Start Up No.1447: how Biden won online, Pornhub stiffens its moderation, Samsung won’t ship chargers, TikTok survives in US, and morei

Big radiators by easily opened windows in American blocks of flats? The result of the 1918 pandemic. CC-licensed photo by Smithsonian American Art Museum on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Untested in court. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Joe Biden’s digital team tamed the MAGA internet • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


after I wrote about Mr. Biden’s comparatively tiny internet presence last spring, I heard from legions of nervous Democratic strategists who worried that using “heal the nation” messaging against the MAGA meme army was like bringing a pinwheel to a prizefight.

But in the end, the bed-wetters were wrong. Mr. Biden won, and despite having many fewer followers and much less engagement on social media than Mr. Trump, his campaign raised record amounts of money and ultimately neutralized Mr. Trump’s vaunted “Death Star” — the name his erstwhile campaign manager, Brad Parscale, gave to the campaign’s digital operation.

Figuring out whether any particular online strategy decisively moved the needle for Mr. Biden is probably impossible. Offline factors, such as Mr. Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the economic devastation it has caused, undoubtedly played a major role. But since successful campaigns breed imitators, it’s worth looking under the hood of the Biden digital strategy to see what future campaigns might learn from it.
After the election, I spoke with Mr. Flaherty, along with more than a dozen other people who worked on the Biden digital team. They told me that while the internet alone didn’t get Mr. Biden elected, a few key decisions helped his chances.

Influencers, low-level grassroots efforts, ignoring Twitter (but focusing on Facebook), not trying to stamp out all the misinformation. A fascinating counter-example to 2016.
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Our commitment to trust and safety • Pornhub


We have worked to create comprehensive measures that help protect our community from illegal content. In recent months we deployed an additional layer of moderation. The newly established “Red Team” will be dedicated solely to self-auditing the platform for potentially illegal material.

The Red Team provides an extra layer of protection on top of the existing protocol, proactively sweeping content already uploaded for potential violations and identifying any breakdowns in the moderation process that could allow a piece of content that violates the Terms of Service. Additionally, while the list of banned keywords on Pornhub is already extensive, we will continue to identify additional keywords for removal on an ongoing basis.

We will also regularly monitor search terms within the platform for increases in phrasings that attempt to bypass the safeguards in place. Pornhub’s current content moderation includes an extensive team of human moderators dedicated to manually reviewing every single upload, a thorough system for flagging, reviewing and removing illegal material, robust parental controls, and utilization of a variety of automated detection technologies.


Looks like Nicholas Kristof’s article has had some effect.
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Revealed: Mark Zuckerberg threatened to pull UK investment in secret meeting with Matt Hancock • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Matthew Chapman:


Mark Zuckerberg threatened to pull Facebook’s investment from the UK in a private meeting with Matt Hancock, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal.

The minutes, from May 2018, show that an obsequious Hancock was eager to please, offering “a new beginning” for the government’s relationship with social media platforms. He offered to change the government’s approach from “threatening regulation to encouraging collaborative working to ensure legislation is proportionate and innovation-friendly”.

Hancock sought “increased dialogue” with Zuckerberg, “so he can bring forward the message that he has support from Facebook at the highest level”.

The meeting took place at the VivaTech conference in Paris. It appears to have been arranged “after several days of wrangling” by Matthew Gould, the former culture department civil servant that Hancock later made chief executive of NHS X.

Zuckerberg attended the meeting only days after Hancock – then the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) – had publicly criticised him for dodging a meeting with MPs.

…These details can finally be made public after a two-year battle that culminated in the Information Commissioner’s Office ordering the department to release the minutes. The newly released notes represent the first public airing of Mark Zuckerberg’s views regarding the UK’s proposed legislation on internet safety and regulation.


Unsurprisingly, the Tory MP Damian Collins (who had been leading the committee trying to get Zuckerberg to testify) is fuming about this.
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The curious history of steam heat and pandemics • Bloomberg

Patrick Sisson:


The battle against pathogens reshaped the inner working of buildings, too. Take that familiar annoyance for New Yorkers: the clanky radiator that overheats apartments even on the coldest days of the year. It turns out that the prodigious output of steam-heated buildings is the direct result of theories of infection control that were enlisted in the battle against the great global pandemic of 1918 and 1919. 

