Start Up No.1743: how Facebook enabled truck protest, cyberwar and Ukraine, Julie Meyer faces arrest, Saudi’s “pink hydrogen”, and more

We regret to inform you that conspiracy theorists are attempting to milkshake DuckDuckGo, the search engine. CC-licensed photo by Ivan Radic on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Facebook twisted Canada’s trucker convoy into an international movement • The Verge

Ryan Broderick:


For many Canadians, it’s an overdue end to a chaotic protest that has stifled trade and brought alarming weaponry into otherwise quiet communities. But right-wing supporters have a wildly different view of events: figures like Tucker Carlson have portrayed the convoy as a working-class rebellion, and Trudeau’s response has been treated as enacting martial law, leading Elon Musk to tweet (and then delete) a meme comparing Trudeau to Adolf Hitler.

It’s a shocking split, arguably the single most important factor in the protests, and much of it originates in the fractured way information travels online. Convoy supporters are getting their news from a tangle of Facebook groups, Telegram channels, and random influencers, which is all then amplified and expanded by right-wing broadcasters like Carlson, The Daily Caller, or Canadian right-wing media network Rebel News. These channels promote a sanitized version of movements like the Freedom Convoy, amplifying its hashtags and turning its obscure extremist leaders into celebrities.

This pipeline — from physical protest to social media to establishment outlets — is what has helped the convoy evolve from a local standoff into a televised event that can raise millions from supporters thousands of miles away. Almost all of that infrastructure pre-dates the convoy itself, drawing from anti-vaxx groups, QAnon, and other fringe communities. And while the convoy itself may soon be broken up by the Canadian government, those online pathways are much stickier.

To understand how this echo chamber works, we have to start with the Ottawa protest itself. The “Freedom Convoy’’ started as a loosely affiliated group of Canadian truck drivers led by a group called Canada Unity, founded by far-right activist and QAnon conspiracy theorist James Bauder. But over the last 30 days, Bauder has managed to build a coalition of fed-up truck drivers, fringe Canadian political party members, neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers, and an international coterie of scammers, grifters, and low-level online creators that has been able to generate major headlines around the world.


Broderick is excellent at navigating the labyrinth (as he calls it) of social networks. As ever, Facebook’s algorithms and their love for amplifying “engagement” – for which read “controversy where people may be trying to correct desperately wrong content, whose efforts are ignored but which pushes it to more people who believe it” – bear a big responsibility. (Via John Naughton.)
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There is no cyber ‘shock and awe’: plausible threats in the Ukrainian conflict • War on the Rocks

Lennart Maschmeyer and Nadiya Kostyuk:


The empirical record of cyber conflict… suggests that what is feasible in practice is far more limited. Ukraine has been a “giant test lab” where Russia, one of the world’s foremost cyber powers, has experimented with cyber operations for eight years. Yet these operations have failed to produce significant strategic value either as force complements or standalone tools.

The substitutability argument — that states can or do substitute cyber operations for the use of force — has little empirical support since Russia levied no major cyber operations against Ukraine in the runup to the military escalation of the conflict in 2014. While it is possible that we do not know about such operations given their veil of secrecy, it is clear that any attempted but undetected cyber surprise strike failed to produce any measurable effects.

Evidence supporting the complementarity perspective is similarly sobering. One of us has examined the role of low-level disruptive cyber operations in the military conflict and their relevance for battlefield events (and outcomes). Disruptive attacks can directly affect military operations as they seek to sabotage an opponent’s ability to fight. For example, the Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk regions used malware to retrieve data from mobile devices on the locations of Ukrainian artillery troops, facilitating better reconnaissance against these troops. Pro-Ukrainian hackers hijacked CCTV cameras behind enemy lines to obtain intelligence on the movement of Russian artillery in the separatist-controlled territories.

