Start Up No.1593: Facebook’s data mess, avoiding verification scams, Windows in the cloud, TikTok hits 3bn downloads, and more


Photos show that Apple’s AirTags are quite small – but you really shouldn’t swallow them, as one YouTuber did (on purpose). CC-licensed photo by John Biehler on Flickr.

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

Inside Facebook’s data wars • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:

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The question of what to do about CrowdTangle has vexed some of Facebook’s top executives for months, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former Facebook employees, as well as internal emails and posts.

These people, most of whom would speak only anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss internal conversations, said Facebook’s executives were more worried about fixing the perception that Facebook was amplifying harmful content than figuring out whether it actually was amplifying harmful content. Transparency, they said, ultimately took a back seat to image management.

…With only about 25,000 users, CrowdTangle is one of Facebook’s smallest products, but it has become a valuable resource for power users including global health organizations, election officials and digital marketers, and it has made Facebook look transparent compared with rival platforms like YouTube and TikTok, which don’t release nearly as much data.

But the mood shifted last year when I started a Twitter account called @FacebooksTop10, on which I posted a daily leaderboard showing the sources of the most-engaged link posts by U.S. pages, based on CrowdTangle data.

Last fall, the leaderboard was full of posts by Mr. Trump and pro-Trump media personalities. Since Mr. Trump was barred from Facebook in January, it has been dominated by a handful of right-wing polemicists like Mr. Shapiro, Mr. Bongino and Sean Hannity, with the occasional mainstream news article, cute animal story or K-pop fan blog sprinkled in.

…several executives — including John Hegeman, the head of Facebook’s news feed — were dispatched to argue with me on Twitter. These executives argued that my Top 10 lists were misleading. They said CrowdTangle measured only “engagement,” while the true measure of Facebook popularity would be based on “reach,” or the number of people who actually see a given post. (With the exception of video views, reach data isn’t public, and only Facebook employees and page owners have access to it.)

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Classic Facebook: worried about the perception, not the problem; insisting that actually public analysis is wrong, but refusing to release the data that would let people check its claims. We’re always asked to take Facebook on trust. But that has long since worn down to a nub. Plus: fantastic journalism by Roose.
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‘Red flags going off’: beware verification scams on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter • CNET

Queenie Wong:

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Almost every major platform offers verification in some form. Originally intended to authenticate accounts deemed to be of public interest, the badges have morphed into status symbols that give social media users bragging rights. That’s provided ample opportunity for scammers, who manipulate the emotions of aspiring but unsuspecting users pursuing careers as influencers or creators. 

Directing social media users to fake verification forms, as [fake TikTok verifier] Ceylan appears to have tried, is a tactic used to dupe people out of personal information and take over their accounts. Scammers will also slide into direct messages on Instagram and entice users with promises of verification. Variations of this scam have existed for years, but cybersecurity experts say they expect this scam to grow as people spend more time building their brand on social media.

Likewise, people who are verified typically have a large following, which can make them prime targets for scammers or hackers trying to reach a lot of people. In 2020, hackers hijacked the accounts of high-profile Twitter users such as celebrity Kim Kardashian and Joe Biden, who was running for US president at the time, and tempted gullible users with a phony promise to double any bitcoin sent to a specific cryptocurrency wallet.

Announcing that you just got verified on social media can also make you a target if you’re looking to get the blue badge on other social networks or if a hacker is trying to find an account with a large following.

Jon Clay, vice president of threat intelligence at Trend Micro, said the IT security company has seen verification scams in roughly 70 countries. “It’s just a lure that gives the criminals an opportunity to target these victims,” Clay said. 

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There are plenty of scams going on. Verification; and, as I wrote for Which? magazine, people who claim they can get your hacked account back. A little questioning demonstrated they had no idea at all.
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A new tool shows how Google results vary around the world • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

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Search Atlas makes it easy to see how Google offers different responses to the same query on versions of its search engine offered in different parts of the world. The research project reveals how Google’s service can reflect or amplify cultural differences or government preferences—such as whether Beijing’s Tiananmen Square should be seen first as a sunny tourist attraction or the site of a lethal military crackdown on protesters.