The Spanish Influenza, which caused just over 20,000 deaths in New York City alone, “changed heating once and for all.” That’s according to Dan Holohan, a retired writer, consultant, and researcher with extensive knowledge of heating systems and steam heating. (Among his many tomes on the topic: The Lost Art of Steam Heating, from 1992.) Most radiator systems appeared in major American cities like New York City in the first third of the 20th century. This golden age of steam heat didn’t merely coincide with that pandemic: beliefs about how to fight airborne illness influenced the design of heating systems, and created a persistent pain point for those who’ve cohabitated with a cranky old radiator. 

Health officials thought (correctly) that fresh air would ward off airborne diseases; then as now, cities rushed to move activities outdoors, from schools to courtrooms. When winter came, the need for fresh air didn’t abate. According to Holohan’s research, the Board of Health in New York City ordered that windows should remain open to provide ventilation, even in cold weather. In response, engineers began devising heating systems with this extreme use case in mind. Steam heating and radiators were designed to heat buildings on the coldest day of the year with all the windows open. Anybody who’s thrown their windows open in January, when their apartment is stifling, is, in an odd way, replicating what engineers hoped would happen a century ago. 


Ironic that the miasma (bad air/smells) theory still had a hold then – though it was only 70 years since the classic “disease map” of cholera in London tracing it not to bad air but infected water. Viruses weren’t widely known about in 1918; the first (in plants) had only been identified in 1898. In fact Alexander Fleming was trying to discover the bacterium that was believed to be behind the Spanish flu when he accidentally discovered penicillin.
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He pretended to be Trump’s family. Then Trump fell for it • The New York Times

Jack Nicas:


Last month, between tweets disputing his election loss, President Trump posted an article from a conservative website that said his sister Elizabeth Trump Grau had just joined Twitter to publicly back her brother’s fight to overturn the vote.

“Thank you Elizabeth,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter. “LOVE!”

But the Twitter account that prompted the article was not his sister’s. It was a fake profile run by Josh Hall, a 21-year-old food-delivery driver in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness. He actually thinks it’s his sister,’” Mr. Hall, a fervent Trump supporter, said in an interview last week.

It was a surreal coda to nearly a year of deception for Mr. Hall. Since February, he had posed as political figures and their families on Twitter, including five of the president’s relatives. He had pretended to be Robert Trump, the president’s brother; Barron Trump, the president’s 14-year-old son; and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator. The accounts collectively amassed more than 160,000 followers.

Using their identities, he gained attention by mixing off-color political commentary with wild conspiracy theories, including one that the government wanted to implant Americans with microchips, and another that John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, was alive and about to replace Mike Pence as vice president.

“There was no nefarious intention behind it,” Mr. Hall said. “I was just trying to rally up MAGA supporters and have fun.”


Nicas has an accompanying article about why it’s so hard for social networks to spot handmade (as opposed to bot-generated) fakes. When it comes to Hall, Nicas points out that he ran a crowdfunding scam which pulled in thousands of dollars. Hall says he didn’t collect. GoFundMe says he did.
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US cybersecurity firm FireEye discloses breach, theft of internal hacking tools • Reuters

Christopher Bing:


FireEye, one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the United States, said on Tuesday that is has been hacked, possibly by a government, leading to the theft of an arsenal of internal hacking tools typically reserved to privately test the cyber defenses of their own clients.

The hack of FireEye, a company with an array of business contracts across the national security space both in the United States and its allies, is among the most significant breaches in recent memory.

The FireEye breach was disclosed in a blog post authored by CEO Kevin Mandia. The post said “red team tools” were stolen as part of a highly sophisticated, likely “nation-state” hacking operation. It is not clear exactly when the hack initially took place.

Beyond the tool theft, the hackers also appeared to be interested in a subset of FireEye customers: government agencies.

“We hope that by sharing the details of our investigation, the entire community will be better equipped to fight and defeat cyber attacks,” Mandia wrote.

