The 54th Block: Vox populi vs. Vox machinis

I hope my Latin makes sense.

This week…

I follow several stories, including how anti-maskers—using all the wrong equations but arriving at the right answer—are starting to mask up, to protect themselves from the vaccinated (Mack Lamoureux, Vice). Clubhouse launches on Android users in the US as global downloads plummet (Nandakumar D and Elizabeth Culliford, Reuters). And, progressive tech critic Lina Khan gets bipartisan support for the US Federal Trade Commission, which “may indicate [a] growing bipartisan appetite for reining in major online platforms like Google, Facebook and Apple” (Leah Nylen, Politico).

Speaking of, Apple hires, then un-hires, a former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez, known for having a misogynistic past (Ina Fried, Axios). Two things:

  • A few years ago when my sister-in-law was applying to adopt a rescue pup, I was shocked to learn that she needed three references to even be considered. I think I would need 30 references for an actual job interview here. What kind of vetting process does Apple have?

  • Jean-Louis Gassée, former Apple executive raises the one-cockroach theory, ie. if there is one in sight, how many are not?

Finally, for our interview segment, I speak with counterterrorism analyst Munira Mustaffa about online deception—beyond Katie Jones, in a text-only interview. You can find the interview at the link below. But first, a selection of top stories on my radar, a few personal recommendations, and the chart of the week.

Instagram, Twitter blame glitches for deleting Palestinian posts

Maya Gebeily for Reuters:

Instagram and Twitter have blamed technical errors for deleting posts mentioning the possible eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, but data rights groups fear “discriminatory” algorithms are at work and want greater transparency.

Meanwhile, AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt says in a statement after Israel destroys the offices of AP and Al-Jazeera that, “the world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.”

Canadian voice actor sues TikTok for use of voice in text-to-speech function

Cristina Criddle for BBC:

Bev Standing recorded about 10,000 sentences of audio for the state-backed Chinese Institute of Acoustics research body to use in translations, in 2018. The legal action claims her voice can now be heard in viral videos featuring “foul and offensive language”, causing her reputation “irreparable harm”.

Separately, TikTok announces the launch of #FactCheckYourFeed in collaboration with the UK-based digital media literacy charity, The Student View.

Overstory Media Group wants to provide cover (and salaries) for local journalists

Fifty publications and 250 journalists by 2023, that’s Farhan Mohamed and Andrew Wilkinson’s target to revive local journalism, writes Sarah Scire for Nieman Lab:

The model brings to mind Axios, which has expanded into local newsletters by hiring and launching from scratch in some cities and buying existing media companies in others, or — a bit closer to home — IndieGrafa Canadian network that shares resources to support independent local journalists. Each has predicted that a regular email newsletter is key to gaining a local audience.

I feel awful about the swift and mass demise of local newsrooms —almost 2,000 since 2004 in the US alone (Kristen Hare, Poynter)—even way before the pandemic. The void created leaves so much room for hyper-targeted disinformation to take root. So, of course, I’m (cautiously) hopeful when I read about initiatives like this one in Canada.

What I read, watch and listen to…

  • I’m reading Propaganda, a 1928 book by “the father of public relations,” Edward Bernays. It is a timely read for a refresher on social and psychological manipulations in public communications. Download the free ebook on Project Gutenberg.

  • I’m watching Jordan Harrod’s review of PimEyes, a facial recognition tool that anyone can use (and how that can be dangerous):

  • I’m listening to Insider’s Kat Tenbarge on why influencers need watchdog journalism on Means of Creation.

Chart of the week

Preprints accelerated science communication during this pandemic, leading to cultural shifts in policymaking and journalistic practices, according to Nicholas Fraser et al. in a PLoS Biology paper.

In another piece, Helen Pearson elaborates on Nature how almost 3,000 COVID-19 clinical trials were registered – but most were too small or poorly designed to be used, and in the process, revealed the flaws in the way we produce evidence.

The Sidelines

Full interview available here.

The Starting Block is a weekly collection of notes on science and society with an emphasis on data, democracy, and disinformation. Read the archives. Find me on Twitter, Instagram and Linkedin. Send questions, corrections and suggestions to