Start Up No.1399: Facebook lets misleading political ads through, Cambridge Analytica boss dinged, Big Bang black holes?, and more


What if tobacco companies had had the same exemptions over consequences as social media companies enjoy today? CC-licensed photo by Jamie Anderson on Flickr.

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

Facebook allowed hundreds of misleading super PAC ads, activist group finds • CNN

Brian Fung:

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Facebook (FB) has allowed political advertisers to target hundreds of misleading ads about Joe Biden and the US Postal Service to swing-state voters ranging from Florida to Wisconsin in recent weeks, in an apparent failure to enforce its own platform rules less than two months before Election Day.

The ads containing false or misleading information, primarily by a pro-Republican super PAC led by former Trump administration officials, have collectively been viewed more than 10 million times and some of the ads remain active on the service, according to an analysis of Facebook’s ad transparency data by the activist group Avaaz.

Two super PACs emerged as the worst offenders in Avaaz’s analysis: the pro-Trump group America First Action, and the pro-Democratic group Stop Republicans. But the report found that AFA’s activities far exceeded those of Stop Republicans, both in terms of money spent and impressions received.

While Facebook allows politicians to make false claims in their ads — arguing that voters deserve an unfiltered view of what candidates and elected officials say — advertisements by super PACs and other independent groups are subject to the company’s policies on misinformation.

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The crucial point here is that the misinformation tends to be “dark” – it’s hard to find what going on because you have to dig into Facebook’s Ad Library, unlike monitoring TV stations or newspaper output.

But are we surprised by Facebook failing to enforce its own rules? Of course we aren’t. The point to bear in mind now about Facebook is that Facebook has lost control of Facebook. The network is metastasizing, and things that happen on it are completely beyond the ability of the people who moderate it to stop.
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Seven-year disqualification for Cambridge Analytica boss • GOV.UK

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Effective from 5 October 2020, Alexander Nix is disqualified for seven years from acting as a director or directly or indirectly becoming involved, without the permission of the court, in the promotion, formation or management of a company.

Alexander Nix was a director of SCL Elections Ltd, a company that provided data analytics, marketing and communication services to political and commercial customers. He was also a director of five other connected UK companies: SCL Group Ltd, SCL Social Ltd, SCL Analytics Ltd, SCL Commercial Ltd, and Cambridge Analytica (UK) Ltd.

Investigators’ enquiries confirmed that Alexander Nix had caused or permitted SCL Elections or associated companies to act with a lack of commercial probity.

The unethical services offered by the companies included bribery or honey trap stings, voter disengagement campaigns, obtaining information to discredit political opponents and spreading information anonymously in political campaigns.

Mark Bruce, Chief Investigator for the Insolvency Service, said: “Following an extensive investigation, our conclusions were clear that SCL Elections had repeatedly offered shady political services to potential clients over a number of years.

“Company directors should act with commercial probity and this means acting honestly and correctly. Alexander Nix’s actions did not meet the appropriate standard for a company director and his disqualification from managing limited companies for a significant amount of time is justified in the public interest.”

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Wow. I cannot recall any occasion when anything like this has happened without outright fraud on the part of the director. Absolutely astonishing. And yet: the UK government, which has signed off on this decision, thinks there’s absolutely nothing to consider around the 2016 referendum even though Cambridge Analytica played a key part in it.
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Black holes from the Big Bang could be the dark matter • Quanta Magazine

Joshua Sokol:

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We know that dying stars can make black holes. But perhaps black holes were also born during the Big Bang itself. A hidden population of such “primordial” black holes could conceivably constitute dark matter, a hidden thumb on the cosmic scale. After all, no dark matter particle has shown itself, despite decades of searching. What if the ingredients we really needed — black holes — were under our noses the whole time?

“Yes, it was a crazy idea,” said Marc Kamionkowski, a cosmologist at Johns Hopkins University whose group came out with one of the many eye-catching papers that explored the possibility in 2016. “But it wasn’t necessarily crazier than anything else.”

Alas, the flirtation with primordial black holes soured in 2017, after a paper by Yacine Ali-Haïmoud, an astrophysicist at New York University who had previously been on the optimistic Kamionkowski team, examined how this type of black hole should affect LIGO’s detection rate. He calculated that if the baby universe spawned enough black holes to account for dark matter, then over time, these black holes would settle into binary pairs, orbit each other closer and closer, and merge at rates thousands of times higher than what LIGO observes. He urged other researchers to continue to investigate the idea using alternate approaches. But many lost hope. The argument was so damning that Kamionkowski said it quenched his own interest in the hypothesis.

Now, however, following a flurry of recent papers, the primordial black hole idea appears to have come back to life. In one of the latest, published last week in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, Karsten Jedamzik, a cosmologist at the University of Montpellier, showed how a large population of primordial black holes could result in collisions that perfectly match what LIGO observes.

