Start Up No.1412: the ‘gangstalking’ delusion, Apple’s new iPhones (and HomePod), Facebook moves against vaccines, UK plans retrospective tech un-buyout law, and more


Eli Pariser reckons it’s time we had the equivalent of properly public parks on the internet? CC-licensed photo by Dmitry Ryzhkov on Flickr.

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

To mend a broken internet, create online parks • WIRED

Eli Pariser:

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To build the thriving digital public spaces we need, we must address three surmountable challenges.

First: money. While the internet started out as a publicly supported network, digital spaces in the last 20 years have been mostly funded by venture capitalists who are looking for enormous returns on investment. Scaling a product so that millions of people know about it and can use it fluidly can cost billions.

While a multi-billion-dollar price tag seems massive, we implicitly value our physical public infrastructure at many times that. Central Park’s land value alone is, by one calculation, $37 trillion. (That’s more than 50 Facebooks, if you’re keeping score.)

History suggests that a guilty-but-loaded tech mogul could step up and solve the funding problem, becoming the Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century. But philanthropic money often comes with strings attached. That’s why it’s worth investing in the more radical notion recently proposed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report on American citizenship. The Academy suggests taxing targeted advertising, and using those funds to shore up democratic functions that the big tech platforms have eroded, such as local journalism. Public digital infrastructure could also be funded in this way.

Second, there’s a talent and research problem. People outside of tech generally underestimate how hard it is to build something seamless, intuitive, and irresistible that allows millions of people to interact. We need to rally a diverse, representative generation of builders to this cause. And given that digital products live and die by metrics, we need to identify signals that correspond to flourishing public digital space.

Finally, there’s a problem of public imagination. Fixing our ability to connect and build healthy communities at scale is arguably an Apollo mission for this generation—a decisive challenge that will determine whether our society progresses or falls back into conspiracy-driven tribalism. We need to summon the creative will worthy of a problem of this urgency and consequence.

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Pariser, of course, is the author of The Filter Bubble, the iconic work on the topic. This point about the lack of a public space for people to gather virtually has also been made, some time ago, by Zeynep Tufekci. If both Pariser and Tufekci think something is a good idea, it’s a good idea.
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Apple’s iPhone 12 event: the seven biggest announcements • The Verge

The bits I find interesting (given that the addition of 5G was predictable):
• the HomePod Mini – at just $99 (£99 in the UK of course), that will sell well to iPhone users, even if it’s about three years too late
• the “MagSafe” brand reappearing as a way to implement reliable wireless charging, which Apple is encouraging third-party companies to use too, which in turn implies that the Lightning charging port is going away over time
• looks like the iPhone 4 design – flat sides – has come back into fashion.

Otherwise: big screens, lots of pixels, lowest price version still doesn’t quite have enough storage.
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Gangstalking forums are hurting people even as some on them try to help • MIT Technology Review

Amelia Tait:

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Right now, on Facebook pages, forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and subreddits across the internet, thousands of people are sharing their belief that they are being “gangstalked.” These self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations. Targeted individuals claim that seemingly ordinary people are in fact trained operatives tasked with watching or harassing them—delivery men, neighbors, colleagues, roommates, teachers, even dogs. And though small compared with the most popular online forums, gangstalking communities are growing quickly; one estimate from 2016 suggested that there might be 10,000 people in such groups across the internet. Today, just one subreddit and one Facebook group adds up to over 22,000—and there are hundreds more groups scattered across different platforms.

The only academic study on gangstalking, a 2015 research article published in The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, involved a questionnaire of 128 gangstalking victims undertaken by forensic psychologist Lorraine Sheridan and stalking expert David James. Sheridan and James found that—compared to people who experienced stalking from an individual—people who believed they were being gangstalked scored more highly on depressive and post-traumatic symptoms, and “had a clear need for psychiatric support.” The authors concluded that gangstalking is “delusional in basis,” with those surveyed making improbable claims about hostile gangstalkers in their children’s schools, traffic lights being manipulated to always turn red, mind-controlled family and friends, and the invasion of their dreams.

