Start Up No.1359: Instagram’s racial bias bias (yes), where the UK’s Covid response has gone well, TikTok considers selling itself, and more


Might this be the next way to get a different experience on Twitter? It’s “exploring” subscription options. CC-licensed photo by Aranami on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook ignored racial bias research, employees say • NBC News

Olivia Solon:

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In mid-2019, researchers at Facebook began studying a new set of rules proposed for the automated system that Instagram uses to remove accounts for bullying and other infractions.

What they found was alarming. Users on the Facebook-owned Instagram in the United States whose activity on the app suggested they were Black were about 50% more likely under the new rules to have their accounts automatically disabled by the moderation system than those whose activity indicated they were white, according to two current employees and one former employee, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media.

The findings were echoed by interviews with Facebook and Instagram users who said they felt that the platforms’ moderation practices were discriminatory, the employees said.

The researchers took their findings to their superiors, expecting that it would prompt managers to quash the changes. Instead, they were told not share their findings with co-workers or conduct any further research into racial bias in Instagram’s automated account removal system. Instagram ended up implementing a slightly different version of the new rules but declined to let the researchers test the new version.

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Unsurprisingly, the employees were annoyed – and they say Facebook managers keep ignoring this sort of stuff. And we’re not surprised, are we. But there are signs of fracture in Facebook’s culture: read on.
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Facebook employee leaks show feelings of betrayal by company leadership • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman:

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In spite of the occasional internal dustup, employees generally felt the company was doing more good than harm. At the very least, they avoided publicly airing their grievances.

“We are failing, and what’s worse, we have enshrined that failure in our policies.”
“This time, our response feels different,” wrote Facebook engineer Dan Abramov in a June 26 post on Workplace, the company’s internal communications platform. “I’ve taken some [paid time off] to refocus, but I can’t shake the feeling that the company leadership has betrayed the trust my colleagues and I have placed in them.”

Messages like those from Wang and Abramov illustrate how Facebook’s handling of the president’s often divisive posts has caused a sea change in its ranks and led to a crisis of confidence in leadership, according to interviews with current and former employees and dozens of documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. The documents — which include company discussion threads, employee survey results, and recordings of Zuckerberg — reveal that the company was slow to take down ads with white nationalist and Nazi content reported by its own employees. They demonstrate how the company’s public declarations about supporting racial justice causes are at odds with policies forbidding Facebookers from using company resources to support political matters. They show Zuckerberg being publicly accused of misleading his employees. Above all, they portray a fracturing company culture.

…Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook’s former election ads integrity lead, said the employees’ concerns reflect her experience at the company, which she believes is on a dangerous path heading into the election.

“All of these steps are leading up to a situation where, come November, a portion of Facebook users will not trust the outcome of the election because they have been bombarded with messages on Facebook preparing them to not trust it,” she told BuzzFeed News..

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Eisenstat’s point is the important one – and Facebook, I bet you, doesn’t have a policy about it.
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The UK’s response to Covid-19 has been world-class • Bloomberg via MSN

Tyler Cowen, who does agree at the start that the UK’s public health response has been lousy, and that it has one of the highest death rates per million:

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the most important factor in the global response to Covid-19 has to be progress on the biomedical front, and on that score the U.K. receives stellar marks. In fact, I would argue, it is tops in the world, and certainly No. 1 on a per capita basis.

First, a cheap steroid known as dexamethasone was the first drug shown to reduce death in Covid-19 patients, and the trials proving its effectiveness came from the U.K., with Oxford University playing a prominent role. In one sample, the drug reduced deaths among a vulnerable group by one-third (it is less effective for milder cases). Dexamethasone is now a part of treatment regimens around the world, and even poor countries can afford it.

It is fair to call this achievement a home run, or at least a triple (or must I say, “a six”?). And while Spain also had a role in proving the beneficial use of this drug, the U.K. clinched the path-breaking research.

The world is also in the midst of a race to find a safe and effective vaccine against Covid-19. And so far the leading contender comes from the U.K. Results published on Monday indicate that the vaccine generated an immune response in a group of about 1,000 patients. To develop this vaccine, the British-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca has been working with Oxford, and the company has inked a major deal for widespread distribution to poorer countries.

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I guess you could say that in areas that are useful to the world, the UK has done well. On everything else.. no.
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Coronavirus: New NHS England contact-tracing app may bring ‘personal benefits’ • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

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NHS England’s coronavirus contact-tracing app could be revamped with new features designed to bring “personal benefits” to users, Sky News can reveal.

The proposed features include “Fitbit-style” alerts letting people know whether they might have been at risk of catching coronavirus, and “check-ins” with QR codes at the entrances of businesses, according to a person involved with the project.

Officials at NHS England’s innovation unit, NHSX, believe this will help win over a sceptical public and revitalise the troubled project after a series of high-profile delays and development issues.

But one of the proposed features could bring the UK government into further conflict with Apple after it emerged that the tech company had refused a request by another government to add QR check-ins to its app.

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Going to take a wild guess that this is going to fall far short.
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Amazon met with startups about investing, then launched competing products • WSJ

Dana Mattioli and Cara Lombardo:

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When Amazon’s venture-capital fund invested in DefinedCrowd Corp, it gained access to the technology startup’s finances and other confidential information.

Nearly four years later, in April, Amazon’s cloud-computing unit launched an artificial-intelligence product that does almost exactly what DefinedCrowd does, said DefinedCrowd founder and Chief Executive Daniela Braga.

The new offering from Amazon Web Services, called A2I, competes directly “with one of our bread-and-butter foundational products” that collects and labels data, said Ms. Braga. After seeing the A2I announcement, Ms. Braga limited the Amazon fund’s access to her company’s data and diluted its stake by 90% by raising more capital.

