Start Up No.1718: should social media ban misinformation?, Afghans try cryptocurrency, London drivers face road pricing, and more


As in chess, human poker players now rely on computers to show them the best way to play in all sorts of game situations. CC-licensed photo by World Poker Tour on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Is it still January? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How AI conquered poker • The New York Times

Keith Romer:

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One of the earliest and most devoted adopters of what has come to be known as “game theory optimal” poker is Seth Davies’s friend and poker mentor, Jason Koon. On the second day of the three-day Super High Roller tournament, I visited Koon at his multimillion-dollar house, located in a gated community inside a larger gated community next to a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. On Day 1, Koon paid $250,000 to play the Super High Roller, then a second $250,000 after he was knocked out four hours in, but again he lost all his chips. “Welcome to the world of nosebleed tourneys,” he texted me afterward. “Just have to play your best — it evens out.”

For Koon, evening out has taken the form of more than $30 million in in-person tournament winnings (and, he says, at least as much from high-stakes cash games in Las Vegas and Macau, the Asian gambling mecca). Koon began playing poker seriously in 2006 while rehabbing an injury at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where he was a sprinter on the track team. He made a good living from cards, but he struggled to win consistently in the highest-stakes games. “I was a pretty mediocre player pre-solver,” he says, “but the second solvers came out, I just buried myself in this thing, and I started to improve like rapidly, rapidly, rapidly, rapidly.”

In a home office decorated mostly with trophies from poker tournaments he has won, Koon turned to his computer and pulled up a hand on PioSOLVER. After specifying the size of the players’ chip stacks and the range of hands they would play from their particular seats at the table, he entered a random three-card flop that both players would see. A 13-by-13 grid illustrated all the possible hands one of the players could hold. Koon hovered his mouse over the square for an ace and queen of different suits. The solver indicated that Koon should check 39% of the time; make a bet equivalent to 30% the size of the pot 51% of the time; and bet 70% of the pot the rest of the time. This von Neumann-esque mixed strategy would simultaneously maximize his profit and disguise the strength of his hand.

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Interesting that it’s 13×13 (Go is 19×19), but that’s a clever way to display it. And that’s another game where computers have become crucial. (If you tried to play against them, you’d get slaughtered – there’s no such thing as a tell with a computer, which is part of how AlphaGo thrashed Lee Sedol.)
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Major solar farm coming to coal country • EcoWatch

Cristen Hemingway Jaynes:

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A solar farm atop a former coal mine in Martin County, Kentucky, may be a sign of things to come. A $231m solar project covering hundreds of acres is slated to take over the former Martiki coal mine in Appalachia, a place that has been greatly defined by its natural beauty and the contrasting dirty business of coal mining. Its neighbor to the west, Johnson County, is famous for the singers and coal miner’s daughters Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle.

Throughout the country, coal mining jobs have continuously decreased since the mid-1980s, from about 175,000 to around 40,000 in 2021, and Martin County is no stranger to poverty since coal mining began fading into lore. The unemployment rate in the county is almost twice the national average and about a third of the population lives in poverty. Once employing thousands of coal miners, the county had only 26 left by its most recent tally.

Due to their stark economic situation, many former coal workers have embraced the transition to employment in renewable energy, even as some have doubts as to the severity of the climate crisis.

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Will generate enough energy for 33,000 homes, and employ.. 250-300 people, for 12-18 months. Not a lot, is it? They’re pretty simple and quick to put together.
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Social media bans of scientific misinformation aren’t helpful, researchers say • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

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The Royal Society is the UK’s national academy of sciences. On Wednesday, it published a report on what it calls the “online information environment,” challenging some key assumptions behind the movement to de-platform conspiracy theorists spreading hoax info on topics like climate change, 5G, and the coronavirus.

