Start Up No.1684: Facebook’s “virus of lies”, FTC queries Nvidia’s ARM buy, votes for six-year-olds?, Ford gets chippy, and more

The Brent Bravo oil rig is decommissioned now, but as a functional rig its ramshackle nature led to two avoidable deaths. CC-licensed photo by Rab Lawrence on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Overdue. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Social media creating virus of lies, says Nobel winner Maria Ressa • The Guardian

Rebecca Ratcliffe:


Social media platforms are biased against facts and creating “a virus of lies” that threatens all democracies, the Nobel peace prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa has said.

Ressa, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, said social media platforms were “manipulating our minds insidiously, creating alternate realities, making it impossible for us to think slow”.

Focusing simply on moderating social media content was a distraction, she said, and it was the design of platforms, and the algorithms they used to promote content, that were in need of an overhaul.

Speaking at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Sydney Dialogue, Ressa accused social media companies of misusing arguments around freedom of speech. “It’s a freedom of reach issue, not a freedom of speech issue,” she said.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with our information ecosystem. Because the platforms that deliver the facts are actually biased against the facts,” she added, pointing to Facebook as the world’s largest delivery platform for news.


Naturally I reference Ressa, and the experience of Rappler (her magazine in the Philippines) in Social Warming. The irony, of course, is that Rappler began on Facebook. And that the Philippines was probably the first place where Facebook was used to sway an election through all sorts of manipulation, bots and misinformation. When Ressa talks, it’s worth listening.
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Divorce does funny things • The Paris Review

Tabitha Lasley wrote a book, Sea State, about the men who work on offshore oil rigs, and this is a little extract:


He smiled, displaying large, rounded teeth. Many of the men I’d met looked worn out by the physicality of their work, but this man emitted an air of wholesome good health. He must have been in his late forties, at least, to have worked on Piper Alpha, but in the dim light of the lobby, he appeared almost ageless.

“We’ve had a lot of deaths on the Brents over the years. We had the Chinook disaster forty-five people who’d left the Brent Delta. There were two guys killed down the leg of the Brent Bravo. During the last downturn.”

The man explained that oil companies were expected to deliver nominations—specific quantities of oil and gas—to the grid. Failure to do so incurred penalties. But there is a constant tension between production and compliance. Platforms become fatigued over time. Battered by the elements, their structures need continued maintenance. Routine maintenance often puts operations on hold, and during downturns, companies will deploy quick fixes. In 1999, it was alleged that Shell had a protocol known as TFA: “Touch Fuck All.” Permits apparently came with TFA scrawled across them, meaning workers should leave equipment alone, rather than risk a shutdown. Shell commissioned an internal audit, which corroborated the allegations and recommended immediate intervention. But the auditor was transferred, and the report did not surface again until 2006, shortly before a fatal accident inquiry into the Brent Bravo deaths.


Do read the rest of the piece, and then discover the sheriff’s report into the two deaths in Brent Bravo. (You can probably begin reading that at item 12, “Events of 11 September 2003”.
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US regulator raises concerns over Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm • Financial Times

Richard Waters:


Nvidia disclosed the pushback from American regulators as it announced its latest quarterly earnings to Wall Street late on Wednesday. It said that the Federal Trade Commission had “expressed concerns” about the Arm transaction, and that it was in discussions with the agency about “remedies to address those concerns”.

The US chipmaker did not reveal what had prompted the opposition, or what concessions it had offered. The deal, which was announced 14 months ago, has attracted opposition from some big American tech companies that worry Nvidia will limit their access to Arm’s chip designs, giving it an unfair advantage in big chip markets such as data centres and cars.

Nvidia has already made an offer to UK and EU regulators to guarantee not to cut Arm’s customers off, or to change the list of Arm products they have access to, according to one person familiar with its position. But the offer was not sufficient to prevent London and Brussels from moving ahead with extended investigations, and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority has said it does not believe any “behavioural” remedies like this can be effective.

Nvidia could face further headaches in China, where some local chipmakers are reported to have complained to regulators about the deal. The company said on Wednesday that a formal antitrust process had not even started there yet, though it said the deal had been “under review” by Chinese authorities.


At least this is the first time that we’ve had some idea of what the regulators object to.
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The shareholder fight that forced Apple’s hand on repair rights • The Verge

Maddie Stone:


But Apple didn’t change its policy [on user repairs] out of the goodness of its heart. The announcement follows months of growing pressure from repair activists and regulators — and its timing seems deliberate, considering a shareholder resolution environmental advocates filed with the company in September asking Apple to re-evaluate its stance on independent repair. Wednesday is a key deadline in the fight over the resolution, with advocates poised to bring the issue to the Securities and Exchange Commission to resolve.

Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy told The Verge that the program “has been in development for well over a year,” describing it as “the next step in increasing customer access to Apple genuine parts, tools, and manuals.” Leahy declined to say whether the timing of the announcement was influenced by shareholder pressure.

Activist shareholders believe that it was. “The timing is definitely no coincidence,” says Annalisa Tarizzo, an advocate with Green Century, the mutual fund company that filed the right-to-repair resolution with Apple in September. As a result of today’s announcement, Green Century is withdrawing its resolution, which asked Apple to “reverse its anti repair practices” and evaluate the benefits of making parts and tools more available to consumers.

That’s exactly what Apple seems to be doing with its new Self Service Repair program.


Given how large companies operate, the idea that Apple rushed to do this when the resolution was brought forward is unlikely. Two months isn’t enough to get anything like this done. But it could have accelerated the announcement; Apple would have chosen to get ahead of the resolution, even while it tries to figure out the precise details of what it will do.
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Facebook isn’t telling you how popular right-wing content is on the platform • The Markup

Corin Faife:


Data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project shows that during the period from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2021, outlets like The Daily Wire, The Western Journal, and BuzzFeed’s viral content arm were among the top-viewed domains in our sample. 

Citizen Browser is a national panel of paid Facebook users who automatically share their news feed data with The Markup.

To analyze the websites whose content performs the best on Facebook, we counted the total number of times that links from any domain appeared in our panelists’ news feeds—a metric known as “impressions”—over a three-month period (the same time covered by Facebook’s Q3 Widely Viewed Content Report). Facebook, by contrast, chose a different metric, calculating the “most-viewed” domains by tallying only the number of users who saw links, regardless of whether each user saw a link once or hundreds of times.

By our calculation, the top performing domains were those that surfaced in users’ feeds over and over—including some highly partisan, polarizing sites that effectively bombarded some Facebook users with content.

These findings chime with recent revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has repeatedly said the company has a tendency to cherry-pick statistics to release to the press and the public.

“They are very good at dancing with data,” Haugen told British lawmakers during a European tour.


Facebook’s response, in part: “The focus of the Widely Viewed Content Report is to show the content that is seen by the most people on Facebook, not the content that is posted most frequently.”

The question then is which is the better measure: if someone sees the same link three or four times, is that three or four impressions, or just one? And which has more effect?
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Facebook is bad at moderating in English. In Arabic, it’s a disaster • Rest of World

Marwa Fatafta:


Arab activists and journalists, many of whom use Facebook to document human rights abuses and war crimes, are routinely censored and booted off the platform — most commonly under the pretext of terrorism. 

This is especially pronounced in times of political crisis and violence. Let’s not forget Facebook’s mass censorship of Palestinian voices during the height of Israeli violence and brutality in the months of May and June 2021. Most notably, Facebook deleted content reporting on Israeli forces violently storming into Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, throwing stun grenades and tear gas at worshippers, because company staff mistook “Al-Aqsa” for a terrorist organization. 

Such arbitrary mistakes are disturbingly common. Across the region, Facebook’s algorithms incorrectly deleted Arabic content 77% of the time. In one instance, Facebook’s Oversight Board overturned the erroneous removal of a post shared by an Egyptian user on the violence in Israel and Palestine from a verified Al Jazeera page. Not only was the content wrongfully removed for allegedly violating the platform’s Dangerous Individuals and Organisations (DIO) Community Standard, but the user was also disproportionately punished with a read-only account restriction for three days, disabling his ability to livestream content, and prohibiting him from using advertising products on the platform for 30 days. 

Digital rights advocates have demanded transparency on these designations. The Oversight Board also recommended Facebook to publish the list, but Facebook refused, citing safety concerns. The Intercept recently revealed the full list, and again, to no one’s surprise, “the DIO policy and blacklist … place far looser prohibitions on commentary about predominately white anti-government militias than on groups and individuals listed as terrorists, who are predominately Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim.”


Long gone are the days when Zuckerberg eagerly believed that getting Israelis and Palestinians onto Facebook would mean they could resolve their differences.
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Hate speech in Myanmar continues to thrive on Facebook • Associated Press

Sam McNeil and Victoria Milko:


Years after coming under scrutiny for contributing to ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar, Facebook still has problems detecting and moderating hate speech and misinformation on its platform in the Southeast Asian nation, internal documents viewed by The Associated Press show.

Three years ago, the company commissioned a report that found Facebook was used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in the country. It pledged to do better and developed several tools and policies to deal with hate speech.

But the breaches have persisted — and even been exploited by hostile actors — since the Feb. 1 military takeover this year that resulted in gruesome human rights abuses across the country.