The company itself has partnered in recent weeks with different software makers to share defensive measures.


Obvious suspects: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea.
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Economics is going through an intellectual revolution on public debt • The Washington Post

Charles Lane:


Right now, economics is going through a mind-change on public-sector debt that borders on intellectual revolution.

Government debt accumulation was once considered inherently risky: By competing with private investors for investible funds, it would trigger ruinous interest-rate spikes. The new consensus is that debt is, if not quite the proverbial free lunch, then such a good deal that the United States and its fellow industrialized democracies can’t afford not to borrow. And this applies not only to the Covid-related crisis but also to the more normal times ahead.

What happened? Mainly, the gap between theory and fact became too large to ignore. The Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year forecast of US government debt as a share of total output grew from a mere 6% in 2000 to 109% in 2020. Yet in that same decade, real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates on benchmark US government bonds fell from 4.3% to negative 0.1%, as two top former Obama administration economists, Jason Furman and Lawrence H. Summers, point out in a new paper that’s attracting attention in pre-Biden Washington.

In fiscal 2020, the U.S. government borrowed a staggering 15% of gross domestic product, yet the 10-year government bond still pays less than 1%.

…the prime suspect is a mismatch between abundant private savings around the world and scarce profitable opportunities for private investment — the latter of which, in turn, partly reflects slow labor supply growth in industrialized countries.

Under such circumstances, holders of wealth see no alternative to parking their money with governments. There’s no private investment to “crowd out”; to the contrary, financial markets are actually signaling that the highest and best use of the funds may be a public one.


This is a quiet but epochal moment. If governments can borrow with abandon, it upends all the thinking that used to be in place about debt, repayment, borrowing and especially budgets.
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Second judge says Trump can’t ban TikTok • The Verge

Jay Peters:


A federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction that should keep the US Commerce Department from banning transactions with TikTok.

The Trump administration issued an executive order on August 6th that would have blocked transactions between US companies and TikTok and WeChat’s Chinese parent companies, ByteDance and Tencent. Trump declared TikTok and WeChat a “national emergency,” citing privacy and security concerns. That order invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), a law that allows Trump to ban transactions between the US and foreign entities.

However, in his opinion accompanying today’s decision, US district judge Carl Nichols said that “the government likely exceeded IEEPA’s express limitations.” He granted TikTok’s motion for a preliminary injunction against each item the Commerce Department was attempting to prohibit.

Nichols also previously granted a preliminary injunction on September 27th that allowed people to continue downloading the app in the US. At that time, he didn’t rule on the Commerce Department’s other restrictions.


The Trump administration is just going to run the clock out on this one – they’ve all completely lost interest in it. Trump’s distracted and bored, the DOJ knows the case won’t succeed, all the people in the administration are looking for new jobs. So the judge actually did them a favour here.
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Samsung’s no-charger-in-box future may be here sooner than expected • SamMobile

“Asif S”:


Remember when Apple said that it wouldn’t include a charger in the box with its new iPhones and Samsung mocked the company’s decision? Well, it looks like the South Korean company might take a U-turn and follow Apple in that regard. It is being reported that the Galaxy S21 series might not come with a charger and earphones in the box, at least in some regions.

The Galaxy S21, Galaxy S21+, and the Galaxy S21 Ultra have recently been certified by Anatel, Brazil’s regulatory agency. The certification documents specifically say that the upcoming phones won’t be marketed with a charger or earphones. You can see the relevant text highlighted in Portuguese in the image below. Apple seems to have started one more trend that other companies, including Samsung, might follow soon.

We first heard about the possibility of Samsung removing the charger one month ago, but it was just a rumor back then. Now, it appears that the company has taken the final decision. Even with the Galaxy Note 20 and Galaxy S20 series, Samsung didn’t bundle earphones in the US. However, people who wanted them could request Samsung for free AKG earphones.