Based on literature reviews, workshops and roundtables with academic experts and fact-checking groups, and two surveys in the UK, the Royal Society reached several conclusions. The first is that while online misinformation is rampant, its influence may be exaggerated, at least as far as the UK goes: “the vast majority of respondents believe the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, that human activity is responsible for climate change, and that 5G technology is not harmful.” The second is that the impact of so-called echo chambers may be similarly exaggerated and there’s little evidence to support the “filter bubble” hypothesis (basically, algorithm-fueled extremist rabbit holes). The researchers also highlighted that many debates about what constitutes misinformation are rooted in disputes within the scientific community and that the anti-vax movement is far broader than any one set of beliefs or motivations.

One of the main takeaways: The government and social media companies should not rely on “constant removal” of misleading content is not a “solution to online scientific misinformation.” It also warns that if conspiracy theorists are driven out of places like Facebook, they could retreat into parts of the web where they are unreachable. Importantly, the report makes a distinction between removing scientific misinformation and other content like hate speech or illegal media, where removals may be more effective:

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… Whilst this approach may be effective and essential for illegal content (eg hate speech, terrorist content, child sexual abuse material) there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach for scientific misinformation, and approaches to addressing the amplification of misinformation may be more effective.

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Really not persuaded by this. Misinformation is a parasite, a virus, on the algorithmic (and natural) feedback loops in platforms. Deplatforming abusive people works; why shouldn’t deplatforming content that has the same effect?
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Starving Afghans use crypto to sidestep bank sanctions and the Taliban • The Intercept

Lee Fang:

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When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August of last year, Fereshteh Forough feared that the group would close her school in Herat, the country’s third-largest city. Code to Inspire, an NGO Forough founded, was teaching computer programming to young Afghan women, and the Taliban oppose secondary education for women.

Months later, the picture is much different — and worse — from what Forough imagined. The school survived, becoming mostly virtual, but has transformed from a coding boot camp into a relief organization. The biggest risk for Forough’s students wasn’t lack of education, it was hunger. Forough looked for a way to provide emergency checks to the women but was stymied by banks that don’t want to risk violating severe US sanctions.

JPMorgan Chase repeatedly blocked her attempts to transfer money, she said, and she grew increasingly alarmed by students who said they couldn’t access cash at local Afghan banks — many of which have closed or imposed strict withdrawal limits. In response, she turned to cryptocurrency to provide monthly emergency payments to help students afford enough food to survive.

“Since September, we’ve been sending cash assistance, about $200 per month, for each family, because the majority of our students have said their family lost their jobs. They are the sole breadwinner of the family,” explained Forough, whose family fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s, during the Soviet occupation, and now lives in New Hampshire. Code to Inspire pays its recipients in BUSD, a so-called stablecoin whose value is tied to the US dollar, and then the women convert it to afghanis, the local currency, at money exchanges. “We created a safe way for our girls to cash out their crypto and pay for expenses, so they can pay for medical expenses and food and everything that’s needed.”

There are several advantages to using crypto: Afghans fleeing the Taliban can take their assets with them without risk. Humanitarian agencies seeking to bypass banks and discreetly avoid the Taliban can provide cash directly to those in need. Smugglers and intermediaries who may steal or try to resell aid packages can be circumvented if aid is given directly through a digital transaction.

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I’d love to know how widespread this is, and of course it’s only another way of hiding money; the ancient system of hawala does the same task, but it’s paper-based. The BUSD might be a little easier to transfer, of course.
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London mayor wants daily driving charge of up to £2 • BBC News

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London’s mayor says he needs to charge drivers a “small” daily fee of up to £2 for “all but the cleanest vehicles” to help hit climate change targets.

The road pricing proposal is part of a push by Sadiq Khan to encourage people towards public transport, walking, cycling or electric vehicles.

The RAC called the plan “poorly timed” with cleaner vehicles being “too expensive for most people”.
Longer term, Mr Khan says he needs to bring in a pay-per-mile system.

He is also considering charging drivers from outside the capital who wish to travel into Greater London, widening out the current charging zone. Mr Khan said he was “not willing to put off action”.

A report commissioned by City Hall found that a 27% reduction in London’s car traffic was required by 2030 to meet net-zero ambitions.