Scrolling through Facebook today, it’s not hard to find posts threatening murder and rape in Myanmar.

One 2 1/2 minute video posted on Oct. 24 of a supporter of the military calling for violence against opposition groups has garnered over 56,000 views.

“So starting from now, we are the god of death for all (of them),” the man says in Burmese while looking into the camera. “Come tomorrow and let’s see if you are real men or gays.”


These are part of what I think we’ll call the Haugen Documents, to which the AP has access. But really, Facebook: you’ve seen how it goes in Myanmar. You’ve been publicly shamed over it. Does nothing work?
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• We can’t escape social media
• So it makes sense to understand it better:
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• How long ago did Facebook know it could affect elections – and what did it do about it?

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

Votes for children! Why we should lower the voting age to six • The Guardian

Professor David Runciman:


Indeed, I believe there is a strong case for lowering the voting age to six, effectively extending the franchise to any child in full-time education. When I have made this case, as I have done in recent years in a variety of different forums, I am always struck by the reaction I get. It is incredulity. What possible reason could there be to do something so seemingly reckless and foolhardy? Most audiences recognise that our democracy is growing fractious, frustrated and frustrating. Our political divisions are wide and our institutions seem ill-equipped to handle them. But nothing surely could justify allowing children to join in. Wouldn’t it simply make everything worse?

It would not. In fact, it might make things better. But to understand why, we first need to understand the nature of the problems our democracy faces, and in particular, the generational divide that has become an increasingly important factor in politics over recent decades.


I’ve heard David (who I know) make this argument a few times. In case you think he’s some random guy on the internet, he’s also professor of politics at Cambridge University. And his point about demographics is key to this argument. After all, if some people are too young to vote, isn’t that also an argument that some people are too old to vote? Scoff at the headline all you like, but read the piece and see if you can refute his argument.
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Ford steps into the chips business • WSJ

Mike Colias:


The semiconductor shortage has scuttled output of millions of planned vehicles industrywide this year. Some car executives have said they are taking steps to get a better handle on their chip supplies, a critical piece of the supply chain into which they have had little visibility.

The parts crisis is also driving deeper cooperation between the semiconductor and auto industries with executives from both sectors establishing closer ties to address challenges and working together to introduce new products.

Ford’s move would go a step further by eventually bringing some chip development in-house. The Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker said designing its own chips could improve some vehicle features—such as automated-driving capabilities or battery systems for electric vehicles—and potentially help Ford sidestep future shortages.

“We feel like we can really boost our product performance and our tech independence at the same time,” said Chuck Gray, Ford’s vice president of vehicle embedded software and controls.

Part of the agreement with GlobalFoundries is intended to enhance near-term chip supplies for Ford, which has been hit especially hard by the supply crunch relative to many other auto makers. The joint-development work is aimed at producing higher-end chips that would go into vehicles several years out, Mr. Gray said.

Semiconductors are used to electronically control many functions in cars, from engine calibration to steering and air-bag deployment. Those computer chips have been scarce this year as auto makers compete for supply with producers of other consumer goods, including electronics and appliances.


GlobalFoundries was founded in 2009 as a spinoff from AMD, but only went public this October. Of note: it’s the only semiconductor maker with operations in Europe and the US and Singapore. It’s also a “Trusted Foundry” for the US government. All down to Ford to design some good chips, then. (The link should make the article free to read, at least if you click through from the Overspill website; can’t promise what Mailchimp will do to it.)
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Hackers backed by Iran are targeting US critical infrastructure, US warns • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:


In May, the attackers targeted an unnamed US municipality, where they likely created an account with the username “elie” to further burrow into the compromised network. A month later, they hacked a US-based hospital specializing in health care for children. The latter attack likely involved Iranian-linked servers at 91.214.124[.]143, 162.55.137[.]20, and 154.16.192[.]70.

Last month, the APT [advanced persistent threat] actors exploited Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities that gave them initial access to systems in advance of follow-on operations. Australian authorities said they also observed the group leveraging the Exchange flaw.

The hackers may have created new user accounts on the domain controllers, servers, workstations, and active directories of networks they compromised. Some of the accounts appear to mimic existing accounts, so the usernames are often different from targeted organization to targeted organization. The advisory said network security personnel should search for unrecognized accounts with special attention on usernames such as Support, Help, elie, and WADGUtilityAccount.

The advisory comes a day after Microsoft reported that an Iranian-aligned group it calls Phosphorous is increasingly using ransomware to generate revenue or disrupt adversaries. The group employs “aggressive brute force attacks” on targets, Microsoft added.

