Start Up No.1685: how Facebook and Google funded fake news in Myanmar, Iran’s hackers hit US papers, Norway’s EV problem, and more


We know that pulse oximeters work pretty well for measuring blood oxygen levels when used on white skin. But what about other groups? CC-licensed photo by slgckgc on Flickr.

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


How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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Before Instant Articles, articles posted on Facebook would redirect to a browser, where they’d open up on the publisher’s own website. The ad provider, usually Google, would then cash in on any ad views or clicks. With the new scheme, articles would open up directly within the Facebook app, and Facebook would own the ad space. If a participating publisher had also opted into monetizing with Facebook’s advertising network, called Audience Network, Facebook could insert ads into the publisher’s stories and take a 30% cut of the revenue. 

Instant Articles quickly fell out of favor with its original cohort of big mainstream publishers. For them, the payouts weren’t high enough compared with other available forms of monetization. But that was not true for publishers in the Global South, which Facebook began accepting into the program in 2016. In 2018, the company reported paying out $1.5 billion to publishers and app developers (who can also participate in Audience Network). In 2019, that figure had reached multiple billions.

Early on, Facebook performed little quality control on the types of publishers joining the program. The platform’s design also didn’t sufficiently penalize users for posting identical content across Facebook pages—in fact, it rewarded the behavior. Posting the same article on multiple pages could as much as double the number of users who clicked on it and generated ad revenue.

Clickbait farms around the world seized on this flaw as a strategy—one they still use today.

Clickbait actors cropped up in Myanmar overnight. With the right recipe for producing engaging and evocative content, they could generate thousands of US dollars a month in ad revenue, or 10 times the average monthly salary—paid to them directly by Facebook.

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Did Facebook know about this? Yes, certainly from 2019, according to internal Facebook documents. A terrific piece which, again, points to the way that Facebook and Google don’t understand the disparities in income and attitude between the US and the global south.
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Since we’re on the topic of Facebook and Myanmar, I have a whole chapter on the topic in Social Warming, my latest book. It explains why social networks amplify outrage, and why we seem to like that. And much, much more.


Iranian hackers broke into newspaper publisher Lee Enterprises ahead of 2020 election • WSJ

Dustin Volz:

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Iranian hackers last year infiltrated the computer systems of Lee Enterprises Inc., a major American media company that publishes dozens of daily newspapers across the U.S., as part of a broader effort to spread disinformation about the 2020 presidential election, according to people familiar with the matter.

On Thursday, the Justice Department said the alleged hackers broke in to the digital systems of an unnamed media company in fall 2020 and tested how to create false news content. People familiar with the matter on Friday identified the company as Lee Enterprises, a publicly traded company headquartered in Davenport, Iowa, and one of the largest newspaper chains in the U.S.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned the unnamed company about the intrusion, prosecutors said. The day after the November presidential election, the hackers tried to get back into the media company’s system but failed, prosecutors said. The federal charging document in the case doesn’t indicate the hackers successfully published fake information under the unnamed media company’s news brands.

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Then again, after the 2020 election they didn’t have to worry – the Americans were generating all the misinformation and disinformation they could.
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‘Racist’ oxygen device may explain why Covid hit minorities so hard • The Sunday Times

Ben Spencer:

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what explains the remaining 33% to 50% of extra Covid deaths seen among minorities? Some might be due to the vulnerability of certain racial groups to diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which in turn raises the risk of Covid. But experts believe that a “structural racism”, an “unintentional racial discrimination”, is also to blame.

The way the health system is set up — both in Britain’s NHS and across the global medical sector — is tilted against those who do not happen to be white.

This is most strikingly seen in the design of pulse oximeters — the small devices clipped to the end of a finger to measure oxygen levels in the blood. Used in every ward in every hospital in Britain, as well as in GP surgeries and private homes, they are fundamental to the monitoring and diagnosis of patients.

Yet despite their ubiquity, oximeters do not work as well for patients with dark skin. They measure how light is absorbed by the tissue of a finger. But dark skin absorbs more light than light skin, skewing the results.

Scientists have warned for years of this problem, and in some areas doctors take it into account to mentally adjust the results at the bedside. But doctors acknowledge that awareness of the issue is patchy at best, and with so much monitoring now automated, these adjustments are not always possible.

Last year researchers at the University of Michigan found 12% of black patients who were considered to have safe oxygen levels were in fact dangerously hypoxic.

Of course, doctors do not rely on oximetry alone and can compensate for the problems. They use temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate and symptoms to form a picture of a patient’s health. But at the height of the pandemic, when hospitals were under strain and access to ventilators was limited, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that black and Asian people were denied lifesaving treatment because the device clipped to the end of their finger was designed for someone of a different race.

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Again proving that technology is not good nor bad, but neither is it neutral.
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Steve Wozniak’s startup Privateer plans to launch hundreds of satellites to study space debris • Space

Mike Wall:

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Orbital debris is already tracked by a number of organizations, including the US military and private companies such as LeoLabs. Privateer wants to contribute to these efforts and help ramp them up, eventually creating the “Google Maps of space,” as Fielding told TechCrunch last month.

