Start Up No.1750: TikTok suspends Russian uploads, QR codes’ quiet triumph, analysing the Ukraine war, no search numbers?, and more

The wheat fields of Ukraine give its flag the iconic yellow below the blue sky. War’s disruption has sent wheat prices rocketing, with potentially far-reaching effects. CC-licensed photo by Sunny Lapin on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not bogged down. 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.

TikTok suspends new posts in Russia due to the country’s recent ‘fake news’ law • The Washington Post

Nitasha Tiku:


TikTok will suspend both live-streaming and new content from Russia in response to the country’s new “fake” news law, TikTok said Sunday on the video app’s official communications account on Twitter.

Signed Friday by President Putin, Russia’s new law bans what the country calls “fake” news about its military, including language that describes Russia’s attack against Ukraine as an “invasion,” under threat of a 15-year prison sentence.

“In light of Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend live-streaming and new content to our video service while we review the safety implications of this law,” TikTok wrote on Twitter, noting that its in-app messaging would continue. “We will continue to evaluate the evolving circumstances in Russia to determine when we might fully resume our services with safety as our top priority.”

The law has further silenced homegrown Russian media voices that until recently were providing the Russian public with information absent from the government’s official account on state-owned media.

Despite TikTok’s increasingly dominant role as a source of content on the conflict from both Russia and Ukraine, the video app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has been quieter than its Silicon Valley counterparts in disclosing the company’s policies on disinformation, fact-checking or censorship.

On Thursday, TikTok representatives exclusively told The Washington Post that the company was developing a policy on how it will handle state-controlled media on its platform.


I’d guess this is going to drive Russians onto the encrypted messaging platforms, particularly Telegram (though that isn’t end-to-end encrypted, which should, but doesn’t, worry enough users). How long will it take for that to feed through to proper discontent, though?
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Russia’s war on Ukraine threatens global food supply • Associated Press

Joseph Wilson, Samy Magdy, Aya Batrawy and Chinedu Asadu :


Ukrainian farmers have been forced to neglect their fields as millions flee, fight or try to stay alive. Ports are shut down that send wheat and other food staples worldwide to be made into bread, noodles and animal feed. And there are worries Russia, another agricultural powerhouse, could have its grain exports upended by Western sanctions.

While there have not yet been global disruptions to wheat supplies, prices have surged 55% since a week before the invasion amid concerns about what could happen next. If the war is prolonged, countries that rely on affordable wheat exports from Ukraine could face shortages starting in July, International Grains Council director Arnaud Petit told The Associated Press.

That could create food insecurity and throw more people into poverty in places like Egypt and Lebanon, where diets are dominated by government-subsidized bread. In Europe, officials are preparing for potential shortages of products from Ukraine and increased prices for livestock feed that could mean more expensive meat and dairy if farmers are forced to pass along costs to customers.

Russia and Ukraine combine for nearly a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports. Ukraine also is a major supplier of corn and the global leader in sunflower oil, used in food processing. The war could reduce food supplies just when prices are at their highest levels since 2011.

A prolonged conflict would have a big impact some 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) away in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer. Millions rely on subsidized bread made from Ukrainian grains to survive, with about a third of people living in poverty.


A reminder that the Arab Spring was triggered by riots over bread prices.
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I was told that QR codes would never succeed because no one could make money from them • Terence Eden’s Blog

Eden gets to say nyaah nyaah:


Search back through this blog and you’ll find dozens of posts about QR codes. Back in the day, I was a freelance “Mobile Internet” consultant. I’d rock up to companies and say “you know you can get the Web on your phone, right? It’s going to be the next big thing!” And people would pay me handsomely for that advice.

I’d also talk about apps – “You don’t need one, but if you’re going to develop one, here’s what you need to know.” It was like pushing on an open door.

My final pitch was always – “Hey, QR codes are pretty nifty! Would you like some help with them?”

Silence. Followed by a swift refusal.

The arguments against QR codes back then fell into a few main categories

• They’re ugly (true, but they can be made prettier)
• People don’t scan them (false, with lots of data)
• Hackers might do something bad (unlikely, and easily defended against)

But the main objection was that QR codes could never succeed because no one could make money from them! This was a time when Microsoft was pushing its paid-for MS Tag product – which only lasted about 3 years before it was shut down. They were trying to capture the mobile code scanning market, and failed.