Focusing on the period of the most intense fighting, between 2014 and 2016 — the time when, if cyber tools are an effective complement to armed force, Russia would have been most likely to use them — we applied a series of statistical tests to thousands of cyber and military operations. The findings showed a strong, escalatory dynamic between military operations by both sides but no significant correlation in either direction between military and cyber operations, and no reciprocity between cyber operations. This evidence demonstrates that in one of the first armed conflicts where both sides used low-level cyber operations extensively, digital operations unfolded independently from the events on the ground and had no discernible effect on them.


Of note: there’s been ongoing cyber attacks against Ukraine for at least the past week, to a greater or lesser extent.
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Bill Bailey reimagines the Doctor Who theme as Belgian jazz • YouTube

Alors, c’est la musique qu’il vous faut pour commencer votre journée: les Daleks et la boîte plus grande à l’intérieur qu’à l’extérieur, utilisée par Doctor Qui. Pas du guerre, trés tranquil.
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Saudi energy minister touts pink hydrogen made by “emancipated young ladies” • Climate Change News

Joe Lo:


Saudi Arabia is touting hydrogen exports as a win for the climate and gender equality, as the petropower seeks to diversify its economy away from oil.

Energy minister Abdulaziz bin Salman told the online World Economic Forum this week the kingdom was pursuing blue, green and pink hydrogen development, the colours representing the way it is made – some cleaner than others.

He said the EU was interested in green hydrogen, made with renewable electricity, and joked that pink – to be generated with planned nuclear power plants – was of particular interest to women in the industry.

“We are recruiting, by the way, young Saudi ladies that are happy to see the pink coming along,” said bin Salman. “We have started being very conscious of taking care of our female new recruits and new cadets. We’re becoming an extremely well emancipated society.”

However the bulk is likely to be blue, made from methane gas and emitting carbon dioxide in the process, some of which may be captured and stored.

“We will have a field day with blue hydrogen because again, we’re the cheapest cost producer of gas,” bin Salman said. “We’re doing a huge investment in shale gas in Saudi Arabia and we will be dedicated to have that gas to be used for producing blue hydrogen.”


It says so much, doesn’t it, what sort of things you think are funny, even in your non-native language. As he already knows, “pink” hydrogen is produced by splitting water using nuclear power. (Green comes from renewable electrolysis, blue from cracking oil and methane.)

It’s a “joke” that might have been funny about the same time the creatures that became the oil and shale were wandering about. And these are the folks deciding how things will be.
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Adding injury to insult • The Critic Magazine

James Chalmers:


How has a thirty-six year old man from Glasgow ended up with a criminal record for sending a “gratuitous insult” about Captain Sir Tom Moore on Twitter? And how exactly is this Clement Attlee’s responsibility?

The offence of which Joseph Kelly was convicted, following his response to Captain Tom’s death, is found in section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. That section criminalises a person who “sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. (The court’s decision that the message was “grossly offensive” has not deterred multiple media outlets such as the BBC, Daily Mail and Independent from quoting it in full online.)

At first sight, this legislation might look like Parliament reacting to the challenges of the electronic age. But like so much of the British statute book, it is a rehash and reworking of a much older decision — in this case, where Parliament was concerned for the sensibilities of telephonists.

…As is often the case with individual prosecutions like Kelly’s, the full context is not public. We cannot know exactly what persuaded the prosecutor that charging him was in the public interest. There is something odd, at least, that in a criminal offence based on publishing an offensive tweet to the world at large, one of the witnesses was his former neighbour, who said the message “left a bad taste” (would a tweeter without an offended neighbour have escaped prosecution?). In court, the prosecutor argued that if Kelly had stood in public and shouted his comments, “there would have been little difficulty in breach of the peace charges being brought against him”.

But Kelly did not do that, and that difference matters. The Scottish offence of breach of the peace criminalises conduct which is “genuinely alarming and disturbing”, and perhaps the police might have felt constrained to arrest someone behaving that way in public to prevent a brawl breaking out. But as the Scottish courts have pointed out, breaches of the peace are criminalised because of the “real risk of disturbance” rather than any “perceived unpleasant or disgusting character” in someone’s actions. What was the risk of disturbance from Kelly’s tweet?


