Start Up No.1865: Twitter’s disinfo underfunding, Cloudflare drops KiwiFarms, will AI replace actors?, Truss’s promises, and more


The Rampion offshore wind farm got through planning, but antiquated laws mean many more don’t – and we all lose from that. CC-licensed photo by Mark on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Justifying the subscription. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Mudge report shows how Twitter’s lack of resources shaped trouble • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Joseph Menn and Cat Zakrzewski:

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While [“Mudge”, proper name Peter] Zatko’s allegations of Twitter’s security failures, first reported last month by The Post and CNN, have received widespread attention, the audit on misinformation has gone largely unreported. Yet it underscores a fundamental conundrum for the 16-year-old social media service: in spite of its role hosting the opinions of some the world’s most important political leaders, business executives and journalists, Twitter has been unable to build safeguards commensurate with the platform’s outsized societal influence. It has never generated the level of profit needed to do so, and its leadership never demonstrated the will.

Twitter’s early executives famously referred to the platform as “the free speech wing of the free speech party.” Though that ethos has been tempered over the years, as the company contended with threats from Russian operatives and the relentless boundary-pushing tweets from former president Donald J. Trump, Twitter’s first-ever ban of any kind of misinformation didn’t take place until 2020 — when it prohibited deep fakes and falsehoods related to Covid-19.

Former employees have said that privacy, security, and user safety from harmful content were long seen as afterthoughts for the company’s leadership. Then-CEO Jack Dorsey even questioned his most senior deputies’ decision to permanently suspend Trump’s account after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol, calling silencing the president a mistake.

The audit report by the Alethea Group, a company that fights disinformation threats, confirms that sense, depicting a company overwhelmed by well-orchestrated disinformation campaigns and short on engineering tools and human firepower while facing threats on par with vastly better-financed Google and Facebook.

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The haphazard nature of Twitter is always apparent from time to time as some calamity or other overwhelms it. From the outside, one sees what seems like a well-funded company with a swishy San Francisco office (I’ve visited it a couple of times). In reality, there are fires all over the place, and a shortage of extinguishers. Social warming runs riot.
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The Air Force just survived a reply all email apocalypse • Gizmodo

Lucas Ropek:

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According to images of the email thread shared by the tipster, a “replyallcalypse” happened when a low-level clerical employee at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany sent out a query about a computer issue at the base, subject line “Logo appearing on our screern [sic].” She wrote, “Please help us !!!” about an ugly and outdated logo that would not quit the screens at Ramstein. She called it “this horrible green statement.”

Unfortunately, she accidentally added the “AF-All” address, which appears to have forwarded the query to droves of Air Force personnel stationed at different bases.

The recipients of the email thread were not pleased. One person, a Lt. Colonel Matthew S. Judd, of Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Ohio, replied bluntly:

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Elizabeth,

Good Morning, I’m sorry to hear about your computer issue, I really have no idea what your issue is or have a good solution to the problem, but here’s a shot anyway:

Unplug device, head for the second story, open window and throw it out the window, should get rid of the green screen. I hope this helps.

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Others skipped the snark and went straight for anger and confusion. One person, replied:

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Mrs. Pritchard. I’m not sure why you put me on this string but I’d appreciate it if those who are involved in your issue would reply to you land [sic] not “all”.

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Yet another person, Lt. Colonel John Fesler, who is based in Washington DC, merely offered the following: “PLEASE stop using ‘Reply All’,” he wrote, which seems to imply that this sort of thing has happened before.

Others from bases in Texas, Florida, and New York all chimed in with annoyance and confusion. Gizmodo reached out to them about their feelings regarding their overloaded inboxes, but did not hear back.

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Happens to us all at some point.
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Cloudflare drops KiwiFarms • The Washington Post

Joseph Menn and Taylor Lorenz:

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Reversing course under growing public pressure, major tech security company Cloudflare announced Saturday that it will stop protecting the Kiwi Farms website, best known as a place for stalkers to organize hacks, online campaigns and real-world harassment.

Cloudfare chief executive Matthew Prince, who this past week published a lengthy blog post justifying the company’s services defending Kiwi Farms, told The Washington Post he changed his mind not because of the pressure but a surge in credible violent threats stemming from the site.

“As Kiwi Farms has felt more threatened, they have reacted by being more threatening,” Prince said. “We think there is an imminent danger, and the pace at which law enforcement is able to respond to those threats we don’t think is fast enough to keep up.”

Prince said contributors to the forum were posting home addresses of those seen as enemies and calling for them to be shot.

Kiwi Farms launched in 2013 and quickly grew into a popular internet forum for online harassment campaigns. At least three suicides have been tied to harassment stemming from the Kiwi Farms community, and many on the forum consider their goal to drive their targets to suicide. Members of the LGBTQ community and women are frequent targets.

