Start Up No.1369: Facebook’s rightwing insiders, Snapchat helps voter registration, can Trump build a (fire)wall?, Excel prompts gene rethink, and more


You won’t believe how (in)efficient wireless charging is! CC-licensed photo by Aaron Yoo on Flickr.

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

Facebook employees wonder what would happen if Trump used their platform to dispute election results • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac:

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Last Friday, at another all-hands meeting, employees asked Zuckerberg how right-wing publication Breitbart News could remain a Facebook News partner after sharing a video that promoted unproven treatments and said masks were unnecessary to combat the novel coronavirus. The video racked up 14 million views in six hours before it was removed from Breitbart’s page, though other accounts continued to share it.

Zuckerberg danced around the question but did note that Breitbart could be removed from the company’s news tab if it were to receive two strikes for publishing misinformation within 90 days of each other. (Facebook News partners, which include dozens of publications such as BuzzFeed News and the Washington Post, receive compensation and placement in a special news tab on the social network.)

“This was certainly one strike against them for misinformation, but they don’t have others in the last 90 days,” Zuckerberg said. “So by the policies that we have, which by the way I think are generally pretty reasonable on this, it doesn’t make sense to remove them.”

But some of Facebook’s own employees gathered evidence they say shows Breitbart — along with other right-wing outlets and figures including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, and conservative video production nonprofit Prager University — has received special treatment that helped it avoid running afoul of company policy. They see it as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for right-wing publishers and pages, many of which have alleged that the social network is biased against conservatives.

…On July 22, a Facebook employee posted a message to the company’s internal misinformation policy group noting that some misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been cleared by someone at Facebook seemingly acting on the publication’s behalf.

“A Breitbart escalation marked ‘urgent: end of day’ was resolved on the same day, with all misinformation strikes against Breitbart’s page and against their domain cleared without explanation,” the employee wrote.

The same employee said a partly false rating applied to an Instagram post from Charlie Kirk was flagged for “priority” escalation by Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy. Kaplan once served in George W. Bush’s administration and drew criticism for publicly supporting Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination to the Supreme Court.

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Kaplan’s influence is creating a disinformation climate that is toxic to the rule of law. Increasingly, the question is whether Facebook can be saved in time for the US to save itself.
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The White House’s plan to purge Chinese tech from the internet is just bluster — for now • The Verge

James Vincent:

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It’s an expansion of the White House’s 5G Clean Path initiative, which was announced earlier this year with the aim of keeping Chinese hardware companies like Huawei and ZTE out of America’s 5G infrastructure. The Clean Network program takes that anti-Chinese impulse and applies it not only to 5G but also telecoms carriers, cloud services, undersea cables, apps, and app stores. It would mean no Chinese apps in US app stores, no US data stored on the Chinese cloud, and no US apps on Chinese smartphones.

Announcing the plan yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a major aim of the program was to keep American citizens safe from Chinese spies and censorship. In what would be a serious escalation of the administration’s current war against TikTok, Pompeo said that under the Clean Program, the US government would remove all “untrusted” Chinese apps like TikTok and WeChat from American app stores.

“With parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok and WeChat and others, are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for Chinese Communist Party content censorship,” said Pompeo in the press briefing, reports CNBC.

But while the Clean Network program is grand in scope, it’s not clear how or if it can be enforced, especially with the Trump administration distracted by an election challenge in a few months’ time.

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As usual, it’s something vaguely resembling a good idea, done in entirely the wrong way. The US needs rules about how all data is used, not rules about “Chinese” apps. It’s also the usual tipping of the hand of the Trump admin’s authoritarian instincts: other countries that do this sort of blunt-tool approach are Turkey, India, Russia and China. This won’t stop scams and won’t protect American data, because if Chinese state hackers want it, they’ll just grab it from data brokers or the zillions of unsound web servers out there. Including the US government’s.
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Snapchat adds in-app voter registration targeted at young people • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Snapchat successfully registered 450,000 people through its app during the 2018 midterms. Data released in May shows that 50% of those registered actually went out and cast ballots.