Early this year, Microsoft said, Phosphorus scanned millions of Internet IP addresses in search of FortiOS systems that had yet to install the security fixes for CVE-2018-13379. The flaw allowed the hackers to harvest clear-text credentials used to remotely access the servers. Phosphorus ended up collecting credentials from more than 900 Fortinet servers in the US, Europe, and Israel.


So we’re now at the stage where aggressive state hacking is background noise.
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Clubhouse launches bug bounty program with $3,000 on offer for critical vulnerabilities • The Daily Swig

Adam Bannister:


Clubhouse, the audio-based chatroom application, has rolled out a public bug bounty program on HackerOne.

Financial rewards for unearthing critical flaws are pegged at $3,000, while ‘high’ severity bugs will command bounties of $1,500. Bug hunters could get $500 and $100, respectively, for valid ‘medium’ and ‘low’ severity bugs.

In a blog post published to coincide with the program’s launch, Clubhouse said: “While many bug bounty programs promise high rewards for catastrophic-level discoveries, our approach keeps the scope broad so we can address as many bugs as possible. To that end, if you can help us fix bugs that could cause harm to our community, you’ll be eligible to earn a bounty.”


“Usage is dropping. What can we do to increase engagement?”

“How about encouraging hackers to spend more time using the platform?”

In its way, it is cheaper than a marketing drive. I’d love to know how Clubhouse’s financials are looking, because Google Trends suggests it’s fallen off people’s radar. Except, that is, in those hotbeds of social media familiar to everyone – Somalia and Mongolia.
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The chase for fusion energy • Nature

Philip Ball:


There are now more than 30 private fusion firms globally, according to an October survey by the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) in Washington DC, which represents companies in the sector; the 18 firms that have declared their funding say they have attracted more than US$2.4bn in total, almost entirely from private investments (see ‘Fusion funding’). Key to these efforts are advances in materials research and computing that are enabling technologies other than the standard designs that national and international agencies have pursued for so long.

The latest venture at Culham — the hub of UK fusion research for decades — is a demonstration plant for General Fusion (GF), a company based in Burnaby, Canada. It is scheduled to start operating in 2025, and the company aims to have reactors for sale in the early 2030s. It “will be the first power-plant-relevant large-scale demonstration”, says GF’s chief executive Chris Mowry — unless, that is, its competitors deliver sooner.

Designed by British architect Amanda Levete, GF’s prototype plant illustrates the way fusion research has shifted from gargantuan state- or internationally funded enterprises to sleek, image-conscious affairs driven by private companies, often with state support. (GF will receive some UK government funding; it has not disclosed how much.)

In this respect, advocates of fusion technology say it has many parallels with the space industry. That, too, was once confined to government agencies but is now benefiting from the drive and imagination of nimble (albeit often state-assisted) private enterprise. This is “the SpaceX moment for fusion”, says Mowry, referring to Elon Musk’s space-flight company in Hawthorne, California.

“The mood has changed,” says Thomas Klinger, a fusion specialist at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, Germany. “We can smell that we’re getting close.” Investors sense the real prospect of returns on their money: Google and the New York City-based investment bank Goldman Sachs, for instance, are among those funding the fusion company TAE Technologies, based in Foothill Ranch, California, which has raised around $880m so far. “Companies are starting to build things at the level of what governments can build,” says Bob Mumgaard, chief executive of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Two points. First: JET, also in Culham, had perhaps $800m of funding (half to build it) during its lifetime. ITER, its successor, could cost between €20bn and €60bn. That’s multi-government funding, but it tends to be slow, and less urgently goal-driven than venture capital. Which is the second point: if VC money succeeds in giving us fusion, will it be too cheap to meter, or too expensive for any but the richest to use?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: well OK you want to know why this is late. I did prepare all the links earlier on Thursday because I was, mirabile dictu, playing for the local squash team at an away match that involved a 150-mile round trip, and fully intended to then assemble and schedule the post when I got back, but somehow at 11.30pm didn’t have the presence of mind to do so. So this is late. Apologies. (I got thoroughly squashed, but the team won, thanks for asking.)

1 thought on “Start Up No.1684: Facebook’s “virus of lies”, FTC queries Nvidia’s ARM buy, votes for six-year-olds?, Ford gets chippy, and more

  1. Is it expected nowadays that everyone prominent in journalism make a denunciation of the Great Satan of Algo-Facebook? I’m starting to think it’s become like a version of ceremonial prayer or the Pledge Of Allegiance. Please rise and recite: “I pledge hatred of the algorithms, and the demonic Facebook which uses them, sowing division and fake news so unlike us ..”

    I feel like these days I’m seeing so much stuff which, in a earlier time, would have been styled along the lines of:

    “The Facebookist Threat – why Algorithmic Facebookism is behind our social unrest!”

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