Start Up No.1678: how Facebook feeds on plagiarism, YouTube hides dislike counts, the ‘Apple Car’?, EU beats Google, and more


You might think that Assassin’s Creed is just another video game, but Ubisoft took a lot of trouble to create historically accurate locations. Why? CC-licensed photo by cea + on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not part of a COP26 communique. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook allows stolen content to flourish, its researchers warned • WSJ

Keach Hagey and Jeff Horwitz:

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Facebook has allowed plagiarized and recycled content to flourish on its platform despite having policies against it, the tech giant’s researchers warned in internal memos.

About 40% of the traffic to Facebook pages at one point in 2018 went to pages that stole or repurposed most of their content, according to a research report that year by Facebook senior data scientist Jeff Allen, one of a dozen internal communications reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Pages are used by businesses and organizations to disseminate content on Facebook, while individual users put content on what Facebook calls “profiles.”

The researchers also wrote Facebook has been slow to crack down on copyright infringement for fear of opening itself to legal liability.

“What’s the easiest (lowest effort) way to make a big Facebook Page?” Mr. Allen wrote in an internal slide presentation the following year. “Step 1: Find an existing, engaged community on [Facebook]. Step 2: Scrape/Aggregate content popular in that community. Step 3: Repost most popular content on your Page.”

Mr. Allen, who left Facebook in late 2019, wrote that Facebook pages seeking big followings simply had to ask one question of the content they were considering recirculating: “Has it gone viral in the past?”

Posting unoriginal content continues to be a formula for success on Facebook, according to data the company has released this year on the platform’s most popular posts.

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There was a thread to this effect on Twitter a few months ago, though I don’t think it was from Allen. This is a big problem, though. Facebook used to worry (maybe still does; maybe always does) that people weren’t interacting enough with the site – not posting enough updates, not Liking enough stuff, not commenting enough. Viewed through that lens, why would it be worried if people recycle content? That’s going to be Fine, Great, Keep Doing That.
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Instagram tests ‘Take a Break’ reminders on an opt-in basis • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced today the company has begun testing a new feature this week called “Take a Break,” which will allow users to remind themselves to take a break from using the app after either 10, 20 or 30 minutes, depending on their preferences. As an opt-in feature, however, the reminders may have a limited impact, as users would have to be motivated to set up the new control for themselves.

The company had previously said it was looking into “Take a Break” reminders. Mosseri, for instance, mentioned the coming addition when commenting on Instagram’s plans to pause its plans to build a version of its service for younger users, Instagram for Kids. He referenced Instagram’s plans to build in “nudges” and “reminders,” like “Take a Break,” as an example of how Instagram was addressing issues related to its product’s impact on users’ mental health.

Meta’s (previously, Facebook’s) Global Head of Security Antigone Davis also referenced Instagram’s  “Take a Break” reminders when the company was grilled in a Senate hearing over teen mental health back in September. He said the idea with the feature was to encourage users to stop looking at the app after they had been browsing for too long, and cited it as one of the many ways the company was working to improve the experiences of young people using its platform.

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Another interesting move from a social network. (Instagram previously instituted a “You’re all caught up” element when you’d seen all the new posts. But, leopards qua spots, it then instituted a “suggested follows” feature into which you were automatically opted.
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YouTube is making dislike counts private for everyone • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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YouTube has announced that it’ll be hiding public dislike counts on videos across its site, starting today. The company says the change is to keep smaller creators from being targeted by dislike attacks or harassment, and to promote “respectful interactions between viewers and creators.” The dislike button will still be there, but it’ll be for private feedback, rather than public shaming.

This move isn’t out of the blue. In March, YouTube announced that it was experimenting with hiding the public dislike numbers, and individual creators have long had the ability to hide ratings on their videos. But the fact that the dislike counts will be disappearing for everyone (gradually, according to YouTube) is a big deal — viewers are used to being able to see the like-to-dislike ratio as soon as they click on a video and may use that number to decide whether to continue watching. Now, that will no longer be an option, but it could close off a vector for harassment.

YouTube says that when it tested hiding dislike numbers, people were less likely to use the button to attack the creator — commenting “I just came here to dislike” was seemingly less satisfying when you don’t actually get to see the number go up.

