Start Up No.1398: Twitter blamed for Indian and South African violence, the acediac world of Covid, Zuck caught on tape, and more

Will QR codes be the bug in the NHS’s new Test & Trace app launching today? CC-licensed photo by Steven Severinghaus on Flickr.

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

The NHS Test and Trace app’s biggest flaw? Botched QR codes • WIRED UK

Nicole Kobie on the T&T system, where you scan a QR code using the app on entering a commercial location such as a shop or gym:


Newham residents [who have been beta testing the UK app being launched on September 24 – today!] told WIRED that they’ve barely seen any of the official NHS QR codes in shops or restaurants. Others say they’re confused as to whether a QR code on the door is the right one to scan or not, as existing contact-tracing systems also use the codes – just wait until these codes are ubiquitous and scammers start putting up false ones. And some residents reported that the QR code throws up an error message in the app or simply takes too long to scan, causing queues to enter a shop — hardly ideal in these times of social distancing. “Although the app looks good, if I can’t use the QR scanner, it defeats the object of the app’s purpose,” wrote one app reviewer on Google Play.

The other challenge is downloading the app. Residents were sent out a detailed, four-page letter with instructions on how to install the app and use one-time codes to activate it for the trial, which residents said was off-putting – especially so for those who don’t speak English as a first language. The council has pushed for the app and online advice for it to be available in several languages, including Polish, Gujarati, Urdu and more, but as Fiaz notes, Newham has more than 100 languages and dialects spoken locally.

The residents who did head to the App Store or Google Play to download the app faced another hurdle: it only works on recent smartphones, running Android 6.0 or iOS 13.5 later; that’s iPhone 6S and newer. However, that risks leaving out people with older phones, in particular those without the money to buy a newer one. A story in the Newham Recorder quotes an 82-year-old resident of Manor Park as saying he couldn’t download the app because his smartphone was too old, with Age UK warning this could leave those most at risk of Covid being treated as “second-class citizens.”


It’s going to be so much fun. The code is available, by the way.
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Twitter let dozens of tweets doxing Indian interfaith couples stay up for months • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:


For nearly two months, tweets by far-right Hindu nationalists in India doxing dozens of young interfaith couples — usually Muslim men marrying Hindu women — circulated on Twitter.

“This is going to be a long thread,” one of the accounts involved in the doxing said, following it up with 17 more tweets. Each tweet contained pictures of government documents including names, ages, occupations, addresses, and photographs of Hindu-Muslim couples in India. “Look at these pictures,” another tweet from the same account said. “Who instigates these couples to get together? It can’t be that they just ‘fall in love.’”

On Monday, as outrage mounted in India, Twitter finally took down some of the largest threads, even though people had been reporting them for weeks.

But more than half a dozen other tweets doxing interfaith couples remained after the first takedowns. One of them included a tweet from a politician from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who tweeted the address of an Indian actor who allegedly converted to Islam. Twitter took down these posts after BuzzFeed News asked about them.

None of the accounts whose tweets were taken down were suspended.


The latter part is bad. Accounts which publish personal information like that are suspended as a matter of course. Once more there’s a suspicion that these companies are somehow beholden to, or scared of, the Indian government.
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Xenophobic Twitter campaigns orchestrated by a former South African soldier • Daily Maverick

Jean le Roux for DFRLab:


A South African Twitter account at the centre of a network of xenophobic hashtags and inciting statements has been linked to a former member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). 

Sifiso Jeffrey Gwala, a former lance corporal with the 121st SA Infantry Battalion in Mtubatuba in coastal KwaZulu-Natal, has been identified as the person behind the “anonymous” Twitter account previously known as @uLerato_pillay, which has been accused of inciting xenophobic tensions in South Africa. In recent weeks, these narratives have bubbled to the surface of mainstream media outlets as public officials from fringe political parties echoed these nationalist sentiments in what appears to be reckless political opportunism.

South Africa has a fatal history of violence against foreign nationals, particularly other Africans. In May 2008, 62 people died as a result of nationwide xenophobic riots that started near Johannesburg, and in April 2015, seven people were killed in similar protests in Durban. South Africa’s high unemployment rate and lacklustre service delivery are often blamed on the nearly four million foreign nationals staying in South Africa, and unfounded claims that foreign nationals are disproportionately responsible for crime are frequently used to justify these attacks. 


