Start Up No.1735: Facebook’s toxic superuser problem, AirTags investigated, can Reels challenge TikTok?, batteries!, and more


An attempt by Samsung to demo its new phone in the metaverse didn’t go to plan. At all. CC-licensed photo by Moogani GossipGirl on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Still not feeling invaded. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


• 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.


Facebook has a superuser-supremacy problem • The Atlantic

Matthew Hindman, Nathaniel Lubin and Trevor Davis:

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If you want to understand why Facebook too often is a cesspool of hate and disinformation, a good place to start is with users such as John, Michelle, and Calvin.

John, a caps-lock devotee from upstate New York, calls House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “PIGLOSI,” uses the term negro, and says that the right response to Democrats with whom they disagree is to “SHOOT all of them.” Michelle rails against the “plandemic.” Calvin uses gay as a slur and declares that Black neighborhoods are always “SHITHOLES.” You’ve almost certainly encountered people like these on the internet. What you may not realize, though, is just how powerful they are.

For more than a year, we’ve been analyzing a massive new data set that we designed to study public behavior on the 500 U.S. Facebook pages that get the most engagement from users. Our research, part of which will be submitted for peer review later this year, aims to better understand the people who spread hate and misinformation on Facebook. We hoped to learn how they use the platform and, crucially, how Facebook responds. Based on prior reporting, we expected it would be ugly. What we found was much worse.

The most alarming aspect of our findings is that people like John, Michelle, and Calvin aren’t merely fringe trolls, or a distraction from what really matters on the platform. They are part of an elite, previously unreported class of users that produce more likes, shares, reactions, comments, and posts than 99% of Facebook users in America.

They’re superusers. And because Facebook’s algorithm rewards engagement, these superusers have enormous influence over which posts are seen first in other users’ feeds, and which are never seen at all. Even more shocking is just how nasty most of these hyper-influential users are. The most abusive people on Facebook, it turns out, are given the most power to shape what Facebook is.

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As you’d expect – you’ve read Social Warming, right? – attention is focused according to a power law, and it’s the incredibly obnoxious people who get and focus the attention. Their research shows that 500 pages “account for about half of public US page engagement on the platform”.
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I used Apple AirTags, Tiles and a GPS tracker to watch my husband’s every move • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

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In recent months, people have freaked out after finding AirTags hidden in their bags and on their cars. They were scared about being stalked or followed by someone wanting to steal their vehicles. A Sports Illustrated model, Brooks Nader, said she found one in her coat pocket after visiting a Manhattan bar. All these people received warnings on their iPhones, a feature Apple had built into the AirTag system to help prevent unwanted tracking.

…Alyson Messenger, a lawyer in Los Angeles who works with survivors of domestic violence, said she knew of two women stalked by former partners with AirTags. She thinks other cases are “flying under the radar.”

An abuser could also put spyware on a person’s phone to track them, but that requires time, access and knowing their passcode. With these location-tracking devices, a person “just needs to get close enough to a victim or their property to place them,” Ms. Messenger said. “It’s insidious because the devices are so discreet and unnoticeable. We suspect it is happening and victims don’t know.”

…I asked Mr. Zientz about how LandAirSea [which sells a tracker] dealt with people using its devices for unwanted spying.

“It’s certainly something that comes up,” Mr. Zientz said. “People call in, and they’re like, ‘I found this on my car. What are you going to do about it?’”

The company, which sells about 15,000 devices per month, according to Mr. Zientz, tells these callers they should go to the police, because they will need a subpoena to determine who owns the device they discovered. He estimated that the company received approximately 30 subpoenas per year.

Mr. Zientz said many people arrive at these products after searching online for “spouse tracker,” but that the company was trying to discourage this by marketing the device for “asset protection” and “fleet management.” I asked Mr. Zientz why the company didn’t have any messaging about the legality of its devices on its website or in its packaging.

“It’s in our terms somewhere,” he said.

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Like facial recognition, this is clearly a genie that’s been out of the bottle for a long time; Apple just made it a lot more visible.

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It’s way too early to count out Instagram Reels • Big Technology

Alex Kantrowitz:

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When Joy Ridenhour, a junior communications major at NYU, returned home to Virginia for winter break this year, she heard familiar music coming from her parents’ phones. “I was like, huh, it’s interesting they’re watching TikTok,” she said. “But then I realized they weren’t using TikTok, they had discovered Instagram Reels.”

TikTok is giving Facebook an “unprecedented” fight, as Mark Zuckerberg conceded last week, ​​but the battle will be fiercer than many imagine. Despite the narrative that Facebook is cooked, the company is already cutting off TikTok’s growth by feeding its copycat — Reels — to people like Ridenhour’s parents, who might’ve been late TikTok adopters but likely won’t be now.

