Start Up No.1343: how China tracked Uighurs for years, Softbank’s Wirecard screwup, Nick Clegg’s wrong again, US’s Covid undercount, and more


Big advertisers are pulling ads from Facebook. Is that going to make any real difference, though? CC-licensed photo by Book Catalog on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. The Facebook edition. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China’s software stalked Uighurs earlier and more widely, researchers learn • The New York Times

Paul Mozur and Nicole Perlroth:

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The timeline [discovered by the security company Lookout] suggests the hacking campaign was an early cornerstone in China’s Uighur surveillance efforts that would later extend to collecting blood samples, voice prints, facial scans and other personal data to transform Xinjiang into a virtual police state. It also shows the lengths to which China’s minders were determined to follow Uighurs as they fled China for as many as 15 other countries.

The tools the hackers assembled hid in special keyboards used by Uighurs and disguised themselves as commonly used apps in third-party websites. Some could remotely turn on a phone’s microphone, record calls or export photos, phone locations and conversations on chat apps. Others were embedded in apps that hosted Uighur-language news, Uighur-targeted beauty tips, religious texts like the Quran and details of the latest Muslim cleric arrests.

“Wherever China’s Uighurs are going, however far they go, whether it was Turkey, Indonesia or Syria, the malware followed them there,” said Apurva Kumar, a threat intelligence engineer at Lookout who helped unravel the campaign. “It was like watching a predator stalk its prey throughout the world.”

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The targeting goes back to 2013. Sometimes the police would physically take phones and install spyware. It’s shocking.
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Alexa, just shut up: We’ve been isolated for months, and now we hate our home assistants • The Washington Post

Travis Andrews:

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Jennifer Wood-Thompson, an Indianapolis-based office manger, uses both Siri and Alexa for simple tasks such as creating shopping lists, checking the weather and playing music. She said, “My relationship with them has always been a little volatile, because sometimes they’re not cooperative. But being home for 2½ months definitely escalated it a little bit.” So, she added, “when you ask Alexa to turn on the light and she doesn’t do anything, I tend to just yell back her.”

For Zach Ratcheson, the breaking point came during a game of “Jeopardy!” he played on an Echo with his wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 13. They’re a pretty smart crew and kept offering the right answers, but Alexa couldn’t understand. Was it their Marietta, Ga., accents? Was she being purposely stubborn? Maybe the tech just isn’t where it needs to be? All he knows is that it’s infuriating.

“We were trying to make it a fun, non-TV activity for the whole family, but it kept telling us we were wrong, even though we weren’t,” Ratcheson said. “There was nothing more frustrating.”

That annoyance had been building for some time, particularly since he began working from home. Want to know what’s on Joe Scarborough’s Wikipedia page? Ratcheson probably knows it by heart, since Alexa often reads it to him when he wakes up early, puts coffee on, and asks “her” to play “Morning Joe.” Supposedly, Alexa can tell you when a package has reached the front door, but in reality, “the dog is better at it than that spinning yellow circle,” he said.

It feels like a broken pact. “You could hope it could evolve over time,” he said. The promise “of AI is that it’s supposed to get to know you and learn your habits over time, and it just never does.”

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That thing about how it never learns is the real frustration. Even if a dog can’t turn the radio on, it does learn and it does show affection.
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Official COVID-19 count may underestimate deaths by 28% • UPI.com

Brian Dunleavy:

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Official counts of COVID-19 cases in the United States may underestimate deaths by as much as 28%, according to an analysis published Wednesday by JAMA Internal Medicine.

From March 1 through May 30, an estimated 122,300 Americans died after being infected with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, the researchers said. That’s higher than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s tally of 95,235.

The difference is based on the researchers’ assessment of “excess deaths” across the country — the actual number of reported deaths compared to figures from the same period for the previous five years.”

There have been questions about whether the reported statistics overcount COVID-19 deaths, but our analyses suggest the opposite,” study co-author Daniel Weinberger, an associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University School of Medicine, told UPI.

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Full paper here. But this is the nut.
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SoftBank seeks to end partnership with Wirecard • WSJ

Caitlin Ostroff and Margot Patrick:

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SoftBank Group Corp. is looking to distance itself from Wirecard AG, after the Japanese tech conglomerate helped arrange a $1bn investment months before the German payments company went bust.

One of the world’s largest technology investors, SoftBank is seeking to terminate a five-year partnership its investment arm formed with Wirecard in April 2019, according to people familiar with the matter.

Wirecard declined to comment.

The partnership agreement called for SoftBank to introduce Wirecard as a digital payments provider to other companies in SoftBank’s sprawling portfolio of tech firms. SoftBank also agreed to help Wirecard expand in Japan and South Korea.

