Start Up No.1467: Brexit’s dawning reality, should Sandberg resign?, the Westminster Abbey railway, the bitcoin heaters, and more


Radio was the social media of 1930s America – and led to a big ban that might sound familiar CC-licensed photo by Joe Haupt on Flickr.

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

That time private US media companies stepped in to silence the falsehoods and incitements of a major public figure … in 1938 • The Conversation

William Kovarik is professor of communication at Radford University:

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In speeches filled with hatred and falsehoods, a public figure attacks his enemies and calls for marches on Washington. Then, after one particularly virulent address, private media companies close down his channels of communication, prompting consternation from his supporters and calls for a code of conduct to filter out violent rhetoric.

Sound familiar? Well, this was 1938, and the individual in question was Father Charles E. Coughlin, a Nazi-sympathizing Catholic priest with unfettered access to America’s vast radio audiences. The firms silencing him were the broadcasters of the day.

As a media historian, I find more than a little similarity between the stand those stations took back then and the way Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have silenced false claims of election fraud and incitements to violence in the aftermath of the siege on the US Capitol – noticeably by silencing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters.

Coughlin’s Detroit ministry had grown up with radio, and, as his sermons grew more political, he began calling President Franklin D. Roosevelt a liar, a betrayer and a double-crosser. His fierce rhetoric fueled rallies and letter-writing campaigns for a dozen right-wing causes, from banking policy to opposing Russian communism. At the height of his popularity, an estimated 30 million Americans listened to his Sunday sermons.

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If you’ve read Philip Roth’s ‘The Plot Against America’ – about that America sliding into fascism – you’ll have heard Coughlin’s name. What’s worth reading in Kovarik’s piece is precisely what tipped all those radio stations into cancelling Coughlin.

History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.
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Brexiters are waking up to the damage they’ve done • The Guardian

Polly Toynbee lays out some of the industries that are being walloped by the effects of new border arrangements due to Brexit, then continues:

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And then there is the unfolding Northern Ireland disaster. Stena Line ferries has diverted its Great Britain-Northern Ireland sea crossings to the Rosslare-to-Cherbourg route instead. The Times headline reads “Doldrums ahead in shipping forecast as Brexit complicates customs”.

Over the past year I have been following the impending haulage disaster through Manfreight, a 200-lorry company in Coleraine. Its owner Chris Slowey says no, the crisis in the GB/UK crossing is not down to “teething problems”, as Raab put it, but is baked into the nature of Brexit. His lorries carrying exports to England return empty, doubling his costs, as English exporters find it too costly to sell to Northern Ireland – and that’s permanent. The Telegraph reports that one in 10 lorries are being turned back at the EU border. Delays will continue: spot checks at EU borders are standard. So will queues, lorry parks and roadside squalor. The pandemic has worsened the Brexit effect, but that was a good reason to extend the transition period.

It’s only human to confess to some remainer “I told you so” glee when ex-MP Kate Hoey wails in the Telegraph, “The Tories have betrayed Northern Ireland with their Brexit deal”. What on earth did she expect? That’s why Northern Ireland wisely voted remain.

Expect a lot more shocked Brexiters to discover what they have done, the Brexit cabinet itself is on a steep learning curve. Here’s one Telegraph columnist: “We Brexiters are being blamed for the problems we warned about. In reality, the fault lies squarely with the government and poor planning.” Oh the schadenfreude! That’s a sharp U-turn from the Telegraph’s too-eager 1 January report from the Dover front: “Chaos? What chaos?”

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Are we going to get used to this? Or will it chafe with people as they realise it and try to hold those responsible to account?

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Sheryl Sandberg, resign • The New Republic

Melissa Gira Grant:

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“If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism,” a member of the “Red-State Secession” Facebook group posted the day before the insurrection, according to The New York Times: “Beneath it, dozens of people posted comments that included photographs of the weaponry—including assault rifles—that they said they planned to bring to the rally. There were also comments referring to ‘occupying’ the Capitol and forcing Congress to overturn the November election that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had won—and Mr. Trump had lost.”

“I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sheryl Sandberg told the Reuters Next conference on Monday, as the fallout from the Capitol riot was still unfolding. This is not the first time Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has performed this duty—the reasonable public face of the private company with an outsize power over the public square.

