Start Up No.1464: how Facebook’s numbers create radicals, the virtual CES, DuckDuckGo hits 100m per day, why herd immunity takes jabs, and more


Tesla was the best-selling car brand in the UK in December. Really, it was. CC-licensed photo by rulenumberone2 on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Friday already? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

They used to post selfies. Now they’re trying to reverse the election • The New York Times

Stuart Thompson and Charlie Warzel:

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for years, [Dominick McGee’s] feed was unremarkable — a place to post photos of family and friends, musings about love and motivational advice.

Jan. 9, 2019: Replacing “why is this happening to me” with “what is this trying to teach me” is a better way of thinking. Positivity only..

Most of his posts received just a handful of likes and comments.

That changed after the presidential election, when he began posting about what he believed was suspicious activity around the vote: Nov 8 2020: “Americans have always viewed the media as an enemy of the people until President Trump was elected. We have allowed the media to earn our trust in this nation because the masses would accept anyone who wouldn’t accept Trump. #StopTheSteal🇺🇸”

He saw a sharp rise in engagement — more than 50 comments and nearly a dozen shares.

On Nov. 6, he wrote that he’d “rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” garnering 106 comments and 134 likes.

A post about Democrats supporting slavery in the 1800s received even more attention. Within weeks, he was committing nearly all his time to sharing what he learned from the Stop the Steal movement. He started a Facebook group, Win the Win, with the goal of overturning the election results. Tens of thousands of people joined in just weeks. Mr. McGee, who uses the pseudonym Dom Lucre on Facebook, wrote in the group that a “storm was coming,” a common QAnon reference, getting 440 comments and 1,500 likes.

Suddenly he had followers: “Thank you for helping we the people to wake up and see the truth, and see how we’ve been lied to for way too long,” one commented. “Thank you Dom!”

By the time he drove from Tennessee to Washington to march on the Capitol, his Facebook group had swelled to more than 61,000 members, and he was eager to meet some of them in person.

…He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many Americans into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

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It’s like a weird game. Imagine, though, if there weren’t any numbers associated with posts. Would people do the same things? (I did. You can pre-order my book where I look, among other things, at what happens when you take away those numbers.)
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Look, but don’t touch… the painful shortcomings of a virtual CES • Medium

Barry Collins:

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When in Vegas, I take an almost masochistic pride in largely swerving the major stands and pre-booked appointments, and instead wander the halls trying to find the gems for myself. In particular, I love the Eureka Park that’s normally in the Sand’s Convention Center, where you find hundreds of students and startups from all over the planet, most arriving with prototype landfill that will never make a commercial product, but a few with something genuinely innovative and brilliant. Things such as a beer fridge that restocks itself or a chess board that moves its own pieces. Things that are not just another sodding slab of glass…

It’s not been a total blowout. I enjoyed the Pepcom press event that was held last night. Instead of being thrust into a giant hall with journalists left to scrum it out with exhibitors, Pepcom held a virtual event instead, where you clicked on the exhibitor’s name, were given a short video of their new products and could then dive into Zoom sessions with their staff if you wanted more details.

It was certainly much easier to get through than a hall crammed full of backpack-toting bloggers, many of whom think nothing of chopping into your conversations or chokeslamming you out of the way so they can film their YouTube videos. But it’s harder for the more interesting, niche players to get noticed at an event like that. If you’re just a logo on a screen, how are you going to attract a journalist’s attention? I dived into a couple of Zooms with the smaller exhibitors and they were almost shocked to see me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were their only visitor all night. It was, well, awkward.

Perhaps what’s hardest of all for a journalist is virtual CES makes it impossible to tell which products are generating a buzz. When you can see hundreds of people crammed around a stand or a product on the showfloor, you know there’s something worth investigating there.