Fact check: the BBC either didn’t quote the tweet, or later removed it. The Independent used it as a subhead – the thing you read directly after the headline. What a ridiculous case, especially given the investigation now ongoing into possible misuse of money given to the connected charity.
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Johnson tells City of London to prepare for tough new sanctions on Russia • Financial Times

George Parker, Stephen Morris and Laura Hughes:


Johnson has been stung by criticism that his first “barrage” of measures against Russia was too weak and left Britain trailing the US and EU in the scope and scale of its reprisals.

The prime minister on Wednesday convened leading City figures including senior executives from HSBC, Barclays, Goldman Sachs and Lloyd’s of London to tell them that he wanted the next “wave” of sanctions to “really bite”. Trading exchanges and regulators were also represented at the meeting in Number 10.

The City executives told Johnson they were already carrying out stress-testing on their business models to assess the impact of what Johnson claims will be robust sanctions.

“We want the toughest possible next tranche and I do think that will make a difference and change the outcome,” Johnson told the meeting. “Putin must fail.”

However, some of the bankers at the meeting bluntly told Johnson that they did not believe the UK sanctions had gone far enough, according to two people familiar with the discussion.

They praised the German decision to suspend the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project as an example of what needed to be done to have an impact.

Others stressed that the government should also consider widening the scope of sanctions to include real assets, such as property, owned by Russian citizens in the UK, not just financial instruments and bank accounts.


Seems to me the headline should have been “City of London tells Johnson to prepare tougher new sanctions”. The UK sanctions were utterly milquetoast, and criticised even within the Conservative party. Coincidentally*, the Conservative party has received quite a lot of donations from Russian [x]illionaires.

*perhaps not coincidentally
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Fed up with Google, conspiracy theorists turn to DuckDuckGo • The New York Times

Stuart Thompson:


On an episode of Joe Rogan’s popular podcast last year, he turned to a topic that has gripped right-wing communities and other Americans who feel skeptical about the pandemic: search engines.

“If I wanted to find specific cases about people who died from vaccine-related injuries, I had to go to DuckDuckGo,” Mr. Rogan said, referring to the small privacy-focused search engine. “I wasn’t finding them on Google.”

Praise for DuckDuckGo has become a popular refrain during the pandemic among right-wing social media influencers and conspiracy theorists who question Covid-19 vaccines and push discredited coronavirus treatments. Some have posted screenshots showing that DuckDuckGo appears to surface more links favorable to their views than Google does.

In addition to Mr. Rogan, who has recently been at the centre of an outcry about misinformation on his podcast, the search engine has received ringing endorsements from some of the world’s most-downloaded conservative podcasters, including Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino.

“Google is actively suppressing search results that don’t acquiesce to traditional viewpoints of the left,” Mr. Shapiro claimed last March. “I recommend you install DuckDuckGo on your computer, rather than Google, to combat all this.”

The endorsements underscore how right-wing Americans and conspiracy theorists are shifting their online activity in response to greater moderation from tech giants like Google.

…The New York Times reviewed the top 20 search results on Google, Bing and DuckDuckGo for more than 30 conspiracy theories and right-wing topics. Search results can change over time and vary among users, but the comparisons provide a snapshot of what a single user might have seen on a typical day in mid-February.

For many terms, Bing and DuckDuckGo surfaced more untrustworthy websites than Google did, when results were compared with website ratings from the Global Disinformation Index, NewsGuard and research published in the journal Science. (While DuckDuckGo relies on Bing’s algorithm, their search results can differ.)

Search results on Google also included some untrustworthy websites, but they tended to be less common and lower on the search page.


Ugh. Get off my search engine, you insects. (Also, you don’t “install” DuckDuckGo. You select it. Unsurprising I guess from the guy who reckoned that the solution to coastal cities being overwhelmed by rising seas was to sell the threatened property. You may be able to spot a logical flaw there.)

