The undercurrents of the future. A Medium publication about technology and people.


If the Uber-backed ballot initiative passes, it may lay the groundwork for unrest not seen since the onset of the Industrial Revolution

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Photo: Robyn Beck/Getty Images

In a moment absolutely overstuffed with events that all bear the weight of historic significance — the hard-right lurch of the Supreme Court, an election the president appears destined to lose and then contest, another surge in the deadly pandemic — it’s easy for California’s Prop 22 to get lost in the shuffle. …

Days before the presidential election, Facebook has temporarily paused its algorithmic recommendation of groups dealing with political or social issues. It’s unclear when Facebook enacted this measure, and it was not publicly announced, BuzzFeed News reported on Friday. At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey about Facebook group recommendations ahead of the election. Zuckerberg told Markey that “we have taken the step of stopping recommendations in groups for all political content or social issue groups as a precaution for this.”

The Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing, at which Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai also testified, partly focused on Facebook’s role in election influence — the spread of disinformation, foreign interference, and the harboring of militant civilian groups. Zuckerberg vowed that Facebook also had safeguards in place for post-election unrest. …

Maybe it’s time for them to move out of Silicon Valley

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Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

The year 2020 has been a tougher year than usual for almost everyone and particularly for those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to the extraordinarily high cost of living in the region, it was one of the first American hotspots for the coronavirus outbreak, and since mid-summer it has been plagued by even larger wildfires than usual. For safety operators working for automated driving companies based in the Bay Area, it’s even worse. But some companies appear to be taking better care of their employees than others.

Larger Autonomous Vehicle (AV) companies like Cruise and Waymo are still using two safety operators per vehicle. The person behind the steering wheel is focused on watching the road and is prepared to take control whenever they deem that it might be unsafe to allow the automation to continue. The second operator is watching the data and noting anomalies that should be investigated. …

Big Technology

Both companies added friction to their sharing process in recent months

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Credit: Facebook

Starting this week, Facebook will slow you down a bit when you go to share Covid-19 related photos and memes. When you hit the share button on these images, the company will show you the date they originally appeared, forcing you to consider whether you still want to pass them along.

Facebook’s new safeguard, and others like it, didn’t get much attention at the Senate’s content moderation hearing this week. Big Technology, in fact, is first reporting this latest update here. But giving people more information before they share is becoming increasingly popular inside social media companies — Facebook even has a name for it — “Informative Sharing” — and the practice will likely influence information quality on social platforms more than any measure the current content moderation debate covers. …

For decades, ABC aired A Charlie Brown Christmas each holiday season. But starting this year, the Peanuts special will instead stream exclusively on Apple TV+. Joshua N. Miller explores the significance of this move in an essay on Debugger.

“If Apple is bold enough to think it can make a profit by privatizing such a publicly recognized character like Charlie Brown,” he writes, “rival companies may proceed to make their own plans to ensure that consumers are spending the holidays on their respective platforms as well.”

All that is holding these companies back from strong-arming customers with exclusive access to their favorite iconic content, he writes, are syndication contracts that will eventually expire. And while no classic is safe from these land grabs, Apple’s exclusive on Charlie Brown is perhaps particularly stinging — the moral of the Christmas story, after all, is to find joy in community instead of capitalist norms. …

‘If you have a message, you have conviction’

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Steve Schmidt

OneZero is partnering with the Big Technology Podcast from Alex Kantrowitz to bring readers exclusive access to interview transcripts with notable figures in and around the tech industry.

This week, Kantrowitz sits down with Steve Schmidt, co-founder of the Lincoln Project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To subscribe to the podcast and hear the interview for yourself, you can check it out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast.

When Steve Schmidt was a senior advisor on John McCain’s campaign in 2008, Twitter was a curiosity. Now, he and a number of former Republican establishment members are using social media deftly to make the case against President Trump with the Lincoln Project. Their anti-Trump ads seem to go viral at least once a week, and may indeed influence the outcome of the election. Schmidt, a Lincoln Project co-founder, joins the Big Technology Podcast to discuss the evolution of the Republican Party since the McCain days, and how social media is changing politics. …

Why won’t Google change the algorithm?

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In July, I performed an experiment to see how easy it was to run ads on Google that made false claims about Joe Biden.

First, in the Google Ads system, I bought the keyword “should I vote for Biden?” Then I told Google I wanted to run this ad:

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Within an hour, Google accepted the ad, and it was up and running. It served (usually in the top position) on the results pages for people across the United States when they Googled “should I vote for Biden?”

Here’s a slight variation of the ad, in the wild:

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The top line of the ad — the part that’s blacked out — is the name of the website where I chose, in the Google Ads system, to direct clickers of the ad. In this example, I sent clickers to a conservative news site. (The news site didn’t actually write the ad, but to the searcher, it seems like it did.) …

Workers say they were discouraged from speaking up when they found flaws in the company’s policies

Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas.
Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas.
Content moderators work at a Facebook office in Austin, Texas. Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/The Washington Post/Getty Images

We know by now that moderating Facebook is a nightmare. We know that developing and enforcing a consistent set of rules across 2 billion users across nearly 200 countries is nigh impossible. We know that Facebook outsources the majority of the thankless task to ill-compensated contractors, who often work under mentally and psychologically grueling conditions.

But this week, three people who have worked as contract moderators for Facebook — two former, and one current — raised an important point that I don’t think has received quite as much attention. …

Far-right groups are increasingly relying on an ecosystem of alternative apps and platforms like Zello, MeWe, Parler, Gab, and Rocket.Chat

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Photo: NurPhoto/Contributor/Getty Images

“Right now, if everybody’s ready, we can have a real quick course on what they call the use of force contingency,” announced the moderator of a militia chatroom on Zello, a walkie-talkie app where far-right groups have been organizing, often anonymously, over the past several years. “Lethal force is where you shoot or use a weapon to kill somebody in self-defense.”

The moderator, who described himself as a combat vet, was readying the group for the upcoming presidential election. …

In a recent story for the New York Times, tech reporter Kashmir Hill profiled activists who use facial recognition to identify police officers who cover their badges or name tags during protests. As technologist Andrew Maximov described, it’s a way for the “little guys” to turn the tables on the authorities.

“It’s not just the loss of anonymity. It’s the threat of infamy,” he said.

The technology relies on open-source solutions. Christopher Howell, an activist in Portland, Oregon, is developing facial recognition to identify police using Google’s TensorFlow, a machine learning platform. You can download TensorFlow yourself for free, and with a bit of help from facial recognition tutorials, code the project yourself.

Read more about activists using facial recognition against police here:

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