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Fascinating move, taking the heat out of social networks (which YouTube is, effectively, in a way that Reddit isn’t: YouTube recommends both content and users to follow).
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Where would we be without social networks? Possibly somewhere better. To understand what they’re doing to us, read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


It’s time for some game theory • Lapham’s Quarterly

Caroline Wazer:

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Does Assassin’s Creed actually have an impact on how young people understand history? One illuminating attempt to answer this question appeared in the journal Theory and Research in Social Education in 2019. Lisa Gilbert, a lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis, conducted qualitative interviews in which she asked fourteen teenage boys who had played at least one Assassin’s Creed game to explain how, if at all, the series had influenced their understanding of history.

Most of the boys Gilbert interviewed reported having a low or moderate preexisting interest in history. Many said that they didn’t think the game had measurably influenced their social studies grades or even taught them historical information, which they largely equated with the rote memorisation of dates and names. They also seemed to understand quite well that AC is a work of fiction, not fact. Gilbert describes one hesitating when asked to categorise ACIII characters as “historical” or “fictional”—the game’s George Washington, he made sure she knew he understood, was both at once.

What the boys did nearly unanimously report to Gilbert is that Assassin’s Creed had made them feel more emotionally connected to the past. “It’s not like you’re learning about history” from playing the games, one explained. “You’re experiencing it.” As another put it, “Assassin’s Creed reminds us that history is more than just words on a page. History is human experience.” An interviewee named Henry told Gilbert about the powerful emotional reaction he experienced after playing through ACIII’s portrayal of the Boston Massacre and realising, for the first time, how frightened participants in the actual event would have been: “That was a terror not like anything I had ever read. But I felt that.”

…According to Maxime Durand, the lead historian on the games, Ubisoft considered adding the Discovery Tour mode [which removes the game characters, leaving just the location] for almost a decade before they finally did so. With Origins’ re-creation of first-century-bc Egypt “we had this fantastic setting,” Durand told the Guardian of the decision to release the mode in 2018, but “we also have the legitimacy to do it now, after all these games showing that we treat history with respect.”

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A very deep dive that suggests games can subliminally make a difference here too.
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Visualised: cars created by tech giants

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Using genuine patents filed by Apple Inc., we’ve created a vision of the anticipated Apple Car and how it might look on launch. Click below to explore the car inside and out, with details on the real-life patents that went into the concept.

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I yelped with laughter at this. It’s the ugliest thing you could imagine; worth looking at just for the feeling of “this is how you wouldn’t do it”. There’s also an “interior” view. If this were in any way true, nobody at Tesla would lose a moment’s sleep. However, Apple has recently hired a Tesla engineer, so there might be something to think about.
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EU wins €2.4bn Google Shopping case • Financial Times

Javier Espinova:

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Google has lost its appeal against a €2.42bn EU competition fine over its Shopping service, in a ruling that is likely to re-energise antitrust investigators looking at how Big Tech promotes its own businesses.

The General Court of Luxembourg ruled on Wednesday that Google favours “its own comparison shopping service over competing services” in its search results, rather than delivering the “better result”.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief, accused Google in 2017, after a seven-year investigation, of abusing its market power to give an “illegal advantage” to another arm of its business. Some price comparison websites have gone bust since Google engaged in this behaviour.

Shivaun Raff, co-founder of Foundem, a now defunct shopping comparison website that was an original plaintiff in the EU’s investigation, said: “While we welcome today’s judgment, it does not undo the considerable consumer and anti-competitive harm caused by more than a decade of Google’s insidious search manipulation practices.”

Google said the judgment on Wednesday related to a “very specific set of facts” and that it made changes in 2017 to comply with the European Commission’s decision.

The ruling is likely to be appealed. But it marks the first time that a European court has ruled against Google on an antitrust case.

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As Raff points out, this case is ancient. She and her partner at Foundem filed their complaint in 2010 – and that was over behaviour by Google in 2009, favouring its own shopping search results and downgrading other shopping sites. The “solution” isn’t a solution; it makes them pay for positions they used to get for free in organic links.