It stated that London faces severe impacts of climate change, with an increase in extremes such as last summer’s flash floods which closed hospitals, hit Tube stations and flooded homes and businesses, as well as deadly heatwaves.

Road user charging would be a “simple and fair scheme” that could replace existing fees such as the congestion charge and the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), according to the report.

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The pay-per-mile solution is going to be interesting, because it means a lot more surveillance than needed for the present ULEZ zone, where you only need to see if a car enters it, and whether or not it’s exempt.

There are comments on the story. Read them if you want to feel concerned about education levels.
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We will miss the BBC when it’s gone • Ed West

Ed West presents a right-winger’s view of the BBC, and attitudes around it:

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Nostalgia plays a big part in people’s reflective [Overspill Ed: perhaps “reflexive”?] defence of an institution they love against a government they (quite reasonably) loathe. Some have been sharing a 40-year-old advert featuring a man from a long-distant age whose comedy would never see the light of day today (and who is no longer a fan of the Beeb). For others, love of the institution runs so deep that they see it as essential as the fire service. Or road building. (I actually agree with Wallace, but unironically, that road pricing is a great idea.)

But a major national broadcaster is not an essential service, its existence depends on some deeper spiritual need, and none of the arguments for the licence fee address the question. Many have argued what great value the BBC is for only 43p a day, which may be true, but that’s a consumer selling point, an argument to subscribe (and I certainly would); it doesn’t at all answer the question as to why other people should be forced to.

If the BBC makes all these programmes well via forced subscription, it could surely do so in the open market; if the argument is for broadcasting high culture – and almost no one is making that – then that could be produced by a much smaller corporation, as with the fact-based news that Snow writes of. I’m sceptical about the BBC’s ability to produce high culture at any rate, partly for the ideological reason that most high culture is the work of men born within the empire of Charlemagne; but partly because the British cultural elite have a sort of reverse-Bolshevik prejudice that high culture is anti-working class.

The case for a national broadcaster rests on the belief that there is something especially important and significant about the nation, that the British people remain distinctive enough that they need something to reflect this ideal, and promote it. The idea that Reith’s contemporaries believed in.

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The “if you can do it when you’re handed money, you’ll manage it in the open market” argument is plain wrong. The BBC’s hugely diverse radio output (which doesn’t even require the licence fee) can’t exist as a commercial entity, and if it could, then it would suck (advertising) money away from the existing commercial stations. West makes some good points, but nobody is grasping the nettle here: you can’t make the BBC happen without substantial public funding, and if it stops, even for a moment, it will take decades to get started again.
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Does the BBC offer a model for public service digital platforms? • Bennett Institute

The economist Diane Coyle (who is married to ex-BBC technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones, and served as a trustee of the BBC from 2007-2014, until the Tory government abolished her role) :

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There is no doubt a debate is needed about whether the Licence Fee should be replaced with a different mechanism, whether a household tax or a charge on purchases of devices (as used to be the case). Whatever the outcome, competition needs to occur on the basis of the business models too: different financial incentives will lead to different behaviours, increasing quality, variety and choice.

This point applies to other online markets where (as I argue in a forthcoming paper in Philosophy) most of the revenues of most tech companies come from selling advertising. This drives behaviours like tracking individuals, amassing personal data, and favouring whatever will drive viral clicks. These are arguably the main source of many of the online harms governments – including in the UK – are grappling with now. There is nothing wrong with funding a service through selling advertising as long as there is another business model operating in the market.

So rather than attacking the BBC, the UK Government – and others – should be considering whether a mixed economy that has worked so well in broadcasting markets can work in online markets, particularly social media. As others have also pointed out, there is a case to be made for a publicly-funded, public purpose and independent competitor of scale in the online world.