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Must admit, it would be bloody good if we could sort the black matter question out, so we could move on to something new.
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Leak reveals $2tn of possibly corrupt US financial activity • The Guardian

David Pegg:

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The documents were provided to BuzzFeed News, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The documents are said to suggest major banks provided financial services to high-risk individuals from around the world, in some cases even after they had been placed under sanctions by the US government.

According to the ICIJ the documents relate to more than $2tn of transactions dating from between 1999 and 2017.

One of those named in the SARs is Paul Manafort, a political strategist who led Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign for several months.

He stepped down from the role after his consultancy work for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was exposed, and he was later convicted of fraud and tax evasion.

According to the ICIJ, banks began flagging activity linked to Manafort as suspicious beginning in 2012. In 2017 JP Morgan Chase filed a report on wire transfers worth over $300m involving shell companies in Cyprus that had done business with Manafort.

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Isn’t it just amazing how pretty much everyone that Donald Trump comes in to any sort of close business contact with is revealed to have lied or otherwise been corrupt.
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To fight Apple and Google, smaller app rivals organize a coalition • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:

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At the heart of the new alliance’s effort is opposition to Apple’s and Google’s tight grip on their app stores and the fortunes of the apps in them. The two companies control virtually all of the world’s smartphones through their software and the distribution of apps via their stores. Both also charge a 30% fee for payments made inside apps in their systems.

App makers have increasingly taken issue with the payment rules, arguing that a 30% fee is a tax that hobbles their ability to compete. In some cases, they have said, they are competing with Apple’s and Google’s own apps and their unfair advantages.

Apple has argued that its fee is standard across online marketplaces.

On Thursday, the coalition published a list of 10 principles, outlined on its website, for what it said were fairer app practices. They include a more transparent process for getting apps approved and the right to communicate directly with their users. The top principle states that developers should not be forced to exclusively use the payments systems of the app store publishers.

Each of the alliance’s members has agreed to contribute an undisclosed membership fee to the effort.

“Apple leverages its platform to give its own services an unfair advantage over competitors,” said Kirsten Daru, vice president and general counsel of Tile, a start-up that makes Bluetooth tracking devices and is part of the new nonprofit. “That’s bad for consumers, competition and innovation.”

Ms. Daru testified to lawmakers this year that Apple had begun making the permissions around Tile’s app more difficult for people to use after it developed a competing feature.

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(Though of course subsequent to that Apple changed things so that Tile’s app can work competitively.) This is an interesting move: if it has any effect, it will probably occur well before any legislative action can.
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This $1 hearing aid could treat millions with hearing loss • AAAS

Christa Lesté-Lasserre:

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Inspired by his grandparents and a hearing-impaired colleague—who is first author on the new paper—Bhamla and his team set out to develop a cheap hearing aid built with off-the-shelf parts. They soldered a microphone onto a small circuit board to capture nearby sound and added an amplifier and a frequency filter to specifically increase the volume of high-pitch sounds above 1000 hertz. Then they added a volume control, an on/off switch, and an audio jack for plugging in standard earphones, as well as a battery holder. The device, dubbed LoCHAid, is the size of a matchbox and can be worn like a necklace. At bulk rates, Bhamla says, it would cost just under $1 to make. But anyone with the freely available blueprints and a soldering iron can make their own for not much more—maybe $15 or $20, Bhamla says. The parts are easy to source, he says, and putting them together takes less than 30 minutes.

Next, Bhamla and his colleagues tested the device. They found that it boosted the volume of high-pitch sounds by 15 decibels while preserving volumes at lower pitches. It also filtered out interference and sudden, loud sounds like dog barks and car horns. Finally, tests with an artificial ear revealed that LoCHAid might improve speech recognition, by bringing conversations closer to the quality heard by healthy individuals. It complied with five out of six of the World Health Organization’s preferred product recommendations for hearing aids, the researchers report today in PLOS ONE.

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This is the sort of technology that can really change the world.
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Authoritative voting information on YouTube • YouTube blog

Leslie Miller is VP of government affairs and public policy at YouTube:

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YouTube’s Community Guidelines protect the community from harmful content and we enforce these policies consistently, regardless of who expresses it. Our policies prohibit claims that mislead voters on how to vote or encourage interference in the democratic process. Additionally, we demonetize content with claims that could significantly undermine participation or trust in an electoral or democratic process.
 
Alongside the consistent enforcement of our policies, we’re continuing to raise up authoritative voices and reduce harmful misinformation. One of the ways we do this is through our information panels, which provide relevant context alongside content. For example, in 2018, we started to show information panels linking to third-party sources around a small number of well-established topics that are subject to misinformation, such as the moon landing or COVID-19. We’re expanding this list of topics to include voting by mail. This means that under videos that discuss voting by mail, you’ll see an information panel directing you to authoritative information from the Bipartisan Policy Center, a bipartisan think tank.