Although lots of people were building scanners, there were very few companies pushing QR codes because they couldn’t see a way to make money from them. Sure, there were a few companies which would sell you a short URL with analytics baked in. But there was no “moat”. Anyone could build a slightly cheaper competitor. And businesses could bypass those companies easily. With no commercial driver, there was no pressure to promote the use of QR. So – in the UK at least – QR codes bumbled along, occasionally appearing on energy bills, physical products, and informational posters.

The “problem” is that QR codes are “boring infrastructure”. That’s what makes them magical – they’re both libre and gratis.


How do you incentivise people to build infrastructure which uses free material? Easy – just give them a once-in-a-century pandemic.
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Space and time • Comment is Freed

Lawrence Freedman on Russia’s lack of military progress in Ukraine:


There have been a variety of estimates about how long the Russian army can keep this up, especially if Kyiv and Kharkiv continue to resist. Without a major resupply effort it has been put at no more than three weeks. The Russians have not planned for a long war nor made provisions to sustain it over time. Certainly, wars can be won quickly. In June 1967 Israel took Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria in six days. India required thirteen to advance from the border to Dhaka to receive the surrender of East Pakistan forces, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. It took longer – a month – for the Americans to reach Baghdad in 2003, but they had only one line of advance, up from Kuwait, and were also methodical in their approach. The reason why some wars drag on is rarely because this was envisaged in the original plan. It is normally because of early operational failures.

As soon as front-lines stagnate as an offensive runs out of steam the issue becomes one of the ability to feed the war machine over time, making economic and industrial strength as well as logistics even more important. This is why the Kremlin should be worried about a stalled campaign because it means that so long as Russia stays in Ukraine then its sanctioned economy will struggle even more. Fighting a war is an expensive business. Published estimates of the daily cost have ranged from $500 million to $20 billion. Something a bit over a $1 billion seems plausible.

The pre-war assumptions of a modernised and efficient Russian army that would soon overwhelm the outgunned Ukrainians have now been jettisoned but it remains difficult to accept the contrary assumption that this is a war that the Russians might lose. This is where the state of mind of those involved becomes important. Were it not for the fact that Russia still has the means to make life miserable for ordinary Ukrainians and use its firepower to push those unable to flee down into bunkers, one would say that it is facing defeat. Its army displays the pathology of one in disarray – at least away from the south, its logistics are literally being shot to pieces, command systems are degraded, and its troops demoralised and surrendering. We must keep emphasising that war is an uncertain business.


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What Russian officials think of the invasion of Ukraine • A Sip of Freedom

Ilya Lozovsky, in a translation of an article by a well-connected Russian journalist, Farida Rustamova:


“If Russia considers itself an empire, why not become attractive to its neighbors by developing the country instead of by forcing their loyalty? Let’s build good roads, quality health care and education, and eventually come up with the kind of technology that would allow us to be the first to colonize Mars. That would be quite empire-like,” a high-ranking official said brokenly when I asked him what he thought of Putin’s motives for starting the war.

Another source— let’s call him a good acquaintance of Putin’s — puts it this way: The Russian president has it in his head that the rules of the game were broken and destroyed not by Russia. And if this is a fight without rules, then it’s a fight without rules — the new reality in which we live. 

“Here he is in a state of being offended and insulted. It’s paranoia that has reached the point of absurdity,” he says. According to him, Putin sincerely believes that, at least in the first years of his rule, he tried his best to improve relations with the West.

“On the one hand, there’s a really unfair state of affairs, where we are constantly being harmed year after year on various scales, and declared  as enemies long before Ukraine,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s our inability to build and execute our policies intelligently, including publicly. And the third thing is Putin’s degradation from being in power for too long.”

“Putin now seriously believes what [Defense Minister] Shoigu and [General Staff chief] Gerasimov are telling him: About how quickly they’ll take Kyiv, that the Ukrainians are blowing themselves up, that Zelensky is a coke addict.”

So far, none of the officials have dared to object to what’s happening in the slightest public way, much less to resign.


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Do journalists need to be brands? • Medium

Elizabeth Spiers:


[Taylor] Lorenz did not grow up without privilege (Greenwich, Connecticut is not Slapout, Alabama**) but she moved into journalism from a digital background that wasn’t journalism, and does not have the typical trajectory of a Times journalist, or the Ivy League credentials they say are not important but they absolutely pay attention to. Ergo, Lorenz was regarded as a bit of an outsider internally, and some people tend to be dismissive of young women who cover beats they regard as lesser.

