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Facebook Quietly Makes a Big Admission


Back in February, Facebook announced a little experiment. It would reduce the amount of political content shown to a subset of users in a few countries, including the US, and then ask them about the experience. “Our goal is to preserve the ability for people to find and interact with political content on Facebook, while respecting each person’s appetite for it at the top of their News Feed,” Aastha Gupta, a product management director, explained in a blog post.

On Tuesday morning, the company provided an update. The survey results are in, and they suggest that users appreciate seeing political stuff less often in their feeds. Now Facebook intends to repeat the experiment in more countries and is teasing “further expansions in the coming months.” Depoliticizing people’s feeds makes sense for a company that is perpetually in hot water for its alleged impact on politics. The move, after all, was first announced just a month after Donald Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol, an episode that some people, including elected officials, sought to blame Facebook for. The change could end up having major ripple effects for political groups and media organizations that have gotten used to relying on Facebook for distribution.

The most significant part of Facebook’s announcement, however, has nothing to do with politics at all.

The basic premise of any AI-driven social media feed—think Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube—is that you don’t need to tell it what you want to see. Just by observing what you like, share, comment on, or simply linger over, the algorithm learns what kind of material catches your interest and keeps you on the platform. Then it shows you more stuff like that.

In one sense, this design feature gives social media companies and their apologists a convenient defense against critique: If certain stuff is going big on a platform, that’s because it’s what users like. If you have a problem with that, perhaps your problem is with the users.

And yet, at the same time, optimizing for engagement is at the heart of many of the criticisms of social platforms. An algorithm that’s too focused on engagement might push users toward content that might be super engaging but of low social value. It might feed them a diet of posts that are ever more engaging because they are ever more extreme. And it might encourage the viral proliferation of material that’s false or harmful, because the system is selecting first for what will trigger engagement, rather than what ought to be seen. The list of ills associated with engagement-first design helps explain why neither Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, nor Sundar Pichai would admit during a March congressional hearing that the platforms under their control are built that way at all. Zuckerberg insisted that “meaningful social interactions” are Facebook’s true goal. “Engagement,” he said, “is only a sign that if we deliver that value, then it will be natural that people use our services more.”

In a different context, however, Zuckerberg has acknowledged that things might not be so simple. In a 2018 post, explaining why Facebook suppresses “borderline” posts that try to push up to the edge of the platform’s rules without breaking them, he wrote, “no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average—even when they tell us afterward they don’t like the content.” But that observation seems to have been confined to the issue of how to implement Facebook’s policies around banned content, rather than rethinking the design of its ranking algorithm more broadly.

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Community Pharmacies Stepped Up During Covid—and Changed for Good


With 19 locations throughout the Milwaukee area, Hayat Pharmacy focuses on providing quality health care to the underserved. To Hashim Zaibak, pharmacist and owner, quality health care isn’t about dispensing medications; it’s about removing barriers that influence his community’s health. The pharmacists and pharmacy technicians of Hayat, an Arabic word that means “life,” visit patients in their homes, and the team collectively speaks over 20 different languages and dialects. During these visits, which Zaibak calls “Medication Therapy Management,” or MTM, pharmacists educate patients about their medical conditions, provide alternative methods for health management, administer antipsychotic medications, and ensure that patients take medications as prescribed.

It’s a more involved version of care than you might expect from a community pharmacy, a category that encompasses everything from chains like CVS and Walgreens to grocery stores like Kroger to mass merchandisers like Walmart to the independently owned small business down the street. But while the perception of pharmacies as a commodity—and pharmacists as shufflers of pills from the big bottle to the little bottle—has for decades remained largely unchanged, the landscape has changed in recent years, particularly in the wake of Covid-19.

Today’s community pharmacists administer vaccines, manage chronic disease, supply birth control, optimize medication regimens, and in some cases assess genetic markers for personalized medicine, to name just a few services. Unfortunately, the availability of those offerings differs from state to state, and between types of community pharmacies. Professionally, community pharmacies have spent decades advocating for enhanced services, often through legislative initiatives for pharmacists to be identified, legally, as health care providers, as well as for the role of the pharmacy technician to expand.

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent federal actions, like the PREP Act, flipped a switch for pharmacy practice legislatively. Practically overnight, pharmacy technicians, under the supervision of a qualified pharmacist and with appropriate training, were authorized to administer vaccines to children and Covid-19 vaccines for any eligible patient over the age of 3 in October 2020. The PREP Act continues to change practice; an August 2021 amendment expanded the authorization for pharmacy technicians to administer the influenza vaccine to any patient regardless of age, similar to Covid-19 vaccines. Legislators saw community pharmacies as a way to fill increasing health care gaps. The pandemic closed many health care practices and opened doors for pharmacies to step in.

