Start Up No.1612: Facebook v White House on vaccines, a map of climate pledges (and heat), tech’s illustration loop, Apple on CSAM, and more


Why would a science paper talk about “counterfeit consciousness” rather than “artificial intelligence”? Because it’s trying to hide plagiarism, researchers suggest. CC-licensed photo by deepak pal on Flickr.

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


Inside the White House-Facebook rift over vaccine misinformation • The New York Times

Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Cecilia Kang:

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In March, Andy Slavitt, then a top pandemic adviser for President Biden, called Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, and delivered an ominous warning.

For many weeks, Mr. Slavitt and other White House officials had been meeting with Facebook to urge the company to stop the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines. Many Americans who refused to get vaccinated had cited false stories they read on Facebook, including theories that the shots could lead to infertility, stillborn babies and autism. Mr. Slavitt and other officials felt that executives were deflecting blame and resisting requests for information.

“In eight weeks’ time,” Mr. Slavitt told Mr. Clegg, “Facebook will be the No. 1 story of the pandemic.”

Mr. Slavitt’s prediction was not far off. Roughly three months later, with cases from the Delta variant surging, Mr. Biden said Facebook was “killing people” — a comment that put the social network in the center of the public discussion about the virus.

Mr. Biden’s comment, which he later walked back slightly, was the culmination of increasingly combative meetings with the company about the spread of misinformation. Interviews with administration officials, Facebook employees and other people with knowledge of the internal discussions revealed new details about who took part in the talks and the issues that fed the frustrations between the White House and the Silicon Valley titan.

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A long read. Note this: “When Mr. Patil [for the White House] asked for data on how often misinformation was viewed and spread, the company said it couldn’t provide that kind of data.”

Just like I said. Facebook doesn’t know the extent of the problem.
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A new Plandemic-like misinformation video has earned tens of millions Facebook engagements via streaming platforms • Media Matters for America

Alex Kaplan and Kayla Gogarty:

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Facebook has claimed it would remove content from its platform that pushes false claims about vaccines, and YouTube prohibits content “about COVID-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm” or “contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.” Given the speed at which this latest video has racked up engagements, it appears that neither platform has learned any lessons from allowing conspiracy theory videos like Plandemic and Planet Lockdown to go viral, nor are these policies being consistently enforced to fight medical misinformation. 

The new video features a man named Dan Stock speaking in front of an Indiana city’s school board. Calling himself a “functional family medicine physician,” Stock falsely suggested that coronavirus vaccines were not effective, saying, “Why is a vaccine that is supposedly so effective having a breakout in the middle of the summer when respiratory viral syndromes don’t do that?” He also falsely claimed, “People who have recovered from COVID-19 infection actually get no benefit from vaccination at all,” and inaccurately alleged that masks do not work, saying that “coronavirus and all other respiratory viruses … are spread by aerosol particles, which are small enough to go through every mask.” And rather than vaccines, Stock suggested people use the drug ivermectin to treat COVID-19 — which the FDA has specifically advised against.

According to the tracking tool BuzzSumo, uploads of the video from streaming platforms have earned more than 90 million total Facebook engagements. Most of those come from YouTube — in particular, from three versions of the video that have since been removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines.

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Just so you don’t think that misinformation is all down to Facebook.
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Why is tech illustration stuck on repeat? • Protocol

Hirsh Chitkara:

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You may not have heard of “corporate memphis,” but you’ve almost certainly seen it. The illustration style can be found in the trendiest direct-to-consumer subway ads, within the app you use to split restaurant tabs or on the 404 page that attempts to counter your frustration with cutesiness. In fact, corporate memphis has become so synonymous with tech marketing that some illustrators simply know it as the “tech aesthetic.”

But corporate memphis has also become a victim of its own success. The once-whimsical, fresh style now feels safe and antiseptic. More conspicuous iterations of it get roasted online, if they get noticed at all; one popular tweet asks, “Why does every website landing page look like this now?” Illustrators are just as often tired of corporate memphis, but tech companies continue to commission it.

So why can’t tech wean itself off of corporate memphis? Part of it has to do with the practical aesthetic considerations that gave rise to the style. But corporate memphis has primarily stuck around because tech executives continue to overlook the value of illustration, according to several of the illustrators interviewed for this story. Illustration work is increasingly awarded to the lowest bidder on gig platforms, using tools designed to standardize output. For the few companies that recognize the value of illustration, however, investing in creative talent has paid considerable dividends — just not in ways that are easily measured.

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Turns out we should blame a company whose name starts with “F” and ends with “acebook”. But this is a genuinely clever story; it may have been prompted by the tweet linked above, but you still have to go out and find the people doing the work, and discover there’s such a thing as “corporate memphis”. (And then use it six times in the first three paragraphs. Work it, baby.)
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When hope kills: Social media’s false promises to cancer patients • Healthy Debate

Anne Borden King:

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“You have to die a little to live,” my friend’s husband told me as I began chemo last summer. He’d had Stage 2 cancer, like me, and was preparing me for how difficult the treatments would be. And he was right: In fact, it was hard to get my feet to walk through the hospital doors for my treatments. I knew that this was my best shot but on some visceral level I really wished I didn’t have to do it.