Every day, the internet legitimizes these beliefs. A post entitled “confessions from a gangstalker” has been copied-and-pasted widely, while people share their own stories of being targeted by strangers or incapacitated by technology in their homes. Often, people log on looking for help—“Am I going crazy or am i being stalked?” reads a post on a gangstalking subreddit shared at the beginning of 2020 by a teen who claimed to have a schizophrenia diagnosis—and leave with what they believe are the answers.

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This reminds me of the people who think they have weird fibres under their skins – morgellons. The internet won’t tell you you’re wrong, even if you have a delusion.
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Facebook to ban ads discouraging vaccination • The Guardian

Kari Paul and agencies:

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Facebook will ban ads that discourage people from getting vaccinated, the social media company announced Tuesday, as it launches a new public health campaign aimed at spreading flu vaccine information.

The changes are a departure from Facebook’s previous policy, which prohibited ads with vaccine misinformation but allowed ads expressing opposition to vaccines if they did not contain false claims.

The company said in a blogpost, however, that it would still allow ads advocating for or against legislation or government policies on vaccines, including a Covid-19 vaccine. Several ads discouraging vaccine mandates remained on the platform as of Tuesday.

Anti-vaccine content agnd discussion will still be allowed to appear organically on the platform, including in Facebook groups. A Guardian analysis found engagement with anti-vaccine posts on a sample of Facebook pages soared this summer. The company did not respond to request for comment regarding the policing of user-generated content relating to vaccines.

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So this has become quite a thing. Militias one day, postal voting disinformation the next, then QAnon, then Holocaust denial, and now vaccine denial. Two obvious questions: what’s the next one to drop, and who inside Facebook has been driving the change in thinking about this? Sure, Zuckerberg gives it the final yes/no, but there must be a strand of executive thinking that’s pushing this.
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Facebook gives Bletchley Park £1m to help it through pandemic • CNBC

Sam Shead:

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Bletchley Park, a top-secret British codebreaking hub in World War Two, has received a £1m ($1.3m) donation from Facebook to help it through the coronavirus pandemic.

The donation comes after Bletchley Park, which is now a national heritage attraction and computing museum, said in August that it had lost over 95% of its income between March and July as a result of the virus. It reopened on July 4 but with reduced visitor numbers and is expecting to record a £2m deficit this year.

Iain Standen, chief executive of Bletchley Park, said in a statement: “We are very grateful to Facebook for their generous donation.”

“With this significant support, the Bletchley Park Trust will be better positioned to operate in the ‘new world’, and keep its doors open for future generations.”

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Pros: getting on the side of the people who fought Nazis (and also who helped invent modern computing). Cons: you know, Facebook, you probably could have made it £2m.
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Why Facebook can’t fix itself • The New Yorker

Andrew Marantz on Facebook’s moderation problem:

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Mildka and Chris Gray left Facebook in 2018. Shortly afterward, in the U.K., Channel 4 aired a documentary that had been filmed by an undercover reporter posing as a content moderator in their office. At one point in the documentary, a trainer gives a slideshow presentation about how to interpret some of the Implementation Standards regarding hate speech. One slide shows an apparently popular meme: a Norman Rockwell-style image of a white mother who seems to be drowning her daughter in a bathtub, with the caption “When your daughter’s first crush is a little Negro boy.” Although the image “implies a lot,” the trainer says, “there’s no attack, actually, on the Negro boy . . . so we should ignore this.”

There’s a brief pause in the conference room. “Is everyone O.K. with that?” the trainer says.

“No, not O.K.,” a moderator responds. The other moderators laugh uneasily, and the scene ends.

After the footage became public, a Facebook spokesperson claimed that the trainer had made a mistake. “I know for a fact that that’s a lie,” Chris Gray told me. “When I was there, I got multiple tickets with that exact meme in it, and I was always told to ignore. You go, ‘C’mon, we all know exactly what this means,’ but you’re told, ‘Don’t make your own judgments.’ ”

A former moderator from Phoenix told me, “If it was what they say it is—‘You’re here to clean up this platform so everyone else can use it safely’—then there’s some nobility in that. But, when you start, you immediately realize we’re in no way expected or equipped to fix the problem.” He provided me with dozens of examples of hate speech—some of which require a good amount of cultural fluency to decode, others as clear-cut as open praise for Hitler—that he says were reviewed by moderators but not removed, “either because they could not understand why it was hateful, or because they assumed that the best way to stay out of trouble with their bosses was to leave borderline stuff up.”

