Start Up No.1923: faking your life with AI photos, Meta sued over Ethiopia violence, what Page and Brin do post-Google, and more

The company behind the Helios bitcoin facility, Argo Blockchain, has warned that it could go bankrupt without new funding. CC-licensed photo by Barbara Brannon on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Kinda Twittery. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter, and on Mastodon. Observations and links welcome.

Man fakes entire month of his life using AI-generated photos • PetaPixel

Jaron Schneider:


Self-described writer and director Kyle Vorbach realized that by specifically training the Stable Diffusion artificial intelligence (AI) image generator, he could create realistic photos that never happened. So he did, and faked a whole month of his life.

In his expertly edited video above, Vorbach says that he originally went down this rabbit hole when he needed a new profile picture last October, but was struggling to get a good result. So, after he had previously proven he could create believable images of his dog with a fine-tuned, local version of Stable Diffusion, he decided to try it with his own face.

Usually, AI-generated faces of people are difficult to believe, as the “uncanny valley” effect is extremely strong. But after playing with the program for a while and learning that it gave better results if it was told to use a celebrity that looked like the person that was being made and not the actual person (in his case, Ryan Gosling), he created an incredible photo of himself.

“Easily one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken, and I never even had to leave my bedroom,” Vorbach says.

After his success, he decided to push it even further.

“I generated my Halloween costume. I used AI to generate an entire fake trip to New York where I met up with my friend, who was also generated with AI. Everyone was believing my pictures. That’s when thing started to get weird,” he says.


It’s all starting to happen.
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Meta faces $1.6bn lawsuit over Facebook posts inciting violence in Tigray war • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


Meta has been accused in a lawsuit of letting posts that inflamed the war in Tigray flourish on Facebook, after an Observer investigation in February revealed repeated inaction on posts that incited violence.

The lawsuit, filed in the high court of Kenya, where Meta’s sub-Saharan African operations are based, alleges that Facebook’s recommendations systems amplified hateful and violent posts in the context of the war in northern Ethiopia, which raged for two years until a ceasefire was agreed in early November. The lawsuit seeks the creation of a $1.6bn (£1.3bn) fund for victims of hate speech.

One of the petitioners said his father, an Ethiopian academic, was targeted with racist messages before his murder in November 2021, and that Facebook did not remove the posts despite complaints.

“If Facebook had just stopped the spread of hate and moderated posts properly, my father would still be alive,” said Abrham Meareg, who is ethnic Tigrayan and an academic like his father.

“I’m taking Facebook to court so no one ever suffers as my family has again. I’m seeking justice for millions of my fellow Africans hurt by Facebook’s profiteering – and an apology for my father’s murder.”

The case is asking for a compensation fund of 200bn Kenyan shillings (£1.3bn) to be established for victims of hate and violence on Facebook.

In February an analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Observer found that Facebook was letting users post content inciting violence through hate and misinformation, despite being aware that it helped directly fuel tensions in Tigray, where thousands have died and millions been displaced since war broke out in late 2020.


When I was writing Social Warming, I consulted public data to find the country with the lowest level of internet penetration, because I wanted to see if my hypothesis (about the polarising effects of social media) would apply even with low use . Ethiopia was right down there for connectivity. And yet Facebook was always cited when trouble occurred.
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The party animal and the island-hopping hermit: what Page and Brin did next • Business Insider

Hugh Langley and Rob Price:


Larry Page had a new idea for his frazzled engineers: Had they tried 3D-printing an aircraft?

The Google cofounder, his graying, unkempt hair reaching almost to his shoulders, had reappeared at Kittyhawk, his floundering flying-car company, after almost three years out of the public eye. Since stepping down from Google’s parent company Alphabet in 2019, Page had been a virtual recluse, spending much of the pandemic holed up on Tavarua, his private Fijian island. But here he was in the flesh earlier this summer, trying to take control of his several-hundred-million-dollar investment as it spiraled out of control. He wanted to build a bulbous aircraft, barely taller than a telephone box, that would take off vertically and maneuver horizontally, but with a twist: It would be all-electric and self-piloting, with a 3D-printed chassis. One employee nicknamed it the “Larry Lozenge.”

But Page was too late to save the company: In September, Kittyhawk announced it was “winding down” its operations. Page’s biggest project, post-Google, had crashed and burned.