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This really didn’t look tenable for a public company such as Cloudflare (although KiwiFarms may be able to find someone prepared to save it from DDOS attacks, as Cloudflare does). The post-justification that the content was getting “more threatening” doesn’t quite gel with the fact that KiwiFarms denizens had already driven a number of people to kill themselves through repeated harassment. (KiwiFarms has now moved to Russian servers.)

And: is there any difference between social media platforms deciding to remove users who incite violence or harassment, and hosting or DDOS-preventing providers ceasing to support sites whose users incite violence or harassment? You can decide now, or read the next item and decide.
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Libs of TikTok Twitter account blamed for threats on children’s hospitals • The Washington Post

Taylor Lorenz, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Peter Jamison:

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Children’s hospitals across the US are facing growing threats of violence, driven by an online anti-LGBTQ campaign attacking the facilities for providing care to transgender kids and teens.

Twitter has left up the account inspiring the attacks, despite its employees voicing concerns in internal Slack channels that it’s “only a matter of time” before the posts lead to someone getting killed.

The campaign is led by Libs of TikTok, a Twitter account with more than 1.3 million followers run by a former Brooklyn real estate agent named Chaya Raichik, whose posts are frequently cited by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and other right-wing media figures.

After gaining a large Twitter following in the spring as she baselessly accused LGBTQ teachers of being paedophiles and “groomers,” Raichik began criticizing children’s health facilities earlier this summer, targeting a hospital in Omaha in June and another in Pittsburgh in August. The attacks resulted in a flood of online harassment and phoned-in threats at both hospitals.

Next came threats against children’s hospitals in Boston and Washington, D.C., after Raichik posted tweets targeting them.

Reached by Twitter direct messaging on Thursday, Raichik didn’t respond to a question about whether she felt responsible for the threats to the hospitals. “We 100 % condemn any acts/threats of violence,” she wrote.

Twitter declined to comment, but people familiar with internal discussions say Twitter executives face internal pressure from some employees to respond more aggressively to the account.

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Raichik will condemn the violence, but don’t actually discourage it. That’s the difference. The question of to what extent the platform is responsible for and should shut down users who do this is crucial now.
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Britain’s failure to build is throttling its economy • The Economist

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Building in Britain is never easy, often difficult and sometimes impossible. The country has become a vetocracy, in which many people and agencies have the power to stymie any given development. The Town and Country Planning Act, passed in 1947, in effect nationalised the right to build. Decisions about whether to approve new projects are made by politicians who rely on the votes of nimbys (“Not in my back yard”), notes (“Not over there, either”) and bananas (“Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything”).

Green belts, which were designed to stop suburban sprawl, have achieved precisely that. These enormous no-build zones enjoy Pyongyangesque levels of support among voters, who picture them as rural idylls rather than the mish-mash of motorways, petrol stations, scrubland and golf courses that they are in reality. Strict environmental laws protect many creatures, especially cute ones like bats. Judges strike down government decisions if they are based on a botched process because Britain respects the rule of law.

In isolation, each part of the planning system may seem unobjectionable. But the whole thing is a disaster. Britain’s failure to build enough is most pronounced when it comes to housing. England has 434 homes per 1,000 people, whereas France has 590. Its most dynamic cities can barely expand outwards, and are frequently prevented from shooting skywards as well.

But the problems extend well beyond housing. Britain has not built a reservoir since 1991 or finished a new nuclear-power station since 1995. hs2, a high-speed railway, is the first new line connecting large British cities since the 19th century. Even modest projects, such as widening the a66 road across northern England, take over a decade. The result is frustration and slower economic growth.

A truly bold government could transform the planning system. A proper land-value tax would weaken the perverse incentives to keep city centres underdeveloped and encourage landlords to build or sell up. Scrapping or shrinking the green belt is a no-brainer.

«

Hard agree. The planning system is ridiculous and hidebound, and is one of the reasons why Britain lags other countries. Rip it up.
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Actors worry that AI is taking centre stage • Financial Times

Sarah O’Connor:

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A survey this year by Equity, the UK union for actors and other performing arts workers, found that 65% of members thought AI posed a threat to employment opportunities in the sector, rising to 93% of audio artists. This wasn’t just an amorphous fear about the future: more than a third of members had seen job listings for work involving AI and almost a fifth had undertaken some of this work.

A range of AI start-ups are developing tools for use in film and audio, from making actors look and sound younger to creating AI voices that can be used for marketing campaigns, consumer assistants or even audiobook narration. Audio is such a popular medium now that companies need lots of it, but human actors are expensive and nowhere near as flexible as an AI voice, which can be made to say anything at the push of a button. These companies typically hire actors to provide hours’ worth of audio which can then be turned into a voice-for-hire.

VocaliD, for example, offers a range of voices such as “Malik” (“warm, soothing, urban”) “Terri” (“educated, optimistic, sophisticated’‘) and “AI Very British Voice” (“trustworthy, warm, calm”.) Sonantic, another AI company which was just acquired by Spotify, creates voices that can laugh, shout or cry. Its voices are often used by video game companies in the production process so they can play around with different scripts.

