Start Up No.1347: the MidEast propaganda fakes, the death of malls?, pricing a Covid vaccine, Quibi’s tin ear, North Korea gets hacking, and more


Might TikTok follow Huawei in being banned from the US by Trump? CC-licensed photo by ApolitikNow on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. There you go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Right-wing media outlets duped by a Middle East propaganda campaign • Daily Beast

Adam Rawnsley:

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If you want a hot take about the Middle East, Raphael Badani is your man.

As a Newsmax “Insider” columnist, he has thoughts about how Iraq needs to rid itself of Iranian influence to attract investment and why Dubai is an oasis of stability in a turbulent region. His career as a “geopolitical risk consultant and interactive simulation designer” and an “international relations senior analyst” for the Department of Labor have given him plenty of insights about the Middle East. He’s printed those insights at a range of conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner, RealClear Markets, American Thinker, and The National Interest.

Unfortunately for the outlets who published his articles and the readers who believed them, Raphael Badani does not exist. 

His profile photos are stolen from the blog of an unwitting San Diego startup founder. His LinkedIn profile, which described him as a graduate of George Washington and Georgetown, is equally fictitious (and was deleted following publication of this article).

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Twitter scrubbed a whole load of related accounts. But the best bit of this whole investigation is this:

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The fake contributors also appear to have used AI-generated avatars for a handful of their personas. A high-resolution profile photo of the Joseph Labba persona, posted for an article at The Post Millennial, shows some of the telltale glitches commonly found in AI-generated faces. The left ear is oddly smooth without any ear lobe creases. Middlebury Institute of International Studies research associate Sam Meyer reviewed the photo of Labba using imagery analysis software and also noticed he appears to have three misfit teeth in his mouth where there should be four.

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With department stores disappearing, malls could be next • The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari:

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The standard American mall — with its vast parking lots, escalators and air conditioning, and an atmosphere heavy on perfume samples and the scent of Mrs. Fields cookies — was built around department stores. But the pandemic has been devastating for the retail industry and many of those stores are disappearing at a rapid clip. Some chains are unable to pay rent and prominent department store chains including Neiman Marcus, as well as J.C. Penney, have filed for bankruptcy protection. As they close stores, it could cause other tenants to abandon malls at the same time as large specialty chains like Victoria’s Secret are shrinking.

Malls were already facing pressure from online shopping, but analysts now say that hundreds are at risk of closing in the next five years. That has the potential to reshape the suburbs, with many communities already debating whether abandoned malls can be turned into local markets or office space, even affordable housing.

“More companies have gone bankrupt than any of us have ever expected, and I do believe that will accelerate as we move through 2020, unfortunately,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology. “And then those who haven’t gone bankrupt are using this as an opportunity to clean up their real estate.”

Ms. Weinswig said the malls that are able to withstand the current turmoil will be healthier — better tenants, more inviting and occupied — but she anticipated that about 25% of the country’s nearly 1,200 malls were in danger.

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‘Parler feels like a Trump rally’ — and MAGA world says that’s a problem • POLITICO

Tina Nguyen:

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The MAGAfication problem [of Parler] is so bad that CEO and founder John Matze has openly begged progressive pundits to join the platform, offering a “progressive bounty” of $20,000 to any left-wing influencer with a following of 50,000 or more users on Twitter who makes an account. And with even establishment conservatives like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney eschewing Parler for now, Trump supporters worry that Parler’s influencers will be preaching to a MAGA choir forever.

“The question is not pure engagement. The question is influence,” said Will Chamberlain, editor-in-chief of the populist magazine Human Events. “Twitter is interesting because there’s so many people, prominent people, that can be influenced. Parler is not that.”

Regardless, Parler is rapidly growing: In the past week alone, Parler’s user base has grown from 1 million to 1.5 million users, according to a CNBC interview with Matze. And given the number of conservative influencers on the site — as well as a robust presence of conservative outlets, which don’t have to worry about social media companies shutting off their traffic spigots — there is potential for the site to grow a decently sized conservative audience.

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You only have to *make* an account? Hey, am I influential or left-wing enough to get the payment? (Compared to lots of the people on Parler, the answer to the latter is probably “yes”.) But the existence of a right-wing talking shop is fabulously pointless.
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Technology to tackle online harms • University of Exeter Business School

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David Lopez and his team are developing ‘LOLA’. She’s a sophisticated artificial intelligence, capable of picking up subtle nuances in language. This means she can detect emotional undertones, such as anger, fear, joy, love, optimism, pessimism or trust.

