Start Up No.1550: the lifesaving tracing app, the antivax superspreaders, ransomware gangs go dark, Twitter plans subscriptions, and more


Is Roblox a game, or an “experience”? According to Apple, it’s the latter – conveniently for its lawsuit with Epic Games. CC-licensed photo by Jay Cross on Flickr.

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

NHS tracing app ‘prevented thousands of deaths’ • BBC News

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“On average, each confirmed case who consented to notification of their contacts through the app prevented one new case,” the paper claims.

The research has been accepted for publication by the journal Nature.

Some of the researchers were themselves involved in the creation of the NHS contact-tracing app, and had previously released some of the estimates.

But the inclusion in Nature means the paper has now been peer-reviewed by other academics. It has been made available as a preview of papers due for publication.

The paper covers the time between the app’s launch on 24 September last year until the end of 2020. It was “used regularly” by 16.5 million people – about 28% of the UK population, the research says.

It works by using a smartphone’s sensors to measure how close a user is – and for how long – to other app users. If one of those people tests positive for coronavirus, the app can issue an alert telling those who have been in close contact to self-isolate. It sent about 1.7 million “exposure notifications” after 560,000 app users tested positive, the research paper said.

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The app is separate from (but parallel to) Test and Trace, which tries to find people who have been in contact with people who definitely test positive. The researchers reckoned that on average, for both systems, only about 6% of people who were alerted then tested positive; and on average each person who consented to receive alerts stopped one case. Averages, though: there will have been a lot of variation in those numbers.
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Just 12 people are behind most vaccine hoaxes on social media, research shows • NPR

Shannon Bond:

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Researchers have found just 12 people are responsible for the bulk of the misleading claims and outright lies about COVID-19 vaccines that proliferate on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“The ‘Disinformation Dozen’ produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified the accounts.

Now the vaccine rollout is reaching a critical stage in which most adults who want the vaccine have gotten it, but many others are holding out, these 12 influential social media users stand to have an outsize impact on the outcome.

After this story published on Thursday, Facebook said it had taken down more of the accounts run by these 12 individuals.

These figures are well-known to both researchers and the social networks. They include anti-vaccine activists, alternative health entrepreneurs and physicians. Some of them run multiple accounts across the different platforms. They often promote “natural health.” Some even sell supplements and books.

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The CCDH also did a followup on the “dozen”. It’s taken Facebook quite a while to get around to taking accounts down: the first report dates back to March, and the sequel to April.
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Confronting disinformation spreaders on Twitter only makes it worse, MIT scientists say • Vice

Matthew Gault:

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Of all the reply guy species, the most pernicious is the correction guy. You’ve seen him before, perhaps you’ve even been him. When someone (often a celebrity or politician) tweets bad science or a provable political lie, the correction guy is there to respond with the correct information. According to a new study conducted by researchers at MIT, being corrected online just makes the original posters more toxic and obnoxious.

Basically, the new thinking is that correcting fake news, disinformation, and horrible tweets at all is bad and makes everything worse. This is a “perverse downstream consequence for debunking,” and is the exact title of MIT research published in the ‘2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.’ The core takeaway is that “being corrected by another user for posting false political news increases subsequent sharing of low quality, partisan, and toxic content.”

The MIT researchers’ work is actually a continuation of their study into the effects of social media. This recent experiment started because the team had previously discovered something interesting about how people behave online. “In a recent paper published in Nature, we found that a simple accuracy nudge—asking people to judge the accuracy of a random headline—improved the quality of the news they shared afterward (by shifting their attention towards the concept of accuracy),” David Rand, an MIT researcher and co-author of the paper told Motherboard in an email.

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This doesn’t seem to offer many ways to get correct information to places where it would be useful. Add it to the previous link, and our only hope is for the platforms to take them off.
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Google says everything at Stadia is fine, as the water reaches their noses • Kotaku

Zack Zwiezen:

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according to Google, a company famous for shutting down services, everything is fine. They added a search bar and Resident Evil 7 to the service. Nothing to worry about!

This reassurance that Google Stadia is “alive and well” comes from an interview with Stadia’s Developer Marketing Lead Nate Ahearn on GameIndustry.biz. During the interview, as he assured us that all was well, I got the distinct feeling that all at Google Stadia isn’t well at all, and that the company is mostly rearranging chairs on a sinking Titanic, while pointing towards anything to distract folks from the rapidly rising water levels. And the fact that this ship doesn’t have many people on it.

When asked what Google Stadia was doing that proves it’s actually “alive and well” Ahearn pointed to all the games being added to the service. “We’re well on our way to over 100 new games launching on Stadia in 2021,” explained Ahearn, “And we’re continuing to make Stadia a great place to play games on devices you already own.” When pushed by GI.Biz to give a real answer, Ahearn offered more jargon and gibberish instead, saying Google is, “focused on delivering value for our partners and on behalf of our players.”

