Start Up No.1568: India’s WhatsApp misinformation problem, Pipeline bitcoin redux, creators hit burnout (and Apple tax), and more


After the Fastly outage dumped people on perplexing error pages, could we get better error messages to inform people what’s going on?CC-licensed photo by Nick Webb on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not an error. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


There’s still time to preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book.


When Covid misinformation comes for the family WhatsApp • Rest of World

Meghna Rao’s 80-year-old grandfather in India caught Covid, which gave him “brain fog”:

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Although the doctors had diagnosed my grandfather with Covid-19, they didn’t have a cure for his memory loss. Days into his hospitalization, he remained confused, and pandemic numbers continued to increase. An uncle who lives in a small, coastal town in Karnataka sent a lengthy message to my family group quoting an article by “Joseph Hope, editor-in-chief of The New York Times.” Hope praised Modi’s strategic management of India, painting him as a mastermind who would steer the country into the 21st century.

Neither the article — nor its supposed author — mentioned in the message exist, but WhatsApp only flagged that the message has been “forwarded many times.”

…In the 2000s, over an AOL connection in Queens, my grandfather was reading a range of international publications and forming his own opinions. He was one of the first people I had known to purchase a cellphone. He kept up with the technology’s evolution, downloading apps when they became available, and teaching himself how to change language settings on his phone so he could read things in Kannada.

But this new person [post-Covid] was unrecognizable. Like many other Indians, his main portal into the internet had become Facebook and WhatsApp. His viewpoints morphed into a hodgepodge of viral WhatsApp messages.

As I watched him change, I couldn’t help but accept the obvious conclusion: Facebook does not care to fix its misinformation problem. Instead, it only wants to keep people glued to the platform.

My grandfather’s cognitive abilities have now deteriorated, and the brief spell of clarity he returned to over the summer has passed. He often experiences “sundowning,” where he spirals into a deep confusion each evening. He’s off WhatsApp now, less focused on the material and the political, his brain set on some far-out horizon.

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WhatsApp’s deleterious effect in India is one of the topics I cover in my forthcoming book Social Warming, because it tells us that you don’t need algorithmic amplification for a social network to spread misinformation. Fake news travels further, faster than truth.

There’s also the lack of understanding by designers of how their work will be understood. In India, many people see the “Forwarded” symbol and think it’s an instruction, not a denotation.
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Bitcoin is actually traceable, Pipeline investigation shows • The New York Times

Nicole Perlroth, Erin Griffith and Katie Benner:

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Justice Department spokesman Marc Raimondi declined to say more about how the FBI seized DarkSide’s private key. According to court documents, investigators accessed the password for one of the hackers’ Bitcoin wallets, though they did not detail how.

The FBI did not appear to rely on any underlying vulnerability in blockchain technology, cryptocurrency experts said. The likelier culprit was good old-fashioned police work.
Federal agents could have seized DarkSide’s private keys by planting a human spy inside DarkSide’s network, hacking the computers where their private keys and passwords were stored, or compelling the service that holds their private wallet to turn them over via search warrant or other means.

“If they can get their hands on the keys, it’s seizable,” said Jesse Proudman, founder of Makara, a cryptocurrency investment site. “Just putting it on a blockchain doesn’t absolve that fact.”

…Mr. Raimondi of the Justice Department said the Colonial Pipeline ransom seizure was the latest sting operation by federal prosecutors to recoup illicitly gained cryptocurrency. He said the department has made “many seizures, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, from unhosted cryptocurrency wallets” used for criminal activity.

In January, the Justice Department disrupted another ransomware group, NetWalker, which used ransomware to extort money from municipalities, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and schools.

As part of that sting, the department obtained about $500,000 of NetWalker’s cryptocurrency that had been collected from victims of their ransomware.

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We’re not going to find out how they did it, are we. Though it feels like “compelling the service” is the front runner for me.
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The creator economy is running into the Apple Tax — this startup is fighting back • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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Founders of Fanhouse — which is basically OnlyFans without the nudity — say the platform will be kicked out of the App Store in August if it doesn’t start forking over 30% of the fees people pay creators when purchases are made through the iPhone app. One of Fanhouse’s creators, the streamer Breadwitchery, says that cut would mean losing two months of rent from her earnings to date. The company doesn’t have a lot of options to push back, but it’s launching a campaign today to pressure Apple into easing its rules around payments to creators.