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The trouble I always felt with CES was that you’d see a gazillion me-too products, which told you where the centre of gravity of Shenzhen’s thinking (or factories) was; then the few items that looked fascinating but which you felt would vanish without trace. Which they pretty much inevitably did.
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DuckDuckGo traffic

Now past 100 million search queries per day. Google does about 3.5 billion per day. The growth line is exponential, if slow. I started using it somewhere back by the letter A on its graph.
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Twitter shuts down account of Sci-Hub, the pirated-papers website • Science

Jeffrey Brainard:

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Twitter last week permanently suspended the account of Sci-Hub, the website that has posted millions of freely accessible copies of scientific articles pirated from subscription journals. Twitter said Sci-Hub had violated its policy against promoting “counterfeit goods,” according to Sci-Hub’s founder, Alexandra Elbakyan.

The notification came shortly after a 6 January court hearing in India about a lawsuit filed by three of the world’s largest journal publishers—Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society—which are seeking to block public access to Sci-Hub in that country because of copyright infringement. Elbakyan says Sci-Hub’s defense to the suit, filed in December 2020, will rely in part on tweets from Indian scientists who have said they support continued access to Sci-Hub because they cannot afford subscriptions to journal content.

The now-suspended Twitter account had included some tweets that linked to Sci-Hub’s website, Elbakyan wrote in an email to ScienceInsider. But the “account was used primarily for discussions around open science issues,” she wrote.

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Well I guess that forestalls any attempt by Donald Trump to get back on Twitter by borrowing Sci-Hub’s account. Not sure meanwhile how Sci-Hub’s defence in India is going to pan out. Lots of people can’t afford (virtual) things they want because the price put on them is inflated, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the price.
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Fitbit joins Google • Fitbit Blog

James Park:

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When Eric [Friedman] and I founded Fitbit 13 years ago, we did so with a simple, but bold idea: to make everyone in the world healthier. Since shipping the original Fitbit tracker in 2009 to now having sold more than 120 million devices in over 100 countries, this mission has never wavered. Instead, millions of you joined that mission, and made Fitbit a movement that transformed lives. In some cases, we heard from our users that we even helped save lives. Together, we’ve taken 275 trillion steps and logged over 15 billion hours of sleep.

This is just the beginning because becoming part of the Google family means we can do even more to inspire and motivate you on your journey to better health. We’ll be able to innovate faster, provide more choices, and make even better products to support your health and wellness needs. On our own, we pushed the bounds of what was possible from the wrist, pioneering step, heart rate, sleep and stress tracking. With access to Google’s incredible resources, knowledge and global platform, the possibilities are truly limitless.

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Well, limitless apart from the restrictions that have been put on the takeover about data sharing. Is Google going to do any better with Fitbit than Fitbit did? Its hardware efforts have been unfocussed for years.
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Fix The Planet: what’s up with electric car sales? • New Scientist

Adam Vaughan:

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The pandemic meant that many countries saw new car sales fall around the world last year. In the UK, they were down a staggering 29%. Yet the UK also saw battery electric car sales increase by 186%. In Norway, electric cars outstripped petrol and diesel car sales for the first time . Volkswagen (VW), the world’s biggest car-maker, saw global battery electric model sales rise by 197% in a year when its overall sales were down by 15%. “2020 was very important for Europe. It is the beginning of the real, irreversible EV revolution,” says Viktor Irle at EV-Volumes, which tracks electric car sales globally. As his graph below shows, this electric boom is largely a European story, but it is also a Chinese one too. The US is lagging.

“This is what a technological transformation feels like,” says Ben Lane at Next Green Car. He points out the growth isn’t just linear, but accelerating. A few factors explain why Europe is leading the charge, says Lane. One is European Union regulation around car emissions, which has been tightening for two decades. A second is the VW emissions scandal that started in 2015 and triggered a decline in diesel car sales. Meanwhile, money has poured into electric car development, and new entrants, including Tesla, have scaled up. In some markets, individual policies helped electric car sales mushroom last year. For example, it’s no coincidence that 68% of 2020’s UK electric car sales were for company cars, the same year that the government changed rules to let them pay no company car tax.

Is this a tipping point?
Yes, says Tim Lenton at the University of Exeter, UK. In a paper he co-authored with Simon Sharpe at the UK Cabinet Office this week, he writes: “A small number of countries could make a large contribution to accelerating the activation of this global tipping point.”