To make this happen, Privateer, which is still in “stealth mode” at the moment, plans to build and analyze a huge debris dataset that incorporates information from a variety of sources.

“We want to basically be a company that’s focused on decision intelligence by aggregating massive quantities of disparate and heterogeneous information, because there’s something to be gained in the numbers,” said Jah, a space debris expert who’s also an associate professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Privateer will purchase some of this information, crowdsource some of it and gather still more using its own satellites, Jah said. The first of those satellites is on track to launch this coming February, he added.

This information will lead to much more than a census of space junk, if all goes according to plan. The company intends also to characterize debris objects, nailing down their size, shape and spin rate, among other features.

“The catalogs of objects out there all treat things like they’re spheres,” Jah said. “We’re going to take it beyond the sphere, to what the thing more realistically looks like and is.”

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I feel that launching satellites in order to investigate satellite debris that can wreck satellites has an innate flaw, as concepts go.
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Norway is running out of gas-guzzling cars to tax • WIRED

Morgan Meaker:

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In Norway, the most progressive electric vehicle policies in the world started with a pop group, an environmentalist, and a small red Fiat Panda. It was 1988 when activist Frederic Hauge, along with fellow green campaigners from the band A-ha, traveled to the Swiss city of Bern, where they found the red Fiat. A previous owner had converted the car to run off a lead battery, and the group planned to use the vehicle to persuade the Norwegian government to encourage electric vehicle uptake.

The Fiat became the centerpiece of a nine-year campaign in which Hauge and members of A-ha drove the car on Norway’s toll roads without paying. The fines racked up, and when they remained unpaid, the vehicle would be impounded and sold at auction, where Hauge would buy it back and repeat the cycle of toll dodging. A-ha’s celebrity members added glitz to the crusade against toll fees for EVs and Hauge—who has led an environmental group called Bellona since 1986—courted press attention to demand incentives for electric cars. “By being a positive vigilante, he made the media and also the politicians aware of the electric car,” says Øyvind Solberg Thorsen, director of Norway’s Road Traffic Information Council, which publishes statistics about the country’s roads and vehicles.

Eventually, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the incentives the group campaigned for started to materialize, handing EVs a superior status on Norway’s roads. Rules were introduced that exempted EVs from all toll charges and parking fees and allowed them to skip traffic by using bus lanes. More meaningfully, purchases of new EVs were exempted from hefty taxes—including VAT and purchase tax—meaning a new Volkswagen e-Golf cost €790 ($893) less than a VW Golf with a combustion engine.

The problem was that people responded to the policy so well that it eradicated an important source of income for the government, says Anette Berve, spokesperson for the Norwegian Automobile Federation, a group representing car owners. “So this is a clash of two different goals.”

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So now various car taxes are being reintroduced on EVs. Death and taxes: those two most certain things. (“And nurses,” as an Australian journalist I knew liked to say.)
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A look at the intimate details Amazon knows about us • Reuters News Foundation

Chris Kirkham and Jeffrey Dastin:

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As a Virginia lawmaker, Ibraheem Samirah has studied internet privacy issues and debated how to regulate tech firms’ collection of personal data. Still, he was stunned to learn the full details of the information Amazon.com Inc has collected on him.

The e-commerce giant had more than 1,000 contacts from his phone. It had records of exactly which part of the Quran that Samirah, who was raised as a Muslim, had listened to on Dec. 17 of last year. The company knew every search he had made on its platform, including one for books on “progressive community organizing” and other sensitive health-related inquiries he thought were private.

“Are they selling products, or are they spying on everyday people?” asked Samirah, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates.

Samirah was among the few Virginia legislators who opposed an industry-friendly, Amazon-drafted state privacy bill that passed earlier this year. At Reuters’ request, Samirah asked Amazon to disclose the data it collected on him as a consumer.

The company gathers a vast array of information on its U.S. customers, and it started making that data available to all upon request early last year, after trying and failing to defeat a 2018 California measure requiring such disclosures. (U.S. Amazon customers can obtain their data by filling out a form on Amazon.com.)

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(This is the UK equivalent for the data request. It’s under Account – Browse help topics (lower part of the page) – Privacy – Request Your Personal Information).

You wouldn’t be surprised that Amazon knows a lot about you, of course.It’s the extent. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin outbid a group of crypto investors for copy of US Constitution • WSJ

Kelly Crow:

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Chicago hedge-fund billionaire Kenneth Griffin said he won a $43.2m first-edition copy of the US Constitution at a Sotheby’s auction on Thursday—and now he intends to lend it to a free Arkansas art museum.

The 53-year old founder and chief executive of Citadel caused a stir Thursday when he outbid a large group of cryptocurrency investors who had crowdfunded more than $40m earlier in the week in a frenzied attempt to win the document, the last surviving first edition in private hands.

The group, organized as ConstitutionDAO, pooled funds from more than 17,000 people over a 72-hour period, with the median donation hovering around $206. ConstitutionDAO said it sought to take the Constitution copy and make it accessible to the public.