LOLA takes advantage of recent advances in natural language processing. Not only that, she also incorporates behavioural theory to infer stigma, giving her up to 98% accuracy. And she continues to learn and improve with each conversation she analyses.

Unlike human moderators, LOLA can analyse 25,000 texts per minute. This allows her to swiftly detect stigmatising behaviour. Thus, she highlights cyberbullying, hatred, Islamophobia and more.

In a recent use-case on fake news about Covid-19, LOLA found that this misinformation has strong components of fear and anger. This tells us that fear and anger are helping disseminate the fake news. Predictably, emotive language motivates people to pass on information, before giving it a second thought. For LOLA, it is straightforward to pinpoint the originators of the misinformation. In this way, we can reduce online harms.

In another use-case, LOLA could pinpoint the originators or cyberbullying against Greta Thurnberg. LOLA grades each tweet with a severity score, and sequences them: ‘most likely to cause harm’ to ‘least likely’. Those at the top are the tweets which score highest in toxicity, obscenity and insult.

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Lola named after “Charlie and Lola” from the Lauren Child children’s books, not the Kinks song.
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Pompeo says U.S. looking at banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok • Reuters

Kanishka Singh and Shubham Kalia:

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

“I don’t want to get out in front of the President (Donald Trump), but it’s something we’re looking at,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News.

U.S. lawmakers have raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies “to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Pompeo said Americans should be cautious in using the short-form video app owned by China-based ByteDance.

“Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo remarked when asked if he would recommend people to download TikTok.

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Well that would wreck Trump’s chances with the youth vote– oh, never mind. Also, ByteDance insists that it’s a Cayman Islands-based company, at least when it suits it.

In sort-of related news: TikTok is withdrawing from Hong Kong. That actually makes it sound as though it might be passing data to China. Or else that it’s going to treat Hong Kong as Chinese territory, and make the Chinese version of the app available there.
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Are you dense? • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Goldberg:

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Greatly oversimplifying, the average cellular base station today covers a range of about 1 mile. There are all sorts of caveats about this number – much longer ranges in open areas, much shorter in urban areas. By contrast, 3500 MHz travels less than half that, probably closer to 1,000 feet. And mmWaves travel a few hundred feet at best.

Looking at it another way. There are about 300,000 base stations in the US today across all the operators. A single network could probably cover the US with 100,000 sites. The mid-band spectrum probably needs 1 million sites and mmWave 10 million. To be clear, many of these will probably never be built, the point is that we need orders of magnitude more sites to provide a level of service that consumers care about or even notice.

This is not a problem of technology it is one of politics and zoning and organization. Getting sites is a business heavy on shoe leather – signing deals, getting approvals and laying cables. Who is going to do all that work?

For years, the US carriers have been slowly exiting the tower business. Today, a large share of cell sites are owned by 3rd party tower companies like Crown Castle and American Tower. This is an efficient way of doing things. The tower companies can specialize in local work (and have tax efficient corporate structures to boot), while the carriers can focus on what they do best, like running a network. Unfortunately, the tower companies do not have enough sites for 5G either. One tower company recently boasted they have 70,000 small sites in their portfolio. That sounds like a big number, and to their credit it is, but in the context of needing a million or two new sites, it is a drop in the bucket.

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In case you were planning to use 5G for our next entrant, below.
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Is anyone watching Quibi? • Vulture

Benjamin Wallace with a huge in-depth piece on how the 10-minutes-per-episode-only-on-mobile app/business got set up by Jeff Katzenberg, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and Meg Whitman, who retired from eBay:

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People have wondered why Katzenberg and Whitman, in their late and early 60s, respectively, and not very active on social media, would believe they have uniquely penetrating insight into the unacknowledged desires of young people. When I ask Whitman what TV shows she watches, she responds, “I’m not sure I’d classify myself as an entertainment enthusiast.” But any particular shows she likes? “Grant,” she offered. “On the History Channel. It’s about President Grant.”

Katzenberg is on his phone all the time, but he is also among the moguls of his generation who have their emails printed out (and vertically folded, for some reason) by an assistant. In enthusing about what a show could mean for Quibi, Katzenberg would repeatedly invoke the same handful of musty touchstones — America’s Funniest Home Videos, Siskel and Ebert, and Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes. When Gal Gadot came to the offices and delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to elevate the voices of girls and women, Katzenberg wondered aloud whether she might become the new Jane Fonda and do a workout series for Quibi. (“Apparently, her face fell,” says a person briefed on the meeting.)