Divergent results like that show how the idea of search engines as neutral is a myth, says Rodrigo Ochigame, a PhD student in science, technology, and society at MIT and cocreator of Search Atlas. “Any attempt to quantify relevance necessarily encodes moral and political priorities,” Ochigame says.

Ochigame built Search Atlas with Katherine Ye, a computer science PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University and a research fellow at the nonprofit Center for Arts, Design, and Social Research.

Just like Google’s homepage, the main feature of Search Atlas is a blank box. But instead of returning a single column of results, the site displays three lists of links, from different geographic versions of Google Search selected from the more than 100 the company offers. Search Atlas automatically translates a query to the default languages of each localized edition using Google Translate.

Ochigame and Ye say the design reveals “information borders” created by the way Google’s search technology ranks web pages, presenting different slices of reality to people in different locations or using different languages.

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Google has been offering different results to individuals since at least 2011. But across whole countries? Fascinating.
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Microsoft is bringing Windows to a web browser, and it will work on iPad and the Mac • 9to5Mac

Parker Ortolani:

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Today, Microsoft unveiled a new service called Windows 365, and it makes it possible for users to run a full version of Windows in a web browser on any device. The new service is only available for businesses at first, but given Microsoft’s emphasis on cloud platforms, it is highly likely that it will become available for consumers at some point in the future. Microsoft is offering Windows 365 for businesses of all sizes, whether you are a one-person show or a giant organization. The best part? You can run Windows 365 on an iPad in addition to a Mac.

Like how Microsoft’s streaming Xbox service creates a virtual Xbox in the cloud, Windows 365 creates a virtual cloud PC. The cloud PCs you set up with Windows 365 can be completely personalized, just like a physical PC. You get to choose how much RAM and storage go into a virtual PC, as well. According to Microsoft’s website, you can configure a cloud PC with as much as 512GB and 16GB of RAM.

Windows 365 can stream an “instant-on boot experience” with full Windows applications on any device.

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Here’s the official Microsoft release. But hey, does it have Minesweeper? You need Windows 3.1 for that.

But everything’s going virtual, isn’t it? Games in the cloud, PCs in the cloud. And licences to pay for, of course.
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Surely we can do better than Elon Musk • Current Affairs

Nathan Robinson has really had it with Musk:

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one of the biggest Musk Myths is that he is a self-made entrepreneur, whose work shows what “private enterprise” can accomplish. Despite Musk’s contempt for regulations, Niedermeyer shows that Tesla was unable to survive in the free market, and only exists today thanks to a $350m Department of Energy loan that came at a crucial time.

A Los Angeles Times investigation in 2015 revealed that Musk’s empire was built on $4.9bn in government support. People were able to buy expensive Teslas, for instance, partly because the government paid them to buy electric cars in the form of tax credits. Travis County, Texas, “has offered a $14.7m (at minimum) tax break for the building of a Tesla factory” and “[a] Nevada factory was built on the promise of up to $1.3bn in tax benefits over two decades.” Now, with Joe Biden’s giant infrastructure bill set to give out $174bn more in electric vehicle investments, Musk is sure to receive a new windfall.

It’s good that the government stepped in to make electric cars more attractive. Supporting innovations that the market doesn’t find profitable is part of what the state is for. But the fact that Musk takes public money while presenting himself as the heroic libertarian opponent of stodgy government bureaucracy is maddening. So, too, is the fact that he, rather than the public, is the one who ends up getting rich. (Ah, but he told Bernie Sanders he is only “accumulating resources to help make life multiplanetary & extend the light of consciousness to the stars.”)

…It is natural to desire a “fantastic future.” Personally, I’m sad that we no longer have World’s Fairs showcasing what we think humankind might accomplish in the next decades. Musk fandom arises in part because he is offering something resembling a path to clean energy and space exploration, both of which are appealing and important. But it’s a mirage, and following it will take us further in the direction of dystopia.

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Note that going over Musk’s faults does require a lot of words. (Via Benedict Evans)
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Twitter is shutting down Fleets, its expiring tweets feature • The Verge

Alex Heath:

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Say goodbye to Fleets, the row of fullscreen tweets at the top of the Twitter timeline that expire after 24 hours. The ephemeral tweet format is shutting down due to low usage after launching widely just eight months ago.