Sandberg’s words follow a familiar pattern in all Facebook P.R. efforts: They simultaneously embrace and downplay the company’s power. Yet, as Vice reported, “at the very moment Sandberg made these comments, there were at least 60 ‘Stop the Steal’ groups active on Facebook, some with tens of thousands of members and millions of interactions.” The same day Sandberg minimized Facebook’s role in service of the armed people who tried to take the Capitol, people who claimed responsibility for organizing the mob were using Facebook and Instagram to plan more of them.

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In truth, Facebook has lots of people who go in front of cameras and make demi-apologies for whatever terrible thing has been shown to be its fault, from Zuckerberg on down; Sandberg hardly stands out there. (Monika Bickert has done this at least as often.) Grant’s argument is that if Sandberg really wanted to lean in to her responsibilities as a woman, she’d have nothing more to do with the company. It’s a point of view, at least.
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Behind a secret deal between Google and Facebook • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Tiffany Hsu:

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The agreement between Facebook and Google, code-named “Jedi Blue” inside Google, pertains to a growing segment of the online advertising market called programmatic advertising. Online advertising pulls in hundreds of billions of dollars in global revenue each year, and the automated buying and selling of ad space accounts for more than 60% of the total, according to researchers.

In the milliseconds between a user clicking on a link to a web page and the page’s ads loading, bids for available ad space are placed behind the scenes in marketplaces known as exchanges, with the winning bid passed to an ad server. Because Google’s ad exchange and ad server were both dominant, it often directed the business to its own exchange.

A method called header bidding emerged, in part as a workaround to reduce reliance on Google’s ad platforms. News outlets and other sites could solicit bids from multiple exchanges at once, helping to increase competition and leading to better prices for publishers. By 2016, more than 70% of publishers had adopted the technology, according to one estimate.

Seeing a potentially significant loss of business to header bidding, Google developed an alternative called Open Bidding, which supported an alliance of exchanges. While Open Bidding allows other exchanges to simultaneously compete alongside Google, the search company extracts a fee for every winning bid, and competitors say there is less transparency for publishers.

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Like all adtech, it’s fiendishly difficult to figure out what’s going on. But you have to love the tortured NewSpeak of the Facebook flack:

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Christopher Sgro, a Facebook spokesman, said deals like its agreement with Google “help increase competition in ad auctions,” which benefits advertisers and publishers. “Any suggestion that these types of agreements harm competition is baseless,” he said.

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Cartels – they’re just what the market is calling for!
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The year a “railway” ran inside Westminster Abbey • Ian Visits

Ian Mansfield:

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For a few months in 1952, railway tracks could be found running through the middle of Westminster Abbey.

It’s autumn, and the Abbey is being prepared for Coronation of a Queen the following June, and a lot of steel and wood needs to be delivered to build the massive seating stands to hold all the nobles and important people who were invited to attend.

What better to carry all that material than a railway?

OK, it can be technically argued that a railway with humans as the “locomotive” isn’t a railway, but there’s a locomotive, and carriages, and track – it’s a railway. A railway inside an ancient abbey.

The railway ran through the side entrance of the Abbey — where tourists arrive today and ran to the lorries outside delivering goods. Although there are photos of the conversion works, there are sadly few written records of the railway itself.

What’s fascinating is how most of the interior of Westminster Abbey is covered in plywood, so that hardly anything of the ancient original can be seen. The Westminster Abbey we see on television is largely a fantasy created for the Coronation to make the Abbey look grander than it really is. Even the raised dais where the Queen is crowned is just a wooden stage covered in carpet.

It was also packed — literally — to the rafters.

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The pictures are absolutely amazing. Really worth your time.
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Online speech and publishing • Benedict Evans

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The internet and then social platforms break a lot of our definitions of different kinds of speech, and yet somehow Facebook / Google / Twitter are supposed to recreate that whole 200-year tapestry of implicit structures and consensus, and answer all of those questions, from office parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, for both the USA and Myanmar, right now. We want them to Fix It, but we don’t actually know what that means.   