About the same time that Page was trying to salvage his venture, Sergey Brin — his partner in creating Google — was partying at Burning Man. Unlike Page, Brin had seldom strayed far from the spotlight. His divorce from the lawyer and philanthropist Nicole Shanahan became tabloid fodder after lurid (and disputed) allegations surfaced that Shanahan had a secret tryst with Brin’s fellow billionaire and one-time confidant Elon Musk. To let off steam, Brin island-hopped across the Pacific Ocean in a modified sea-plane to Burning Man, where he reveled topless in the Nevada desert, surrounded by 80,000 festival-goers and festooned with a space-age bandolier-style necklace.

…Brin is an inquisitive philanthropist pursuing intellectual curiosities and humanitarian-minded projects; Page has leveraged his vast wealth to retreat from the public eye, ceding day-to-day oversight of his ventures to a small circle of trusted lieutenants. But at their core, the former partners — who still retain control of Alphabet, the $1.2 trillion parent company of Google — share a single overriding similarity: both rely on a tangled web of corporate entities and family offices that serve to minimize their tax obligations, protect them from liability, and shield their wealth from public view.


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Free speech absolutist Elon Musk bans college kid who annoyed him • Futurism

Frank Landymore:


Remember that ElonJet Twitter account? Well, under the site’s new CEO — the self-identified stalwart free speech champion Elon Musk — it just got suspended, despite Musk previously promising he would leave it alone.

ElonJet was a bot account that tracked Musk’s private jet travel using publicly available information, and had amassed a following of over 500,000 prior to its takedown.

Its sudden suspension comes just days after its creator Jack Sweeney, a university student, claimed that an anonymous Twitter employee had disclosed to him that ElonJet had gotten its visibility severely restricted, or shadowbanned, earlier this month.

On Monday, Sweeney tweeted that Twitter had removed any visibility limiting. That victory proved to be short lived, however, because just two days later the social media company suspended the account outright. That’ll limit ElonJet’s visibility, alright.

Sweeney himself was not safe from suspension either, as later today, Sweeney’s personal account has disappeared entirely, replaced with a message reading that it had been suspended. And so the dominoes have fallen, with his other jet-tracking accounts, like BezosJets which followed Elon’s billionaire nemesis Jeff Bezos, going down, too.


All the accounts which tweeted public data from the aircrafts’ transponders are now suspended. You also can’t post links to them. Fine: it’s proven: he’s mendacious and you can’t rely on what he says. Retrospectively, Twitter has updated its “private information policy” with this self-serving paragraph:


[you can’t share] live location information, including information shared on Twitter directly or links to 3rd-party URL(s) of travel routes, actual physical location, or other identifying information that would reveal a person’s location, regardless if this information is publicly available;


Regardless if this information is publicly available?? First, ungrammatical; second, you can’t share the details about a plane flight that a politician is on? Or where they tell you? Utterly ridiculous.
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Ex-Twitter employee convicted of spying for Saudi Arabia • The Verge

Emma Roth, in August 2022:


Former Twitter employee Ahmad Abouammo was found guilty of spying for the government of Saudi Arabia, according to a report from Bloomberg. The jury handed down its judgment in a San Francisco federal court on Tuesday, where Abouammo was also convicted of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and falsifying records.

Abouammo previously worked at Twitter as a media partnerships manager and helped prominent figures in the Middle East and North Africa promote their accounts. However, he leveraged his position to access the email addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates of users who were critical of the Saudi government. Abouammo then transmitted that information to Saudi officials between November 2014 and May 2015 and received gifts in return.

In 2019, the Department of Justice charged Abouammo and another former Twitter employee, Ali Alzabarah, with espionage. The agency later expanded those charges in 2020 to include a third individual, Ahmed Almutairi, who allegedly coordinated the scheme. Both Almutairi and Alzabarah remain wanted by the US government. Last year, human rights activist Ali Al-Ahmed sued Twitter, claiming that the platform could’ve done more to protect his information.


On Wednesday he was sentenced to 3½ years in prison; his lawyer asked that he not be incarcerated because of “family upheaval”. (Today in desperate plea attempts.) Goes to show that Twitter wasn’t exactly fine and dandy before: the whistleblowing by Mudge about calamitous security was ignored.
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Bitcoin miner on verge of collapse as value halves • The Times

Tom Howard:


The stock market value of one of London’s better-known bitcoin miners almost halved yesterday after warning that it is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy as it rapidly runs out of cash.

