Start Up No.1608: Facebook blocks ad disinfo researchers, Cuba v the internet, our gloomy writing, Google v Daily Mail readers, and more


Where should you go after civilisation collapses? A new report has some suggestions that might surprise (but reassure) you. CC-licensed photo by Harry McGregor 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.


Got too many books? You need another:
Social Warming, my latest book, is out now.


NYU researchers speak out after Facebook disables their accounts • Protocol

Issie Lapowsky:

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On Tuesday, Facebook suspended the accounts, apps and pages of several New York University researchers who have been using scraping tools to better understand political ads and disinformation on Facebook.

…Mike Clark, Facebook’s product management director, explained the company’s stance in a blog post, saying the company took these actions in fulfillment of its consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission, which requires stricter monitoring of third-party apps. “We made it clear in a series of posts earlier this year,” he wrote, “that we take unauthorized data scraping seriously, and when we find instances of scraping we investigate and take action to protect our platform. While the Ad Observatory project may be well-intentioned, the ongoing and continued violations of protections against scraping cannot be ignored and should be remediated.”

The tool in question is a browser extension called Ad Observer, which Facebook users can download if they want to send information about the Facebook ads they see to the researchers. Ad Observer scrapes the information those users see when they click “Why am I seeing this ad?” — a workaround that’s necessary because Facebook does not share information on who advertisers targeted in its public-facing ad archive. In the blog post, Clark accused the team of using the extension to collect data “about Facebook users who did not install it or consent to the collection.”

It’s an accusation that evokes the worst of the Cambridge Analytica scraping scandal, but one that leaves out key details that Protocol revealed earlier this year in a story about Facebook’s dispute with the NYU researchers and the fraught relationship between platforms and researchers generally. The users who had data collected without their consent aren’t private users: They’re advertisers, whose ads are by definition already public, and whose information Facebook stores itself in an ad archive.

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As someone pointed out, it didn’t seem to act with much alacrity when Clearview AI was scraping that data. And that it has decided that the bad press it might get from shutting this down was preferable to the bad press from what the researchers find out.
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Leaked document says Google fired dozens of employees for data misuse • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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Google fired dozens of employees between 2018 and 2020 for abusing their access to the company’s tools or data, with some workers potentially facing allegations of accessing Google user or employee data, according to an internal Google document obtained by Motherboard.

The document provides concrete figures on an often delicate part of a tech giant’s operations: investigations into how the company’s own employees leverage their positions to steal, leak, or abuse data they may have access to. Insider abuse is a problem across the tech industry. Motherboard previously uncovered instances at Facebook, Snapchat, and MySpace, with employees in some cases using their access to stalk or otherwise spy on users.

The document says that Google terminated 36 employees in 2020 for security-related issues; 86% of all security-related allegations against employees included mishandling of confidential information, such as the transfer of internal-only information to outside parties.

…A Google spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement: “The instances referred to mostly relate to inappropriate access to, or misuse of, proprietary and sensitive corporate information or IP.”

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Mostly, OK, and it’s a small number of people being fired, though of course one person could exfiltrate a ton of data. Or target one very important person.
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Why the internet in Cuba has become a US political hot potato • The Guardian

Ed Augustin and Daniel Montero:

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With millions of Cubans now online, the state’s monopoly on mass communication has been deeply eroded. But after social media helped catalyse historic protests on the island last month, the government temporarily shut the internet down.

Full connectivity returned 72 hours later, but the issue has become a hot potato in the US. Hundreds of Cuban-Americans marched against the regime in Washington last week, and politicians are trying to leverage political capital: Florida senator Marco Rubio has called for the US to beam balloon-supplied internet to the island nation, while Joe Biden said his administration is assessing whether it can increase Cuba’s connectivity.

Experts say it’s unclear how internet access could be increased at scale if the host nation is unwilling to cooperate. “I haven’t seen anything other than pie in the sky,” said Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University.

Past US government attempts to bolster connectivity in Cuba read like a John Le Carré novel.

In 2009, Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, was arrested for distributing satellite equipment. His work was funded thanks to a US law that explicitly calls for the overthrow of the Castro regime. (Gross was later released as part of the restoration of US-Cuban relations during Barack Obama’s second term.)

Attempts to smuggle satellite ground stations disguised as surf boards on to the island were similarly foiled.

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It’s the internet equivalent of exploding cigars. The US never does anything involving Cuba that doesn’t seem bizarrely clumsy.
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Historical language records reveal a surge of cognitive distortions in recent decades • PNAS

Bollen et al:

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Can entire societies become more or less depressed over time? Here, we look for the historical traces of cognitive distortions, thinking patterns that are strongly associated with internalizing disorders such as depression and anxiety, in millions of books published over the course of the last two centuries in English, Spanish, and German. We find a pronounced “hockey stick” pattern.