The partnership was struck in April 2019 at the same time that a SoftBank-run investment vehicle agreed to plow €900m ($1bn) into Wirecard through a convertible bond. It was an unusual deal in which SoftBank ended up not putting in any of its own money when it closed later that year.

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Yet another bad decision by SoftBank. There were loads of warnings by then that this was a bad move. Though of course Credit Suisse, which jumped into this with both feet, bears some blame too.

I start to get a little itchy about ARM, which SoftBank bought some years ago.
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Want to stop hate? Fund facts, not Facebook • Snopes

The Snopes team:

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Despite several years’ worth of public clamor for reform, Facebook — from our vantage point — has done little but begrudgingly undertake superficial changes to address the hate and misinformation proliferating on its platform. We have first-hand experience dealing with Facebook’s callous indifference to the real-world consequences of its business model.

We participated as a Facebook fact-checking “partner” for two years before we abandoned the role, sensing that the program effectively served as a public relations effort for Facebook, not as a genuine attempt to combat misinformation. When we pressed for changes, Facebook made it clear it was not interested in our suggestions.

Our investigative reporting has exposed vast networks of scammers and political schemers engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior on the platform. Facebook’s lack of cooperation and quiet deletion of the networks we’ve discovered plainly demonstrated it was unwilling to acknowledge the public harm enabled by its indifference.

We are relieved to see Facebook’s half measures and obfuscation tactics to address hate and misinformation are no longer being tolerated.

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The Facebook fact-checking was pretty lucrative for Snopes: nearly half its revenue in 2018. But it dropped that in 2019 in favour of crowdfunding and reader contributions, which did better. The Facebook fact-checking was a terrible churn (I’ve been told by one who did it).
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Why Facebook is well placed to weather an advertising boycott • The Economist

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Facebook’s share price has fallen by about 6% since the [Facebook advertising] boycott took off. If ad dollars go elsewhere, possible beneficiaries include smaller rivals like Snapchat, Pinterest and TikTok, as well as YouTube, owned by Google. Some advertisers may even go back to quaint things like newspapers and television, believes Andrew Lipsman of eMarketer, a research firm.

Yet the damage to Facebook is likely to be small. Its $70bn ad business is built on 8m advertisers, most of them tiny companies with marketing budgets in the hundreds or thousands of dollars and often reliant on Facebook as an essential digital storefront. The 100 largest advertisers on the site account for less than 20% of total revenue, compared with 71% for the 100 largest advertisers on American network television. And so far only three of Facebook’s top 50 ad-buyers have joined the boycott.

…On June 29th YouTube blocked various white-supremacist channels. Twitch, a video site, suspended President Donald Trump’s own channel for showing “hateful conduct”. Reddit deleted a forum, “The_Donald”, over hate speech.

This points to a pressure greater than advertising: politics. American tech firms have walked a fine line between Republicans, who accuse them of being too censorious, and Democrats, who want closer moderation. Now, as Mr Trump’s poll numbers swoon, Silicon Valley seem to be edging towards the Democratic view of things. Time, perhaps, to make new friends.

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Astute point about the politics. (Via John Naughton.)
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Facebook does not benefit from hate • About Facebook

Nick Clegg is Facebook’s vp of public affairs:

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Facebook has come in for much criticism in recent weeks following its decision to allow controversial posts by President Trump to stay up, and misgivings on the part of many people, including companies that advertise on our platform, about our approach to tackling hate speech. I want to be unambiguous: Facebook does not profit from hate. Billions of people use Facebook and Instagram because they have good experiences — they don’t want to see hateful content, our advertisers don’t want to see it, and we don’t want to see it. There is no incentive for us to do anything but remove it.

More than 100 billion messages are sent on our services every day. That’s all of us, talking to each other, sharing our lives, our opinions, our hopes and our experiences. In all of those billions of interactions a tiny fraction are hateful. When we find hateful posts on Facebook and Instagram, we take a zero tolerance approach and remove them. When content falls short of being classified as hate speech — or of our other policies aimed at preventing harm or voter suppression — we err on the side of free expression because, ultimately, the best way to counter hurtful, divisive, offensive speech, is more speech.

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I disagree with Nick.
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Boogaloo ads have been making money for Facebook for months • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Caroline Haskins:

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On Sunday, the @docscustomknives Instagram account placed an ad on the popular photo-sharing social network advocating that people “join the militia, fight the state.” As clips from action movies play, showing police officers being shot and killed, music blares with lyrics proclaiming, “We ain’t scared of no police / We got guns too.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the ad was still online.