Argo Blockchain told investors that it needed to find some money from somewhere soon otherwise it risks going under “within the next month”.

The company is in talks to sell “certain assets” to a third party, although it declined to disclose what exactly it is trying to offload. It is also in “advanced negotiations” over an equipment financing transaction, essentially a loan secured against its mining machines and other valuable hardware.

…The shares closed down 2¾p, or 40.3%, at 4p, valuing the business at about £20m.

Less than two years ago Argo was worth more than £1bn, with its share price having tracked the bitcoin price ever higher. At the beginning of the pandemic the shares were worth about 6p, but they peaked above 280p a year later.

The company runs thousands of bitcoin mining machines across the US and Canada, including one huge facility in Texas, called Helios. Typically, it sells most of what those machines mine, although it does keep some back. It has had to tap into reserves, though. This time last year Argo owned 2,595 bitcoin, but that fell to just 126 bitcoin, worth about £1.8m or so, last month.

Argo, along with other miners, has been caught out by the sharp rise in the cost of electricity which has come amid a rapid fall in the value of digital currencies. That has put pressure on its margins.


Dominoes all falling quietly.
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Jack Dorsey takes blame for building Twitter’s moderation tools • Gizmodo

Kyle Barr:


In a blog post, Dorsey wrote “The biggest mistake I made was continuing to invest in building tools for us to manage the public conversation, versus building tools for the people using Twitter to easily manage it for themselves.”

He also laid out three points that exemplify his social media philosophy: that social media should be kept out of any corporate or government control, that only an author should have the option to remove content they produce on a platform, and that moderation is best implemented by “algorithmic choice,” which is essentially ranking content based on user preferences. It’s an idea that’s been championed by the Dorsey-fronted Bluesky social app.

“The Twitter when I led it and the Twitter of today do not meet any of these principles. This is my fault alone,” Dorsey wrote. He also referred to an activist who “entered our stock in 2020” as the reason he gave up pushing those ideals. As noted by Business Insider, Dorsey could be referring to the hedge fund Elliott Management who bought more than $200m in stock and tried to oust Dorsey as CEO.


Algorithms can’t do all moderation, and can’t take the final decisions about removing people who are actively seeking to cause trouble. Dorsey has lived in a sort of dream world where he imagines things aren’t too bad at Twitter while he worked at Square. But he’s divorced by his wealth from the real world. Is he really serious that only Al-Qa’ida should have the option to remove content created by Al-Qa’ida?
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Musk shakes up Twitter’s legal team as he looks to cut more costs • The New York Times

Ryan Mac, Mike Isaac and Kate Conger:


To cut costs, Twitter has not paid rent for its San Francisco headquarters or any of its global offices for weeks, three people close to the company said. Twitter has also refused to pay a $197,725 bill for private charter flights made the week of Mr. Musk’s takeover, according to a copy of a lawsuit filed in New Hampshire District Court and obtained by The New York Times.

Twitter’s leaders have also discussed the consequences of denying severance payments to thousands of people who have been laid off since the takeover, two people familiar with the talks said. And Mr. Musk has threatened employees with lawsuits if they talk to the media and “act in a manner contrary to the company’s interest,” according to an internal email sent last Friday.

The aggressive moves signal that Mr. Musk is still slashing expenditures and is bending or breaking Twitter’s previous agreements to make his mark. His reign has been characterized by chaos, a series of resignations and layoffs, reversals of the platform’s previous suspensions and rules, and capricious decisions that have driven away advertisers. Mr. Musk did not respond to a request for comment.

As he has transitioned into the role of Twitter’s new leader, Mr. Musk has had a cast of rotating legal professionals by his side. In October, he fired both Twitter’s chief legal officer and general counsel “for cause” within hours of closing his acquisition and installed his personal lawyer, Alex Spiro, to head up legal and policy matters at the company.

Mr. Spiro is no longer working at Twitter, according to six people familiar with the decision. Those people said that Mr. Musk has been unhappy with some of the decisions made by Mr. Spiro, a noted criminal defense lawyer who successfully defended the billionaire in a high-profile defamation case in late 2019 and worked his way into the Twitter owner’s inner circle.


If he tries to deny severance payments, he’ll never be out of the courts. Quite possibly it will become impossible to hire people too: why would you join a company knowing that if you’re fired you won’t get the payoff you’re due? (Thanks wendyg for the link.)
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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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