Ironically, this is also part of why Lorenz’s profile rose so quickly. She covered web culture, but that often overlapped with tech culture, and tech coverage generally. As a function of that, she was targeted by a high profile tech CEO and VC, Balaji Srinivasan, and that resulted in waves of harassment and nonsense for Lorenz because Srinivasan was able to mobilize a bunch of neoreactionary dudebros who resent the fact that journalists have the temerity to criticize Silicon Valley at all. And he targeted her intentionally, because she’s young, because she’s a woman, and because she wrote for [the NYT’s section called] Styles, which meant that he could portray her as essentially unserious. He thought she was more vulnerable to this kind of attack than, say, Kara Swisher, who reports on tech qua tech, and who would have eaten him for lunch (and has, on several occasions).

When this happened, I do not believe people like [NYT political reporter] Haberman inside the NY Times, understood what was going on. They just saw Lorenz all over the Internet, on TV, being increasingly recognized as one of the faces of The New York Times. Lorenz was accused of drawing attention to herself and when she pushed back on the harassment, was told that she couldn’t take criticism. But what Lorenz was getting wasn’t criticism. Attempting to doxx a journalist and texting them rape threats might be a critique of sorts, but let’s not pretend it’s legitimate discourse, or that Lorenz is thin-skinned to be disturbed by it. But the internal perception, as I understand it, is that Lorenz had not earned the right to all of this attention, even if she was not asking for it.

This is ridiculous, of course. The attention economy is not something you can control, or insert yourself into, willfully, any time you want.


Spiers captures the problem – which really really irks younger journalists on the big US papers – whereby journalists aren’t meant to draw attention to themselves, yet have to take all the crap for whatever they or anyone else on their paper writes. Lorenz had a bellyful, and isn’t afraid to point it out. It’s not perfect at the Washington Post (by a long chalk), but not as bad as the NYT. It’s also one that journalists on all publications face: when they tweet, are they speaking for themselves, or their publication?
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Google testing removing the estimated number of search results • SE Round Table

Barry Schwartz:


Google Search is testing removing the estimated number of search results figure you typically see under the search bar after you conduct a search query. Google tested this back in 2016 and I guess Google is testing it again.

Initially, when I was first told about this test by Punit on Twitter and then Eli Schwartz on Twitter last week, I thought maybe it was a CSS bug. But since then, a few other people noticed it, including Steve Plunket on Twitter and some on Facebook. So I guess this is a test.


The “number of sites/results” figure really hasn’t meant anything for at least a decade. Barely anyone looks past the first page of results (they’re more likely to retry their search with different terms than click through to the second page). Possibly the sites number is a sort of silent confirmation that the system’s working which means something to people inside Google. But those outside don’t need it.
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David Leonhardt, the pandemic interpreter • NY Mag’s Intelligencer

Sam Adler-Bell on how David Leonhardt, the writer of the daily NY Times morning newsletter (five million readers!), has become the focus of a furious row over his recent depiction of the risks from Covid:


“Many liberals have spent two years thinking of COVID mitigations as responsible, necessary, even patriotic. This attitude has become part of their identity,” Leonhardt told me. This was a good thing earlier in the pandemic, leading to high vaccine uptake, masking, and compliance with social distancing and lockdowns. But thanks to vaccination and the cresting Omicron variant, the costs of liberal caution — he cites “mental-health problems, anger, frustration, isolation, drug overdoses, vehicle crashes, violent crime, learning loss, student misbehavior” — have begun to outweigh the benefits. Leonhardt, who has described his journalistic colleagues as having a “bad-news bias,” sees his role as being an implicit corrective to some of the more alarmist coverage showing up elsewhere in traditional media and even in the Times itself.

This position has enraged some readers — doctors, scientists, and journalists among them — who believe it’s absurd to call for a return to normal when, according to the Times, around 2,000 people are dying from COVID each day. “Leonhardt is one of the key pundits leading the charge of those who want to declare unilateral surrender to COVID-19,” Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, told me. In a January 26 appearance on The Daily, Leonhardt pressed his case that America is at a “pivot point” in which COVID “goes from being this horrible, deadly, life-dominating pandemic to something that is more endemic — to something that looks more like things that we deal with all the time without shutting down daily life, like the flu.” He cited the results of a poll, conducted by his staff and Morning Consult, purporting to show that while older Republicans remain irrationally unafraid of COVID, younger and vaccinated Democrats are irrationally overcautious about it.