Several hashtags in the ad — including #Boogaloo, #BoogalooBois, and #BoogalooMemes — connect the ad to “Boogaloos,” a catchphrase for anti-government extremists who have called for violence against the police and state officials and advocated for another Civil War in the US.

A current ad on Instagram advocated that people “join the militia” and “fight the state,” while using hashtags associated with the extremist Boogaloo movement.

This ad is just one of several pieces of paid content related to the Boogaloo movement on Facebook and Instagram that were uncovered by BuzzFeed News; this is despite claims by Facebook that it was doing more to take action against the group.

The @docscustomknives may be the most recent, but it is far from the only Boogaloo ad that has run on Facebook or its photo-sharing site, Instagram. As right-wing extremists have used the company’s tools to organize, the world’s largest social network has also profited from ads pushing for white supremacy.

…Tech Transparency Project Director Katie Paul told BuzzFeed News that when Facebook accepted money from Boogaloo supporters and sympathizers, it amplified the movement.

“The company is not just failing to address the fact that its platform is really feeding this echo chamber of supporters, but also the fact that it’s profiting off that movement that is predicated on violence,” she said.

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Facebook says it doesn’t profit from hate speech. This gives the lie to that.
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Banning a violent network in the US • About Facebook

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Facebook designates non-state actors under our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy after a rigorous process that takes into account both online and offline behavior. During this process, we work to identify an actor’s goals and whether they have a track record of offline violence. We know the initial elements of the boogaloo movement began as far back as 2012, and we have been closely following its developments since 2019. We understand that the term has been adopted by a range of anti-government activists who generally believe civil conflict in the US is inevitable.

…In order to make Facebook as inhospitable to this violent US-based anti-government network as possible, we conducted a strategic network disruption of their presence today removing 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 Pages and 106 groups that currently comprise the network. We have also removed over 400 additional groups and over 100 other Pages for violating our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy as they hosted similar content as the violent network we disrupted but were maintained by accounts outside of it. As part of our designation process, we will now identify where we can strengthen how we enforce our policy against this banned network and spot attempts by the violent US anti-government network to return to our platform.

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What Facebook doesn’t say in this is that the group is the “Boogaloo” movement, which is composed mainly of young white men, many of whom are white supremacists. The tracking was done by humans. Facebook’s recognising (finally) that it’s being used as a recruiting platform for these people.
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YouTube ​bans six big white nationalist channels • Right Wing Watch

Jared Holt:

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YouTube ​banned six accounts used by high-profile white nationalists on Monday. According to YouTube, the respective channels “repeatedly or egregiously violated our policies by alleging that members of protected groups were innately inferior to others, among other violations.”

The removed accounts include those ​owned by far-right political entertainer Stefan Molyneux, white nationalist outlets American Renaissance and Radix Journal, as well as longtime Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. YouTube also removed two associated channels: one belonging to alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer and another hosting American Renaissance podcasts.

“We have strict policies prohibiting hate speech on YouTube, and terminate any channel that repeatedly or egregiously violates those policies. After updating our guidelines to better address supremacist content, we saw a 5x spike in video removals and have terminated over 25,000 channels for violating our hate speech policies,” a YouTube spokesperson ​told Right Wing Watch in an email.

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One has to ask: how come it took so long for YouTube to notice that Spencer is a notorious white nationalist? Or, jeepers, Duke?
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Experts predict more digital innovation by 2030 aimed at enhancing democracy • Pew Research Center

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A large share of experts and analysts worry that people’s technology use will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the coming decade. Yet they also foresee significant social and civic innovation between now and 2030 to try to address emerging issues.

In this new report, technology experts who shared serious concerns for democracy in a recent Pew Research Center canvassing weigh in with their views about the likely changes and reforms that might occur in the coming years.

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There are lots of the great and good predicting wonders and ponies for everyone (“some variant of social media will likely form the context for the rise of a global movement to stop the [climate denial] madness – which I call the Human Spring”). But also plenty of more rational people offering a more clear-eyed view of what’s more likely to happen over the next ten years.

I particularly liked this (part of one contributor’s input):

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I’m not hopeful about ameliorating the social-media hate mobs. The driving causes there are too deeply linked to the incentives from outrage-mongering. I should note there’s a cottage industry in advice about social-media pitfalls and good conduct. But this is hardly better than the simplistic ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ That’s not bad advice in itself, but it’s no substitute for something comparable to laws and regulations against fraud. Corporations that have their entire focus on selling advertising around outrage and surveillance are not stewards of news, democratic institutions, beneficial self-expression and so on. They are not ever going to become such stewards, as that is not what they do.

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I’ll go with the latter view.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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