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Though Google has been careful not to say how many players there are. Or whether the number is going up or down. A report in February suggested that it has missed its user target by hundreds of thousands of users (ouch), with the implication that was a significant compared to the target.
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Ransomware gangs disrupted by response to Colonial Pipeline hack • Reuters

Joseph Menn:

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Multiple ransomware groups claimed they were shutting down or scaling back operations on Friday as the US government ramped up pressure while tech companies, cryptocurrency exchanges and others worried about getting caught in the crossfire.

DarkSide, the Russian-speaking gang blamed by the FBI for a hacking attack that led to a six-day fuel pipeline shutdown, said it was going out of business after losing access to some of its servers.

Another major criminal gang said it would forbid encryption attacks on critical infrastructure, and forums where such gangs recruit partners said they were banning ads related to ransomware, analysts said.

US President Joe Biden repeatedly warned the gangs and major host country Russia about consequences for a ransomware attack that prompted Colonial Pipeline to shut down the main supply line to the East Coast. That line was resuming full operation, but many pumps remain empty at stations in some states after days of panic buying.

Investigators said DarkSide provided the encryption software that a criminal affiliate used to render Colonial’s internal files inaccessible. It planned to split any ransom to recover that data with the affiliate, who the investigators have identified as another Russian criminal.

DarkSide claimed that some of its money had been transferred to new electronic wallets, though rivals and some US experts warned the group could be using the uproar as an excuse to cash out. Ransomware gangs commonly change names and membership.

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I suspect that all that will happen is that, as he suggests, the gang will find a new name. The security company Elliptic looked at where the money paid as a ransom by Colonial went, and reckons it has received $17.5m since March. At that sort of pay rate, you’re either going to cash out forever, or just keep going.
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Apple said Roblox developers don’t make games, and now Roblox agrees • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Roblox has used the term “experience” in place of “game” before, and CEO David Baszucki called Roblox a “metaverse” rather than a gaming platform last year. But this change happened days after a legal fight over whether Roblox experiences are games — and by extension, whether Roblox itself should be allowed on the iOS App Store.

The Epic v. Apple antitrust trial has produced a weeks-long, frequently hilarious debate over the definition of a video game. Epic wants to prove that its shooter Fortnite is a “metaverse” rather than a game, pushing the trial’s scope to cover Apple’s entire App Store instead of just games. Apple wants to prove that Epic is an almost purely game-related company and that the App Store maintains consistent, user-friendly policies distinguishing “apps” from “games.” It also wants to defend a ban on “stores within a store” on iOS.

Roblox blurs the line between a large social game and a game engine or sales platform. Users don’t enter a single virtual world like Second Life; they launch individual experiences created by users. Developers can sell items within those experiences, and there are full-fledged game studios that build with Roblox instead of, say, the Unity or Unreal engines. But all of this activity happens within a single Roblox app, instead of as a series of separately packaged games.

Apple has apparently worried about this fuzziness. In a 2017 email, Apple marketing head Trystan Kosmynka said he was “surprised” that Roblox (which he referred to as “Roboblox”) had been approved for the App Store. The email chain indicates that App Store reviewers raised concerns in 2014, but Roblox was approved without ever resolving the issues. Epic brought the decision up again in court, hoping to cast doubt on Apple’s App Store review process.

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This is heading for angels-on-a-pin territory, which of course is exactly where Epic wants to leave Apple: with a legacy of annoyed developers and a hairsplitting approach to what is and what, precisely, isn’t, a “game”. Epic’s going to lose, but wants to leave Apple with a Pyrrhic victory.
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‘Twitter Blue’ is the company’s upcoming subscription service – 9to5Mac

José Adorno:

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Twitter has been working on its subscription service for a while now. Today, researcher Jane Manchun Wong said the service is going to be called Twitter Blue and, as for now, is priced at $2.99/month.

Twitter Blue will feature a new function called ‘Collections’ which will let users save and organize their favorite tweets into collections to easily find them later. Alongside this feature, Twitter will also bundle the ‘Undo Tweet’ function to its premium service.

This feature looks a lot like Gmail’s “undo send” button. The app just waits a few seconds before actually sending the message, so this could be what Twitter is planning to launch. As Wong shows, the company is working on the ability to adjust the duration of the undo Tweet timer from 5 seconds to up to 30 seconds.

Alongside these two features, Twitter could bundle Scroll with Twitter Blue. Last week, the company announced it acquired the subscription platform for users who don’t want to read content with ads but still support publishers to bring in more revenue than with traditional ads on a page.

Another paid-function from Twitter Blue could come from Revue, another service the company bough in January that helps people to publish newsletters on social media.

