Start Up No.1368: Facebook screws up political ads, Instagram screws up political hashtags, Google screws up WearOS v YouTube Music, and more


Will airports still look like this after the pandemic? CC-licensed photo by Jonathan Cutrer on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Unticketed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Can killing cookies save journalism? • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:

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A study performed by Google last year, for example, concluded that disabling cookies reduced publisher revenue by more than 50%. (Research by an independent team of economists, however, pegged the cookie premium at only 4%. Needless to say, there were methodological differences.)

If the Google study was right, then [Dutch broadcaster] NPO [which essentially let everyone opt out of targeted advertising] should have been heading for financial disaster. The opposite turned out to be true. Instead, the company found that ads served to users who opted out of cookies were bringing in as much or more money as ads served to users who opted in. The results were so strong that as of January 2020, NPO simply got rid of advertising cookies altogether. And rather than decline, its digital revenue is dramatically up, even after the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.

This makes NPO a particularly powerful entrant into a long-running debate over the value of targeted advertising. Ad tech companies, a category dominated by Google and Facebook but which teems with other players, argue that microtargeting is better for everyone: users like “relevant” ads, advertisers like being able to reach potential customers more precisely, and publishers get paid more for ads with a higher click rate.

A growing body of evidence, however, calls each of these premises into question. The significance of the debate goes far beyond internet privacy, implicating the viability of journalism and, by extension, the health of democracy.

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Not giving money to middlemen turns out to be a great way to keep more money for yourself. I’ve never seen the point in targeted advertising.
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A “bug” in Instagram’s hashtags has been favouring Donald Trump • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Mac:

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For at least the last two months, a key Instagram feature, which algorithmically pushes users toward supposedly related content, has been treating hashtags associated with President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in very different ways. Searches for Biden also return a variety of pro-Trump messages, while searches for Trump-related topics only returned the specific hashtags, like #MAGA or #Trump — which means searches for Biden-related hashtags also return counter-messaging, while those for Trump do not.

Earlier this week, a search on Instagram for #JoeBiden would have surfaced nearly 390,000 posts tagged with the former vice president’s name along with related hashtags selected by the platform’s algorithm. Users searching Instagram for #JoeBiden might also see results for #joebiden2020, as well as pro-Trump hashtags like #trump2020landslide and #democratsdestroyamerica.

A similar search for #DonaldTrump on the platform, however, provided a totally different experience. Besides showing 7 million posts tagged with the president’s name, Instagram did not present any related hashtags that would have pushed users toward different content or promoted alternative viewpoints.

The difference between these two results, which an Instagram spokesperson told BuzzFeed News was a “bug,” prevented hashtags including #Trump and #MAGA from being associated with potentially negative content. Meanwhile, Instagram hashtags associated with the Democratic presidential candidate — #JoeBiden and #Biden, for example — were presented alongside content that included overtly pro-Trump content and attacks on the former vice president.

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Instagram then whined, after this was published, that Buzzfeed News had “cherry-picked” from tens of thousands of hashtags that were affected. To which Mac responded that “if Instagram considers comparing the leading hashtags of the top two presidential candidates as ‘cherry-picking,’ I am worried for your platform. How about you guys focus on fixing your platform so reporters don’t have to be your product managers?”

Amen to that last.
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Trump ads on Facebook about Biden and police are false, fact-checkers find • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg and Andrew Ba Tran:

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Fact-checkers were unanimous in their assessments when President Trump began claiming in June that Democrat Joe Biden wanted to “defund” police forces. PolitiFact called the allegations “false,” as did CheckYourFact. The Associated Press detailed “distortions” in Trump’s claims. FactCheck.org called an ad airing them “deceptive.” Another site, the Dispatch, said there is “nothing currently to support” Trump’s claims.

But these judgments, made by five fact-checking organizations that are part of Facebook’s independent network for policing falsehoods on the platform, were not shared with Facebook’s users. That is because the company specifically exempts politicians from its rules against deception. Ads containing the falsehoods continue to run freely on the platform, without any kind of warning or label.

