a 2015 feature. In 2012, Giant Bomb reported on sexual harassment at a Capcom tournament that was hosted on Twitch. Twitch tightened its policies around harassment in 2018, but it’s not evident to many streamers that it’s had a real impact on enforcement.

The men accused of harassment and misconduct range from streamers with thousands of followers to those with hundreds of thousands of followers or more. Some of the stories involve incidents that happened on Twitch, such as men who were allegedly streaming while messaging underage fans for sexual photos. Others didn’t happen on Twitch directly but involve people in its community. Several people said they met an abuser through Twitch or that misconduct occurred at a Twitch event or an afterparty at a Twitch convention.

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Harassment done by young folks (well, men): indistinguishable from previous generations’.
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Facebook executive admits to ‘trust deficit’ on call with advertisers • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:

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A leading Facebook executive has told advertisers the company is suffering from a “trust deficit” as it tries to stop brands joining a boycott over its policies on political content moderation.

The world’s largest social media group joined a conference call with almost 200 advertisers on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the discussion. Senior policy executives then defended Facebook’s decision to allow several controversial posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on its platform.

According to leaked audio of the call obtained by the Financial Times, Neil Potts, Facebook’s head of trust and safety policy, acknowledged that the company suffered from a “trust deficit” but added that it was “here to listen” to its clients’ concerns. The call was convened by the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade body in Canada.

The lobbying by Facebook comes as several high-profile brands — including apparel groups The North Face and Patagonia, and ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s — pulled advertising from the platform for July in protest against the company’s approach to content moderation. On Wednesday, Goodby Silverstein, part of Omnicom Group, with clients such as Cisco, BMW and Pepsi, became the first big ad agency to join the boycott. 

Mr Potts had been asked by the IAB on behalf of a member: “Why as advertisers we should risk our brands’ reputation by staying on your platform?” He had also been asked how the group was “reconciling the loss of faith in Facebook as a trustworthy source of information”. 

“There is a trust deficit. You try to make a decision and people disagree and maybe that builds that deficit even deeper,” Mr Potts said.

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These are the people who Facebook really listens to. Political advertising is a tiny slice of revenue. Commercial is what really matters.
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Daily Cartoon for Thursday, June 25th • The New Yorker

Lisa Rothstein:

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“It’s new. We place them in an endless video conference with everyone they couldn’t stand in life.”

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Like something out of The Good Place.
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Steven Chu: long-term energy storage solution has been here all along • Forbes

Jeff McMahon:

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The most efficient energy storage technology may be as close as the nearest hill, according to former Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and almost as old.

“It turns out the most efficient energy storage is you take that electricity and you pump water up a hill,” Chu said Tuesday at the Stanford University Global Energy Forum.

When electricity is needed, you let the water flow down, spinning generators along the way. Pumped hydro can meet demand for seasonal storage instead of the four hours typical of lithium-ion batteries.

“There’s been a resurgence and a new look at pumped storage because it is the one thing we do have, and we know it works and lasts a long time,” Chu said, highlighting it first in a review of energy-storage technologies.

Pumped hydro takes advantage of the efficiency of converting electricity to mechanical motion using an electric motor, and converting it back again using generator.

“Round-trip efficiencies can reach as high as 85 percent,” he said. “In terms of energy storage it’s really one of the best.”

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But does also involve damming lots of rivers, with the attendant risks. No free rides.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1339: America’s young Covid deaths, how to win big on Facebook, Myanmar internet blackout continues, sayonara Wirecard?, and more

  1. Re ‘long-term energy storage solution has been here all along’, check out the many fascinating articles on the excellent Low Tech Magazine, for instance: Power Water Networks

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