Start Up No.1637: Facebook knew of Instagram’s downsides, European energy prices rocket, the trouble with preprints, an App Store future, and more


It wouldn’t quite be Jurassic Park, but a private company has millions of dollars in venture funding to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. CC-licensed photo by Brett Burton on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Nicki Minaj, Viz reader? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show • WSJ

Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman:

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About a year ago, teenager Anastasia Vlasova started seeing a therapist. She had developed an eating disorder, and had a clear idea of what led to it: her time on Instagram.

She joined the platform at 13, and eventually was spending three hours a day entranced by the seemingly perfect lives and bodies of the fitness influencers who posted on the app.

“When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,” said Ms. Vlasova, now 18, who lives in Reston, Va.

Around that time, researchers inside Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc., were studying this kind of experience and asking whether it was part of a broader phenomenon. Their findings confirmed some serious problems.

“Thirty-two% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the researchers said in a March 2020 slide presentation posted to Facebook’s internal message board, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”

For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo-sharing app affects its millions of young users. Repeatedly, the company’s researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls.

“We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls,” said one slide from 2019, summarizing research about teen girls who experience the issues.

“Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said another slide. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

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This is colossal. In public, Zuckerberg has said, under oath, that using social media can have positive mental health benefits. But he knew it often doesn’t. I wrote a chapter in Social Warming – left out of the final draft – about social media and children. I might see if there’s a way to publish it separately.

Meanwhile, one of the most vocal critics of children’s use of social media, Professor Jonathan Haidt, wrote a Twitter thread in which he said he sees “no way to fix Instagram for minors… I wish I could raise my daughter in a world that had no such platforms.”
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When the wind stops blowing, an energy storm brews • The Sunday Times

Jon Yeomans:

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Gas made up the largest share of the UK’s energy mix in 2020, at 34%; followed by wind on a quarter; nuclear at 17%; biomass at 6.5% and solar at 4.4%. Despite the progress of renewables, detractors note the problems arise when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Until reliable battery storage for renewable energy is developed, these sources can only ever be intermittent, critics argue, and some infrastructure will continue to use oil for back-up generation. It is a case made by the nuclear industry, which says that it is uniquely placed to provide the zero-emissions baseload the grid requires.

Runaway gas prices are already sparking concern across the energy sector, with fears that consumers are facing a “bill shock” this winter. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis warned his readers last week: “This autumn’s signature noise will be a deep thud… the sound of jaws hitting the floor as people finally see the practical evidence of the energy bill catastrophe laid bare.”

UK gas prices reached 130p per therm last week, compared to 30p a year ago. In an unusual inversion, gas prices are trading above the equivalent price of Brent, the benchmark for crude oil.

Both supply and demand factors are at play. The reopening of economies after Covid lockdowns has pushed up demand for gas. Countries are also trying to cut their use of coal, and switching to less polluting gas as a result. Europe is thus competing with Asia for shipments of liquid natural gas (LNG), a more mobile form of gas that is increasingly popular.

Supply is also tight: a particularly cold winter meant Europe used up more reserves than usual and these have not been replenished. A spate of outages at gas production plants in different parts of the world have compounded the problem.

To make matters worse, the UK has relatively low levels of gas storage. The country has eight gas storage sites that can hold an estimated 12 days of supply. Storage capacity was drastically reduced when the Rough site under the North Sea was closed in 2017 for safety and economic reasons. Rough, a disused oil field, could hold around 70% of UK gas reserves.

“The market hasn’t been able to fill up storage as we move into this winter. And hence we are very exposed, especially if it is another cold winter like last year,” said James Huckstepp, analyst at S&P Platts. “Consumers are starting to recognise that their energy bills are going to be much higher this winter.”

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Most plans for new coal plants scrapped since Paris agreement • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:

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The global pipeline of new coal power plants has collapsed since the 2015 Paris climate agreement, according to research that suggests the end of the polluting energy source is in sight.

The report found that more than three-quarters of the world’s planned plants have been scrapped since the climate deal was signed, meaning 44 countries no longer have any future coal power plans.

The climate groups behind the report – E3G, Global Energy Monitor and Ember – said those countries now have the opportunity to join the 40 countries that have already signed up to a “no new coal” commitment to help tackle global carbon emissions.

“Only five years ago, there were so many new coal power plants planned to be built, but most of these have now been either officially halted, or are paused and unlikely to ever be built,” said Dave Jones, from Ember.

“Multiple countries can add their voices to a snowball of public commitments to ‘no new coal’, collectively delivering a key milestone to sealing coal’s fate.”

The remaining coal power plants in the pipeline are spread across 31 countries, half of which have only one planned for the future.

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Preprint advocates must also fight for research integrity • Nature

Gowri Gopalakrishna:

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Preprint sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequence and data on clinical management helped the world to respond quickly in the early days of the pandemic. However, there were also questionable preprints. Much confusion was caused by misguided speculation that SARS-CoV-2 had been manufactured, assumptions about the efficacy of drugs such as hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, and doubtful reports about the fatality rate of COVID-19 and the effectiveness of face coverings.