Enabled by Facebook’s rules, Trump’s reelection campaign has shown versions of the false claim on Facebook at least 22.5 million times, in more than 1,400 ads costing between $350,000 and $553,000, a Washington Post analysis found based on data from Facebook’s Ad Library.

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Facebook is awful. Awful.
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Facebook must better police online hate, state attorneys general say • The New York Times

Davey Alba:

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Twenty state attorneys general on Wednesday called on Facebook to better prevent messages of hate, bias and disinformation from spreading, and said the company needed to provide more help to users facing online abuse.

In a letter to the social media giant, the officials said they regularly encountered people facing online intimidation and harassment on Facebook. They outlined seven steps the company should take, including allowing third-party audits of hate content and offering real-time assistance to users.

“We hope to work with you to ensure that fewer individuals suffer online harassment and discrimination, and that it is quickly and effectively addressed when they do,” said the letter, which was addressed to Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. The officials who signed the letter, all of them Democrats, represent states including New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California, as well as the District of Columbia.

The letter adds to the rising pressure facing Mr. Zuckerberg and his company to stop disinformation and harassment on Facebook.

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He’ll ignore it.
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What travel will look like after coronavirus • WSJ

Scott McCartney:

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When will we be traveling again in large numbers? And what will travel be like in the future?

The first question depends on a medical solution to the coronavirus pandemic. The second is best answered with experience.

I asked eight travel pioneers for predictions on what the future of travel will be—current and former chairmen and chief executives of travel companies and a former secretary of transportation. All have experience from past crises and recoveries.

Most foresee a lasting decline in business travel, but think leisure travel will bounce back robustly. That means airlines and hotels will have to change their business plans, being unable to rely as much on rich revenue from corporate travelers. Expect higher ticket prices and room rates for vacationers to cover the costs with fewer high-dollar customers to subsidize bargain-seekers.

“The airline industry is going to have to examine its business plan,” says Robert Crandall, former chief executive of American Airlines. “You are never going to see the volume of business travel that you’ve seen in the past.”

He estimates one-third to one-half of business travel will go away. More meetings will take place electronically. Trips once thought necessary will be seen as superfluous. “Everybody who depends on business travel is going to have to rethink their game plan,” Mr. Crandall says.

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I seem to recall predictions of business travel “going away” after 9/11. That didn’t happen. Perhaps this time it will.
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The truth is paywalled but the lies are free • Current Affairs

Nathan Robinson, pointing out that reliable news sites almost always have paywalls, but junk ones definitely don’t:

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people can find their ways around paywalls. SciHub is a completely illegal but extremely convenient means of obtaining academic research for free. (I am purely describing it, not advocating it.) You can find a free version of the article debunking race and IQ myths on ResearchGate, a site that has engaged in mass copyright infringement in order to make research accessible.

Often, because journal publishers tightly control access to their copyrighted work in order to charge those exorbitant fees for PDFs, the versions of articles that you can get for free are drafts that have not yet gone through peer review, and have thus been subjected to less scrutiny. This means that the more reliable an article is, the less accessible it is. On the other hand, pseudo-scholarhip is easy to find.

Right-wing think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, the Hoover Institution, the Mackinac Center, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation pump out slickly-produced policy documents on every subject under the sun. They are utterly untrustworthy—the conclusion is always going to be “let the free market handle the problem,” no matter what the problem or what the facts of the case. But it is often dressed up to look sober-minded and non-ideological. 

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The essay gets into the much bigger question of why we can’t repay creators based on how much their work is read. (Have you seen Medium, Nathan?) And he does acknowledge the existence of The Guardian, though he says “but it’s owned by a trust!” as though that was the answer to everything. It isn’t.
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Wear OS will lose Google Play Music months before a YouTube Music app exists • Android Police

Jules Wang:

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Google Play Music is being phased out in favor of YouTube Music starting next month. That change already exacerbates the need for the latter to achieve a desirable feature parity with its predecessor, but it also now presents a challenging chasm for Wear OS users who will lose access to Play Music without a robust YouTube Music experience.

A new Wear OS help page tells users that they won’t be able to download or even use Google Play Music “in the next couple of weeks.” And until a proper YouTube Music experience appears “in the coming months,” that means they’ll have to resort to other apps in order to download and play local files.