This is a long, long read but that’s the takeaway: taking advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to create discord.
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Facebook denies it will pull service in Europe over data transfer ban • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:


“We of course won’t [shut down in Europe] — and the reason we won’t of course is precisely because we want to continue to serve customers and small and medium sized businesses in Europe,” said Facebook VP Nick Clegg during a livestreamed EU policy debate yesterday.

However he also warned of “profound effects” on scores of digital businesses if a way is not found by lawmakers on both sides of the pond to resolve the legal uncertainty around US data transfers — making a pitch to politicians to come up with a new legal ‘sticking plaster’ for EU-US data transfers now that a flagship arrangement, called Privacy Shield, is dead.

“We have a major issue — which is that for various complex, legal, political and other reasons question marks are being raised about the current legal basis under which data transfers occur. If those legal means of data transfer are removed — not by us, but by regulators — then of course that will have a profound effect on how, not just our services, but countless other companies operate. We’re trying to avoid that.”


So if the legal means of transfer are removed then Facebook will have to shut down in Europe. Because he certainly doesn’t seem to be saying that Facebook is going to alter its behaviour.
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The unrelenting horizonlessness of the Covid world • CNN

Nick Couldry and Bruce Schneier:


Acedia was a malady that apparently plagued many medieval monks. It’s a sense of no longer caring about caring, not because one had become apathetic, but because somehow the whole structure of care had become jammed up.

…Moving around is what we do as creatures, and for that we need horizons. Covid has erased many of the spatial and temporal horizons we rely on, even if we don’t notice them very often. We don’t know how the economy will look, how social life will go on, how our home routines will be changed, how work will be organized, how universities or the arts or local commerce will survive.

What unsettles us is not only fear of change. It’s that, if we can no longer trust in the future, many things become irrelevant, retrospectively pointless. And by that we mean from the perspective of a future whose basic shape we can no longer take for granted. This fundamentally disrupts how we weigh the value of what we are doing right now. It becomes especially hard under these conditions to hold on to the value in activities that, by their very nature, are future-directed, such as education or institution-building.

That’s what many of us are feeling. That’s today’s acedia.


(Couldry is a professor of media, communications and social theory. Bruce Schneier you should know as a security expert.)

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Casey Newton on leaving ‘The Verge’ for Substack and the future of tech journalism • OneZero

Sarah Jeong:


asey Newton, The Verge’s longtime Silicon Valley editor and the creator of The Interface newsletter, is leaving the publication to start a newsletter on Substack called Platformer.

Newton, who started at The Verge in 2013, has published more than 570 issues of The Interface since it launched in October 2017. The newsletter currently boasts more than 20,000 subscribers. The Interface usually follows the themes of content moderation, disinformation, and the negative effects of social media on society. The focus is frequently on the omnipresent and ever-controversial Facebook, but the newsletter also covers companies like TikTok, Apple, Google, Amazon, and more.

…Q: What does this deal look like?

Newton: When you look at the economics of newsletters, there are opportunities that are bigger for some writers than any media company can match. If you can find 10,000 people to pay you $100 a year, you’re making $1 million a year. No one in media is going to pay you that unless you’re the anchor of a popular news show or something.

I’m not going to get to 10,000 subscribers anytime soon, but if I can work toward that over time, not only will I be in a position where I’m doing well for myself, but I’ll be in a position where I can create media jobs. I can hire someone to go out and do more reporting. I can hire an editor. I can hire a graphics person. I can start to — in this tiny, tiny way — rebuild a little of what has been lost and figure some things out for the future. That just seemed like a really cool bet to make. Maybe I can actually start a tiny media company out of this and do some really cool stuff.


Speaking of Casey Newton…
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Facebook leaks show Mark Zuckerberg defending his decisions to angry employees • The Verge

Casey Newton:


On June 18th, Facebook employees asked Zuckerberg if they could hear from Kaplan directly:

Many people feel that Joel Kaplan has too much power over our decisions. Can we get him on a Q&A to learn more about his role, influence, and beliefs?

Zuckerberg said the company would work to provide more information about the operations of its policy team. But he dismissed the idea that Kaplan has undue influence at the company, saying that Monika Bickert, the company’s head of policy management, plays a stronger day-to-day role in policy development. And Zuckerberg bristled at the implication that Kaplan’s party affiliation should disqualify him from the job.

“I’ve seen a bunch of comments internally that — that I have to say bothered me a bit,” Zuckerberg said.  “That basically asked whether Joel can be in this role, or can be doing this role, on the basis of the fact that he is a Republican, or has beliefs that are more conservative than the average employee at the company. And I have to say that I find that line of questioning to be very troubling. In my work with Joel, I’ve found him to be … very rigorous and principled in his thinking.”