Ms. Braga is one of more than two dozen entrepreneurs, investors and deal advisers interviewed by The Wall Street Journal who said Amazon appeared to use the investment and deal-making process to help develop competing products.

In some cases, Amazon’s decision to launch a competing product devastated the business in which it invested. In other cases, it met with startups about potential takeovers, sought to understand how their technology works, then declined to invest and later introduced similar Amazon-branded products, according to some of the entrepreneurs and investors.

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This is the same complaint that used to be made against Microsoft. (Stac Electronics was the classic case.)
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US investors try to buy TikTok from Chinese owner • Financial Times

Henny Sender, Arash Massoudi, Miles Kruppa and Hannah Murphy:

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A group of US tech investors has launched an ambitious plan to buy TikTok from its Chinese owner, as the popular short video app tries to escape being banned by the White House. 

The investors, led by the venture capital firms General Atlantic and Sequoia Capital, are in discussions with the US Treasury and other regulators to see if spinning out TikTok and firewalling it from its Chinese parent would satisfy US concerns about the app, according to two people involved in the process. 

Last weekend, President Donald Trump’s election campaign placed ads on Facebook suggesting that TikTok was “spying” on US users, a claim the company has denied. Other critics have noted the app’s huge influence as it sits on the mobile phones of tens of millions of Americans.

Other investors, including New York-based private equity firms and Silicon Valley tech firms, have also made approaches to ByteDance and its founder, Zhang Yiming, about a potential deal for TikTok.

But none is as far advanced as the General Atlantic and Sequoia group, according to the people involved. ByteDance was reluctant to share its technology with a rival company, said one of the investors, adding: “This is the only viable plan.”

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CFIUS – the US body which looks at foreign takeovers – is also considering making it unwind its 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly. But the power of TikTok now is the algorithm, not necessarily the music.
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Twitter says it’s looking at subscription options, as ad revenue drops sharply • CNN

Brian Fung, CNN Business:

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Twitter is actively exploring additional ways to make money from its users, including by considering a subscription model, CEO Jack Dorsey said Thursday. The move comes as Twitter suffers a sharp decline in its core advertising business.

“You will likely see some tests this year” of various approaches, Dorsey told analysts on an investor call held to discuss the company’s second quarter earnings results. Dorsey said he has “a really high bar for when we would ask consumers to pay for aspects of Twitter,” but confirmed that the company is seeking to diversify its sources of revenue in what are “very, very early phases of exploring.”

Earlier this month, rumors flared about a paid Twitter option after the company posted a job opening focused on building a subscription platform codenamed “Gryphon.” Twitter’s stock surged at the time, signaling investor appetite for the company to find new revenue streams.

Shares of Twitter rose 4% in early trading Thursday following the earnings results.

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That would be something. Twitter has shown that it’s not afraid to think of different ways to do things. Zero ads? A free pass to other subscription sites? Guaranteed verification? It has to be something that cn be reversed, of course.
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Facebook is simulating users’ bad behavior using AI • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Facebook’s engineers have developed a new method to help them identify and prevent harmful behavior like users spreading spam, scamming others, or buying and selling weapons and drugs. They can now simulate the actions of bad actors using AI-powered bots by letting them loose on a parallel version of Facebook. Researchers can then study the bots’ behavior in simulation and experiment with new ways to stop them.

…In real life, scammers often start their work by prowling a users’ friendship groups to find potential marks. To model this behavior in WW, Facebook engineers created a group of “innocent” bots to act as targets and trained a number of “bad” bots who explored the network to try to find them. The engineers then tried different ways to stop the bad bots, introducing various constraints, like limiting the number of private messages and posts the bots could send each minute, to see how this affected their behavior.

Harman compares the work to that of city planners trying to reduce speeding on busy roads. In that case, engineers model traffic flows in simulators and then experiment with introducing things like speed bumps on certain streets to see what effect they have. WW simulation allows Facebook to do the same thing but with Facebook users.

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Will it simulate Facebook suggesting “bad actors” join white supremacist groups and similar? Because that’s a bit of a problem in the real world.
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The star of ‘Plandemic’ spent years flooding the vaccine court system with bad science • Vice

Anna Merlan:

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These are heady times, not just for Mikovits and Wakefield, but for the broader anti-vaccine movement. Amid the ongoing devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine—one experts worry could potentially be rushed into production, and thus subject to fear and suspicion and rejection from people who desperately need it—they see an opportunity to discredit the entire vaccine schedule, and the science behind it.

The goal appears to be nothing less than to undermine the basic functioning of the vaccine manufacture system at a time when we need it more urgently than ever. But a secondary goal is to be able to sue vaccine manufacturers in civil court again, which hasn’t been possible since the 1980s—and which could not only undermine the production of vaccines, but mean a staggering payday for many of the attorneys who make up the backbone of the anti-vaccine movement.

Justice is coming for vaccine makers, Mikovits, Wakefield and other anti-vaccine celebrities are promising their devoted fans. The vaccine system is teetering on the brink of collapse, they suggest. And with the COVID-19 vaccine projected for the near future, they clearly hope that now is the right time to persuade others that vaccines are fundamentally unsafe, and that resisting them is nothing less than humanity’s last stand.

In the meantime, though, the first part of this plan—inserting discredited science into an already overtaxed system and falsely linking vaccines with a variety of ailments—has already been underway for a long, long time.

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The weird thing about all this is how it sounds like a conspiracy theory. We’re fighting their conspiracy theory with our conspiracy theory.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: I wrongly said that “K-12” in the US is secondary school. I should have checked: it’s “Kindergarten to 12th grade”. Basically, all of formal school that isn’t university.

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