I shared updates about my cancer treatments with my friends on Facebook and it helped to get encouragement. But something else also happened on my timeline: Facebook’s advertising algorithms began targeting me for cancer ads from scammers selling phony treatments. These companies promised that I could cure my cancer “naturally without toxic chemotherapy or surgery” using vitamin IV therapy that allegedly had “the same mechanism as chemotherapy.” A page called Breast Cancer Conqueror offered a host of custom supplements and another clinic in Mexico offered beachside IV cocktails that would defeat cancer with “antioxidant properties.” It all sounded good – too good to be true.

I reported the ads to Facebook in the hope the platform would remove them (it didn’t). I also wrote about it, joining the legion of voices raising the alarm about mis- and disinformation on social media.

A year later, not much has changed on Facebook.

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I spoke to Borden King in writing Social Warming: the way that Facebook overlooks so much misinformation about stuff that can kill you is incredible.
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Paris Equity Check • Pledged Warming Map

Yann Robiou du Pont:

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The Pledged Warming Map provides an assessment of global warming when all countries follow the ambition of a given one. This warming assessment assumes a self-interested approach of equity where each country follows the least stringent of three equity concepts (historical responsibility, capacity to pay and equality). This warming assessment reconciles the bottom-up architecture of the Paris Agreement with its top-down warming threshold.

With the Paris Agreement, countries committed to collectively limit global warming to well below 2 °C and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels. However, there is currently no commonly agreed effort-sharing mechanism to determine the contribution of each country. Measuring the ambition of the climate pledges, the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), requires considerations of effort-sharing driven by equity concepts and countries are requested to provide in their NDC a description of how their contribution is ‘fair and ambitious’ (these are provided under the country graphs).

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Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good news to be found on this map. Among the most gigantic what-ifs are what if Al Gore had been installed as president in 2000 (given that he was elected, right?) and what if Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, had been president in 2016. We might be in a better place – though a lot would depend on China.
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Pricing vs rules: the EU’s balancing act • Internationale Politik Quarterly

Noah Gordon:

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Finding the right balance between pricing and rules [on greenhouse emissions] is so difficult because the two policy approaches tend to irritate (or invigorate) different interest groups.

Take road transport, where the EU is planning both new rules and new taxes. The proposal to put a carbon price on transport fuels has come under heavy fire in Brussels. Pascal Canfin, the French MEP from the centrist, liberal Renew Europe group who chairs the European Parliament’s environment committee, has warned that this would be “politically suicidal.” “Do not make the mistake … we saw in France; it gave us the yellow vests.”

As the economic historian Adam Tooze has argued, the Macron administration’s announcement that it would continue to periodically raise the carbon tax on fuels was far from the only cause of the Gilet Jaunes protests—and there are many ways to recycle carbon tax revenue to low-income Europeans. (European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did say Brussels would establish a social climate fund worth €144 billion to “compensate vulnerable groups” for higher costs.) Yet it is the perception that matters, and there has indeed been an ugly backlash against carbon pricing in places like Australia or the US state of Oregon.

In any case, it is not only the French who have concerns. Polish state secretary for climate Adam Guibourgé-Czetwertynski has said “The commission seems to be making the choice of taxing poorer households,” which he called a mistake. Danish Climate Minister Dan Jorgensen has admitted that it is “difficult for me to just point to a big number of other countries that support [the ETS for transport].” Germany is one of the few supporters, but the proposal has reportedly split the commission.

Interestingly, the skepticism about pricing comes from across the political spectrum, in Brussels and in national capitals alike.

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I try very hard not to whisper “we’re so screwed” when I read anything like this, but I do increasingly think we’re so screwed.
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‘Tortured phrases’ give away fabricated research papers • Nature

Holly Else:

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In April 2021, a series of strange phrases in journal articles piqued the interest of a group of computer scientists. The researchers could not understand why researchers would use the terms ‘counterfeit consciousness’, ‘profound neural organization’ and ‘colossal information’ in place of the more widely recognized terms ‘artificial intelligence’, ‘deep neural network’ and ‘big data’.

Further investigation revealed that these strange terms — which they dub “tortured phrases” — are probably the result of automated translation or software that attempts to disguise plagiarism. And they seem to be rife in computer-science papers.

Research-integrity sleuths say that Cabanac and his colleagues have uncovered a new type of fabricated research paper, and that their work, posted in a preprint on arXiv on 12 July1, might expose only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the literature affected.