Dozens to hundreds of preprints on COVID-19 appear every week on the medRxiv server alone. Their importance for how we researchers share our work with one another and with the public is clear. But how can we minimize the transfer of low-quality information to the public sphere? Here are half a dozen suggestions.

The first is to gauge how well the research community and the public understand the limitations of preprints. To do this, we need to openly discuss their potential downsides and the amount of sloppy science that exists in our research communities. However, my NSRI experience makes me worry that those in positions to make real change within research institutions are reluctant to examine or discuss the less-rosy side of research quality. Two-thirds of universities in the Netherlands declined to support the NSRI, vaguely questioning its methodology, or arguing that it focused too much on bad practices. Many of us think this reluctance is the most important finding of our survey.

The second suggestion is to increase accountability and transparency. Who is currently responsible for the quality of the research reported in preprints? Certainly, individual researchers and their institutions. But what about those who operate the preprint servers? Most servers screen superficially for preposterous claims or conspiracy theories, and advise readers that findings should be considered preliminary. MedRxiv takes further screening steps for specific topics that might have an adverse public-health impact. Many journals require that papers adhere to reporting guidelines, according to study type. But what sorts of guidelines and retraction mechanisms exist to safeguard against poor-quality research in preprints?

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One of the best suggestions I’ve seen is that if a preprint hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal within a year of appearance, it should be deleted (or otherwise removed from search). Might lead to gaming the system by resubmission, but would quickly become obvious.
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Climate change: Young people very worried – survey • BBC News

Roger Harrabin:

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A new global survey illustrates the depth of anxiety many young people are feeling about climate change.

Nearly 60% of young people approached said they felt very worried or extremely worried. More than 45% of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives. Three-quarters of them said they thought the future was frightening. Over half (56%) say they think humanity is doomed. Two-thirds reported feeling sad, afraid and anxious. Many felt fear, anger, despair, grief and shame – as well as hope.

One 16-year-old said: “It’s different for young people – for us, the destruction of the planet is personal.”

The survey across 10 countries was led by Bath University in collaboration with five universities. It’s funded by the campaign and research group Avaaz. It claims to be the biggest of its kind, with responses from 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25.

Many of those questioned perceive that they have no future, that humanity is doomed, and that governments are failing to respond adequately. Many feel betrayed, ignored and abandoned by politicians and adults.

The authors say the young are confused by governments’ failure to act. They say environmental fears are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of young people”. Chronic stress over climate change, they maintain, is increasing the risk of mental and physical problems. And if severe weather events worsen, mental health impacts will follow.

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The paper is here. One exception (pointed out by the BBC’s China correspondent): China isn’t among the countries quizzed, though Kantar, the country which provided the panel for the survey, does operate there. It’s a strange omission, and it would potentially be very telling if they could get data from there.
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• What’s the role of outrage in social media?
• Why do some phrases split people into two camps?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?

Buy Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Norway heads to the polls in pivotal election for the environment • Morning Brew

Neal Freyman:

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When it comes to climate change, Norway’s like a vegan with a beef farm. It’s one of the most environmentally forward-thinking countries in the world; thanks to generous government subsidies, roughly 70% of all new cars sold are electric. 

But oil and gas is its most important industry. The sector employs more than 5% of Norway’s workforce and accounts for more than 40% of its exports. Norway’s also built up a $1.4 trillion sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, thanks to its fossil fuel exploits. 

Polls show that the Labor party will unseat the Conservative-led government after eight years of control. Both of those parties support a slow transition away from oil and gas production. 

But unlike in the US, smaller political parties in Norway hold major sway. And how those groups, which advocate for a more immediate break from fossil fuels, fare in the election will ultimately decide how quickly Norway severs ties to an industry that made it so rich. 

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Just on the cars thing: 2.81m cars, plus another 2.1m trailers and vans. Total electric vehicles: 464,000 in 2020. Even when you’re very electric, you’re not that electric. It’s going to be a long road.
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Brits open doors for tech-enabled fraudsters because they ‘don’t want to seem rude’ • The Register

Tim Richardson:

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Brits are too polite to tell phone scammers to “get stuffed”, “take a hike” or “sling yer ‘ook” when they impersonate so-called “trusted organisations” such as banks.

That’s according to the trade association UK Finance, which found that the number of “impersonation scam cases” more than doubled in the first half of 2021 to 33,115 – up from 14,947 during the same period last year.

The industry body reckons these particular frauds – whether by text, email, or voice calls – have duped “even the savviest” punters out of almost £200m over the last year or so and all because people “don’t want to seem rude.”

Its “Take Five” national campaign is designed to raise awareness amid warnings that fraudsters target people’s emotional weaknesses to trick them.

The call for Brits to toughen up comes as consumer champion Which? warned its own research found that SMS phishing (smishing) attacks in the UK grew by nearly 700% in the first half of 2021 compared to the previous six months.