Starting on August 3rd, users will instead just see active Spaces — Twitter’s live audio chat rooms — at the top of their timelines. And the composer for traditional tweets will be updated with more camera editing features from Fleets, like text-formatting and GIF stickers over photos.

Twitter’s decision to axe Fleets is not just an admission that the feature didn’t work but that the company still hasn’t figured out how to get people tweeting more. For years, Twitter has struggled to get new users to post regularly and not just consume other people’s tweets. Fleets was its shot at using Stories, the popular social media format invented by Snapchat and further popularized by Instagram, to lower the pressure around tweeting.

“We hoped Fleets would help more people feel comfortable joining the conversation on Twitter,” Ilya Brown, Twitter’s vice president of product, said in a statement. “But, in the time since we introduced Fleets to everyone, we haven’t seen an increase in the number of new people joining the conversation with Fleets like we hoped.”

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On the plus side, at least they have the awareness, and internal measurement and targets, to kill something that isn’t working. On the negative side, how did they ever think Snapchat-as-Twitter would work?
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Why TV is so bad at covering climate change • Gizmodo

Molly Halt used to work as a PR trying to get scientists booked on US cable news to talk about climate change:

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Media Matters, which tracks how often TV networks cover climate change, reported earlier this year that nightly news and Sunday morning shows on ABC, CNN, NBC, and Fox covered climate change-related topics for just 112 total minutes in 2020. A lot of the absolutely shameful lack of coverage can, of course, be attributed to the intensity of last year, where we faced a global pandemic and a national reckoning over racial justice, not to mention the whole election and Republican attempt to undermine it thing. But even before 2020, TV networks weren’t doing so hot on climate: Media Matters reported that 2019 was one of the biggest years of coverage, when evening and Sunday morning shows covered climate 68% more than they had the year before, increasing their coverage to… a whopping 238 minutes for the entire year.

I wanted to better understand both my own experience and how the sausage is made when it comes to climate segments on big cable shows. I reached out to a producer at a big cable TV show for some insights. (They asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely with us.)

The producer explained that daily segments on their show are usually pitched at the beginning of the workday or the night before by producers; the executive producers will usually sign off on a topic and ask the booking producers to reach out to possible guests. But, they explained, there’s always room for “breaking news” to take precedent over a carefully planned climate segment.

“When breaking news happens, that often leads to at least one originally-planned segment getting killed — which can happen a lot to climate segments that aren’t the most pressing topic of the day,” the producer told me over text message.

The producer said that TV journalists, in their estimation, “are far more concerned with climate change today than they were a few years ago,” but there’s still a limit to how much that interest manifests on air.

“I’d say way more stories are pitched than make it on the air,” they wrote. “That applies to every topic, since there’s only so much that can go in a show. But I do think there are far more climate stories that are pitched and then never make air, compared to something more pressing like gun violence or police reform — which are just as important to cover — or the latest outrage segment over something happening in the White House or Congress.”

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More pressing than the continuing existence of the species. Has evolution just given up on us?
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TikTok becomes the first non-Facebook mobile app to reach 3 billion downloads globally • Sensor Tower

Stephanie Chan:

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In Q2 2021, TikTok saw its greatest quarter-over-quarter growth in consumer spending since Q2 2020, climbing 39% to $534.6m from $384.7m in the previous quarter. TikTok’s adoption has also accelerated in 2021, as first-time downloads climbed 2% Q/Q to 177.5 million in Q1 2021, and surged 16% Q/Q to 205.4 million Q2 2021, the most growth the app has seen since its record-breaking Q1 2020 when it accumulated more than 315 million installs, the most any app has seen in a single quarter.

With the 3 billion install milestone, TikTok is the fifth non-game app to join a tier that’s historically been the exclusive domain of Facebook. The four other apps that have accrued more than 3 billion installs since January 2014 include WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook, and Instagram.

Consumer spending in TikTok has now surpassed $2.5bn globally. Only 16 non-game apps have seen more than $1bn in gross revenue since January 2014—five of which, now including TikTok, have reached more than $2.5bn. The other apps that have generated more than $2.5bn in consumer spending include Tinder, Netflix, YouTube, and Tencent Video.