Reels may still be an inferior product, but it has several advantages that don’t fit neatly into stories about Facebook’s demise. Here are some key factors to consider when assessing the fight between the two social giants, relayed with as much nuance as possible:

TikTok reached 1 billion monthly users last fall — a major feat — but Instagram reportedly hit 2 billion monthly users a few months later. To maintain its fast-paced growth, TikTok must win over people like Ridenhour’s parents, who will likely see no reason to download an app that’s essentially the same as Reels. “They were never interested in TikTok,” Ridenhour said. There are 1 billion people in this camp.

That said, Instagram Reels could be a gateway drug for younger users, who may find TikTok after experimenting with Reels. Ridenhour’s 14-year-old brother, for instance, began using Reels, then downloaded TikTok, and now prefers it over Instagram. 

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Half of MPs don’t know chance of flipping two heads in a row • Royal Statistical Society

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As politicians over the course of the pandemic have dealt with a barrage of statistics, the Society decided to put their statistical skills to the test. A total of 101 MPs were asked the question: if you toss a coin twice, what is the probability of getting two heads? Just over half, 52%, of MPs gave the correct answer of 25%.

This is an improvement from when the RSS polled MPs with the same question ten years ago, when 40% of MPs gave the correct answer.

In this latest survey conducted by Savanta ComRes on behalf of the RSS in late 2021/early 2022, 32% of MPs gave the incorrect answer of 50%, compared to 45% of MPs in the 2011 survey.

Of those asked in the most recent survey, there was a modest estimated difference between MPs from the two main parties. In the survey, 50% of Conservative MPs gave the correct answer, while 53% of Labour MPs were right.

…The survey also found that politicians who have been in power for longer performed better than those elected more recently. Those who had started in office between 2001 and 2009 performed the best, with 68% giving the correct answer, compared to 38% of MPs elected in 2019.

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Is it worth pointing out that many of the MPs who were newly elected in 2019 supported Brexit? The 101 sample is just about representative, one hopes, of the 650 members.
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Samsung held an event in the metaverse. It didn’t quite go to plan • CNBC

Sam Shead:

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The metaverse is more commonly associated with players using headsets or smart glasses which allow them to live, work and play in a virtual world much like the one depicted in the “Ready Player One” novel and movie. Depending on your point of view, the metaverse is either a utopian dream or a dystopian nightmare.

The event specifically took place in Samsung 837X, a virtual building that Samsung has built on Decentraland that’s designed to be a replica of its flagship New York experience center. Samsung 837X is there all the time but there just happened to be an event inside the building’s “Connectivity Theatre” on Wednesday.

But CNBC, and many others, struggled to find the 837X building and when we did many of us were unable to gain access to it. …CNBC immediately noticed a large line of people at the main entrance to the 837X building. People were struggling to get in. Some users were getting their avatars to jump on other people’s heads as they clambered to the front of the queue but it didn’t help. The doors wouldn’t open and the chatbox was again full of pleas for help.

In an emailed statement to CNBC, Samsung said that “visitors and the Decentraland community have given us a highly positive response, seeing it as a fresh spin into an all-digital world.”

Then added: “Unfortunately, a technical issue in one of Decentraland’s realms prevented some people from accessing the event. As soon as we knew of the issue, we informed the community via Twitter and redirected our visitors to a new entry.”

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The irony being that you could just watch the actual humans on a stream in a normal desktop browser.
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Rising popularity of VR headsets sparks 31% rise in insurance claims • The Guardian

Jem Bartholomew:

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A man landing an upper-cut on the ceiling fan, a woman slamming into furniture, a guy smashing through a lighting fixture: gamers are learning that virtual reality headsets can often cause havoc at home.

The trend of crashing into furniture while in the metaverse provoked a 31% jump in home contents claims involving VR headsets last year, insurer Aviva said, marking a 68% overall increase since 2016.

“As new games and gadgets become popular, we often see this playing through in the claims made by our customers,” said Kelly Whittington, Aviva’s UK property claims director. “In the past we’ve seen similar trends involving consoles with handsets, fitness games and even the likes of rogue fidget spinners.”

Aviva said the average VR-related claim for accidental damage in 2021 was about £650, often from broken TVs smashed by overenthusiastic gamers.

Claims to Aviva involving virtual reality headsets can get wacky. One customer launched a controller at his TV when a zombie jumped out during the game. Multiple people reported cracking TV screens. One child smashed two designer figurines – perched on the mantelpiece – when his game demanded a “swipe” move.

All three claims were accepted and settled, an Aviva spokesperson told the Guardian.

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I’ve got one word for you: rubber furniture. OK, two words.
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Neuralink monkeys subjected to extreme suffering, draft complaint says • Business Insider

Isobel Asher Hamilton:

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Neuralink is developing a device that would be embedded in humans’ brains to monitor and potentially stimulate brain activity. The device consists of a microchip and wires that would be threaded through a patient’s skull into the brain.