The controversy over Kaplan highlighted a growing and seemingly intractable gap within Facebook — between the values of its more progressive workforce and those of its user base at large.


There’s audio of Zuckerberg’s replies, if you wanted to hear his Kermit-like speaking voice. The fact that all this got leaked demonstrates that the internal consensus inside Facebook is breaking down. The problem with Kaplan isn’t so much his political bias, but the fact that he uses that political bias to help people he agrees with, as has been documented again and again.
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Video and education drive demand for bigger tablets as global sales increase for first time since 2014 • Strategy Analytics


Households are more crowded than ever at all times of the day with work, learning, and entertainment all occurring in the home as a result of COVID-19 counter-measures. To meet these needs consumers have been buying tablets at the fastest rate in six years, and as a result global sales are expected to increase…


Yes? YES?


…by 1% year-on-year to 160.8 million units in 2020, according to Strategy Analytics’ latest report. The analysis also shows that consumers are switching to larger displays, with a majority now larger than 10” for the first time.


OK, so there’s a replacement surge happening. But that’s hardly what you’d call dramatic, is it.
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Why Magic Leap failed: AR hype exceeded product’s capabilities • Bloomberg

Joshua Brustein and Ian King:


After Magic Leap’s $2,300 headset bombed, the startup narrowed its focus to professional applications, tried unsuccessfully to sell the company and fired more than half of its staff. Investors wrote down their stakes by an average of about 94% over a 12-month period ending in June, a steeper decline than WeWork, according to data collected by Zanbato, a research firm that tracks institutional investors.

The new CEO, Johnson, is trying to revive the business through partnerships. Magic Leap is engaged in discussions with Inc. about packaging the headsets with Amazon’s cloud services, according to three people familiar with the talks. The conversations are at an early stage and may not result in a deal. A spokeswoman for Magic Leap declined to comment, and Amazon didn’t respond to request for comment. 

Abovitz responded to an interview request with a message consisting entirely of link to a research report, which estimates long-term growth in the augmented reality market. His spokesman later clarified that there would be no interview and referred subsequent questions to Magic Leap, which declined to comment. People familiar with Abovitz’s next project said it centers on building entertainment content for smartphones and augmented reality devices, including Magic Leap.

The co-founder’s departure came as little surprise to those who worked with him. Interviews with over two dozen people familiar with Magic Leap’s operations, including current and former employees, investors and business partners, suggest Abovitz’s world-building aspirations had become increasingly disconnected from the company’s reality. When employees found they would be unable to deliver on Abovitz’s vision, Magic Leap went from being one of the most intriguing tech startups outside of Silicon Valley to a parable about believing one’s own hype.


There’s a lovely quote from one ex-employee who says Abovitz “wasn’t equipped to run a company the size of Magic Leap.” It was a zero-billion dollar company, for god’s sake. Its size was his own fault.
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Internet: old TV caused village broadband outages for 18 months • BBC News


The mystery of why an entire village lost its broadband every morning at 7am was solved when engineers discovered an old television was to blame.

An unnamed householder in Aberhosan, Powys, was unaware the old set would emit a signal which would interfere with the entire village’s broadband.

After 18 months engineers began an investigation after a cable replacement programme failed to fix the issue.

The embarrassed householder promised not to use the television again. The village now has a stable broadband signal.

Openreach engineers were baffled by the continuous problem and it wasn’t until they used a monitoring device that they found the fault.

The householder would switch their TV set on at 7am every morning – and electrical interference emitted by their second-hand television was affecting the broadband signal.

The owner, who does not want to be identified, was “mortified” to find out their old TV was causing the problem, according to Openreach.


What I learn from this is that Openreach hasn’t installed fibre in Aberhosan. The village’s broadband would be a lot faster and uninterrupted if it were.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1398: Twitter blamed for Indian and South African violence, the acediac world of Covid, Zuck caught on tape, and more

  1. Oh no, it’s The Return Of Blog Evangelism, This Time With Subscription Payments. I’ve got to hand it to Substack, they did figure out a new angle to work the cruel scheme of preying on people’s dreams. They’ve taken it “upscale”, dealing in dollars per deluded, rather than cents (or fractions of cents) per senseless.

    It’s really a sad commentary on journalism that the article seems to have no awareness of how many times the self-publishing siren song has been sung, to several shipwrecks, e.g. “That just seemed like a really cool bet to make.” Like betting at a casino, you could in theory break the bank – but are far more likely to end up broke. And the house always wins in the end.

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