Over the past two decades the textual analogs of cognitive distortions surged well above historical levels, including those of World War I and II, after declining or stabilizing for most of the 20th century. Our results point to the possibility that recent socioeconomic changes, new technology, and social media are associated with a surge of cognitive distortions.

Individuals with depression are prone to maladaptive patterns of thinking, known as cognitive distortions, whereby they think about themselves, the world, and the future in overly negative and inaccurate ways. These distortions are associated with marked changes in an individual’s mood, behavior, and language.

We hypothesize that societies can undergo similar changes in their collective psychology that are reflected in historical records of language use. Here, we investigate the prevalence of textual markers of cognitive distortions in over 14 million books for the past 125 y and observe a surge of their prevalence since the 1980s, to levels exceeding those of the Great Depression and both World Wars.

This pattern does not seem to be driven by changes in word meaning, publishing and writing standards, or the Google Books sample. Our results suggest a recent societal shift toward language associated with cognitive distortions and internalizing disorders.

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Wow. We’re talking ourselves into collapse? (Thanks Richard B for the link.) And since we’re on the topic…
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These six countries are most likely to survive a climate change-caused societal collapse • Mic

AJ Dellinger:

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If you have ever considered your zombie apocalypse survival plan, you’ve almost certainly concluded that the best place to be to survive the end-of-the-world event is somewhere isolated, and preferably surrounded by water. As it turns out, science agrees with you — it’s just that the event threatening our survival isn’t a zombie takeover; it’s climate change.

A new Global Sustainability Institute study published in the journal Sustainability did the work of ranking the locations best suited to survive a global societal collapse stemming from climate change-led destruction. The results: Islands and other sparsely populated, remote locations are the best places to post up for the end times — though take that with a grain of salt, because no place will go entirely untouched by the planet’s continued warming and ensuing fallout.

According to researchers, New Zealand, specifically, is the best location to live in as climate change rears its ugly head. It’s an unsurprising choice, as the country checks a lot of boxes for survivalists: It’s a remote island with vast, largely untouched landscapes that, in a survival scenario, amount to untapped resources. And it seems there’s some agreement about New Zealand’s merits when it comes to potential global societal collapse. According to the University of Notre Dame’s Global Adaptation Initiative, which similarly ranks countries based on their readiness and capability to adapt to climate change, New Zealand ranks second out of 181 countries, behind only Norway.

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I know, I know – you’re thinking that New Zealand is a long way away. But don’t worry:

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“Using the perspective of the Gaia Hypothesis, northern Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, New Zealand and the British Isles (along with mountainous regions at lower latitudes) may remain habitable through the persistence of agriculture and may therefore act as ‘lifeboats’ for populations of humans.”

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Hooray?
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The CDC needs to stop confusing the public • The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci:

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On July 21, the White House’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told CNBC that Delta was “clearly different” than previous variants, with an extraordinary capacity for transmitting from person to person, and that fully vaccinated people might want to consider wearing masks indoors. However, just one day later, the C.D.C.’s director, Rochelle Walensky, asserted again that wearing masks for the vaccinated was an “individual choice,” saying that the vaccinated enjoyed “exceptional levels of protection.” Then on July 25, Dr. Fauci confirmed that bringing back mask mandates was “under active consideration.”

Just two days later, on July 27, Dr. Walensky addressed the issue again, but now with a very different message: Delta was behaving very differently, she said, and the C.D.C. was now recommending even the fully vaccinated wear masks indoors in public places wherever transmission rates were “substantial.”

All this was fairly confusing for the public especially since it was already many weeks after the agency should have reacted. A pandemic requires a forceful, quick, clear and unified response from public health authorities.

In announcing changes in mask recommendations Dr. Walensky notably said that vaccinated people who became infected had viral loads similar to those of unvaccinated people who got sick, and could “forward transmit with the same capacity as an unvaccinated person.”

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The CDC’s messaging has been terrible all through. As Tufekci points out, in 2020 it was excusable because Trump didn’t allow it to be clear. But its messaging since has been all over the place, giving room for misinterpretation. It needs the PR equivalent of defensive driving, expecting that people will be trying to misunderstand it.
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Google: ‘racist comments’ behind Piers Morgan’s Simone Biles ad block • UK Press Gazette

Charlotte Tobitt:

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Google has said it blocked advertising on a Piers Morgan Mail Online column slamming US gymnast Simone Biles for quitting Olympic events over her mental health because of “racist comments” under the article.

Mail Online has criticised Google for taking a day to provide this explanation and for failing to provide any examples, while Morgan claimed the action “represents a disgraceful attack on free speech”.

The original column, headlined “Sorry Simone Biles, but there’s nothing heroic or brave about quitting because you’re not having ‘fun’ – you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country”, received 9,000 comments – many from readers agreeing with Morgan’s point of view.