The research at the center of the allegations is affiliated with the University of California at Davis, which operates a federal primate-research facility. The PCRM says it obtained more than 700 pages of documents, including veterinary records and necropsy reports, through a public-records request to the university.

The records relate to 23 monkeys owned by Neuralink, which were housed and experimented upon at UC Davis’ facility from 2017 to 2020, the draft complaint says.

In its draft complaint, the PCRM accuses UC Davis and Neuralink of nine violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including breaches of stipulations that researchers minimize pain and distress for animals, that daily observations of the animals take place, and that researchers have an attending veterinarian advise on the use of anesthesia.

Also in its draft complaint, the PCRM gave examples of incidents were it believed monkeys had suffered unduly. One monkey was documented as having missing fingers and toes “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma,” according to the draft complaint.

Jeremy Beckham, a research advocacy coordinator with the PCRM, told Insider that out of the 23 monkeys, seven survived and were transferred to a Neuralink facility in 2020, when he said Neuralink severed its relationship with UC Davis.

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“Seven of 23 monkeys survived” sounds bad, though one would need to know a lot more about these experiments to know if that’s a good or bad outcome. Vivisection is never pretty, though it can lead to outcomes we all benefit from.
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Dispatch from the Ottawa Front: Sloly is telling you all he’s in trouble. Who’s listening? • The Line

Matt Gurney on the problem for Ottawa’s police chief, Peter Sloly:

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Before I came to Ottawa, I spoke with a few people who were sympathetic to the protest: I was advised to stay away from this secondary encampment site, or at least to approach it with caution. I wasn’t feeling particularly heroic on Tuesday, but I figured it wouldn’t make sense to travel all the way from Toronto and then ignore one of the main sites. I drove over, parked my car nearby and walked the rest of the way to the parking lot.

It was clear well before I even arrived that this was something different. There was absolutely no visible police presence. Not a single uniformed officer or marked cruiser. (Note my careful phrasing there: I have no doubt this place is under watch. Just not overtly.) This site, for lack of a better term, has been fortified. There are many trucks parked in the parking lot, but some of them have been arranged to form outer walls. These walls have been augmented with wooden sawhorses and what looked to me to be stacked pallets of some kind. There was an entrance with a tent marked Reception (see photo, below). I wish I could give you a better description of the site, or tell you what was inside, but as soon as I began to approach it on foot, someone very quickly fell into step behind me. A series of others, four or five, met me before I made it to the reception tent. We chatted briefly, and I got the distinct impression that it would be way, way better for me to be somewhere else. I left.

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There’s clearly a group there which is looking for trouble – serious trouble. And Sloly’s problem is that he needs much more force than his police can muster. In other words, Sloly is asking for the military. Which shows that the problems democracy faces are getting deeper. (See also this piece from The Atlantic, by an Ottawa resident.)
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Britishvolt gigafactory: Britain’s best-kept industrial secret is an unexpected solution to saving the planet • Sky News

Ed Conway:

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Here, day and night, they bake some of the heaviest parts of the crude oil – quite literally the bottom of the barrel – drill out what is left with extraordinarily high-pressure water drills, run the resulting product through kilns and out come dark, grey-black pockmarked pebbles which look a little bit like miniature asteroids.

This is coke, a dry, light, very carbon-heavy mineral. You’ve probably heard of coke before. The most well-known variety is coking coal, made from the coal you dig from the ground and used to make steel from iron ore. But the coke they make here at this refinery, owned by American company Phillips 66, is very special indeed. It goes by a few names: needle coke, premium coke, graphite coke and they have been making it here for decades. But in the past few years, it has suddenly become very important indeed.

For after the coke is churned out of the kilns here, it is shipped overseas, mostly to China. There it is cooked at high temperatures in a further process which turns it into an incredibly pure form of graphite – sheet upon sheet of carbon atoms. This so-called synthetic graphite is then mixed with the “natural” graphite you get out of the ground and turned into a fine powder which is then coated on to fine copper sheets. Lo and behold, the coke which came out of the Phillips 66 refinery has become an anode.

That’s right: one of the critical materials going into batteries today is a processed form of crude oil, much of it coming from the North Sea. There are a few grams of Humberside coke in many if not most smartphones in the world, sitting alongside the lithium and cobalt, without which those batteries simply wouldn’t function.

Much is made these days about the lithium inside batteries or the cobalt that also goes into the cathodes. Far less is said about the other end of the battery. Yet without the kind of graphite produced from Humberside coke (and this refinery turns out to be one of the world’s most important producers of the stuff – and the only one in Europe) net zero will remain a pipe dream.

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This is just s small part of a really long but very educational read. Very counterintuitive that you need more carbon for all the batteries.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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