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The Download

The Download: China’s influencer crackdown, and covid’s origins

Plus: Quantum computing could create never-before-seen forms of matter

June 10, 2022

This is today's edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what's going on in the world of technology.

How China’s biggest online influencers fell from their thrones

No one had foreseen just how fast three of China’s most powerful influencers would fall. On June 3, Austin Li, a 30-year-old live-streamer with over 60 million followers, abruptly cut off a live stream after a tank-shaped ice cream dessert appeared on the screen. While he later posted that it was due to “technical difficulties,” most people understand it as having triggered government censors, who interpreted it as a reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Li isn’t known to have been arrested, and his account remains active, but he hasn’t streamed or posted on social media since. Fans suspect he may not be allowed to stream again.

Live-streaming e-commerce in China is a massive industry worth over $180 billion. Influencers like Li have risen to rival the popularity of A-list celebrities, and have been known to facilitate billions of dollars worth of online purchases in one night. 

But in Li’s and at least two other cases, these online empires were toppled overnight in what appears to be a government crackdown extending back to late 2021—suggesting a reckoning is well underway.  Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 We’re still being kept in the dark about the origins of covid
We need more data from China, a new WHO report says. (NYT $)
+ It also wants to investigate the theory it was leaked from a lab further. (WP $)
+ Meet the scientist at the center of the lab leak controversy. (MIT Technology Review)

2 Quantum computers could create an entirely new forms of matter
The likes of which have never been seen before in nature. (New Scientist $)
+ Data is at risk of being broken by computers that don’t even exist yet. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ The US is already concerned about the threat they pose to encryption. (MIT Technology Review)

3 How eBay sellers are evading its ban on assault weapons
Some listings are blatant about what they’re selling, while others are more subtle. (LA Times)
+ While you’re theoretically not allowed to sell guns on Facebook, you have to break that rule 10 times for it to be enforced. (WP $)

4  Is community governance the answer to social media’s problems?
Relying on the cooperation of strangers is risky, but so is allowing one man unfettered power over a platform. (The Atlantic $)
+ Eight legal complaints were filed against Facebook this week. (Protocol)
+ Big Tech spent $36 million on adverts opposing a US antitrust bill. (WSJ $)

5 NASA is joining to hunt for UFOs 🛸
It wants to collect data on phenomena we don’t understand. (WP $)
+ Astronomers are rethinking how the planets came to be. (Quanta)
+ A key substance for life has been found in asteroid samples. (CNET)
+ Japan’s space agency is experimenting with a four-legged lunar robot. (CNN)

6 East Asians’ eyesight is getting worse
More sunlight exposure might help future generations, though. (Economist $) 

7 Stimulating your muscles with electricity is the hottest new fitness trend
But there’s no evidence it’s more effective than good old fashioned exercise. (Neo.Life)

8 Silicone breast implants are still making women sick
Despite their issues being known for decades. (Slate)

9 The internet was supposed to make life easier
Now we’re reliant on middlemen our grandparents never needed. (The Atlantic $)

10 The moral implications of whether animals dream 💤
And why we may, one day, know what they’re dreaming about. (Motherboard)

Quote of the day

“It’s all come back to bite us.”

—Tran Tuan, a GrabCar ride-hailing driver in Ho Chi Minh City, is frustrated by the company’s decision to raise its prices amid a spike in fuel prices, after years of rapid growth, he tells Rest of World.

The big story

AI will tell you how beautiful you are

March 2021

Qoves started as a studio that would airbrush images for modeling agencies. Now it is a “facial aesthetics consultancy” that promises answers to the age-old question of what makes a face attractive. Its most compelling feature is the “facial assessment tool”: an AI-driven system that promises to tell you how beautiful you are—or aren’t—spitting out numerical values akin to credit ratings. 

If that prospect isn’t concerning enough, most of these algorithms are littered with inaccuracies, ageism, and racism—and the proprietary nature of many of them means it is impossible to get insight into how they really work, how much they’re being used, or how they affect users. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet 'em at me.)

+ Aww, these seals are too cute.
+ This list of top holiday destinations for June is giving me some serious wanderlust.
+ What can inkblots teach us? Quite a lot, it turns out.
+ It’s no joke, mountain goats really are fearless.

If you enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary about The Beatles (and who didn’t?), this is a fun look back at Paul McCartney through the ages.

Deep Dive

Humans and technology

anti-choice surveillance tactics
anti-choice surveillance tactics

Anti-abortion activists are collecting the data they’ll need for prosecutions post-Roe

Body cams and license plates are already being used to track people arriving at abortion clinics.

Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi, also known as "king of lipstick," is seen in a subway station in Shanghai
Chinese livestreamer and beauty influencer Li Jiaqi, also known as "king of lipstick," is seen in a subway station in Shanghai

How China’s biggest online influencers fell from their thrones

Three top livestreaming personalities on the platform Taobao commanded legions of fans who bought billions of dollars’ worth of goods—until they suddenly went dark.

animal crossing concepts
animal crossing concepts

Inside the experimental world of animal infrastructure

Wildlife crossings cut down on roadkill. But are they really a boon for conservation?

chore apps haven't helped overworked moms concept
chore apps haven't helped overworked moms concept

Chore apps were meant to make mothers’ lives easier. They often don’t.

Rather than reducing the burden of housework, they tend to become yet another thing to worry about

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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