Start Up No.1436: the misinformation superspreaders, an infinite quilt, GM quits Trump, Snapchat tries to TikTok, and more

Having this many books – especially if you haven’t read them – is a good, not bad, thing. CC-licensed photo by Geoff Coupe on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Certified. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How misinformation ‘superspreaders’ seed false election theories • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel:


New research from Avaaz, a global human rights group, the Elections Integrity Partnership and The New York Times shows how a small group of people — mostly right-wing personalities with outsized influence on social media — helped spread the false voter-fraud narrative that led to those rallies.

That group, like the guests of a large wedding held during the pandemic, were “superspreaders” of misinformation around voter fraud, seeding falsehoods that include the claims that dead people voted, voting machines had technical glitches, and mail-in ballots were not correctly counted.
“Because of how Facebook’s algorithm functions, these superspreaders are capable of priming a discourse,” said Fadi Quran, a director at Avaaz. “There is often this assumption that misinformation or rumors just catch on. These superspreaders show that there is an intentional effort to redefine the public narrative.”

Across Facebook, there were roughly 3.5 million interactions — including likes, comments and shares — on public posts referencing “Stop the Steal” during the week of Nov. 3, according to the research. Of those, the profiles of Eric Trump, Diamond and Silk and Mr. Straka accounted for a disproportionate share — roughly 6%, or 200,000, of those interactions.

…In order to find the superspreaders, Avaaz compiled a list of 95,546 Facebook posts that included narratives about voter fraud. Those posts were liked, shared or commented on nearly 60 million times by people on Facebook.

Avaaz found that just 33 of the 95,546 posts were responsible for over 13 million of those interactions. Those 33 posts had created a narrative that would go on to shape what millions of people thought about the legitimacy of the U.S. elections.

A spokesman for Facebook said the company had added labels to posts that misrepresented the election process and was directing people to a voting information center.


Very much what we always suspect: a tiny number of idiots direct a larger number of idiots.

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GM flips to California’s side in pollution fight with Trump • Associated Press

Tom Krisher:


General Motors is switching sides in the legal fight against California’s right to set its own clean-air standards, abandoning the Trump administration as the president’s term nears its close.

CEO Mary Barra said in a letter Monday to environmental groups that GM will no longer support the Trump administration in its defense against a lawsuit over its efforts against California’s standards. And GM is urging other automakers to do the same.

The move is a sign that GM and other automakers are anticipating big changes when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January. Already at least one other large automaker, Toyota, said it may join GM in switching to California’s team.

In her letter, Barra wrote that the company agrees with Biden’s plan to expand electric vehicle use. Last week, GM said it is testing a new battery chemistry that will bring down electric vehicle costs to those of gas-powered vehicles within five years.


So subtly and completely indicative that they see the power draining away from Trump by the minute.
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Snapchat officially launches in-app TikTok competitor called Spotlight • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Snap is finally ready to compete with TikTok and will pay creators to post on the platform. The company is officially announcing a new section of Snapchat today called Spotlight that’ll surface vertical video content from users that’s more meme-like and jokey instead of the day-in-the-life content Snap previously encouraged. Imagine, basically, TikTok but in Snapchat.

To entice people to post snaps regularly, the company says it’ll divvy up $1 million between the most popular creators on the app per day through the end of 2020. This means if someone has a particularly viral video, they might earn a large chunk of the $1 million pot. It doesn’t matter whether that person has a massive number of subscribers; the amount people receive is primarily based on unique views compared to other snaps that day. Users can continue to earn from their video if it’s popular for multiple days at a time.

Spotlight, which will have its own dedicated tab in the app, is launching in 11 countries, including the US, UK, France, Germany, and Australia. The videos you’ll see in the section can be up to 60 seconds long and, as of right now, cannot be watermarked. That means people can’t just download their (or others’) viral TikToks and upload them to Snapchat.


First Instagram, now Snapchat. I don’t think either is going to emulate TikTok’s success; you can’t achieve what it has by half measures. You have to commit completely to the algorithmic function driving what people are shown. Neither Instagram nor Snapchat is willing to do that because their basic product isn’t like that.
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The value of owning more books than you can read • Big Think

Kevin Dickinson:


I love books. If I go to the bookstore to check a price, I walk out with three books I probably didn’t know existed beforehand. I buy second-hand books by the bagful at the Friends of the Library sale, while explaining to my wife that it’s for a good cause. Even the smell of books grips me, that faint aroma of earthy vanilla that wafts up at you when you flip a page.

The problem is that my book-buying habit outpaces my ability to read them. This leads to FOMO and occasional pangs of guilt over the unread volumes spilling across my shelves. Sound familiar?

But it’s possible this guilt is entirely misplaced. According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, these unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings. Quite the opposite.

Taleb laid out the concept of the antilibrary in his best-selling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He starts with a discussion of the prolific author and scholar Umberto Eco, whose personal library housed a staggering 30,000 books.

When Eco hosted visitors, many would marvel at the size of his library and assumed it represented the host’s knowledge — which, make no mistake, was expansive. But a few savvy visitors realized the truth: Eco’s library wasn’t voluminous because he had read so much; it was voluminous because he desired to read so much more.

Eco stated as much. Doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation, he found he could only read about 25,200 books if he read one book a day, every day, between the ages of ten and eighty. A “trifle,” he laments, compared to the million books available at any good library.

Drawing from Eco’s example, Taleb deduces: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. [Your] library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.” [Emphasis original]


So can we treat those open browser tabs that we’re going to get round to some time soon, honest, as the electronic equivalent? I’ve got a few hundred somewhere.
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I created my own YouTube algorithm (to stop me wasting time) • Towards Data Science

Chris Lovejoy:


I love watching YouTube videos that improve my life in some tangible way. Unfortunately, the YouTube algorithm doesn’t agree. It likes to feed me clickbait and other garbage.

