Start Up No.1378: Facebook the (misinforation) superspreader, Zoom coming to more screens, Instagram pushes endless scrolling, and more


If you liked this experience, a new app can recreate it with your digital music. CC-licensed photo by Steve Cadman on Flickr.

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Procedural note: The Overspill will take a week’s break next week.

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

On Facebook, health-misinformation ‘superspreaders’ rack up billions of views • Reuters

Elizabeth Culliford:

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Misleading health content has racked up an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook Inc (FB.O) over the past year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy group Avaaz said in a new report on Wednesday.

The report found that content from 10 “superspreader” sites sharing health misinformation had almost four times as many Facebook views in April 2020 as equivalent content from the sites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The social media giant, which has been under pressure to curb misinformation on its platform, has made amplifying credible health information a key element of its response. It also started removing misinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak that it said could cause imminent harm.

“Facebook’s algorithm is a major threat to public health. Mark Zuckerberg promised to provide reliable information during the pandemic, but his algorithm is sabotaging those efforts by driving many of Facebook’s 2.7 billion users to health misinformation-spreading networks,” said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

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Yeah so tell us something we didn’t know. But: these stories are coming daily now, from outlet after outlet. If you’re paying any attention to news about Facebook, you’ll feel that it’s all bad. That’s quite a change from a few years ago. It is all rolling downhill now.
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QAnon groups removed by Facebook • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:

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Facebook said on Wednesday that it had removed 790 QAnon groups from its site and was restricting another 1,950 groups, 440 pages and more than 10,000 Instagram accounts related to the right-wing conspiracy theory, in the social network’s most sweeping action against the fast-growing movement.

Facebook’s takedown followed record growth of QAnon groups on the site, much of it since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. Activity on some of the largest QAnon groups on the social network, including likes, comments and shares of posts, rose 200 to 300% in the last six months, according to data gathered by The New York Times.

“We have seen growing movements that, while not directly organizing violence, have celebrated violent acts, shown that they have weapons and suggest they will use them, or have individual followers with patterns of violent behavior,” Facebook said in a statement.

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon with believers who alleged, falsely, that the world was run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who were plotting against President Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. But ahead of the November election, the movement has become increasingly mainstream. Marjorie Taylor Greene, an avowed QAnon supporter from Georgia, recently won a Republican primary and may be elected to the House in November.

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Greene could arguably be representing people with mental illness. Not clear why you need to be mentally ill to do that, though. The question is, why didn’t Facebook do this some time back, before it got so big? It was obviously always heading towards physical harm – that’s essentially how it started.

But Facebook is suggesting that it will prevent QAnon nutcases from organising there again. This could get interesting.
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Facebook India executive files criminal complaint against journalist for Facebook post • Committee to Protect Journalists

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Facebook regional director Ankhi Das should withdraw her criminal complaint against journalist Awesh Tiwari, and respect citizens’ rights to criticize her, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On August 16, Das, Facebook’s public policy director for India, South, and Central Asia, filed a criminal complaint with the cyber unit of the Delhi police, accusing Tiwari and other social media users of threatening her, “making sexually coloured remarks,” and defaming her, according to news website Newslaundry and a copy of the complaint shared on social media.

The complaint cited a Facebook post by Tiwari, Chhattisgarh state bureau chief of news channel Swarajya Express, who frequently posts political commentary on Facebook. The post criticized Das for her and Facebook’s alleged inaction in controlling hate speech by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party against religious minorities, and cited a Wall Street Journal article alleging Das’ fealty to the party. The post does not contain any sexual remarks or explicit threats.

In her complaint to the police, Das asked for an investigation to be opened against Tiwari for sexual harassment, defamation, and criminal intimidation.

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The context for this is that Das is the person at Facebook India who blocked the deletion of hate content by the ruling BJP, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Reading the complaint, it doesn’t seem to target Tiwari over sexual harassment or intimidation. It’s all over the place, to be honest.

But there’s delicious irony in a Facebook executive complaining to the courts about a posting by a journalist on Facebook regarding something another journalist wrote about that executive interfering over postings on Facebook.
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Zoom is coming to Google Nest, Amazon Echo, and Facebook Portal smart displays • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Zoom is expanding to a variety of new devices later this year, with the company announcing that the Amazon Echo Show, Facebook Portal, and Google Nest Hub Max will support the widely used videoconferencing app later this year.