People are understandably upset about the lack of commitment Google has to its own wearables platform. It’s been a struggle since day one, after all, and it will continue to be for some time. For the time being, as with almost any media source, Wear OS users will be able to control YouTube Music playback on their phone from their watches.

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I haven’t been able to keep up with Google’s naming on its music services for ages. Seems like it can’t keep up with keeping them organised across its hardware lines either, which is a terrible indictment of the coordination between the software and hardware sides. And Google doesn’t even offer a smartwatch – this is a mismatch between software for one sort of hardware and software for another sort of hardware. John Gruber argues that Google has just lost interest in Android and WearOS, and it’s hard to make the contrary case.
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Microsoft integrates Android apps into Windows 10 with new Your Phone update • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft is now allowing Windows 10 users to run Android apps side by side with Windows applications on a PC. It’s part of a new feature in Your Phone, and it builds upon the mirroring that Microsoft’s Your Phone app already provides. You can now access a list of Android apps in Microsoft’s Your Phone app and launch these mobile apps accordingly. These will run in a separate window outside of the Your Phone app, mirrored from your phone.

This new Android app support also allows Windows 10 users to multitask with other Windows apps with alt+tab support, and you’ll even be able to pin these Android apps to the Windows 10 taskbar or Start menu. The ability to launch apps directly from Your Phone means you no longer have to search around on a mirrored experience of your phone, you can simply pin your favorite Android apps to the taskbar and run them as if they’re regular Windows apps.

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Pretty good! Beat Apple in getting to–

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Not all Android apps will work seamlessly with this new Your Phone feature, though. Microsoft warns that some may block the ability to cast to other screens, producing a black screen instead. Some apps and games will also not respond to a keyboard or mouse, and others may play audio from your phone.

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Oh well. But certainly cements the two dominant ecosystems for mobile and phone. A far wiser move by Microsoft than the quixotic pursuit of Windows Phone.
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Levandowski gets 18 months in prison for stealing Google files • Reuters

Paresh Dave:

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A U.S. judge on Tuesday sentenced former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to 18 months in prison for stealing a trade secret from Google related to self-driving cars months before becoming the head of Uber Technologies Inc’s rival unit.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco said Levandowski, who was convicted on Tuesday following a March plea agreement, said Levandowski could enter custody once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided.

Alsup said a sentence short of imprisonment would have given “a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets,” comparing what Levandowski took to a “competitor’s game plan.”

The 75-year-old judge, who has been involved in Silicon Valley litigation for nearly five decades, described Levandowski’s conviction as the “biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen.”

“Billions [of dollars] in the future were at play, and when those kind of financial incentives are there good people will do terrible things, and that’s what happened here,” Alsup said.

Prosecutors sought a 27-month prison sentence. Levandowski requested one-year confinement at his Marin County home, contending that bouts with pneumonia in recent years would make him susceptible to death from the novel coronavirus while in prison. His attorneys asked the judge to consider that investigators found no evidence that “Levandowski used any of Google’s trade secrets after leaving Google’s employment.”

Levandowski transferred more than 14,000 Google files including development schedules and product designs to his personal laptop before leaving the company and while negotiating a deal with Uber, where he briefly led its self-driving car unit.

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Files by Google adds PIN protection for your most sensitive files on Android • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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The Files by Google app, which primarily gives Android users an easy way to manage files and free up space on their phone, is getting a new PIN-protected “Safe Folder” feature. After setting up a four-digit PIN, you can store any of your sensitive files in this encrypted folder. The folder is locked the moment you switch away to another app, and its contents are only accessible through Files by Google.

According to Google, the feature is mainly designed to help people who share Android devices, which it says is common for women in many parts of the world. Safe Folders keep important files like identity documents safe and secure from accidental deletion or sharing by kids, for example. And yes, it could also help anyone who wants to keep any “sensitive photos” private.

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If my own experience with files you can PIN-lock is any guide, the world will soon be full of people who have either used their cashcard PIN or birthday to lock these folders, or who cannot remember the PIN to unlock the folder one day after they lock it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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