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Impressive. And don’t forget it’s a Chinese-owned app with an algorithm that we don’t understand. (Not unlike Facebook and YouTube, but I’m always mindful of the Philip K Dick short story.) Anyway, I’m sure Clubhouse is going to take over the 3bn mantle very soon.
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Idiot YouTuber swallows AirTag wrapped in condom • Macworld

Simon Lohmann:

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Just like toxic detergent capsules, swallowing an AirTag brings not only a risk of suffocation, because the quite large piece of plastic can clog the trachea, but is dangerous due to the button battery. Battery acid in the stomach is unpleasant, which is why Apple has subsequently attached corresponding warnings to the AirTag packaging after complaints from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) that AirTags should be kept out of the reach of children.

Despite this a group of German YouTubers, who at the time of writing had just 127 subscribers, decided to film one of their number – a young man – swallowing an AirTag. This is described by them as “high-quality” entertainment, provided you like to watch someone swallow a condom soaked in an olive oil and containing an AirTag. But hey, at least in 4K resolution, the quality standard has been met.

As far as entertainment claim is concerned, the first six minutes before swallowing are more entertaining than the AirTag swallow challenge itself. One of the YOuTubers describes how durable the condom is, claiming that he: “Recently saw a video on Instagram where they cut a cucumber inside a condom, and the condom remained intact”. Anyone who has watched the Netflix series “Narcos” knows: If even Pablo Escobar could smuggle a little cocaine to Miami with the same method, then an AirTag will probably not do much damage.

The individual who swallowed the AirTag do so without suffocating, and was congratulated by his colleagues.

So what happens when you swallow an AirTag? Does it still work? Unless the video is a fake, the AirTag does not seem to work inside a person, a signal could not be located after swallowing. This suggests that water can interfere with WLAN and Bluetooth signals.

When our colleagues on Macwelt wrote this story the video had 252 views.

Because we don’t want anyone to imitate this video we aren’t posting it here.

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Sensible. I guess it’s better to test it on humans than animals.
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On the referendum #21: Branching histories of the 2016 referendum and ‘the frogs before the storm’ • Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings, writing in January 2017 to explain why Vote Leave won the Brexit referendum:

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Most of the MPs we dealt with were not highly motivated to win and lacked extreme focus, even those who had been boring everybody about this for decades. They sort of wanted to win but they had other priorities. They were very happy having dinner parties and gossiping. They were very happy coming to meetings with people they thought were important. This wasted enormous amounts of time as we had to create a string of Potemkin committees for people to attend while the core team actually did the campaign, then reinvent them as people became convinced that there were other secret meetings that they were being excluded from. They were very happy to be on the Today Programme. But they didn’t want to win that much. Not enough to work weekends. Not enough to stop having all their usual skiing holidays and winter beach holidays. Not enough to get out on the streets day after day.  Not enough to miss a great shooting weekend. Not enough, most of them, to risk annoying a Prime Minister who they thought would still control their next job after 23 June.

This lack of motivation is connected to another important psychology – the willingness to fail conventionally. Most people in politics are, whether they know it or not, much more comfortable with failing conventionally than risking the social stigma of behaving unconventionally. They did not mind losing so much as being embarrassed, as standing out from the crowd. (The same phenomenon explains why the vast majority of active fund management destroys wealth and nobody learns from this fact repeated every year.)

…Pundits who wrongly hailed Cameron as a genius after the 2015 election now wrongly describe him as a bumbling oaf. He was neither – he was the best of a bad bunch picked pseudo-randomly in a broken system and out of his depth. 600,000 votes either way does not make one set of people geniuses and another set of people morons. Geniuses in politics are rarer than in maths and physics and nobody involved in the referendum on either side is remotely close to one. Some of those who worked on the IN side were much more able than many on the winning side. It does not make sense to label people on the IN side idiots because of errors made by Cameron, Osborne, Llewellyn, and Oliver.

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This is novella-length, but fascinating (as much for the many, many personal scores settled). His argument about tiny changes making big differences is worth considering in depth.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified


At a loose end? You could buy Social Warming, my latest book, about why social networks are driving us all a little mad.


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