It’s a big expansion for Zoom, which has recently started to branch out into its own licensed videoconferencing hardware. And smart displays — with their high-quality directional microphones and built-in touchscreens — are practically designed to be good videoconferencing devices.

The new Zoom integration is a big deal for Google, Amazon, and Facebook, too, given that all three of these companies have almost exclusively stuck to their own, in-house video chatting solutions (like Google Meet and Facebook Messenger) on their smart displays. The Portal will be the first to get Zoom, with a rollout planned for this September.

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It’s going to be eeeeeeverywhere.
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Instagram rolls out suggested posts to keep you glued to your feed • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Instagram is expanding its feed today with the launch of “suggested posts.” These posts, from accounts you don’t follow, will show up after you’ve reached the end of your feed and give you the option to keep scrolling with Instagram’s suggestions. Up until now, the feed has been entirely determined by users’ preferences and the people they follow.

For the past couple of years, Instagram has shown users a message when they reach the end of their feeds, meaning they’ve seen every post over the past two days from people they follow. With suggested posts, they’ll have the option to keep scrolling past that marker for more content. (That message will still be there along with the option to revisit old posts.)

The suggested posts won’t be the same ones that show up in Explore. They’ll be related to the content that people already follow, whereas Explore aims to point people toward adjacent content, says Julian Gutman, head of product at Instagram Home. He used space content, which he follows and engages with on his feed regularly, as an example. A suggested post might be a new space photo from someone he doesn’t follow, whereas his Explore page might contain posts related to physics more broadly.

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Just when you thought that Instagram was going to encourage people not to spend all their waking hours endlessly scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
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Russiagate was not a hoax • The Atlantic

Franklin Foer:

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The [Senate] committee fills in the gaps somewhat. It reports that [Trump campaign chairman Paul] Manafort and [Russian spy Konstantin] Kilimnik talked almost daily during the campaign. They communicated through encrypted technologies set to automatically erase their correspondence; they spoke using code words and shared access to an email account. It’s worth pausing on these facts: The chairman of the Trump campaign was in daily contact with a Russian agent, constantly sharing confidential information with him. That alone makes for one of the worst scandals in American political history.

The significant revelation of the document is that Kilimnik was likely a participant in the Kremlin scheme to hack and leak Clinton campaign emails. Furthermore, Kilimnik kept in close contact with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort’s. The report also indicates that Deripaska was connected to his government’s hacking efforts. This fact is especially suggestive: Deripaska had accused Manafort of stealing money from him, and Manafort hoped to repair his relationship with the oligarch. Was Manafort passing information to him, through Kilimnik, for the sake of currying favor with an old patron?

As maddeningly elliptical as this section of the report may be—and much of it is redacted—it still makes one wonder why Mueller would cut a deal with an established prevaricator like Manafort before pursuing his investigation of Kilimnik to more concrete conclusions.

When Manafort—with a pardon dangling in front of him—brazenly lied to prosecutors, he helped save Trump from having to confront this damning story. He wasn’t the only Trump associate to obstruct justice. (The committee has referred five Trump aides and supporters to the Justice Department for possibly providing false testimony.)

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This won’t make any difference to what people think – those positions will have long since ossified – but the obstruction of justice allegation could linger into next year. There are very serious questions about what a post-Trump administration would do over claims of lying to Congress; that’s part of what got Roger Stone convicted.

Kilimnik also concocted the story of *Ukrainian* interference in the US election. Of course Trump believed that rather than that Russia did. Maybe next year we’ll learn why he’s so in hock to Russia. Meanwhile, he’s revealed in the report as either a liar, a perjurer, a dupe, or all three.
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Inside Google’s feud with GetYourGuide, Trivago, HomeToGo • CNBC

Sam Shead:

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Activity booking platform GetYourGuide, hotel finder Trivago, and Airbnb rival HomeToGo have been feuding with the search giant about their unpaid advertising bills since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Online travel companies were particularly exposed to the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak as lockdowns brought worldwide mobility to a near standstill. New bookings dried up and the sites had to refund tens of millions of dollars to customers that were unable to travel.

In a joint letter, a group of German travel start-ups asked Google, which has helped the businesses thrive over the years by promoting their websites in its search results in exchange for a fee, to share the burden.

