Start Up No.1381: Facebook offers US election study, an Apple Silicon MacBook?, Uber and Lyft’s PR attack dogs, and more


You’re looking at the most reliably valuable territory on the Monopoly board. CC-licensed photo by Paul Wolfenden on Flickr.

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

Facebook project will study its impact on the 2020 election • Protocol

David Pierce:

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Facebook is teaming up with academics across the country to determine once and for all whether Facebook is in fact influencing the 2020 election. The only catch: They won’t know the answer until well after it’s over.

The new research project, which Facebook announced Monday, will study how the 2020 election is playing out on the world’s largest social network, and how the platform affects things like political polarization, voter participation, trust in democracy and the spread of misinformation. A 17-person research team, which includes leading academics in the fields of media and politics, will work with some two dozen Facebook staffers to design the experiments.

Once users opt in to be part of the study, the research team will deidentify their data, split them into groups and begin tinkering with their News Feeds, switch up their ad experiences and, in some cases, even ask them to stop using Facebook temporarily, all while surveying participants to see how their experiences and viewpoints evolve and stack up against control groups. The findings, which Facebook will have no veto power over, will be published for free to the public beginning next summer.

In some ways, the undertaking demonstrates how far Facebook has come since 2016, when it eagerly courted political clients with the promise of influence, then, following President Trump’s victory, just as eagerly denied that it had any influence at all. Mark Zuckerberg himself famously called it a “pretty crazy idea.” But the fact that this sort of research is only now getting underway also demonstrates just how little we actually know four years later.

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There were studies about the effect of Facebook on the 2018 election. One of them paid people not to use Facebook for the month before and after the November 2018 voting days. Those who didn’t use it, compared to a control group, became less politically polarised, better informed about news, and spent more time with their family. After the experiment, they were also more likely to remain off Facebook.
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Report: super-lightweight 12in MacBook powered by Apple Silicon to launch this year • Mac Rumors

Tim Hardwick:

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Apple’s first ARM-based Mac will use an A14X processor, which is codenamed “Tonga” and manufactured by TSMC, and the MacBook will have a battery life of between 15 and 20 hours, according to the Chinese-language newspaper The China Times:

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According to Apple’s supply chain, Apple is expected to launch a Macbook with a 12-inch Retina Display at the end of this year, using its self-developed and designed A14X processor, with the development code of Tonga, supporting a USB Type-C interface and weighing less than 1 kilogram, because of the low-power advantage of the Arm-based processor. The Macbook battery lasts 15 to 20 hours. The A14X processor will also be used in the new generation iPad Pro tablet.

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Apple announced at its WWDC developer conference in June that its Macs will transition from Intel x86-based CPUs to its self-designed Arm-based Apple Silicon processors over the next two years. Bloomberg has said that Apple is currently developing at least three Mac processors that are based on the 5-nanometer A14 chip that will be used in the upcoming iPhone 12 models. According to the Chinese report’s sources, the first Apple-designed A14X processor has been finalized and will be mass produced using TSMC’s 5-nanometer process by the end of the year.

Apple’s first Mac processors will have 12 cores, including eight high-performance cores and at least four energy-efficient cores, according to Bloomberg. Apple is said to be exploring Mac processors with more than 12 cores for further in the future, with the company already designing a second generation of Mac processors based on the A15 chip.

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That Apple would revive the 12in MacBook has become the frontrunner in speculation about the first Apple Silicon devices; it would either be that or the 13in MacBook Pro getting a bump to 14in. The MacBook would thus become the new generation MacBook Air – built for lightness and battery life. In time, would it replace or subsume the Air?
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Lions are less likely to attack cattle with eyes painted on their backsides • The Conversation

Cameron Radford:

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While current approaches tend to focus on separating livestock from wild carnivores, for instance through fencing or lethal control, this is not always possible or desirable. Alternative and effective non-lethal tools that protect both large carnivores and livelihoods are urgently needed.

In a new study we describe how painting eyes on the backsides of livestock can protect them from attack.

Many big cats – including lions, leopards, and tigers – are ambush predators. This means that they rely on stalking their prey and retaining the element of surprise. In some cases, being seen by their prey can lead them to abandon the hunt. We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses to lions and leopards in Botswana’s Okavango delta region.