This isn’t all that surprising. The algorithm prioritises clicks and watch time.

So I set out on a mission: could I write code that would automatically find me valuable videos, eliminating my dependence on the YouTube algorithm?

Here’s how it went.


Essentially, he created a straight algorithm version of the neural network(s) that YouTube uses to come up with its “Watch Next” system. Except he felt his was better.
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An infinitely zooming image. Try it if you don’t believe me. There’s also a live wallpaper for Android if you want.
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How close is humanity to the edge? • The New Yorker

Corinne Purtill:


[Toby] Ord places the risk of our extinction during the 21st century at one in six—the odds of an unlucky shot in Russian roulette. Should we manage to avoid a tumble off the precipice, he thinks, it will be our era’s defining achievement. The book catalogues many possible catastrophes. There are the natural risks we’ve always lived with, such as asteroids, super-volcanic eruptions, and stellar explosions. “None of them keep me awake at night,” Ord writes.

Then there are the large-scale threats we have created for ourselves: nuclear war, climate change, pandemics (which are made more likely by our way of life), and other novel methods of man-made destruction still to come. Ord is most concerned about two possibilities: empowered artificial intelligence unaligned with human values (he gives it a one-in-ten chance of ending humanity within the next hundred years) and engineered pandemics (he thinks they have a one-in-thirty chance of bringing down the curtain).

The pandemic we are currently experiencing is the sort of event that Ord describes as a “warning shot”—a smaller-scale catastrophe that, though frightening, tragic, and disruptive, might also spur attempts to prevent disasters of greater magnitude in the future.

Unlike doomsday preppers who seem, on some level, to relish the idea of social breakdown, Ord believes in humanity’s potential for greatness.


I’m not sure I do, but let’s hum along as though he’s correct.
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A simple theory of why Trump did well • The New York Times

Jamelle Bouie:


At the risk of committing the same sin as other observers and getting ahead of the data, I want to propose an alternative explanation for the election results, one that accounts for the president’s relative improvement as well as that of the entire Republican Party.

It’s the money, stupid.

At the end of March, President Trump signed the Cares Act, which distributed more than half a trillion dollars in direct aid to more than 150 million Americans, from stimulus checks ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households below a certain income threshold) to $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits. These programs were not perfect — the supplement unemployment insurance, in particular, depended on ramshackle state systems, forcing many applicants to wait weeks or even months before they received assistance — but they made an impact regardless. Personal income went up and poverty went down, even as the United States reported its steepest ever quarterly drop in economic output.

Now, the reason this many Americans received as much assistance as they did is that Democrats fought for it over the opposition of Republicans who believed any help beyond the minimum would degrade the will to work for whatever wage employers were willing to pay. “The moment we go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say, ‘I don’t need to go back to work because I can do better someplace else,’ ” Senator Rick Scott of Florida argued on the floor of the Senate.

But voters, and especially the low-propensity voters who flooded the electorate in support of Trump, aren’t attuned to the ins and outs of congressional debate. They did not know — and Democrats didn’t do a good enough job of telling them — that the president and his party opposed more generous benefits. All they knew is that Trump signed the bill (and the checks), giving them the kind of government assistance usually reserved for the nation’s ownership class.


Makes a hell of a lot of sense to me. Ironic: the coronavirus that everyone thought would sink him for certain instead made a lot of people think they were doing great.
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I should have loved biology • jsomers

James Somers:


In his “Mathematician’s Lament,” Paul Lockhart describes how school cheapens mathematics by robbing us of the questions. We’re not just asked, hey, how much of the triangle takes up the box?

That’s a puzzle we might delight in. (If you drop a vertical from the top of the triangle, you end up with two rectangles cut in half; you discover that the area inside the triangle is equal to the area outside.) Instead, we’re told that if you ever find yourself wanting the area of a triangle, here’s the procedure:

Biology is like that, but worse because it’s a messier subject. The facts seem extra arbitrary. We’re told to distinguish “lipid bilayers” from “endoplasmic reticula” without understanding why we care about either in the first place.

Enormous subjects are best approached in thin, deep slices. I discovered this when first learning how to program. The textbooks never worked; it all only started to click when I started to do little projects for myself. The project wasn’t just motivation but an organizing principle, a magnet to arrange the random iron filings I picked up along the way. I’d care to learn about some abstract concept, like “memoization,” because I needed it to solve my problem; and these concepts would lose their abstractness in the light of my example.

Biology is no different. Learning begins with questions. How do embryos differentiate? Why are my eyes blue? How does a hamster turn cheese into muscle? Why does the coronavirus make some people much sicker than others?


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1436: the misinformation superspreaders, an infinite quilt, GM quits Trump, Snapchat tries to TikTok, and more

  1. It’s fascinating the way that various truths of media analysis continually get re-discovered, but are only allowed to be expressed in certain political palatable contexts. The fact that a very few high-attention sources drive agendas is just about the most basic finding of the field. But for various sociological reasons, there’s often a massive pretense against admitting it, because then one would then need to deal with the implications. I went though this myself with the deceptions of blog-evangelism, with “A-listers” denying the “A-list” dominance effect, and that’s just one personal example. Whole books get written on the topic of how discourse is shaped by institutions, e.g. “Manufacturing Consent”.

    But put this into the context of the mainstream looking at right-wing politics, and presto, it’s all about how viral “superspreaders” poison the healthy body politic with the plague of disinformation (which is not at all like pack-churnalism, of course).

    Now, I’m not at all claiming everything’s morally equivalent. However, there sure seems to be some sort of “social conjugation” here.

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