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City exclusive: London court issues arrest warrant for high-profile venture capitalist Julie Meyer • City AM

Louis Goss:


The High Court has issued an arrest warrant for Julie Meyer, the founder and CEO of Swiss investment fund Viva Investment Partners (VIP), after she failed to attend a court hearing last week.

The decision to issue a warrant for Meyer’s arrest comes after the High Court this month handed the high-profile businesswoman a six-month suspended sentence, following a dispute with the Royal Family’s go-to law firm, Farrer & Co, over almost £200,000 in unpaid solicitors’ fees.

The sentence was handed down after the Swiss-American venture capitalist failed to hand over financial documents and refused to attend multiple court hearings, as she claimed she was unable to travel to the UK from her home in Switzerland due to having conjunctivitis and not being vaccinated against Covid-19.

City A.M. understands the courts have now issued a warrant for Meyer’s arrest, after she failed to attend a hearing on 14 February, despite being ordered by the High Court to attend the hearing in person.


Older readers might be thinking “Julie Meyer? Rings a distant bell.” That’s because she was one of the people behind First Tuesday, which she co-founded in London back in the dotcom boom years of 1998. It was an event on the first Tuesday of each month where would-be investors and would-be dotcom enterpreneurs (and a few journalists) got together and tried to make things happen.

Her CV since then though is an absolute train wreck of court cases and shady three card monte-style “investment funds”. Her being unvaccinated is just the cherry on the top.
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Unfortunately, we can’t hire you after seeing that 2010 photo of you drinking a beer when you were 16 • McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Rachel Keller:


Dear Applicant:

Thank you for applying to our advertising firm. Unfortunately, just as you were forewarned by your parents and teachers back in 2010, we have decided not to proceed with your application because our online background check revealed a photo of you drinking what is unmistakably beer in a red solo cup at Alex Sorenson’s house party when you were 16 years old.

You were very high on our list to be our new junior manager. Your educational background, your skills, and your interview were all superb. Sadly, we just can’t choose someone to join our team that hasn’t heard that the internet is forever. You were also holding a Kesha CD in the photo, and the lyrics to her song “TiK ToK” are too profane for our company.

We had the papers to hire you drawn up, but when we did a quick ten-hour search online, we found that beer-drinking photo from your high school friend Rob Danport’s profile. You may have asked Rob to untag you all those years ago, but we still can find anything online. Rob says hi, by the way.


Don’t say Eric Schmidt didn’t warn you.
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Why Spotify bought Chartable & Podsights • On my Om

Om Malik:


For those not familiar, these companies work with podcasters and networks to include unique tags that give them insights into podcast listening behavior. Podsights help advertisers understand the effectiveness of their advertising, while Chartable provides valuable insights into the listeners and their behavior. 

Both these acquisitions add up to a smart move by Spotify. The company is trying hard to become the most significant player in the “hearing” attention economy and build a sizeable advertising business. Podcasts are a vital part of this business as they cost less and allow the company to keep a significant chunk of its revenues. In comparison, it has to share the money with record labels, who continue to have a draconian hold over the company.

…Podsights and Chartable would allow Spotify to know which podcasts are most effective or have tailwinds and could get famous shortly, giving them an excellent opportunity to either lock up that content into exclusive deals or bring them in-house. And remember, they could use the same data to create copy-cat podcasts — much like how Netflix creates copypasta versions of hit shows from other networks that get popular on its platform. Since Spotify controls the “attention spigot,” it can direct it at in-house podcasts and turn them into big hits.


“Lock up content” is certainly the phrase. There’s a lot of longstanding podcasters looking over their shoulders at what’s coming up behind them: more analytics, targeted ads (moving on from dynamically inserted ads), and particularly walled-garden content. Google can’t really justify putting walls up around previously open content, and Apple doesn’t want the headache of overseeing the generation of third-party audio content (it’s happier limiting it to games and TV, thanks) so this may be Spotify’s route to real profitability, which music never could be.

For a deeper analysis of this move, read Alex Hern’s take at The Guardian. And I’m not just recommending it because he happened to quote me, though obviously doing so Proves That He’s Right.
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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

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