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Quentin Stafford-Fraser bought a Tesla – which was the best-selling brand in the UK in December. Really.
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When to trade bitcoin? When Saturn crosses Mercury, of course • Reuters

Anna Irrera and Tom Wilson:

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Bitcoin seems so flighty, some might argue you may as well consult a crystal ball, read the runes or stare at the stars to divine the direction of the capricious cryptocurrency.

Enter Maren Altman, bitcoin investor and astrologer.

The New Yorker has been following the movements of celestial objects to predict bitcoin price fluctuations since last summer. And while many people might mock her methods, she has built up a 1 million-strong social-media following on TikTok.

Last week, the 22-year-old told her followers to watch for a price correction on Jan. 11.

Why? Saturn was going to cross Mercury.

Lo and behold, bitcoin fell as much as 21% on that day, before recovering most of its losses, slamming the brakes on a meteoric rally that saw it double from early December to a record $42,000 last week.

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It’s the “lucky horse” scheme, of course. Send out horse tips to 10,000 people; break them into 10 groups, different tip for each. You’ll get it right with one group, so then you sell them your paid-for newsletter. Choose two-horse races, get half of them right, amp up the cost of the newsletter..

It’s as good a method as any, especially for bitcoin.
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Facebook turned on Trump after warnings that ‘business as usual isn’t working’ • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman:

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As footage of a pro-Trump mob ransacking the US Capitol streamed from Washington, D.C., last Wednesday, Facebook’s data scientists and executives saw warning signs of further trouble.

User reports of violent content jumped more than 10-fold from the morning, according to documents viewed by The Wall Street Journal. A tracker for user reports of false news surged to nearly 40,000 reports an hour, about four times recent daily peaks. On Instagram, the company’s popular photo-sharing platform, views skyrocketed for content from authors in “zero trust” countries, reflecting potential efforts at platform manipulation by entities overseas.

Facebook’s platforms were aflame, the documents show. One Instagram presentation, circulated internally and seen by the Journal, was subtitled “Why business as usual isn’t working.”

Company leaders feared a feedback loop, according to people familiar with the matter, in which the incendiary events in Washington riled up already on-edge social-media users—potentially leading to more strife in real life.

…“Hang in there everyone,” wrote chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer in a post reviewed by the Journal, asking for patience while the company figured out how best “to allow for peaceful discussion and organizing but not calls for violence.”

“All due respect, but haven’t we had enough time to figure out how to manage discourse without enabling violence?” responded one employee, one of many unhappy responses that together gathered hundreds of likes from colleagues. “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s now out of control.”

…Mr. Zuckerberg, who has grown more involved in politics over the last four years, has been personally involved in the decisions, people familiar with the matter say. One person familiar with the discussions said the changes were already being planned but that Wednesday’s events “sped it up by 10x.”

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Just on the headline: Facebook didn’t “turn on” Trump. It banned him.
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Ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on the foreign-policy mess Trump is leaving behind • Foreign Policy

Kelly Bjorklund:

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Bjorklund: Was it difficult to get a message through to the president? How did you navigate that when the stakes were so high?

Tillerson: His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited. It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this.

Trump’s “understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited.”I had to constantly evaluate my last conversations with him—what seemed to resonate, what seemed to get across, what didn’t—and I would try different approaches with him. I used to go into meetings with a list of four to five things I needed to talk to him about, and I quickly learned that if I got to three, it was a home run, and I realized getting two that were meaningful was probably the best objective.

So I began to adjust what I went into a meeting with and what I attempted to explain and describe, and then I started taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better. If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that, and I could build on that. Just sitting and trying to have a conversation as you and I are having just doesn’t work.

…I think the other challenge that I came to realize early on is there were so many people who had access to his ear who were telling him things, most of which were untrue, and then he began to listen to those voices and form a view that had no basis in fact. So then you spent an inordinate amount of time working through why that’s not true, working through why that’s not factual, working through why that’s not the basis on which you want to understand this, you need to set that aside, let’s talk about what’s real. I think that was as big a challenge as anything. 