It found that fake parcel delivery scams trump banking-related smishing frauds by a ratio of three to one. But it also reports that voicemail smishing – where scammers send an SMS pretending to have a link to a voicemail – is also on the rise.

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Fraud always booms in times of economic stress, but more particularly when new channels of communication for money open up. That’s what all the parcel-delivery scams are about: many more people who had never received parcels before getting them, creating new marks to be targeted.
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The future of the App Store • Marco.org

Marco Arment is a developer for iOS (though not, I think, the Mac):

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I don’t expect side-loading or alternative app stores to become possible, and I’m relieved, because that is not a future I want for iOS.

When evaluating such ideas, I merely ask myself: “What would Facebook do?”

Facebook owns four of the top ten apps in the world. If side-loading became possible, Facebook could remove Instagram, WhatsApp, the Facebook app, and Messenger from Apple’s App Store, requiring customers to install these extremely popular apps directly from Facebook via side-loading. And everyone would.

Most people use a Facebook-owned app not because it’s a good app, but because it’s a means to an important end in their life. Social pressure, family pressure, and network lock-in prevent most users from seeking meaningful alternatives. People would jump through a few hoops if they had to.

Facebook would soon have apps that bypassed App Review installed on the majority of iPhones in the world.

Technical limitations of the OS would prevent the most egregious abuses, but there’s a lot they could still do. We don’t need to do much imagining — they already have attempted multiple hacks, workarounds, privacy invasions, and other unscrupulous and technically invasive behavior with their apps over time to surveil user behavior outside of their app and stay running longer in the background than users intend or expect.

The OS could evolve over time to reduce some of these vulnerabilities, but technical measures alone cannot address all of them. Without the threat of App Review to keep them in check, Facebook’s apps would become even more monstrous than they already are. As a user and a fan of iOS, I don’t want any part of that.

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Arment is generally quite a shrewd evaluator of these situations, I think. His “bad scenario” makes a lot of sense, if it were allowed.
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TikTok overtakes YouTube for average watch time in US and UK • BBC News

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App users in the UK and US are spending more time on TikTok than on YouTube, a new report suggests.

Data from app monitoring firm App Annie indicates that average time per user spent on the apps is higher for TikTok, indicating high levels of engagement.

App Annie characterised TikTok as having “upended the streaming and social landscape”. However, YouTube retains the top spot for overall time spent – not per user – as it has many more users overall.

The Google-owned video giant has an estimated two billion monthly users, while TikTok’s most recent public figures suggested it had about 700 million in mid-2020. App Annie specialises in analysis of the apps market.

The “time spent” metric in its report only accounts for Android phones – but also does not include China, where TikTok – known locally as Douyin – is a major app. [YouTube has no official presence in China – Ed.]

“YouTube still leads TikTok in overall time spent, including in the UK,” explained Jamie MacEwan, from Enders Analysis. “YouTube’s mass audience means it’s getting more demographics that are comparatively light internet users… it’s just reaching everyone who’s online.”

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Nobody comes close to TikTok when it comes to the mixture of content and algorithm to put that content in front of people who will watch it. Five years ago, Mark Zuckerberg said that the majority of what people watched would be video. He thought it would be on Facebook, but instead it turns out to be on TikTok.
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A new company with a wild mission: bring back the woolly mammoth • NY Times

Carl Zimmer:

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A former researcher in Dr. Church’s lab, Eriona Hysolli, will oversee the new company’s efforts to edit elephant DNA, adding genes for mammoth traits like dense hair and thick fat for withstanding cold. The researchers hope to produce embryos of these mammoth-like elephants in a few years, and ultimately produce entire populations of the animals.

Other researchers are deeply skeptical that Colossal will pull off such a feat. And if Colossal does manage to produce baby mammoth-like elephants, the company will face serious ethical questions. Is it humane to produce an animal whose biology we know so little about? Who gets to decide whether they can be set loose, potentially to change the ecosystems of tundras in profound ways?

“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of “How to Clone a Mammoth.”

The idea behind Colossal first emerged into public view in 2013, when Dr. Church sketched it out in a talk at the National Geographic Society.

At the time, researchers were learning how to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species based on fragments of DNA retrieved from fossils. It became possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that set ancient species apart from their modern cousins, and to begin to figure out how those differences in DNA produced differences in their bodies.

Dr. Church, who is best known for inventing ways of reading and editing DNA, wondered if he could effectively revive an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative. Because Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Dr. Church thought it might be possible to modify the genome of an elephant to produce something that would look and act like a mammoth.

Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, revived woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the animals once grazed is rapidly warming and releasing carbon dioxide. “Mammoths are hypothetically a solution to this,” Dr. Church argued in his talk.

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They’re really, really not a solution. And will they be able to get elephants to act as surrogate mothers? Still, should be fun to watch this not-quite-Jurassic Park story play out for real.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1637: Facebook knew of Instagram’s downsides, European energy prices rocket, the trouble with preprints, an App Store future, and more

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