Fanhouse is only the latest company to clash with Apple over App Store terms that are increasingly viewed as steep and domineering. Sure, it’s a small app, and its disappearance won’t necessarily cause problems for Apple, but the situation speaks to the challenges creator-focused apps face in the App Store. As the creator economy continues to grow, the rules mean Apple will be taking more money from not just businesses, but individuals.

“People are using this platform to survive, starting with me, our very first creator,” Jasmine Rice, a Fanhouse creator and one of the platform’s co-founders, tells The Verge. “I use this to pay the bills for my family. I use this to pay my mom’s medical expenses.”

Fanhouse, which launched in 2020, initially slipped past the App Store bouncers and offered payments on the web without issue. Now that Apple has spotted the potential for profit, it’s given Fanhouse the same ultimatum it gives (almost) everyone else: Fanhouse either needs to pay up or get booted from the store.

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It’s complicated, isn’t it? Apple doesn’t demand 30% of Uber’s or AirBnB’s fees. But for “virtual” products, it does. I think Apple’s argument would be – will be – that the in-app purchase method will greatly expand the number of people who will be willing to buy, and so Fanhouse can make it up in volume. One problem: Patreon, another “creator” app, gets a special dispensation that allows third-party payments. The dam may be cracking.
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A mystery cube, a secret identity, and a puzzle solved after 15 years • WIRED UK

Will Coldwell:

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On Sunday February 4, 2007, as the sun rose over Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire, Andy Darley trudged into the ancient forest with a map and a spade, and began to dig. The clock was ticking – others were closing in. Darley, a web designer from Middlesex, near London, had made three trips here in as many days. The previous night he had caught a glimpse of a torch in the darkness – if he didn’t find what he was looking for soon, someone else would.

He dug one hole after another. Nothing. It was getting light and he was running out of ideas. Darley sighed and looked at his feet. The surface of the ground beside him seemed different; the topsoil was mixed with clay. Someone had disturbed the earth in the recent past… or perhaps buried something? He dropped to his knees, grabbed a trowel and plunged the metal into the dirt. Six inches deep it struck a solid object. “That was when it hit me,” he recounted later on his website. “That was when I knew I’d found the Cube.”

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It’s an entertaining story, well told, about the hunt for Satoshi (no, not that one) in the game Perplex City. Though you could listen to it, as the story was told very effectively by Aleks Krotoski in the episode “Find” of her series “The Digital Human” in March. And she also wrote up the story over at Science Focus two weeks ago. So, take your pick.
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Facebook plans first smartwatch for next summer with two cameras • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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Facebook is taking a novel approach to its first smartwatch, which the company hasn’t confirmed publicly but currently plans to debut next summer. The device will feature a display with two cameras that can be detached from the wrist for taking pictures and videos that can be shared across Facebook’s suite of apps, including Instagram, The Verge has learned.

A camera on the front of the watch display exists primarily for video calling, while a 1080p, auto-focus camera on the back can be used for capturing footage when detached from the stainless steel frame on the wrist. Facebook is tapping other companies to create accessories for attaching the camera hub to things like backpacks, according to two people familiar with the project, both of whom requested anonymity to speak without Facebook’s permission.

The idea is to encourage owners of the watch to use it in ways that smartphones are used now. It’s part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to build more consumer devices that circumvent Apple and Google, the two dominant mobile phone platform creators that largely control Facebook’s ability to reach people.

…Facebook is working with the top wireless carriers in the US to support LTE connectivity in the watch, meaning it won’t need to be paired with a phone to work, and sell it in their stores, the people familiar with the matter said. The watch will come in white, black, and gold, and Facebook hopes to initially sell volume in the low six figures. That’s a tiny sliver of the overall smartwatch market — Apple sold 34 million watches last year by comparison, according to Counterpoint Research..

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Heath recently joined The Verge from The Information, where he got lots of scoops about Facebook, so this is probably reliable. It’s also a bit mad: does it connect to a phone at all? (If not, how do you get the notifications that make a smartwatch so useful?) How can it compete on price with the Apple Watch, which will be available at a lot of price ranges? Most of all, what is its USP – unique selling point – over the Apple Watch or whatever the Google/Samsung/Fitbit combination offer? Facebook tried before a long time ago to do its own phone, with HTC. It flopped badly.
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Apple’s Eddy Cue on spatial audio, future of music • Billboard

Micah Singleton:

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We saw some of your competitors launch their own versions of immersive music, which have had varying levels of success. What makes Spatial Audio different?