Given all the much bigger things going on, it feels a bit wearying to point to the hypocrisy involved in criticising something you then go and do yourself, but if we let this go then everything starts to slide.
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Announcing the CSAM scanning tool, free for all Cloudflare customers • Cloudflare

Justin Paine and John Graham-Cumming:


The hard cases are when a customer of ours runs a service that allows user generated content (such as a discussion forum) and a user uploads CSAM [child sexual abuse material – often wrongly called “kiddie porn”], or if they’re hacked, or if they have a malicious employee that is storing CSAM on their servers. We’ve seen many instances of these cases where services intending to do the right thing are caught completely off guard by CSAM that ended up on their sites. Despite the absence of intent or malice in these cases, there’s still a need to identify and remove that content quickly.

Today we’re proud to take a step to help deal with those hard cases. Beginning today, every Cloudflare customer can login to their dashboard and enable access to the CSAM Scanning Tool. As the CSAM Scanning Tool moves through development to production, the tool will check all Internet properties that have enabled CSAM Scanning for this illegal content. Cloudflare will automatically send a notice to you when it flags CSAM material, block that content from being accessed (with a 451 “blocked for legal reasons” status code), and take steps to support proper reporting of that content in compliance with legal obligations.


This is good; this is what Parler isn’t doing, and is likely to get walloped for as a result. (Tumblr has had problems with CSAM more recently.)

Calling it “child sexual abuse material” might seem like being pernickety, but it’s actually important to make the distinction: adult pornography is (almost always) consensual, but children cannot give consent, which automatically makes this abuse.
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Christchurch shooter was radicalized on YouTube, New Zealand report says • The Verge

Elizabeth Lopatto:


The Australian white supremacist who killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was radicalized by YouTube, according to a 792-page report on the March 2019 shooting.

“What particularly stood out was the statement that the terrorist made that he was ‘not a frequent commentator on extreme right-wing sites and YouTube was a significant source of information and inspiration’,” said Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, according to The Guardian. “This is a point I plan to make directly to the leadership of YouTube.”

This is not the first time YouTube has been linked to radicalization and white supremacist content. There has been an ongoing argument about whether YouTube’s algorithm pushes people toward more extreme views over time. Although this is not a universal conclusion, some researchers say that the combination of a business model that rewards edgy content and a personalized algorithm meant to keep viewers hooked is a recipe for radicalization.

YouTube has made “significant progress” in curtailing hate speech since the 2019 Christchurch attack, says Alex Joseph, a YouTube spokesperson. YouTube strengthened its hate speech policy, terminated the channels mentioned in the report, and has altered its recommendations system to limit the spread of “borderline content.”


The report is remarkable in its calm tone; the killer is simply called “the individual” (always lower case) in order not to give any oxygen to him. It’s evident that he became radicalised through his use of the web, though much of the detail is lost: he took the hard drive out of his computer and it has not been found.
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LG shakes up loss-making phone business, to outsource lower-end models • Reuters

Joyce Lee:


LG’s mobile communications business, which has reported an operating loss for 22 consecutive quarters, has created a new management title for original design manufacture (ODM), a spokeswoman for the South Korean company said.

This refers to the outsourcing of design and manufacture of smartphones, with LG putting its label on the product.

It has also abolished some research and production positions and reshuffled others, the spokeswoman said, as part of an effort to focus its in-house R&D and production on premium smartphones, with low and mid-end ones to be produced by ODM.

Although ranked No. 3 in global smartphone market in the first quarter of 2013 by Strategy Analytics, LG is not even among the top seven in the third quarter of this year after losing ground to Chinese smartphone makers like Huawei, Xiaomi, Oppo and Vivo, research firm Counterpoint says.

“It knows it is competing with Chinese competitors, not Apple or Samsung, and it is trying to add to its lower-end models’ value for the price, by using original design manufacturers that Chinese firms use,” Tom Kang, an analyst at Counterpoint, said.

“But even if LG sources its products, without marketing ability, it cannot win against Chinese firms who are good at it,” Kang added.


People look at that 22 quarters thing, but it’s even worse than it seems. I checked back on the records, and since Q1 2010, LG’s phone division has been profitable in just nine quarters. Nine out of 40. It’s been a money pit for ten years, and the management is only just now getting round to doing something about it. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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