You can see a microcosm of this in the US debate last year about political ads on Facebook. Do you run ads that tell lies? Newspapers do, and they run opinion pieces that their own reporting staff might disagree with. US TV stations aren’t allowed to block ads from qualifying candidates. Meanwhile a ban on advertising is good for incumbents, who already have organic reach, and for populists and trolls, who can get it, but shuts out moderates and new entrants. And yet a lie on Facebook, spread with money (from where?), reaches new people. In the UK, political TV ads are regulated – should the US apply that? These are all interesting questions, but who decides? For now, one 36-year-old called Mark. 

This is part of the challenge: everyone at a big social media company thinks about these problems, but they do so conscious that they don’t have much legitimacy to make those kinds of decisions. They have neither the social legitimacy of a newspaper editor nor the political legitimacy of a regulator or a law. In 2015, most people in Silicon Valley would have said censorship was both wrong and unscalable – now ML means you can at least try to scale it (with tens of thousands of human moderators) and everyone understands how bad things can get and the responsibility to do something. But what?

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We are glimpsing the reality: that even understanding what we do and don’t want to moderate on social media is difficult. And then there’s the problem of doing it.
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Chilly this winter? Cozy up to your computer that’s mining bitcoin • WSJ

Sarah Needleman:

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As winter approached, Dan van der Ster worried his annual utility bill would skyrocket since his family of five was homebound with the pandemic.

It hardly budged.

While the electric portion shot up in 2020, the gas-heat expense surprisingly declined. He thinks that’s largely thanks to the beefy new computer he uses to mine cryptocurrency and on which his teenage son plays videogames. Mr. Van der Ster, a 40-year-old engineer who lives in France near the Switzerland border, now has a new concern: “It’s getting too warm.”

With the health crisis keeping people home, computer gamers and bitcoin miners are taking greater advantage of a cold-weather perk. The more they use their high-powered machines, the more heat the devices give off.

In the pandemic’s early days, photographer Thomas Smith funneled heat through a tube from a computer he uses mainly for mining bitcoin to maintain a small greenhouse in his garage. It yielded fresh basil and heirloom cherry tomatoes.

“It was like those heaters on a restaurant patio,” he said. “I made a caprese salad.”

Now Mr. Smith, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., is experimenting with using his computer to heat at night a coop he recently set up in his backyard for two chickens. “It’s chilly out there,” he said, though he is concerned about the birds’ safety. “I don’t want to overheat them.”

Rebecca Ratchford hasn’t had to raise the thermostat this winter in her three-bedroom Cary, N.C., home, where she has been working remotely as an administrative assistant since the pandemic began. Her custom-built computer gives off plenty of warm air, she said, especially during intense battles in “Destiny 2,” the science-fiction shooter game.

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This feels a little like a commercial from Intel. “Stay with our computers – they get wonderfully hot!” Ignoring the reality that that’s all wasted energy. Buy a blow heater, people.
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Facebook said it would stop pushing users to join partisan political groups. It didn’t • The Markup

Leon Yin and Alfred Ng:

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In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook said it was taking “emergency” measures to prevent people from using the platform to spread misinformation or coordinate violence. Among those measures, CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified under oath before Congress in October, Facebook had stopped recommending all “political content or social issue groups”—a practice its own internal research has suggested steers users toward divisive and extremist content. 

Days after a riot organized at least partially on social media overtook the US Capitol, Facebook reiterated in a Jan. 11 blog post that it was “not recommending civic groups for people to join.”

But contrary to Facebook’s claims, The Markup found the platform continued to recommend political groups to its users throughout December. We found 12 political groups among the top 100 groups recommended to the more than 1,900 Facebook users in our Citizen Browser project, which tracks links and group recommendations served to a nationwide panel of Facebook users. Our data shows Facebook also continued to recommend political groups throughout January, including after it renewed its promise not to on Jan. 11.

Facebook pushed political groups most often to the Trump voters on our panel. Almost one quarter of the top 100 groups suggested to Trump voters were political—and political groups accounted for half of the top 10 groups recommended to Trump voters. Some posts in those groups contained conspiracy theories, calls to violence against public officials, and discussions of logistics for attending the rally that preceded the Capitol riot. 