«

There’s lots of this. (The C4 documentary is still online, and still shocking.) Two moderators who spoke to Marantz called Facebook’s minimalist approach “a kind of libertarian imperialism”, which is spot on.
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2018: the AskHistorians subreddit banned Holocaust deniers, and Facebook should too • Slate

Johannes Breit, writing in July 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg had said he wouldn’t ban Holocaust denial on Facebook:

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Zuckerberg got into hot water on Wednesday when he stated that Facebook wouldn’t necessarily remove Holocaust deniers from its platform because people “get things wrong” and because it’s not always possible to understand the deniers’ intent.

This position fundamentally fails to grasp how Holocaust deniers spread anti-Semitic propaganda, underscoring a flaw in how the purportedly neutral platform thinks it ought to handle particularly odious ideas. Conversation is impossible if one side refuses to acknowledge the basic premise that facts are facts. This is why engaging deniers in such an effort means having already lost. And it is why AskHistorians, where I am one of the volunteer moderators, takes a strict stance on Holocaust denial: we ban it immediately. Deniers need a public forum to spread their lies and to sow doubt among readers not well-informed about history. By convincing people that they might have a point or two, they open the door for further radicalization in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to rehabilitate Nazism as an ideology in public discourse by distancing it from the key elements that make it so rightfully reviled—the genocide against Jews, Roma, Sinti, and others.

…The Holocaust is the obvious proof that the ideology of National Socialism is, at its core, racist, anti-Semitic, and genocidal. Holocaust denial erases this massive crime to blunt the horror of Nazi ideas as a whole.

The point of JAQing off [“Just Asking Questions”, in faux “good faith”, about minor details of the Holocaust] is not to debate facts. It’s to have an audience hear denialist lies in the first place. Allowing their talking points to stand in public helps sow the seeds of doubt, even if only to one person in 10,000.

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It’s worth reading Breit’s piece in full, because this isn’t just a rhetorical game. What remains puzzling is that Zuckerberg was so certain he knew better than people who had been immersed in this subject literally for decades, until his abrupt reversal this week. I’m very much looking forward to whoever can winkle out of him an explanation of what shifted his position.
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Computers Are Hard: building software with David Heinemeier Hansson • Medium

Wojtek Borowicz interviews DHH, who Has Opinions:

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Software, in most cases, is inherently unpredictable, unknowable, and unshaped. It’s almost like a gas. It can fit into all sorts of different openings from the same basic idea. The notion of trying to estimate how long a feature is going to take doesn’t work because you don’t know what you’re building and because humans are terrible at estimating anything. The history of software development is one of late or cancelled projects. If you were to summarize the entire endeavor of software development, you’d say: ‘The project ran late and it got canceled’. Planning work doesn’t work, so to speak.

So the problem with those methodologies is they put too much focus on estimating, which is inherently impossible with software?
I’d go even further and say that estimation is bullshit. It’s so imprecise as to be useless, even when you’re dealing with fixed inputs. And you’re not. No one is ever able to accurately describe what a piece of software should do before they see the piece of software. This idea that we can preemptively describe what something should do before we start working on it is bunk. Agile was sort of onto this idea that you need running software to get feedback but the modern implementations of Agile are not embracing the lesson they themselves taught.

…The magic really is in shifting your mindset from estimates to budgets. Don’t think about how long something takes. Think about how long are you willing to give something. This flips the entire idea. It lets the requirements float. The project definition that is vague is actually more realistic. Highly specific project definitions usually go astray very quickly.