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This has to be the limpest subscription offering ever. You can get zero ads by using a third-party app, which also has the benefit of offering reverse chronological rather than algorithmic ordering. You can “undo tweet” by two methods: 1) pause and have a think before you hit send *and* 2) delete your tweet after sending it. As for newsletters, well, it’s not as though they’ve got that market to themselves.
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On the hypocrites at Apple who fired Antonio Garcia-Martinez • TK News

Matt Taibbi:

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I’m biased, because I know Antonio Garcia-Martinez and something like the same thing once happened to me, but the decision by Apple to bend to a posse of internal complainers and fire him over a passage in a five-year-old book is ridiculous hypocrisy. Hypocrisy by the complainers, and defamatory cowardice by the bosses — about right for the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style era of timorous conformity and duncecap monoculture the woke mobs at these places are trying to build as their new Jerusalem.

…After trying the writer’s life, Antonio went back to work for Apple. A few crucial points. One, he was recruited. Apple reached out to him, not the other way around. He sold his house in Washington State for the job and terminated his media work as part of what he expected would be a long-term commitment to Apple. In the hiring process they asked a slew of questions and checked with numerous references, including about Chaos Monkeys. The company was fully aware of the book and its contents. It was a bestseller for a month, and an NPR book of the year.

…I’m a fan of Dr. Dre’s music and have been since the N.W.A. days. It’s not any of my business if he wants to make $3bn selling Beats by Dre to Apple, earning himself a place on the board [he’s not on the board – CA] in the process. But if 2,000 Apple employees are going to insist that they feel literally unsafe working alongside a man who wrote a love letter to a woman who towers over him in heels, I’d like to hear their take on serving under, and massively profiting from a partnership with, the author of such classics as “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and “Lyrical Gangbang,” who is also the subject of such articles as “Here’s What’s Missing from Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up.”

…Maybe the signatories to the Apple letter can have a Chaos Monkeys book-burning outside the Chinese facility where iPhone glass is made — keep those Uighur workers warm! Or they can have one in Dublin, to celebrate the €13bn tax bill a court recently ruled Apple didn’t have to pay.

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Martinez tweeted about this on Friday. He’s pretty angry. As to Taibbi’s question of why the staff don’t complain about Dr Dre or Irish tax bills or the Uighurs: they don’t affect internal working conditions.
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Disinformation in the UK May elections • Valent Newsletter

“Hamish”:

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Our monitoring of the May 6 local elections in the UK uncovered what is likely to be the first time a US-style, social media powered, alt right campaign has unseated an elected official from a major British political party. Our investigation found content behind this campaign getting attention from far-right groups across the country. 

Sean Fielding was council leader in Oldham and accused by a network of social media pages of covering up sexual abuse and a conspiracy to undermine the white communities of Oldham. His primary accuser is Raja Miah MBE, a former CEO of two now closed Oldham schools who runs a website called Recusant Nine detailing these accusations against Fielding and the wider Labour establishment in Oldham. Miah’s pages link to the Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth (POS) party and vice versa, and it was Mark Wilkinson, affiliated to POS who unseated Fielding last week by 200 votes. 

At first glance this may not feel new; Oldham has seen successful independent council candidates before, and Labour lost ground in many Brexit supporting places like this. But what is striking about Fielding’s defeat is the interplay of tech platforms, race-fuelled accusations of child abuse, and crowd-sourced funding.

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There’s also a version of this story in the Sunday Times (subscription). Nobody seems quite able to pin down whether Fielding’s loss was specifically caused by misinformation on Facebook – the vote totals involved are really quite low, around 1,500 – or just random pertubations in how people voted. This is the other problem with figuring out what the effects are: it’s really hard to get voters to tell you.
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Nuclear reactions at Chernobyl are spiking in an inaccessible chamber • New Scientist

Matthew Sparkes:

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Scientists monitoring the ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine have seen a surge in fission reactions in an inaccessible chamber within the complex. They are now investigating whether the problem will stabilise or require a dangerous and difficult intervention to prevent a runaway nuclear reaction.

The explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 brought down walls and sealed off many rooms and corridors. Tonnes of fissile material from the interior of a reactor were strewn throughout the facility and the heat it generated melted sand from the reactor walls with concrete and steel to form lava-like and intensely radioactive substances that oozed into lower floors.

One chamber, known as subreactor room 305/2, is thought to contain large amounts of this material, but it is inaccessible and hasn’t been seen by human or robotic eyes since the disaster.

Now, researchers have seen a spike in neutron emissions from the room, with levels increasing around 40% since the start of 2016. This points to a growing nuclear fission reaction, so researchers are trying to determine if this surge will fizzle out, as previous spikes in other parts of the ruins have done, or whether they will need to find a way to access the room and intervene.

Neil Hyatt at the University of Sheffield, UK, who studies nuclear waste disposal, likens the situation to “embers in a barbecue pit” and says “it’s a reminder to us that it’s not a problem solved, it’s a problem stabilised”.

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One suggestion is that a new cover is drying the plant – removing the water that absorbs neutrons and slows down fission. Let’s hope Ukraine’s disaster plans are up to date.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified


Don’t worry, still time to preorder Social Warming, out on June 24 (August in the US).


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