Hayat Pharmacy is one among many providers that are using that expanded authorization to better serve their communities. In May 2020, it implemented a new clinical service: testing services—specifically, Covid-19 screenings. Zaibak personally conducted the screenings to demonstrate to staff and patients the importance of this work. During the initial interview for this piece, Zaibak was pulled away to deal with testing patients, now for the Delta variant.

When the vaccine became available, Hayat Pharmacy stepped up. It has an electronic signup system, but the communities Hayat serves have low technology adoption, so most of those early vaccinations went to eligible walk-in patients. Hayat Pharmacy emphasizes care for the elderly, sick, and underserved, and it has administered over 50,000 immunizations to Milwaukee residents. Once adolescent vaccines were authorized, the first dose administered in the pharmacy was by Zaibak to his son.

Just as the community pharmacy’s role has evolved, so too has its financial model. Dispensing drugs is increasingly a loss leader for pharmacies; in some states, the responsibility of dispensing medications has shifted to pharmacy technicians, though still under the direct supervision and oversight of a pharmacist. Community pharmacists are arguably overtrained to only dispense medications; the entry-level degree is a doctorate. Automation and technology help patients get medication, while pharmacists like Zaibak are well positioned to ensure patients know what to do with it.

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The Biggest DDoS Attack in History Hit Russian Tech Giant Yandex


As the full implications of Texas’s SB 8 abortion law come into view, internet infrastructure companies have become an unlikely focal point. Multiple hosting and domain registration providers have declined to offer services to an abortion ‘whistleblower’ site for violating terms of service related to collecting data about third parties. The site, which aims to collect tips on people who have received, performed or facilitated abortions in Texas, has been down for more than a week.

Meanwhile, as Apple grapples with controversy over its proposed—but now paused—plans to scan iPhones for child sexual abuse material, WhatsApp moved this week to plug its biggest end-to-end encryption loophole. The ubiquitous secure communication platform can’t peek at your messages at any point on their digital journey, but if you back up your chats on a third-party cloud service, like iCloud or Google Cloud, the messages are no longer end-to-end encrypted. With some clever cryptography, the service was finally able to devise a method for the encrypting the backup before it’s sent to the cloud for storage.

After handing an activist’s IP address over to law enforcement, the secure email service ProtonMail said this week that it is updating its policies to make it more clear what customer metadata it can be legally compelled to collect. The service emphasized, though, that the actual content of emails sent on the platform is always end-to-end encrypted and unreadable, even to ProtonMail itself.

And 20 years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, privacy researchers are still contemplating the tragedy’s continued influence on attitudes toward surveillance in the United States.  

But wait, there’s more! Each week we round up all the security news WIRED didn’t cover in depth. Click on the headlines to read the full stories, and stay safe out there.

The Russian tech giant Yandex said this week that in August and September it was hit with the internet’s largest-ever recorded distributed denial-of-service or DDoS attack. The flood of junk traffic, meant to overwhelm systems and take them down, peaked on September 5, but Yandex successfully defended against even that largest barrage. “Our experts did manage to repel a record attack of nearly 22 million requests per second,” the company said in a statement. “This is the biggest known attack in the history of the internet.”

A Russian national thought to work with the notorious malware gang TrickBot was arrested last week at Seoul international airport. Known only as Mr. A in local media, the man was attempting to fly to Russia after spending more than a year and a half in South Korea. After arriving in February 2020, Mr. A was trapped in Seoul because of international travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time his passport expired and Mr. A had to get an apartment in Seoul while working with the Russian embassy on a replacement. Concurrently, United States law enforcement officials opened an investigation into TrickBot’s activity, particularly related to a botnet the group developed and used to aid a rash of 2020 ransomware attacks. During the investigation officials gathered evidence of Mr. A’s alleged work with  TrickBot, including possible 2016 development of a malicious browser tool.

A bug in the United Kingdom version of McDonald’s Monopoly VIP game exposed usernames and passwords for the game’s databases to all winners. The flaw caused data about both the game’s production and staging servers to show up in prize redemption emails. The exposed information included Microsoft Azure SQL database details and credentials. A winner who received the credentials likely couldn’t have logged into the production server because of a firewall, but could have accessed the staging server and potentially grabbed winning codes to redeem more prizes.