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The pictures are out of this world. It’s the same sort of thinking though as zebras: the stripes confuse flies. When you put (or paint) zebra-style stripes on horses, they aren’t troubled so much by flies.
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It’s been a year since I defriended Facebook • ZDNet

Ross Rubin:

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In the months since leaving and even in this extraordinary time that has impeded in-person connections, I have loved catching up with old friends through emails, direct messages, and phone calls. I’ve found these communications to strengthen real relationships as opposed to wading through the flotsam and forwarding that would fill the timeline. Leaving Facebook confirmed my sense that many of the “friendships” on Facebook are the relationship equivalent of junk food. They’re easy to obtain and quickly digested, but they’re not very nourishing.

For me, Facebook offered too low a signal-to-noise ratio, but there are occasionally some important signals. For that, I recommend having a Facebook-friendly friend or family member who is connected to many of the same folks you would be (or would want to be). Indeed, my deactivation was in part inspired by two college friends who never had Facebook accounts, but whose wives acted as conduits. Now, my wife, who enjoys being on Facebook more than I did, has graciously become my Facebook ambassador. When I organized a small group late last year, I turned to Band, which offers a Facebook Groups-like interface that people have found less imposing than Slack or Microsoft Teams.

One topic I’ve long considered is the chasm in public perception between Facebook and Google. The two internet giants have similar business models, but Google is largely beloved while Facebook is widely reviled.

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Zuckerberg denounces Apple’s monopolistic “stranglehold” on your iPhone • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit and Ryan Mac:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a swing at Apple on Thursday, calling the iPhone maker’s app store monopolistic and harmful to customers during a companywide meeting.

“[Apple has] this unique stranglehold as a gatekeeper on what gets on phones,” Zuckerberg said to more than 50,000 employees via webcast. He added that the Cupertino, California–based company’s app store “blocks innovation, blocks competition” and “allows Apple to charge monopoly rents.”

While the Facebook CEO was specifically answering a question about Apple blocking gaming-related apps, his comments came at a time where authorities are scrutinizing both Silicon Valley giants for antitrust behavior. Last month both Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as the heads of Amazon and Google, testified in a House of Representatives hearing examining potentially monopolistic practices at the United States’ largest technology firms.

Zuckerberg’s comments were another signal that there’s no love lost in the long-contentious relationship between the leader of the social network and the $2 trillion electronic device maker.

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OK, so Apple blocks Facebook from offering a game store, and from telling people that it takes the usual 30% cut of in-app purchases of tickets for online events. Not sure where the innovation is there.
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‘A totally different ballgame’: inside Uber and Lyft’s fight over gig worker status • CNET

Dara Kerr:

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[UCal employment law professor Veena] Dubal seems to have become a target in a complex campaign involving social media harassment, take-down articles on conservative websites and actions by at least two public relations firms hired by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates. One of those PR firms, Sacramento-based MB Public Affairs, submitted a lengthy public records request on July 28 for Dubal’s email correspondence with 130 other labor activists, academics and union leaders. 

“It’s clearly a coordinated campaign,” says William Fitzgerald, who currently runs a strategic advocacy firm called The Worker Agency and previously worked for Google on both its public policy and communications teams. “What Uber is doing now with this is way further than anything I’ve seen. It’s a totally different ballgame.”

Public records obtained by CNET from the California Secretary of State show the five gig economy companies hired the PR firms to work on a ballot measure campaign that’s up for a vote in California’s November election. The ballot measure, Proposition 22, was jointly sponsored by the five companies and aims to specifically exempt them from [proposed anti-gig economy legislation] AB5.

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Really brutal and horrible behaviour. Proof, if it were needed, that “tech” companies aren’t any more enlightened or fairminded than all their “old economy” predecessors.
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China calls Trump’s bluff on TikTok, putting US deal at risk • Bloomberg

Tim Culpan on China’s announcement that it will have to approve any sale of ByteDance’s AI:

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Facebook, Snap and Alphabet (Google) are among those pouring billions of dollars into better predicting user behaviour. This is the bread and butter of search-engine results and timeline feeds, helping them sell more-targeted ads at higher prices. Notice that Google tends to return better results than Bing, despite having access to the same pool of data (the entire internet!), and you get a sense of why algorithms matter.

TikTok’s algos are gold. At least, that’s what bidders seem to think.

And it looks like Beijing agrees. Effectively, the Chinese government is saying, “You wanna buy TikTok? Go ahead, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get your hands on the secret sauce.” 

This development will surely send Microsoft, Oracle Corp. and everyone else back to their bankers, and lawyers, trying to figure out what TikTok would be worth without those algorithms. ByteDance, for its part, will need to work out what it can and cannot throw into the package it’s being forced to sell. That’s not easy.