To get a sense of how many papers are affected, the researchers ran a search for several tortured phrases in journal articles indexed in the citation database Dimensions. They found more than 860 publications that included at least one of the phrases, 31 of which were published in a single journal: Microprocessors and Microsystems.

“It harms science. You cannot trust these papers, so we need to find them and retract them,” says Guillaume Cabanac, a computer scientist at the University of Toulouse, France, who worked on the study.

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Also frequently seen in blogs that scrape originals and then throw them through thesaurus-style systems. The effects are very, very strange.
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Interview: Apple’s Head of Privacy details child abuse detection and Messages safety features • TechCrunch

Matthew Panzarino interviews Erik Neuenschwander:

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One of the bigger queries about this system is that Apple has said that it will just refuse action if it is asked by a government or other agency to compromise by adding things that are not CSAM to the database to check for them on-device. There are some examples where Apple has had to comply with local law at the highest levels if it wants to operate there, China being an example. So how do we trust that Apple is going to hew to this rejection of interference If pressured or asked by a government to compromise the system?

Well first, that is launching only for US, iCloud accounts, and so the hypotheticals seem to bring up generic countries or other countries that aren’t the US when they speak in that way, and the therefore it seems to be the case that people agree US law doesn’t offer these kinds of capabilities to our government. 

But even in the case where we’re talking about some attempt to change the system, it has a number of protections built in that make it not very useful for trying to identify individuals holding specifically objectionable images. The hash list is built into the operating system, we have one global operating system and don’t have the ability to target updates to individual users and so hash lists will be shared by all users when the system is enabled. And secondly, the system requires the threshold of images to be exceeded so trying to seek out even a single image from a person’s device or set of people’s devices won’t work because the system simply does not provide any knowledge to Apple for single photos stored in our service. And then, thirdly, the system has built into it a stage of manual review where, if an account is flagged with a collection of illegal CSAM material, an Apple team will review that to make sure that it is a correct match of illegal CSAM material prior to making any referral to any external entity.

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Neuenschwander might have guessed that things would get a little heated, though I doubt he realised quite how heated. Apple’s giving absolutely no ground on this, though. And he emphasises that if you turn iCloud Photos off, then no scanning at all takes place.
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Google didn’t want sideloading for Fortnite on Android • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

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According to the [newly released court] documents, Google tried to dissuade Epic from allowing sideloads of Fortnite for Android. First, it offered Epic a “special deal” to bring Fortnite to the Google Play Store. Presumably, this deal would have cut down Google’s 30% commission on app sales, which is the main reason Epic didn’t want Fortnite on the Play Store.

Google also allegedly tried to paint sideloading as an “awful” and “abysmal” experience for users. A Google representative said that its takes “15+ steps” to sideload an app (sideloading is when you install an Android app outside of the Play Store).

Ironically, Google trying to dissuade Epic from allowing sideloads of Fortnite for Android is a huge boon to Epic’s case. Epic is trying to argue in court that the Play Store (and, in a different suit, the Apple App Store) is a de facto monopoly. Epic argues that Google purposefully makes it difficult for publishers to succeed outside the Play Store, even if it is possible to do. As such, Google trying to paint sideloading as a poor experience only bolster’s Epic’s argument.

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Google wasn’t wrong, though. The sideloading experience also brought malware opportunism, which screwed up people’s phones.
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Why do consumer apps get worse? • ongoing

Tim Bray (who used to work at Google and Amazon):

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Why does this happen? · It’s obvious. Every high-tech company has people called “Product Managers” (PMs) whose job it is to work with customers and management and engineers to define what products should do. No PM in history has ever said “This seems to be working pretty well, let’s leave it the way it is.” Because that’s not bold. That’s not visionary. That doesn’t get you promoted.

It is the dream of every PM to come up with a bold UX innovation that gets praise, and many believe the gospel that the software is better at figuring out what the customer wants than the customer is. And you get extra points these days for using ML.

Also, any time you make any change to a popular product, you’ve imposed a retraining cost on its users. Unfortunately, in their evaluations, PMs consider the cost of customer retraining time to be zero.
How to fix this? Well, in my days at Amazon Web Services, I saw exactly zero instances of major service releases that, in the opinion of customers, crippled or broke the product. I’m not going to claim that our UX was generally excellent because it wasn’t; the fact that most users were geeks let us somewhat off the hook.

Why no breakage? Because these were Enterprise products, so the number of customers was orders of magnitude smaller than iAnything, so the PM could go talk to them and bounce improvement ideas off them. Customers are pretty good at spotting UX goofs in the making.

The evidence suggests that for mass-market products used by on the order of 107 people, it’s really difficult to predict which changes will be experienced as stupid, broken, and insulting.

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(Unrelated: Bray left Amazon on a matter of principle over its firing of whistleblowers last year.)
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Order Social Warming, my latest book – now published in the US – and find answers, and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “ECU” stands for “electronic control unit” not “engine control unit”.

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