I’ve been waiting for something in music that was a real game-changer. The quality of audio has not been able to really rise because there hasn’t been anything out there that when you listen to it, it truly is differentiated to everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re eight years old or 80 years old, everyone can tell the difference and everyone knows this one sounds better than the other one.

And the analogy to that is obviously the first time you ever saw HD on television: you knew which one was better because it was obvious. And we’ve been missing that in audio for a long time. There really hasn’t been anything that’s been substantial. We’ll talk about lossless and other things, but ultimately, there’s not enough difference.

But when you listen for the first time and you see what’s possible with Dolby Atmos with music, it’s a true game-changer. And so, when we listened to it for the first time, we realized this is a big, big deal. It makes you feel like you’re onstage, standing right next to the singer, it makes you feel like you might be to the left of the drummer, to the right of the guitarist. It creates this experience that, almost in some ways, you’ve never really had, unless you’re lucky enough to be really close to somebody playing music.

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Cue also says about lossless that if you take 100 people and play them lossless content, probably only 1 or 2 will be able to tell the difference. So spatial audio is where the focus (aha) is going to be.

If you can’t get onto Billboard (the piece is behind a paywall), you can also read this piece on Apple News – no subscription to Billboard or Apple News+ needed.
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What the Fastly outage can teach us about writing error messages • OnlineOrNot

Max Rozen on the meaninglessness (to most users) of the “Error 503 Service Unavailable” message that greeted people who were trying to view sites that had vanished because Fastly had fallen over:

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The majority of internet users aren’t developers, so just writing the error code and its name (503 Service Unavailable) just isn’t good enough.

The Norman Nielsen Group (back in 1998!) provided us with some basic guiding principles for writing better error messages:

• Write in plain English (or whichever language you’re supporting)
• Tell the user exactly what went wrong
• Tell the user how the problem can be fixed
• More concretely, we can write better error messages by answering the following four questions:

– Who caused the error?
– What happened, and why?
– When will it be fixed?
– How can the user respond to the error?

If your error message covers those four points, then you can think about adding humour and some brand identity.

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The intended-to-be-reassuraing but actually annoying (to users) messages such as “Uh-oh!” really don’t cut it. (Google’s 404 message: “That’s an error. The requested URL xxxx was not found on this server. That’s all we know” seems unhelpful: it doesn’t for example suggest you may have mistyped the URL.)
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Young creators are burning out and breaking down • The New York Times

Taylor Lorenz:

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Lately, it’s been hard for Jack Innanen, a 22-year-old TikTok star from Toronto, to create content. “I feel like I’m tapping a keg that’s been empty for a year,” he said.

Spending hours shooting, editing, storyboarding, engaging with fans, setting up brand deals and balancing the many other responsibilities that come with being a successful content creator have taken a toll. Mr. Innanen, like so many Gen Z influencers who found fame in the last year, is burned out.

“I get to the point where I’m like, ‘I have to make a video today,’ and I spend the entire day dreading the process,” he said.

He’s hardly the only one. “This app used to be so fun,” a TikTok creator known as Sha Crow said in a video from February, “and now your favorite creator is depressed.” He went on to explain how his friends are struggling with mental health problems and the stresses of public life.

The video went viral, and in the comments, dozens of creators echoed his sentiment. “Say it louder bro,” wrote one with 1.7 million followers. “Mood,” commented another creator with nearly five million followers.

…According to a recent report by the venture firm SignalFire, more than 50 million people consider themselves creators (also known as influencers), and the industry is the fastest-growing small-business segment, thanks in part to a year where life migrated online and many found themselves stuck at home or out of work. Throughout 2020, social media minted a new generation of young stars.

Now, however, many of them say they have reached a breaking point.