That doesn’t however mean that the pattern of behaviour is gone. As we’ve seen in the stories about the real reason for AMP, and the “header bidding” cheating, Google – well, some parts of Google, because it’s not one monolithic mass – doesn’t think there should be any room for rivals, and will use its position to solidify that.
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iPhone apps can tell many things about you through the accelerometer • Mysk

Tommy Mysk:

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Accelerometer measurements are collected all the time while you are holding your phone. iOS makes the measurements accessible to the app that is active in the foreground. The app may choose to ignore the measurements or read them. There’re no boundaries for what an app can do with the measurements, but here are some spooky scenarios:

Motion and Activities
Accelerometer data reflects how you hold your phone and how you move. An app can tell if you are using it while lying, sitting, walking, or cycling. The app can also count your steps. Although access to the pedometer on the iPhone is protected by a system permission, there are many sophisticated algorithms that process accelerometer data to achieve exactly that.

It is worth mentioning that the iPhone is also equipped with a barometer, a sensor that measures air pressure and altitude. The barometer is also part of the Core Motion Framework and no permission is required to access it. As a result, any app can figure out your altitude and measure air pressure in your environment. Thus, any app can tell if you are riding on a bus, train, or plane while using it.

Heart Rate
The accelerometer can detect the slight movements of your hand and body while holding the phone. Researchers can use this data to estimate your heart rate. Thus, an app can potentially know your heart rate while you are using it.

Breathing Rate
Similarly to heart rate, researchers can use accelerometer data to estimate your breathing rate, and even diagnose certain diseases.

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And lots more. Plus apps don’t need permission to access the accelerometer/barometer combo.
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‘Politics-as-sports’: why it matters • Breaking the News

James Fallows is editor of The Atlantic, but also wrote a book called “Breaking the News” 25 years ago. Now he’s pointing to the way that US papers’ love of the horse-race of politics, not the distance covered, undermines understanding:

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A major Democratic-backed bill passed with bipartisan support, and the nation’s leading newspaper framed it as a scramble backward for “Democrats.”

The roughly 40 paragraphs of the story that followed, from the front page to a long inside jump, were strictly about the politics, deal-making, factional maneuvers, and polling implications of the bill. The story’s only glancing mention of its contents was as follows:

“Passage of the infrastructure legislation would be a much-needed and long-delayed victory for Mr. Biden—and a welcome break for Democrats, who could spend next week’s Veterans Day break traveling to their districts to show off the roads, bridges, tunnels, transit lines and airports due for a huge infusion of federal support.”

That is: roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and so forth were significant mainly as near-term talking points. This would be the appropriate framing if you were a pollster or a Congressional staffer. Less so for anyone else.

A few hours later, the Times’s revised online version of the story had added some mentions of the bill’s contents. Which means, interestingly: under the previous night’s intense deadline pressure to make the print edition, the aspect the paper chose to stress was the how of party politics. When it had time later on, it got around to the what.

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The problem is less bad in the UK, partly because the political process is a lot less impotent. The US has so many checks and balances it can’t do anything effective.

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Updating The Verge’s “on background” policy • The Verge

Nilay Patel is editor in chief of The Verge:

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big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.

The main way this happens is that big companies take advantage of a particular agreement in the media called “background.” Being “on background” means that they tell things to reporters, but those reporters agree to not specifically attribute that information to a person by name. Oftentimes, companies will make things significantly worse and also insist that background information be paraphrased, further obscuring both specific details and the source of those details.

There are many reasons a reporter might agree to learning information on background, but importantly, being on background is supposed to be an agreement.

But the trend with big tech companies now is to increasingly treat background as a default or even a condition of reporting. That means reporters are now routinely asked to report things without being able to attribute them appropriately, and readers aren’t being presented with clear sources of information.

This all certainly feeds into the overall distrust of the media, which has dire consequences in our current information landscape, but in practice, it is also hilariously stupid.

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I’ve experienced this a lot, and it swept in from American tech companies. I didn’t come across it until some time in the mid-2000s, I think. A spokesperson will say they’re telling you something “on background”, which means journalists have to write things as though they magically know (bland, corporate) inside information. It’s a terrible system, and it’s good that The Verge is acting. Others will surely follow.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: 1) I’ll link to the US-China announcement from COP26 in tomorrow’s edition, when there has been time for some analysis of what it actually contains.
2) Retracted articles still stay online; they just get a big watermark all over them. So you can still read the now-zapped “Air dust pollution and online music teaching effect based on heterogeneous wireless network”. (Thanks Michael Stoner.)

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