What’s next: The new tools will roll out in September, but Snapchat is announcing the tools Thursday on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Snapchat says it will also release new content within its content arm, Discover, that will help inform users about how to register to vote and turn out.

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For context: Snapchat reaches 80 million users who are over 18 in the US.

Wonder if Facebook will copy this feature?
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Twitter will label government officials and state-affiliated media accounts • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The state-affiliated media category includes outlets where a government “exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution.” (The labels will also appear on senior staff members’ accounts.) It doesn’t include outlets that receive government funding but maintain editorial independence.

Twitter already banned state-affiliated media from buying Twitter ads, and it’s now going to avoid amplifying these outlets, “including on the home timeline, notifications, and search.” The full extent of this isn’t clear: searching for Russia-affiliated RT, for example, still brings up the account’s name with its new label. A Twitter spokesperson also tells The Verge that “there won’t be a change to the account’s visibility if someone follows them” — so if you follow an account like RT, you’ll still see its tweets in the algorithmically organized “top tweets” timeline.

Twitter is following a similar move by Facebook, which added labels to state-owned media in June, and YouTube, which announced a labeling policy in 2018. However, Twitter is apparently the first major platform to explicitly lock these accounts out of its recommendation algorithms.

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A lot of fun to be had looking at which Chinese media accounts do and don’t get these.
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Wireless charging is a disaster waiting to happen • OneZero

Eric Ravenscraft:

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I tested a Pixel 4 using multiple wireless chargers, as well as the standard charging cable that comes with the phone. I used a high-precision power meter that sits between the charging block and the power outlet to measure power consumption.
In my tests, I found that wireless charging used, on average, around 47% more power than a cable.

Charging the phone from completely dead to 100% using a cable took an average of 14.26 watt-hours (Wh). Using a wireless charger took, on average, 21.01 Wh. That comes out to slightly more than 47% more energy for the convenience of not plugging in a cable. In other words, the phone had to work harder, generate more heat, and suck up more energy when wirelessly charging to fill the same size battery.

How the phone was positioned on the charger significantly affected charging efficiency. The flat Yootech charger I tested was difficult to line up properly. Initially I intended to measure power consumption with the coils aligned as well as possible, then intentionally misalign them to detect the difference.

Instead, during one test, I noticed that the phone wasn’t charging. It looked like it was aligned properly, but while trying to fiddle with it, the difference between positions that charged properly and those that didn’t charge at all could be measured in millimetres.

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Personally, I long ago gave up wireless charging on a phone: it’s too easy to get the position wrong (hence zero charging), and too slow. It’s hard to see phone companies retreating from it, though, because it has the lustre of convenience.
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Scientists rename genes because Microsoft Excel reads them as dates • Engadget

Jon Fingas:

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Microsoft Excel’s automatic formatting is normally helpful for finishing spreadsheets quickly, but it’s proving to be an agent of chaos for geneticists. The Verge has learned that the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee has issued guidelines for naming human genes to prevent Excel’s automatic date formatting from altering data. MARCH1 (Membrane Associated Ring-CH-Type Finger 1), for example, should now be labeled MARCHF1 to stop Excel from changing it to 1-Mar.

The names of 27 genes have been changed in the past year to avoid Excel-related errors, HGNC coordinator Elspeth Bruford said. This isn’t a rare error, either, as Excel had affected about a fifth of genetics-related papers examined in a 2016 study.

There will still be a library of discarded names and symbols to help reduce confusion going forward.

The scientific community has changed gene names before, but usually to minimize false positives in search results or to be sensitive to the concerns of patients. Now, it’s directly in response to software design — technology is getting in the way of research rather than speeding it up.