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UK plans new law to undo foreign deals on security grounds • Bloomberg

Tim Ross and Alex Morales:

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Boris Johnson’s government is drawing up plans for a radical new law that would give ministers power to unravel foreign investments in U.K. companies – potentially casting major doubt on deals that have already been concluded – to stop hostile states gaining control over key assets.

The National Security and Investment Bill is in the final stages of drafting and could be published later this month, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive.

It aims to cover deals in sectors such as defense and critical infrastructure, and will make provisions to protect sensitive intellectual property.

Among the most potentially controversial parts of the draft law is a proposal to allow the government to intervene retrospectively in circumstances where national security is an issue. That would mean allowing government officials to look back at past takeovers and mergers where concerns have been raised.

…Under the plans, the bill would include certain elements that are retroactive, enabling ministers to look back at past investments. One person familiar with the draft suggested this was with a particular deal in mind, though another denied that was the case.

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I bet the “particular deal” is Softbank’s purchase of ARM, and NVidia’s new attempt to buy it. The question though is: how would the investment be unraveled, exactly? What would the government pay, and how would it compensate the companies involved?
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Winning bid: how auction theory took the Nobel memorial prize in economics • Financial Times

Tim Harford:

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A well-designed auction forces bidders to reveal the truth about their own estimate of the prize’s value. At the same time, the auction shares that information with the other bidders. And it sets the price accordingly. It is quite a trick.

But in practice it is a difficult trick to get right. In the 1990s, the US Federal government turned to auction theorists — [Nobel prize winners] Milgrom and Wilson prominent among them — for advice on auctioning radio-spectrum rights. “The theory that we had in place had only a little bit to do with the problems that they actually faced,” Milgrom recalled in an interview in 2007. “But the proposals that were being made by the government were proposals that we were perfectly capable of analysing the flaws in and improving.”

The basic challenge with radio-spectrum auctions is that many prizes are on offer, and bidders desire only certain combinations. A TV company might want the right to use Band A, or Band B, but not both. Or the right to broadcast in the east of England, but only if they also had the right to broadcast in the west. Such combinatorial auctions are formidably challenging to design, but Milgrom and Wilson got to work.

Joshua Gans, a former student of Milgrom’s who is now a professor at the University of Toronto, praises both men for their practicality. Their theoretical work is impressive, he said, “but they realised that when the world got too complex, they shouldn’t adhere to proving strict theorems”.

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Further auction possibilities: carbon credits. If more governments would implement them.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1412: the ‘gangstalking’ delusion, Apple’s new iPhones (and HomePod), Facebook moves against vaccines, UK plans retrospective tech un-buyout law, and more

  1. I really shouldn’t do this, but – if we have “a public space for people to gather virtually”, what happens when some of those people are Holocaust-deniers, anti-vaxxers, white-supremacists, misogynists, TERFs, etc. etc. ? Remember, in the US at least, public spaces have to allow essentially all ideologies, no matter how wrong or hateful. That article’s putting forth an imagined fantasy against a reality where we see all the problems, so of course the fantasy can sound good. A prominent aspect of much current discourse is an absolute terror that all sorts of “bad” people are gathering virtually, and that needs to be shut-down via authoritarian action, for the public good. Articles which assume that won’t exist in the author’s utopian proposal, without explaining why, strike me as not engaging with the serious issues.

    • This is a fair point. I was discussing it (on email) with another reader, who said that what Pariser is describing is essentially Usenet and/or IRC. Usenet worked really well, and had a distributed cooperative light-touch moderation system, until it was overwhelmed by spam and the reluctance of ISPs to carry its content (because organising a news server was harder/more expensive/less of a thing you could offer would-be customers than running an email server? I don’t know).
      I often look at FB or Reddit content and think that it’s essentially what we used to see on Usenet. The difference being that you weren’t being monetised like crazy when you were on Usenet. So of course it couldn’t last…

  2. Wow. Seth Finkelstein writes: I really shouldn’t do this, but – if we have “a public space for people to gather virtually”, what happens when some of those people are Holocaust-deniers, anti-vaxxers, white-supremacists, misogynists, TERFs, etc. etc. ?

    So JK Rowling belongs with David Irving now?

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