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Sisyphus had it easy: at least he didn’t have to create the rock anew each day. I’m sure there will be much playing of tiny violins over this, but continually creating content takes real effort.
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Google kills Measure, its AR-based measurement-taking app • Android Police

Ryne Hager:

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Google’s AR plans have changed over the years, from the standalone Project Tango to modern web-based efforts. But it’s the AR-based Measure app that’s the subject of today’s eulogy. The app leveraged your camera on ARCore-supported devices to (as the name suggests) measure the dimensions of stuff, and now it’s being retired. Google has suspended both support and updates for Measure.

Measure started life back in 2016 as a Tango-exclusive app. (You remember Google’s now dead experiment regarding AR-specialized devices, right?) In 2018, after Google wrote that effort off, Measure was broken out into its own standalone app for ARCore-supported devices — ARCore itself basically obviating the need for Project Tango to be a thing.

In 2018, the app was updated to work on vertical surfaces. In 2019, Google even toyed with the idea of bundling it into the camera, though that didn’t pan out. Last year it picked up a new surface animation and more unit conversions — all signs of active (if slow) development.

The app worked sort of like magic, allowing you to point your phone’s camera at stuff, draw some lines on your screen, and get measurements regarding the dimensions depicted. Sadly, Measure didn’t always work very accurately and had some stability problems, as reviews on the Play Store listing pretty clearly indicate. (Apple later did its own version on the concept, which works a little better — probably at least in part thanks to the lidar hardware on some of its phones)

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The app seems to have had between 5m and 10m downloads, which in Android-world is essentially invisible. So that isn’t surprising. Google still has an ARCore framework which OEMs can use. Yet after the demise of Cardboard, this still feels like a retreat from the AR/VR space by Google.
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El Salvador’s bitcoin bill is still keen on king dollar • Financial Times

Jemima Kelly:

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The US dollar — a fiat currency — will remain the reference currency. So prices in dollars. You can just imagine customers waiting at tills watching their phones waiting for the bitcoin price to climb a bit to get more for their money’s worth can’t you? What a great idea.

And who would actually want to pay in bitcoin rather than dollars, we hear you ask? Well, usually converting real money into bitcoin carries a hefty fee. And also what happens with returns? Do you get refunded at the original exchange rate or the one that happens to coincide with your return? Isn’t there a huge risk for both merchants and buyers when using such a volatile instrument? The bill, unfortunately, doesn’t say.

But despite the obvious flaws, might there be a grander plan being hatched here? OK probably not, but hear us out.

In our FT Alphaville Clubhouse discussion this morning an alternative theory was floated as to why El Salvador may want bitcoin, and therefore ultimately dollar, flows. The Central American country is seeking $1bn from the IMF, yet the discussions got complicated after Bukele fired its five Supreme Court judges in early May, following a landslide election victory. The Biden administration was not best pleased.

If the IMF funding is looking in doubt, then what better way to generate inflows than by letting international hodlers purchase your goods and services with their favourite coin? Seeing as refunds will likely have to be in dollars, you’d imagine merchants will be instantly selling their bitcoin for greenbacks on their exchange of choice to avoid volatility, creating a form of indirect dollar funding for the country. FT Alphaville friend Frances Coppola had even more radical thought which she posted on Twitter: perhaps the move is to help El Salvador to break away from the dollar system all together?

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I wonder if this move by El Salvador will act as a damper on the bigger swings in bitcoin’s price (measured in dollars). The other big problem, unmentioned here, is the incredibly slow, by comparison, processing of bitcoin transactions. I think El Salvador can easily overwhelm the six-per-second limit.
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Some bitcoin miners in Xinjiang have been ordered to shut down • The Block

Wolfie Zhao:

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Bitcoin miners in one of the major economic and technological development zones in China’s Xinjiang province have been ordered to shut down their operations immediately.

The Reform and Development Commission in the Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang issued a notice on Wednesday to its subordinate government officials in the Zhundong Economic Technological Development Park. According to the notice seen and verified by The Block, officials in the development park have been instructed to shut down all crypto mining activities under their administration by 2:00 pm China time on Wednesday.

The park is a 15,500 square km area home to a variety of coal production industries including coal-based power plants and industrial factories. It also houses some of the largest bitcoin mining facilities in the country due to the high capacity of fossil fuel energy.

The instruction was based on the high-level bitcoin trading and mining crackdown comment brought up during the China State Council meeting last month, the notice said.

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The significance is that bitcoin mining in Xinjiang is reckoned to contribute 40% of the hash rate.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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