“The US Constitution is a sacred document that enshrines the rights of every American and all those who aspire to be,” Mr. Griffin said in a statement issued by Sotheby’s. “That is why I intend to ensure that this copy of our Constitution will be available for all Americans and visitors to view and appreciate.”

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So it’s going to be accessible to the public, and Sotheby’s doesn’t have to quibble with crypto junk.
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Twitter rolls back AMP support, no longer sends users to AMP pages • Search Engine Land

Henry Powderly:

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If you are noticing less traffic to your website’s AMP pages coming from Twitter, turns out there is a reason for that: Twitter has subtly updated its AMP guidelines page on its Developer site to say support for AMP will be phased out by the fourth quarter.

How that might affect you. Previously, if a mobile user clicked on a link to your site, Twitter would redirect them to the AMP version of that page if an AMP version was available. Now, that won’t happen and users will just load the native mobile/responsive version of your content.

We’ve heard anecdotally that publishers have been seeing AMP traffic fall, especially since Google started putting non-AMP pages in its Top Stories section. But it was David Esteve, audience development specialist and product manager at Marfeel, and technical SEO consultant Christian Oliveira who spotted the update in Twitter’s documentation.

Looking at our own data, we’ve seen sharp Twitter referral declines since August. But, traffic completely bottomed out in November suggesting the rollout is complete.

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SEL is turning off its own AMP pages because it’s no longer a requirement to appear in Google’s “Top Stories” carousel.

Can’t see AMP lasting that much longer on this basis. Announced October 2015, began appearing in mobile results February 2016. It’s just about survived five years, but the revelation that it was a key piece of manipulation for header bidding on ads makes it look doomed.
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How Twitter got research right • The Verge

Casey Newton talked to Twitter’s research team about their work, which included this:

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Responsible AI is hard in part because no one understands fully understands decisions made by algorithms. Ranking algorithms in social feeds are probabilistic — they show you things based on how likely you are to like, share, or comment on them. But there’s no one algorithm making that decision — it’s typically a mesh of multiple (sometimes dozens) of different models, each making guesses that are then weighted differently according to ever-shifting factors.

That’s a major reason why it’s so difficult to confidently build AI systems that are “responsible” — there is simply a lot of guesswork involved. [Lead for machine learning ethics and responsibility at Twitter, Rumman] Chowdhury pointed out the difference here between working on responsible AI and cybersecurity. In security, she said, it’s usually possible to unwind why the system is vulnerable, so long as you can discover where the attacker entered it. But in responsible AI, finding a problem often doesn’t tell you much about what created it.

That’s the case with the company’s research on amplifying right-wing voices, for example. Twitter is confident that the phenomenon is real but can only theorize as to the reasons behind it. It may be something in the algorithm. But it might also be a user behavior — maybe right-wing politicians tend to tweet in a way to elicit more comments, for example, which then causes their tweets to be weighted more heavily by Twitter’s systems.

“There’s this law of unintended consequences to large systems,” said Williams, who previously worked at Google and Facebook. “It could be so many different things. How we’ve weighted algorithmic recommendation may be a part of it. But it wasn’t intended to be a consequence of political affiliation. So there’s so much research to be done.

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When the traffic firehose is pointed at you • Garbage Day

Ryan Broderick dug into “Thinkarete”, which was one of the most-shared publishers on Facebook in Q3:

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So let’s put it all together.

The “Thinkarete” online brand appears to have been created by a food blogger from Utah. Between 2013-2014, there was a flurry of activity around the web — a website publishing original recipes, the launch of the Thinkarete Lifestyle Facebook page, and bylines on other blogs. The Thinkarete Facebook page, however, slowly became more and more important, as the other parts of the Thinkarete brand atrophied. The Thinkarete Facebook even went through a period where it was posting freebooted BuzzFeed Tasty videos, likely to capitalize on the Facebook video boom. The Allfood and the Lynda’s Kitchen domains were both registered in 2014. And, in 2016, the operation incorporated.

Navigating the Thinkarete Facebook page is impossible now because of the spam from Lyndas Kitchen. In fact, CrowdTangle couldn’t even generate a decent report because of the amount of links being shared to the page. But, after scrolling through Thinkarete’s videos section and the Allfood Instagram page, what seems clear is that the blogger running these pages was experimenting — food videos, Pinterest-optimized recipes, E-commerce links, vaguely conservative memes. We even found what are likely family photos and videos buried deep in Thinkarete’s socials, which, we obviously aren’t linking to here, but they seem to have been forgotten about amid all the optimizing. The entire Thinkarete brand seemed to be this woman’s online side project, which had largely morphed over time into a drop-shipping scheme. Then, last summer, the Facebook firehose was pointed directly at the page.

This is an objectively terrifying idea. To pass no judgment on the blogger who was playing around with these tools — you know, get that passive income — but imagine if you woke up one day, posted something to your Facebook page, and suddenly had more viewers than the Super Bowl. Because that’s what appears to have happened here. Facebook flipped a switch, favoring comments and reactions over shares, and suddenly a food blogger from Utah became the largest publisher in the country, if not the world.

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Utterly random. That’s the world we now live in: there’s no sense to it because it’s all shaped by algorithms that have no idea what they’re actually dealing with.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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