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“Demonetise” claims that could significantly undermine participation? Such half measures. What if the people who put such claims up aren’t interested in monetisation, just spread? What if YouTube is part of the problem, rather than (as it’s trying to pretend here) the solution?

Related: YouTube labelling (with AI) more age-restricted, ie over-18s, content. And: “former YouTube content moderator sues the company after developing symptoms of PTSD“.
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Ring’s latest security camera is a drone that flies around inside your house • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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Ring latest home security camera is taking flight — literally. The new Always Home Cam is an autonomous drone that can fly around inside your home to give you a perspective of any room you want when you’re not home. Once it’s done flying, the Always Home Cam returns to its dock to charge its battery. It is expected to cost $249.99 when it starts shipping next year.

Jamie Siminoff, Ring’s founder and “chief inventor,” says the idea behind the Always Home Cam is to provide multiple viewpoints throughout the home without requiring the use of multiple cameras. In an interview ahead of the announcement, he said the company has spent the past two years on focused development of the device, and that it is an “obvious product that is very hard to build.” Thanks to advancements in drone technology, the company is able to make a product like this and have it work as desired.

The Always Home Cam is fully autonomous, but owners can tell it what path it can take and where it can go. When you first get the device, you build a map of your home for it to follow, which allows you to ask it for specific viewpoints such as the kitchen or bedroom. The drone can be commanded to fly on demand or programmed to fly when a disturbance is detected by a linked Ring Alarm system.

The charging dock blocks the camera’s view, and the camera only records when it is in flight. Ring says the drone makes an audible noise when flying so it is obvious when footage is being recorded.

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Clever. Where’s the place you don’t need permission to fly a drone? Your home. Where might you want random footage from? Your home. As with Alexa, Amazon has thought one step ahead. Whether this is really going to make a difference is harder to say. Ring probably has, Alexa (as a standalone) probably not. This seems to sit between those two. But it’s also a surveillance system.
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Written testimony to the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce

Tim Kendall:

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When I started working in technology, my hope was to build products that brought people together in new and productive ways. I wanted to improve the world we all lived in.

Instead, the social media services that I and others have built over the past 15 years have served to tear people apart with alarming speed and intensity. At the very least, we have eroded our collective understanding – at worst, I fear we are pushing ourselves to the brink of a civil war.

I feel ashamed by this outcome. And I am deeply concerned. And to that end, I am compelled to talk to you about what we can do to limit further damage—and maybe even undo some of it.

My path in technology started at Facebook where I was the first Director of Monetization. I thought my job was to figure out the business model for the company, and presumably one that sought to balance the needs of its stakeholders – its advertisers, its users and its employees. Instead, we sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible and turn into historically unprecedented profits.

To do this, we didn’t simply create something useful and fun. We took a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook, working to make our offering addictive at the outset.

Tobacco companies initially just sought to make nicotine more potent. But eventually that wasn’t enough to grow the business as fast as they wanted. And so they added sugar and menthol to cigarettes so you could hold the smoke in your lungs for longer periods. At Facebook, we added status updates, photo tagging, and likes, which made status and reputation primary and laid the groundwork for a teenage mental health crisis.

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No punches pulled. He was at Facebook from 2006 to 2010. You can’t argue that things have improved since then. He extends the tobacco metaphor too: what if they’d had some version of Section 230? One to ponder.
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Facebook Oversight Board plans to launch ahead of US election • CNBC

Sam Shead:

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Facebook’s much-anticipated Oversight Board has confirmed that it is planning to launch ahead of the US election on Nov. 3 after being criticized for a perceived lack of action. 

The board will rule on appeals from Facebook and Instagram users and questions from Facebook itself, although it will have to pick and choose which content moderation cases to take due to the sheer volume of them.

Following a report from The Financial Times, a spokesperson for the independent Oversight Board told CNBC that it expects to start in mid to late October. 

“We are currently testing the newly deployed technical systems that will allow users to appeal and the Board to review cases. Assuming those tests go to plan, we expect to open user appeals in mid to late October.”

They added: “Building a process that is thorough, principled and globally effective takes time and our members have been working aggressively to launch as soon as possible.”

The Oversight Board said it expects to decide on a case, and for Facebook to have acted on this decision, within a maximum of 90 days.

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Good grief. Could we replace them with a machine learning system? It would be much faster and the results would be just as debatable.
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1 thought on “Start Up No.1399: Facebook lets misleading political ads through, Cambridge Analytica boss dinged, Big Bang black holes?, and more

  1. The hearing aid story is wonderful. The next step would be to tweak the software for fdifferent kinds of hearing loss: Rupert G told me once that almost all the expense of commercial hearing aids is in the software and that the parts are trivially cheap.

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