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If you’re not going to put a continuing fee on the ownership of a TV, then you’ll need to put a continuing fee on something else. (I suspect a one-off price on devices wouldn’t work.) A surcharge on broadband, according to speed?
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Djokovic bets on a COVID cure as he quests for tennis history • Reuters

Nikolaj Skydsgaard:

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The Serbian superstar, who became a focus of the global vaccine debate over his failed attempt to enter Australia without being inoculated, holds a majority stake in a Danish biotech firm aiming to develop a treatment to counter COVID-19, the company’s CEO told Reuters. read more

QuantBioRes boss Ivan Loncarevic, who described himself as an entrepreneur, said the tennis player’s acquisition of the 80% stake was made in June 2020 but declined to say how much it was.

The company is developing a peptide, which inhibits the coronavirus from infecting the human cell, expects to launch clinical trials in Britain this summer, according to Loncarevic, who stressed the firm was working on a treatment, not a vaccine.

The CEO said the company had about a dozen researchers working in Denmark, Australia and Slovenia. According to the Danish company register, Djokovic and his wife Jelena own 40.8% and 39.2% of the company, respectively.

A spokesperson for Djokovic did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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To be honest, we’ve got a treatment for Covid. It’s called three vaccine doses. That, however, doesn’t seem to suit Djokovic.

(Meanwhile, new joke doing the rounds: Djokovic has been hired as the England cricket team’s new batting coach. “Yes, he’s new to the game, but it took Australia more than a week to get him out,” said the head of the English Cricket Board.)
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Democrats unveil bill to ban online ‘surveillance advertising’ • The Verge

Makena Kelly:

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On Tuesday, Democrats introduced a new bill that would ban nearly all use of digital advertising targeting on ad markets hosted by platforms like Facebook, Google, and other data brokers.

The Banning Surveillance Advertising Act – sponsored by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) – prohibits digital advertisers from targeting any ads to users. It makes some small exceptions, like allowing for “broad” location-based targeting. Contextual advertising, like ads that are specifically matched to online content, would be allowed.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Eshoo, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a Tuesday statement. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms. The surveillance advertising business model is broken.”

If enacted, the bill would radically change Facebook and Google’s business models. For years, lawmakers have debated ways to regulate the tech industry on issues like privacy, disinformation, and content moderation. Eshoo and her co-sponsors argue that the tech industry’s current advertising models incentivize the spread of harmful content and encourage them to amplify damaging posts to keep users on their platforms.

The bill empowers the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general with the authority to enforce the new rules for ad targeting. It also allows individual users to sue platforms like Facebook and Google if they break the law, granting up to $5,000 in relief per violation.

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They’re conflating different things – tracking people to see their interests to show them ads, and tracking people to see their interests to show them content. They’re not the same. Though I’d really like to see some data on how much better “surveillance ads” perform than just random ads.
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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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1718: should social media ban misinformation?, Afghans try cryptocurrency, London drivers face road pricing, and more

  1. I’m such an outdated political relic these days. Grumbling about censorship and the Internet is like being Grampa Simpson talking about tying an onion on your belt (which was the style at the time).
    “Yes, Gramps, back in ancient history, there was a big dispute about whether the Internet could be censored, many thought it couldn’t happen or that doing so would be bad. But it’s _current year_, we know better about all of that. Stop mumbling about days gone by.”

    Now, where was I, gimme five bees for a quarter. Err, I mean, I think the point is that the theory of Possession By Algodemons simply doesn’t capture the reality of what ails the body politic. At least for vaccines and covid, it’s much more top-down than peer-to-peer. For example in the US, Fox News and similar, as well as a big chunk of the Republican Party. But you can’t shut-down Fox News in the US, not to mention the Republican Party. And while billionaire oligarchs could indeed legally ban many Republican office-holders from their social media platforms, that would not be meekly accepted. Such a move would be even more risky since it’s looking likely the Republicans will gain power in upcoming midterm elections.

    Basically, where does this stuff come from? If powerful factions are pumping it out, is it even possible to go after them? If not, are you just making a show of going after small-fry (who will be immediately replaced), while the big fish are unaffected?

    [Disclaimer, in case it’s necessary – I use “Internet” and “censorship” above in the broad colloquial meanings, not the restrictive packet/state-action senses that some demand.]

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