The letter didn’t work as the companies hoped it would. CNBC has been able to confirm through multiple sources and materials that Google demanded advertising bills were paid in full.

“Google refused to do anything and instead asked us to pay immediately in the midst of the pandemic,” said GetYourGuide Chief Executive Johannes Reck, who persuaded SoftBank to invest $500m in his Berlin-based company last year.

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A TikTok ban is overdue • The New York Times

Timothy Wu:

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In China, the foreign equivalents of TikTok and WeChat — video and messaging apps such as YouTube and WhatsApp — have been banned for years. The country’s extensive blocking, censorship and surveillance violate just about every principle of internet openness and decency. China keeps a closed and censorial internet economy at home while its products enjoy full access to open markets abroad.

The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated. The privilege of full internet access — the open internet — should be extended only to companies from countries that respect that openness themselves.

Behind the TikTok controversy is an important struggle between two dueling visions of the internet. The first is an older vision: the idea that the internet should, in a neutral fashion, connect everyone, and that blocking and censorship of sites by nation-states should be rare and justified by more than the will of the ruler. The second and newer vision, of which China has been the leading exponent, is “net nationalism,” which views the country’s internet primarily as a tool of state power. Economic growth, surveillance and thought control, from this perspective, are the internet’s most important functions.

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This thinking is going to be prevalent now, whatever the political balance of the US is after November – more accurately, from late January. Huawei, TikTok (if still Chinese-owned, which I guess it won’t be), any other company originating in China: they’re all going to be viewed with suspicion in the US and will have strategy risk in dealing with the US.
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Rice University device channels heat into light • Rice University News

Mike Williams:

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Gururaj Naik and Junichiro Kono of Rice’s Brown School of Engineering introduced their technology in ACS Photonics.

Their invention is a hyperbolic thermal emitter that can absorb intense heat that would otherwise be spewed into the atmosphere, squeeze it into a narrow bandwidth and emit it as light that can be turned into electricity.

The discovery rests on another by Kono’s group in 2016 when it found a simple method to make highly aligned, wafer-scale films of closely packed nanotubes.

Discussions with Naik, who joined Rice in 2016, led the pair to see if the films could be used to direct “thermal photons.”

“Thermal photons are just photons emitted from a hot body,” Kono said. “If you look at something hot with an infrared camera, you see it glow. The camera is capturing these thermally excited photons.”

Infrared radiation is a component of sunlight that delivers heat to the planet, but it’s only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. “Any hot surface emits light as thermal radiation,” Naik said. “The problem is that thermal radiation is broadband, while the conversion of light to electricity is efficient only if the emission is in a narrow band.

…Naik said adding the emitters to standard solar cells could boost their efficiency from the current peak of about 22%. “By squeezing all the wasted thermal energy into a small spectral region, we can turn it into electricity very efficiently,” he said. “The theoretical prediction is that we can get 80% efficiency.”

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This isn’t a next-year technology, because it relies on nanotubes, and they’re still hellishly hard to manufacture reliably in volume. (Thanks John for the link.)
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Introducing Longplay • Adrian’s Corner

Adrian Schönig:

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Longplay is a music player for anyone who enjoy listening to entire albums start-to-finish. It digs through your Apple Music or iTunes library – that might have grown over the years or decades and is full of a mix of individual songs, partial albums, complete albums and playlists – to identify just those complete albums and gives you quick access to play them.

It provides a beautiful view of all your album artwork, and let’s you explore your albums (or playlists) by various sort options. A unique one is Negligence which combines how highly you’ve ranked an album and when you last listened it, to let you rediscover forgotten favourites. Brightness sorts the albums by their primary colour for an interesting visual take on your albums collection.

You can hide albums or playlists that you don’t want to show up – useful for meditation or kids albums, or smart playlists that you use for doing house keeping.

For users who want to listen on specific AirPlay devices, such as multi-room audio systems or headphones, there’s a “Play on” feature that’s the quickest way to listen on the right device.

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He did begin developing it on Spotify, but ran into hassles with the SDK and edge cases. (If it’s a runaway hit, maybe he’ll add Spotify back.) A neat way to re-visualise your music, and also to remind yourself that albums have a track order that people thought about.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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