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There are many other fabulous moments in the article, but this captures it beautifully.
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North Korea behind spate of Magecart attacks • Computer Weekly

Alex Scroxton:

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The North Korean state-sponsored Lazarus or Hidden Cobra advanced persistent threat (APT) group is almost certainly behind a spate of recent cyber attacks that saw the websites of multiple retailers, including Claire’s Accessories, compromised with the Magecart credit card skimmer, according to Sansec researcher Willem de Groot, who has been tracking the group.

North Korean APTs have previously tended to restrict their activity to financial services companies and South Korean cryptocurrency markets, but Sansec found that they have pivoted to targeting retail consumers in the US and Europe in a campaign that has been running for over 12 months.

De Groot told Computer Weekly it was likely that the activity was largely financially motivated – obtaining hard currency is suspected to be the prime motivation behind much of the threat activity originating from within the isolated, secretive and impoverished country.

De Groot said that with cards and CVV codes selling for between $5 and $30 on dark web forums, using Magecart could be a goldmine for the group.

This new discovery also marks something of a sea change for use of Magecart, which has traditionally been dominated by Russian and Indonesian hacking groups.

Sansec said Hidden Cobra probably managed to gain access to the store code of retailers through spearphishing attacks trying to obtain staff passwords. Once inside, they injected the malicious Magecart script into the store checkout page, from where the skimmer collected data input my customers, such as credit card numbers, and exfiltrated it to their server.

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Sounds like cryptocurrency isn’t paying off any more then. (Claire’s Accessories is a US-based company selling, well, accessories for women, whether named Claire or not.)
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How a Covid-19 vaccine could cost Americans dearly • The New York Times

Elisabeth Rosenthal:

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Manufacturers have traditionally claimed that only the lure of windfall profits would encourage them to take the necessary risks, since drug development is expensive and there’s no way of knowing whether they’re putting their money on a horse that will finish first, or scratch.

More recently they have justified high prices by comparing them to the costs they would prevent. Expensive hepatitis C drugs, they say, avoid the need for a $1m liver transplant. No matter that the comparison being made is to the highly inflated costs of treating disease in American hospitals.

Such logic would be disastrous if it were applied to a successful Covid vaccine. Covid-19 has shut down countless businesses, creating record-high unemployment. And the medical consequences of severe Covid-19 mean weeks of highly expensive intensive care.

“Maybe the economic value of the Covid vaccine is a trillion and even if the expense to the company was a billion. That’s 1,000 times return on investment,” said Dr. Schulman. “No economic theory would support that.”

…Medicare is not allowed to engage in price negotiations for medicines covered by its part D drug plan. The Food and Drug Administration, which will have to approve the manufacturer’s vaccine for use as ‘safe and effective,’ is not allowed to consider proposed cost. The panels that recommend approval of new drugs generally have no idea how they will be priced.

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A Covid-19 vaccine is going to be for the rich first, isn’t it. Not those who actually need it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1347: the MidEast propaganda fakes, the death of malls?, pricing a Covid vaccine, Quibi’s tin ear, North Korea gets hacking, and more

  1. It appears some crucial details have been left out of the Parler bounty offer:

    https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/27/parler-ceo-wants-liberal-to-join -the-pro-trump-crowd-on-the-app.html

    “The company will judge the best one, based on engagement with the community, and pay that person the reward.”

    That is, it’s not make an account, collect $20,000, for all high-influence liberals – which is just way too-good-to-be-true, even for Silicon Valley strategies of selling dollars for 95 cents in order to get growth and eyeballs.

    Rather, it’s the standard “contest” trick of trying to have many people doing free labor, by dangling to them all the hope of each being the one to win a big prize. And nobody with any sense is going to take Parler up on it, because trying is not worth the resulting hate and harassment which they’ll get, and fearing the contest is rigged anyway.

    But, stepping back, it’s fascinating how this is playing out where we have a massive corporation with huge nigh-monopoly power, with conservatives bitterly complaining that they are being discriminated against since it’s more profitable to do so, and liberals self-satisfiedly telling them the free-market has spoken and go elsewhere otherwise. It’s like if in1984 it wasn’t just “war with Eurasia/Eastasia” which got switched, but you had two factions with “war Eurasia / ally Eastasia”, versus “war Eastasia / ally Eurasia”, and they both switched simultaneously.

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