At worst, this may require trawling through millions of lines of code to sort out whether content is allowable or forbidden. It’s not black and white. What one person considers AI may be viewed by another as mundane software technology. 

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If forced to play Monopoly, use this gameplan • Boing Boing

Mark Fraunfelder:

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Monopoly is just such a beautifully designed game. The orange and yellow cards with the iconic temporarily embarrassed millionaire. The cast metal player tokens, the green houses and red hotels. The attractively colored currency. What a shame the game is not very much fun to play. Has anyone created a set of rules that makes Monopoly fun? In any case, if you find yourself being forced to play a game of Monopoly, Reddit user FatherofGray has some advice for winning.

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Never buy purple, brown, utilities or railroads with the intent of completing the set – instead use them as trades with worae players that think they’re good. Railroads in particular are VERY in demand but awful unless you get all 4, at which point they’re still worse than the light blues.

The most valuable properties are the oranges and reds because that’s where most people land after getting out of jail – thr most common spot to be on in the game. Do pretty much anything you can to get a full set of orange or red. Yellow and light blue are also excellent choices.

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There’s more. If you have to play Monopoly, people will quail at your evil strategy.
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What if Facebook is the real ‘silent majority’? • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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what sticks out, when you dig in to the data, is just how dominant the Facebook right truly is. Pro-Trump political influencers have spent years building a well-oiled media machine that swarms around every major news story, creating a torrent of viral commentary that reliably drowns out both the mainstream media and the liberal opposition.

The result is a kind of parallel media universe that left-of-center Facebook users may never encounter, but that has been stunningly effective in shaping its own version of reality. Inside the right-wing Facebook bubble, President Trump’s response to Covid-19 has been strong and effective, Joe Biden is barely capable of forming sentences, and Black Lives Matter is a dangerous group of violent looters.

Mr. Trump and his supporters are betting that, despite being behind Mr. Biden in the polls, a “silent majority” will carry him to re-election. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest and most online son, made that argument himself at the Republican National Convention this week. And while I’m not a political analyst, I know enough about the modern media landscape to know that looking at people’s revealed preferences — what they actually read, watch, and click on when nobody’s looking — is often a better indicator of how they’ll act than interviewing them at diners, or listening to what they’re willing to say out loud to a pollster.

Maybe Mr. Trump’s “silent majority,” in other words, only seems silent because we’re not looking at their Facebook feeds.

“We live in two different countries right now,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and digital director of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign. Facebook’s media ecosystem, he said, is “a huge blind spot for people who are up to speed on what’s on the front page of The New York Times and what’s leading the hour on CNN.”

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New Trump coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas pushes controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy • The Washington Post

Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey:

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One of President Trump’s top medical advisers is urging the White House to embrace a controversial “herd immunity” strategy to combat the pandemic, which would entail allowing the coronavirus to spread through most of the population to quickly build resistance to the virus, while taking steps to protect those in nursing homes and other vulnerable populations, according to five people familiar with the discussions.

The administration has already begun to implement some policies along these lines, according to current and former officials as well as experts, particularly with regard to testing.

The approach’s chief proponent is Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist from Stanford’s conservative Hoover Institution, who joined the White House earlier this month as a pandemic adviser. He has advocated that the United States adopt the model Sweden has used to respond to the virus outbreak, according to these officials, which relies on lifting restrictions so the healthy can build up immunity to the disease rather than limiting social and business interactions to prevent the virus from spreading.

…Atlas, who does not have a background in infectious diseases or epidemiology, has expanded his influence inside the White House by advocating policies that appeal to Trump’s desire to move past the pandemic and get the economy going, distressing health officials on the White House coronavirus task force and throughout the administration who worry that their advice is being followed less and less.

…Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization’s chief scientist, said given the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that about 65 to 70% of the population would need to become infected for there to be herd immunity.

With a population of 328 million in the United States, it may require 2.13 million deaths to reach a 65% threshold of herd immunity, assuming the virus has a 1% fatality rate, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

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But I thought they were all going to be saved by Covid plasma infusions? Or the rushed vaccine? It’s as if the people around Trump are just saying any old nonsense that they think will get his approval, and ignore how many people will die. Trump doesn’t care about anyone but himself, and nor do those around him. Under Trump, the US has now already passed from having a functioning government into federal authoritarianism; the question now is whether it can yank itself back after November.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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