They’re not as good as humans, but they don’t need to be. Industry experts say no one is going to use AI to narrate the audiobook of a bestselling novel, but there is still a market to be tapped in the vast number of lower-profile books that are published or self-published every year. Audiobook.ai, for example, says it can create an audiobook in 10 minutes with 146 voices to choose from in 43 languages.

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“Not as good as humans, but don’t need to be” is a phrase that I think we’re going to hear a great deal in the coming years. (Via Wendy G.)
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The Liz Truss manifesto • POLITICO

Noah Keate:

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Liz Truss has not published her plan for government, but this is the closest thing to it.

Over nearly eight long weeks of hustings, interviews, articles and debates, the two contenders for the Tory leadership have made their respective cases for why they should succeed Boris Johnson as U.K. prime minister. Among all the campaign jibes and blue-on-blue attacks have been scores of pledges and promises for how to deal with the urgent problems facing the country.

The result of the contest won’t be known for sure until September 5, but with Foreign Secretary Truss the runaway favorite, POLITICO has compiled every policy commitment she has made during over 40 hours of hustings, as well as countless interviews and articles on the campaign trail. It is in effect the 149 separate policy pledges that make up the Truss manifesto.

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I suspect she’s going to have to break many of these “pledges”, which will be a relief to many. Sticking to ideas (abolishing the monarchy, going against Brexit) has never been Truss’s style. And those to whom she made the pledges – the Conservative members – won’t remember them in any specific way anyway. Still, good to have them here so we can refer back at some future date and laugh quietly. Or weep.

But: you can watch this clip of comedian Joe Lycett utterly blowing up the political chatshow format after Laura Kuenssberg had interviewed Truss.
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How shady ships use GPS to evade international law • The New York Times

Anatoly Kurnamaev:

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The scrappy oil tanker waited to load fuel at a dilapidated jetty projecting from a giant Venezuelan refinery on a December morning. A string of abandoned ships listed in the surrounding turquoise Caribbean waters, a testament to the country’s decay after years of economic hardships and US sanctions.

Yet, on computer screens, the ship — called Reliable — appeared nearly 300 nautical miles away, drifting innocuously off the coast of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. According to Reliable’s satellite location transmissions, the ship had not been to Venezuela in at least a decade.

Shipping data researchers have identified hundreds of cases like Reliable, where a ship has transmitted fake location coordinates in order to carry out murky and even illegal business operations and circumvent international laws and sanctions.

The digital mirage — enabled by a spreading technology — could transform how goods are moved around the world, with profound implications for the enforcement of international law, organized crime and global trade.

Tampering this way with satellite location trackers carried by large ships is illegal under international law, and until recently, most fleets are believed to have largely followed the rules.

But over the past year, Windward, a large maritime data company that provides research to the United Nations, has uncovered more than 500 cases of ships manipulating their satellite navigation systems to hide their locations. The vessels carry out the deception by adopting a technology that until recently was confined to the world’s most advanced navies. The technology, in essence, replicates the effect of a VPN cellphone app, making a ship appear to be in one place, while physically being elsewhere.

Its use has included Chinese fishing fleets hiding operations in protected waters off South America, tankers concealing stops in Iranian oil ports, and container ships obfuscating journeys in the Middle East. A US intelligence official, who discussed confidential government assessments on the condition of anonymity, said the deception tactic had already been used for weapons and drug smuggling.

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Google Maps vs. Apple Maps: which navigation app is best? • Tom’s Guide

Tom Pritchard, with an in-depth look comparing the two services:

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Google’s practice of data collection is key to making Google Maps a superior service to Apple Maps. Or that’s one way of looking at it. Since Apple Maps is run with a focus on user privacy, Apple can’t utilize data to make improvements. So Google can offer real time updates showing how busy a store or train might be, that’s always going to be well out of Apple’s reach.

But at the same time using Google Maps means knowing everything you do, and everything you search for, is being collected and analyzed for Google’s own benefit. When it comes to GPS and your actual location, that’s going to be too much for the more privacy-conscious.

Discovering new places is easy on Google Maps, but only just. Apple just needs to offer a full list of categories, rather than just giving you what it thinks is the most relevant. Similarly Google Street View is more widespread, but it also had a 12-year head start that puts Apple’s Look Around at a clear disadvantage. Apple Maps does offer a cleaner design and simpler interface, which is much more appealing than Google Maps’ relatively cluttered approach.

Most of these comparisons are arbitrary in the long run. Google Maps may well have won more categories than Apple Maps, but numbers don’t tell us everything. The most important thing to consider is the actual navigation, and it turns out there isn’t really a wrong answer here.

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Apple Maps has improved so much. Worthy of special note: if you plan a cycling journey, it tells you how hilly it may be. Still lags around the edges compared to Google Maps, but the forthcoming addition of waypoints in iOS 16 is great, and Look Around (Apple’s version of Street View) is great.. where it’s available.
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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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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