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Ah yes – noted this problem back in February 2018, and that paper notes that the problem has been ongoing since 2004. That’s 16 years of errors which may have been overlooked. Terrific screenplay plot device.
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April 2019: Secrecy, self-dealing, and greed at the N.R.A. • The New Yorker

Mike Spies, just over a year ago:

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The National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) and Ackerman [McQueen, a PR company] have become so intertwined that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Top officials and staff move freely between the two organizations; Oliver North, the former Iran-Contra operative, who now serves as the N.R.A.’s president, is paid roughly a million dollars a year through Ackerman, according to two N.R.A. sources.

But this relationship, which in many ways has built the contemporary N.R.A., seems also to be largely responsible for the N.R.A.’s dire financial state. According to interviews and to documents that I obtained—federal tax forms, charity records, contracts, corporate filings, and internal communications—a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders has extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.

Memos created by a senior N.R.A. employee describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed, whose leaders have encouraged disastrous business ventures and questionable partnerships, and have marginalized those who object. “Management has subordinated its judgment to the vendors,” the documents allege. “Trust in the top has eroded.”

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The New York attorney-general filed on Thursday to have the NRA dissolved on the basis that there’s fraud and self-dealing going on. The article by Spies either triggered the investigation, or was informed by it. A political move, to be sure, but in a sense so was going after Al Capone for non-payment of taxes.
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Hello! You’ve been referred here because you’re wrong about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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Hello! Someone has referred you to this post because you’ve said something quite wrong about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
I apologize if it feels a bit cold and rude to respond in such an impersonal way, but I’ve been wasting a ton of time lately responding individually to different people saying the same wrong things over and over again, and I was starting to feel like this guy [from the “Someone is wrong on the internet” XKCD cartoon].

And… I could probably use more sleep, and my blood pressure could probably use a little less time spent responding to random wrong people. And, so, for my own good you get this. Also for you own good. Because you don’t want to be wrong on the internet, do you?

Also I’ve totally copied the idea for this from Ken “Popehat” White, who wrote Hello! You’ve Been Referred Here Because You’re Wrong About The First Amendment a few years ago, and it’s great. You should read it too. Yes, you. Because if you’re wrong about 230, there’s a damn good chance you’re wrong about the 1st Amendment too.

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One to read – because everywhere I look there are folks who don’t understand S230 – and to keep in the bookmarks so you too can refer people to it.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 20: this pandemic sure changed smartphone marketing • WSJ

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Samsung’s Galaxy Note smartphones have always been known for on-the-go productivity, but now we’re not going anywhere. WSJ’s Joanna Stern looks at how Samsung’s changed the phone—and its promotional messages—due to Covid-19.

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Stern’s are the only videos worth watching about smartphones. And this all rings so, so true. As a comment elsewhere said, “These days, we’re not working from home – we’re living at work.”
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The Beirut explosion and the dangers of ammonium nitrate • Arc Digital

Joel Looper:

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Not long before this ammonium nitrate was seized by Lebanese port authorities — and it’s not yet clear why it was seized — a similar explosion happened on the other side of the world in the central Texas town of West, with a population under 3,000. The blast on April 17, 2013 killed fifteen, injured more than 160, and destroyed or damaged more than 150 buildings. Windows were blown out seven miles away in Abbott, Texas, the smoke could be seen twenty miles away in Waco, and the resulting 2.1-magnitude earthquake could be felt as far away as the Dallas-Fort Worth area. 240 tons of ammonium nitrate were involved in that blast. (Watch the West, Texas explosion here.)

Both videos show how violent ammonium nitrate explosions can be. The chemical is an oxidizer. All it needs is contact with an open flame for a chemical reaction to take place, and once it begins, the process is rapid and frighteningly powerful. While ammonium nitrate is cheap and easy to manufacture, useful in fertilizer production — and, yes, bomb-making — under the wrong conditions the compound can become extraordinarily lethal.

That became obvious to U.S. officials after the West explosion. After a three year investigation into conditions at the West Fertilizer Company, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented several measures to prevent such a disaster from happening again. These included guidelines to help first responders navigate situations like the one that happened in West, and a requirement that companies make their hazard planning documents available.

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Now, guess which administration reversed these requirements in November 2019, increasing the possibility of such an explosion happening again? (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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