I get the feeling that there’s quite a chunk of Americans who are hanging on to their attitudes from 2020 even though the evidence suggests it’s time to change their position.
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Ten (more) tricks for finding stories • Transom

Latif Nasser:


One of the most popular features on Transom is Latif Nasser’s 2018 guide to finding stories. (Latif co-hosts WNYC’s Radiolab.) He’s back with NEW tricks for conjuring unconventional leads. This manifesto is full of creative tips to pull every last bit of interesting data from online search tools. It’s particularly handy during these drawn-out COVID-y times when in-person story hunting is challenging. We guarantee you’ll find a new trick.

Nasser: Back in 2018, I shared a bunch of my story-finding tricks in an effort to help demystify the process.  A lot of people seemed to find it helpful. I often get emails about it. 

So in that same spirit, here are ten more tricks, surefire ways to find good true stories, or at least to prime your mental pump. Please use them responsibly, but also with reckless abandon.


Go to Zoom lectures, search out scholarly articles, use search terms tactically, reverse engineer.. your toaster?, noodle around in databases, attend to phrases, look for limits, anticipate traffic jams, make the call (anyway), ask the question anyway. Now you need to fill in the gaps. They’re pretty good.
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Yandex: Russian search engine warns it could default on foreign debt • CNN

Mark Thompson:


Russia’s biggest search engine could collapse as financial fallout from the invasion of Ukraine spreads.

Yandex, which handles about 60% of internet search traffic in Russia and operates a big ride-hailing business, said Thursday that it may be unable to pay its debts as a consequence of the financial market meltdown triggered by the West’s unprecedented sanctions.

The company is based in the Netherlands, but its shares are listed on the Nasdaq and the Russian stock exchange. Dealing in the stock has been suspended this week as the value of Russian assets collapsed in Moscow and around the world in the wake of the invasion. The imposition of sanctions by the United States, European Union and other big Western economies last weekend piled on the pressure.

Yandex hasn’t been sanctioned but it could still default. Investors who hold $1.25bn in Yandex convertible notes have a right to demand repayment in full, plus interest, if trading in its shares are suspended on the Nasdaq for more than five days. The Moscow stock market will remain shut at least until Tuesday, Russian state news agencies reported on Friday.

“The Yandex group as a whole does not currently have sufficient resources to redeem the Notes in full,” the company said in a statement.

…The crisis in Ukraine poses another threat to its business. Western companies are halting supplies of technology and services to Russian customers. A prolonged suspension of hardware or software sales could hurt Yandex over time.

“We believe that our current data center capacity and other technology critical to operations will allow us to continue to operate in the ordinary course for at least the next 12 to 18 months,” Yandex said.

Yandex, which had a market value of about $17.4bn at the beginning of February, reported revenues worth 356bn rubles in 2021, now equivalent to little more than $3bn after the collapse in the Russian currency.


The problems with systems will hit much sooner than the debt, I’d guess.
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Putin proves my point. Whatever it is • Financial Times

Robert Shrimsley:


The most important thing to understand about the invasion of Ukraine is that it proves my point. Yes, yes, it may be pulling Europe to the brink of outright war, causing the deaths of innocent civilians and plunging the global economy into turmoil but the essential issue is that Putin has shown I was right. Right about what, you may ask. About everything. Whatever my personal and political prejudices, they have been triumphantly (ahem, better make that tragically) vindicated.

While Ukrainians have risked their lives on the streets, battalions of keyboard warriors are shelling social media with explanations of how this validates their other opinions. One conservative think-tanker has taken to collating multiple examples of this but, sadly, this virtual conflict has now morphed into a pincer movement with incursions into the real-world dinner tables of pontificating society.

While many others are wrong, all of my own instincts have naturally been borne out by events. This allows me the opportunity to bestow some of my wisdom upon you. I may also soon launch a separate Substack newsletter, at

Anyway, lest you were worried that your own inadequate views leave you wandering naked into the cocktail party, here are just a few to be going along with:


Choose from Nato’s eastward expansion/ the flabby West/ moving too slowly to net zero/ too much wokey windpower and not enough fracking/ Brexit (all Putin’s fault)/ not embracing Brexit/ dirty money/ pandering to wokery pronouns/ our weak Covid-19 response/ too many restrictions on wood-burning stoves.

Payoff line:


“Next week: why I was right about something else.”


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: 1,750! Seems like 1,000 only happened recently, and 1,500 ditto. Let’s hope we can Get Ukraine Sorted before the next Big Number here.

1 thought on “Start Up No.1750: TikTok suspends Russian uploads, QR codes’ quiet triumph, analysing the Ukraine war, no search numbers?, and more

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