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Why did this happen, you may wonder? Because Facebook relied on group administrators ticking a box that said “political”. And once more, Facebook’s Groups system is making things worse.
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Spotify, Substack, and Clubhouse are the next fronts in the moderation war • OneZero

Alex Kantrowitz:

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“I think we have all become smarter about the downsides of communication at scale,” Siri Srinivas, an investor at Draper Associates, told OneZero. As an early user of Clubhouse, Srinivas has seen the trade-offs firsthand. Clubhouse — a live, audio-only conversation platform — has already endured a lifetime’s worth of moderation controversy.

“We discovered a lot of the issues with the bigger platforms about five years after they became too large,” Srinivas said. “We’re using the same vocabulary to talk about Clubhouse.”
Over the summer, while still in beta, Clubhouse experienced its first high-profile flare-up. After New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz criticized ex-Away CEO Steph Korey for views she expressed about the press, some Clubhouse users attacked Lorenz viciously in a Clubhouse room asking whether journalists have too much power. The attack was bad enough that Clubhouse co-founder Paul Davison spoke with Lorenz about what happened, and what Clubhouse could do to improve.

Clubhouse, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, has since added user controls like a block button and an option to report abusive behavior. But the reporting functionality — which includes options to report content under categories like “discrimination or hateful conduct” — doesn’t seem to be doing much. Lorenz has kept a running list of disturbing content on Clubhouse. An explicitly anti-LGBT conversation in December, for instance, featured one speaker who said, “I’m bringing down you fucking faggots.”

Clubhouse’s tentative moderation approach might reflect the ideological reticence that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube displayed in their early days. It may also reflect a unique business problem. As smaller platforms take off and fill with content, the cost to moderate can be overwhelming. “That’s why you see so much emphasis on automation,” the former Twitter employee said. “Taken to its logical conclusion, you could have a full federal jobs program moderating content on a platform like Facebook or Twitter.”

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It’s moderators, almost all human, all the way down.
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Hudson to introduce Amazon’s ‘Just Walk Out’ tech in airport stores • Retail Dive

Kaarin Vembar:

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Amazon’s Just Walk Out tech may have been created in part to eliminate lines, but it also has an added bonus of being contactless when hygiene is top of mind for shoppers during the pandemic. 

Just Walk Out does not require that users download an app or create an Amazon account. Instead, shoppers use a credit card and the technology detects what products are being selected via a virtual cart. The service leverages similar technology that is used in self-driving cars: computer vision, sensor fusion and deep learning, according to Amazon. 

“Today’s traveler is progressively more connected, mobile, and time sensitive — and they have higher expectations for convenience, safety, and speed during their shopping experiences,” Brian Quinn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Hudson, said in a statement. 

Retail foot traffic is down overall, sliding 49.3% in malls, according to a December report from foot traffic analytics firm Placer.ai. Even harder hit is the larger travel industry. According to December research from the US Travel Association, since the beginning of March the pandemic resulted in over $500bn in cumulative losses for the US travel economy.

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Airports are the ideal location for these: if people are airside (past security checks) they can’t really escape if they somehow zoom out without paying. Plus the lack of hassle is a boon. But how will they make you show your boarding card for the VAT scam?
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Vaccine maker BioNTech reports potential multiple sclerosis breakthrough • The Week

Peter Weber:

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BioNTech, the German biotechnology company that paired with Pfizer to develop first COVID-19 vaccine approved in the US, reports in the journal Science that a new vaccine using the same mRNA technique has proved effective in treating or stopping multiple sclerosis (MS) in lab mice. MS is caused not by a virus but by the immune system malfunctioning and attacking the protective covering of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, disrupting signals between those cells and their targets in the body, causing neurological, sensor, and motor issues.

BioNTech said it successfully encoded MS-specific autoantigens that, when delivered via its experimental vaccine, stopped MS symptoms in mice bred with a condition mirroring MS in humans, and prevented further deterioration in mice with early signs of MS. Mice given a placebo showed typical MS symptoms.

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Only mice – which is a notoriously unreliable guide to whether something will work in humans. But an important first step. mRNA looks ready to overtake CRISPR as the next big hope in medicine.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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