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The Download: tracking teachers online, and how influencers navigate algorithms

July 15, 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.

The book ban movement has a chilling new tactic: harassing teachers online

Nancy Vera was awakened suddenly at midnight on July 12 by the sound of a single gunshot, the bullet ricocheting off her home. She looked at a security camera just in time to see a truck speed away.

Vera was shocked but not surprised. The president of the Corpus Christi, Texas, branch of the American Federation of Teachers, she had recently handed out books with LGBTQ characters at a pride event for local students, alongside a drag queen. In response, she’d been called a “groomer” online, a slur commonly used by devotees of the conspiracy theory QAnon, which claims that powerful people and institutions are ensnaring children in sex trafficking rings.

There is a growing push among Christian and conservative groups across the US to get certain books and topics they deem inappropriate for children removed from school libraries and curriculums. Now the fight is turning increasingly ugly, with people targeting individual teachers’ private social media accounts for scrutiny and even harassment.

“This type of rhetoric is going to get people killed,” Vera says. 

Read the full story

—Tanya Basu

How aspiring influencers are forced to fight the algorithm

Last summer, a TikTok creator named Ziggi Tyler posted a video calling out a disturbing problem he found in the app’s Creator Marketplace, a tool that matches creators with brands looking to pay for sponsored content. 

Tyler said he was unable to enter phrases like “Black Lives Matter” and “supporting Black excellence” into his Marketplace profile. However, phrases like “white supremacy” and “supporting white excellence” were allowed.

TikTok apologized and blamed an automatic filter. However, these sorts of problems have cropped up and been flagged by creators again and again.

Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University, teamed up with graduate student Colten Meisner to interview 30 creators on TikTok, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube, and Twitter around the time Tyler’s video went viral. They wanted to know how creators navigate the algorithms and moderation practices of the platforms they use.

They found that understanding the algorithms and hidden rules that guide each platform is practically a job in itself. Read our interview with Duffy about her research.

—Abby Ohlheiser

The must-reads

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

1 A looming copper shortage could jeopardize net-zero targets
Demand for the metal, which is widely used for renewable energy, is set to double by 2035. (CNBC
Europe is bracing itself for a record-breaking heatwave next week. (CNN)
 
2 Covid hospitalizations are rising again in the US
It’s an unfortunate trend that’s colliding with widespread shortages of nurses. (NYT $)
+ Time to break out the rapid tests again. (Slate $)
+ Desperate long covid patients are paying vast sums for unproven treatments. (Ars Technica)
 
3 Sri Lanka is in crisis, and so are its scientists
It’s grappling with a massive dengue-fever outbreak and power cuts amid political upheaval. (Nature)
 
4 Twitter experienced a major outage yesterday
Yet another problem for the besieged company, but at least this one wasn’t caused by Elon Musk. (BBC)
The SEC has broadened its inquiry into whether Musk properly followed due process in his bid. (NYT $)
 
5 NFT marketplace OpenSea has laid off 20% of its staff 
Mass layoffs are taking place all over the cryptosphere, as companies prepare for a prolonged downturn. (TechCrunch)
+ Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life. (MIT Technology Review)
 
6 Facebook has been accused of “whitewashing” a report on human rights in India
India is its largest market by users, and it seems extremely reluctant to do anything to upset the Hindu nationalist ruling party. (Time)
How Facebook and Google fund global misinformation. (MIT Technology Review)
 
7 Lobbyists are hiding among us online
It was only a matter of time until Washington’s political power brokers started funneling money to influencers. (Wired $)
 
8 This weird bird could make us question our understanding of evolution 
The hoatzin poses a major challenge to the ‘tree of life’ model. (New Yorker $)
 
9 DALL-E 2’s failures are what’s most fascinating about it
It gives us a window into what AI does (and does not) understand about the human world. (IEEE Spectrum)
This horse-riding astronaut is a milestone in AI’s journey to make sense of the world. (MIT Technology Review)
 
10 This app forces you to stop working
It started off as a joke, but it turns out people really need it. (WSJ $)

Quote of the day

“The message is, ‘Time’s up.’ It’s time to make it happen.”

—Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo tells CNN that lawmakers have just two weeks to put aside their partisan differences and push through $52 billion in funding to the US semiconductor industry before the August recess.

The big story

Meet the scientist at the center of the covid lab leak controversy

February 2022

The Wuhan Institute of Virology holds a critical place in the story of the covid-19 pandemic. A leading center for coronavirus research, it was the first facility to isolate the virus, and the first to sequence its genome. One of its labs, led by virologist Shi Zhengli, focuses on coronaviruses that live in bats, and has spent years trying to understand how they may evolve to gain the ability to infect humans. 

Shi’s work has been at the center of controversy. Some have speculated that the live viruses her team cultured in the lab, including—more worryingly—the ones they created by genetic tinkering, could be the source of the pandemic. 

Inflaming the suspicions are concerns over biosafety procedures at the lab, political tensions between China and the US, and a general sense that the Chinese government is not to be trusted. This is Shi’s side of the story. Read the full story.

—Jane Qiu

Want to learn more about the controversy surrounding covid’s origins? Listen to our podcast, Curious Coincidence, which is all about exactly that topic.

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.)

+ A cat who went feral in Boston airport for three weeks has been safely returned to her owners. Her name? Rowdy.
+ Take a sneak peek inside eight amazing art galleries thanks to Google’s Arts and Culture hub (thanks Art!)
+ If you fancy doing a bit of baking this weekend, why not try out this light and fluffy cake recipe?
+ This Twitter account has been rating resignation letters (mainly from the UK government, which has produced an awful lot of them recently.)
+ An interesting collection of movies which managed to make a decent fourth installment.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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