Google told Mail Online it stopped serving ads because it had found “some issues that are policy violations that you must fix”.

Morgan wrote that he had been told by Google that his column contained “dangerous or derogatory content”. According to Morgan, Google has “restricted demand” on nine of his previous columns by choosing not to buy or sell ads. But this is the first time it has fully disabled its service for enabling ads, in what Morgan described as a “draconian blanket ban”.

A Google spokesperson told Press Gazette it had taken the decision because of user-generated comments under the column.

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That’s quite the distinction. Morgan was utterly outraged at the “woke snowflake Twitterati” who he blamed for… something. But if Google is taking racism in the comments into account, the Mail might have a problem with a lot more of its articles and suddenly need to balance moderation costs against ad revenue more carefully.
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Sky News Australia banned from YouTube for seven days over Covid misinformation • The Guardian

Amanda Meade:

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Sky News Australia has been banned from uploading content to YouTube for seven days after violating its medical misinformation policies by posting numerous videos which denied the existence of Covid-19 or encouraged people to use hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin.

The ban was imposed by the digital giant on Thursday afternoon, the day after the Daily Telegraph ended Alan Jones’s regular column amid controversy about his Covid-19 commentary which included calling the New South Wales chief health officer Kerry Chant a village idiot on his Sky News program.

News Corp told Guardian Australia the ending of Jones’s column did not mean the company does not support the “compelling” broadcaster.

YouTube has not disclosed which Sky News program the videos were from but said there were “numerous” offending videos which have now been removed.

The Sky News Australia YouTube channel, which has 1.85m subscribers, has been issued a strike and is temporarily suspended from uploading new videos or livestreams for one week.

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Interesting how patterns emerge in this stuff. Which is more powerful, the video site or the TV station? Which is too powerful, the TV station or the video site?
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Tokyo braces for the hottest Olympics ever • The New York Times

John Branch and Motoko Rich:

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when the Summer Olympics return to Japan’s capital, they will open on July 24 and run until Aug. 9 [which was the 2020 schedule]. It will not take an unusual heat wave to turn them into the hottest Olympics in history, endangering athletes, spectators, workers and volunteers. Yet in awarding the 2020 Summer Games to Tokyo in 2013, the International Olympic Committee barely considered the weather.

So why was it so important to stage them in the thick of summer?

“It’s essentially driven by American television,” said Dick Pound, a longtime member of the Olympic committee and former chairman of its television negotiations committee.

Officially, the Olympic schedule is dictated by the I.O.C. But because nearly three-quarters of I.O.C. revenue comes from broadcast rights, and about half of those rights are paid by the American broadcaster NBC, the American sports calendar tends to have an outsize impact on Olympic scheduling. Baseball and football dominate American television screens in September and October. July and August, on the other hand, are relative voids.

The last time the Summer Olympics were held outside the July-August window was in 2000, when the Sydney Games were staged in late September. They remain the least watched Summer Games in the United States over the past several decades.

Ever since, the Olympic committee has told candidate cities that the Summer Games must be scheduled between July 15 and Aug. 31, barring “exceptional circumstances.”

The committee offers a scattershot of explanations for that tight window, including a desire to align with the calendars of various sports federations and attract the likes of N.B.A. players in their off-season.

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But instead it’s rainy and hot – “like sitting in a giant sauna” as one Tokyo denizen calls it.
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Political inaction is dragging the UK deeper into the climate crisis • Financial Times

Henry Mance:

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London suffered flash floods twice in the past month. Water poured through Tube stations. Raw sewage gushed through homes. People were rightly alarmed. Did Boris Johnson or his ministers seize the moment? Did they wade through the water, and explain that worse would come unless we acted? Did they bring out charts showing that the trend in extreme weather is even worse than climate scientists forecast? Did they announce new policies to reduce emissions? They did not. If only the floods had carried a few dinghies of asylum seekers — the government might have done something.

What is the roadblock to action? You could start with Johnson, a prime minister whose climate commitment is better than many centre-right leaders but still fair-weather. To his credit, he has set a new legal 2035 target for reducing emissions, which means the UK’s emissions must more than halve within 15 years. This should drive urgency and hard choices, but instead there are too many vague strategies. Johnson has promised there will be no carbon taxes on individuals, such as a meat tax, on his watch — a pledge privately dismissed as fanciful by his own ministers.

Johnson’s ambivalence explains the hesitancy of the Treasury, which wants to know how net zero will be paid for. Economists can come up with neat environmental incentives, but politicians need to buy into them. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is a fiscal conservative inclined to limit borrowing after the coronavirus splurge.

At least a few Tory MPs want to go even slower. Steve Baker, the backbencher who helped to scupper Theresa May’s Brexit deal, rails against the “cost of net zero”. This ignores the cost of inaction, and so is just the latest variant of climate denialism.

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Climate denialism has more variants than Covid. It’s exhausting.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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