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His thinking about the biggest problem that’s ahead – over China and Taiwan – is worth reading, and a bit chilling: would the US public have the tolerance for a war with China over a little island?
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Herd immunity by infection is not an option • Science

Devi Sridhar and Deepti Gurdasani:

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Herd immunity is expected to arise when a virus cannot spread readily, because it encounters a population that has a level of immunity that reduces the number of individuals susceptible to infection. On page 288 of this issue, Buss et al. (1) describe the extent of the largely uncontrolled SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in Brazil. Their data show the impact on mortality rates of a largely unmitigated outbreak where even with an estimated 76% of the population being infected, herd immunity was not achieved. Manaus provides a cautionary example of unmitigated spread across a population, showing that herd immunity is likely not achieved even at high levels of infection and that it comes with unacceptably high costs.

Buss et al. used data on the occurrence of SARS-CoV-2–specific antibodies (seroprevalence) in blood donors, adjusted for waning antibody responses over time, to calculate an estimated attack rate for COVID-19 of 66% in June, rising to 76% in October, in Manaus. The attack rate is the proportion of at-risk people who develop infection after exposure in a period of time. This attack rate resulted in a factor of 4.5 excess mortality in 2020 relative to previous years.

The infection fatality rate was estimated to be between 0.17% and 0.28%, consistent with the population being predominantly young and at reduced risk of death from COVID-19. Manaus recorded 2642 [1193/million inhabitants (mil)] confirmed deaths from COVID-19 and 3789 (1710/mil) deaths from severe acute respiratory syndrome likely to have been caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection. These figures are starkly different from the fatality rates during the same period (until 1 October) in the United Kingdom (620/mil), France (490/mil), and the United States (625/mil), and orders of magnitude higher than in Australia (36/mil), Taiwan (0.3/mil), and New Zealand (5/mil). Despite such a high proportion of the population being infected, transmission in Manaus has continued, even in the presence of nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), with the effective reproduction rate (R) near 1.

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That’s quite worrying that even with three-quarters of the population having had it that spread doesn’t stop. Fingers crossed for the vaccine to achieve it.
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Axios wants to help companies write like its reporters—for $10,000 a year, or more • WSJ

Benjamin Mullin:

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Punchy news startup Axios is betting that companies will pay big bucks to write like its reporters.

The company next month will launch AxiosHQ, a communications platform that will enable businesses to update their employees—including through internal newsletters—in Axios’s just-the-facts, bullet-point style.

The software tool, which Axios said would cost at least $10,000 a year depending on a customer’s size, is the first paid-subscription product launched by the digital-news startup. Founded in 2017, Axios mostly covers U.S. politics, media and technology, and is known for its short, exclusive stories.

Subscribers to the platform have the option to add a service that allows them to tap a team of editors—separate from Axios’s news division—for writing tips, Axios co-founder and President Roy Schwartz said. One member of that team used to help edit the presidential daily briefing for President Trump, Mr. Schwartz said. AxiosHQ also features a tool that recommends grammar and usage changes based on a database of edits from Axios staff.

The product is part of Axios Chief Executive Jim VandeHei’s desire to build a subscription business, which he stated when the company was founded. Axios, which was profitable last year, doesn’t have a paywall and currently generates most of its revenue through advertising.

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Smart enough, though there’s honestly no special sauce to what Axios does. It’s standard newsform: two most important paragraph at the top, third paragraph is the context, and on you go. Take out the stuff they dress it with in bold (Why It Matters or The Big Picture) and it’s just like any tabloid-style story.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1464: how Facebook’s numbers create radicals, the virtual CES, DuckDuckGo hits 100m per day, why herd immunity takes jabs, and more

  1. “One Instagram presentation, circulated internally and seen by the Journal, was subtitled ‘Why business as usual isn’t working.'”

    They make decisions on the basis of *Instagram presentations* ??!!??

    A cynic might ask if it is worse than Powerpoint but the whole mode of processing information only if it comes in small words with big pictures has to cripple thought.

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