Hackers published 500,000 Fortinet VPN credentials, usernames and passwords, apparently collected last summer from vulnerable devices. The bug they exploited to collect the data has since been patched, but some of the stolen credentials may still be valid. This would allow bad actors to log into organizations’ Fortinet VPNs and access their networks to install malware, steal data, or launch other attacks. The data dump, published by a known ransomware gang offshoot called “Orange,” was posted for free. “CVE-2018-13379 is an old vulnerability resolved in May 2019,” Fortinet said in a statement to Bleeping Computer. “If customers have not done so, we urge them to immediately implement the upgrade and mitigations.”


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Neuroscience Is Inspiring Some Amazing Sci-Fi


Daryl Gregory’s collection Unpossible features several short stories inspired by neuroscience, including “Digital,” in which a man’s consciousness migrates from his head into his finger, and “Glass,” in which sociopaths are “cured” by activating their mirror neurons.

“It’s great to have a job where you get permission to feed your hobby and buy as many books as you want, and so I keep buying neuroscience books,” Gregory says in Episode 484 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I’m endlessly fascinated by that stuff, and so I’m always looking for ways to make that into stories.”

In his story “Dead Horse Point,” a genius physicist suffers from a strange condition that causes her to disappear into her own mind for weeks at a time. Gregory says the story was inspired by a friend of his. “He wasn’t completely dysfunctional like the character in my story, but he was a really gifted mathematician, and when he was working on a hard problem, he would—for days at a time—he would drift around, he would eat automatically, he would barely talk to people,” Gregory says. “He had to stop doing that when he had kids, because you can’t just walk away from your children and come back three days later and see if they’re OK.”

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is “Second Person, Present Tense,” in which a teenager takes a drug that disrupts the connection between her conscious mind and the rest of her brain. “She overdoses on this drug,” Gregory says, “and then a new consciousness sort of steps in, and she knows exactly what happened—she has access even to the old person’s memories—but her identity does not feel like that person. She feels like a new consciousness.”

Gregory thought the idea was complete fiction, but later learned it’s something that can actually happen. “I got an email from a guy who’s a professor, and he’s like, ‘I read this story, and this happened to me, except it wasn’t a drug, it was a motorcycle accident. When I woke up in the hospital, I knew I was a different person, but I wasn’t as brave as your protagonist—I kept faking my way through it,’” Gregory says. “He just was trying to get by, even though he knew he had nothing to do with that previous person who had the motorcycle accident.”

Listen to the complete interview with Daryl Gregory in Episode 484 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Daryl Gregory on his story “The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy”:

“[Gordon Van Gelder] did me a great service on ‘The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy,’ which is in the collection, and which Gordon published. … He actually said, ‘Look, this is not actually a science fiction story. It’s a mainstream story about science fiction. So I just can’t take it, I can’t buy the story.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ But I said, ‘You know, I really hope that people in science fiction would read it, because it’s about me as a reader, growing up.’ I went on to write other stories for Gordon, and then he came back to me and said, ‘Look, I can’t stop thinking about that story. Let’s run it.’ And he did run it, but with a disclaimer—not for sex or violence, but for the disturbing lack of genre content.”

Daryl Gregory on his novel Revelator:

“I’m really interested in the idea of gods that aren’t quite gods, demons that aren’t really demons. So like in this new book Revelator, there’s a family in the Smoky Mountains, in the 1930s and ’40s, and for generations they’ve been worshiping their own private god, and they’ve declared it a god, but what is it really? One of the mysteries of the book is, ‘Well, what is this thing? We’ve sort of made it into a god, and it’s doing things, and it seems to be supernatural, but is there another, science fiction explanation for it?’ … One of the secrets of the book is that it’s a crypto science fiction novel. I wrote it in such a way that it feels like horror and fantasy, but there’s a scientific explanation for every single thing that’s going on in the story.”

Daryl Gregory on Roger Zelazny:

“I grew up reading people like Roger Zelazny who would mix science fiction and fantasy. … Zelazny wrote this great novel that had such an influence on me called Lord of Light, where it’s basically a science fiction space opera about a far future civilization that crash landed—we learn later they came in a ship—but their high tech, for some of the original crew members, makes them into gods, and they assume aspects of the Hindu pantheon. It’s fantastic. It blew my mind when I read it sophomore year of high school, and when you read something at that age, it can carve a deep groove into your brain. And so part of me still, years later, wants to be Roger Zelazny more than anything. I want to grow up to be him.”

Daryl Gregory on his novella The Album of Dr. Moreau:

“I thought, ‘OK, all the suspects are going to be these human-animal hybrids—there’s a bat boy and an elephant boy, and all of them are going to be suspects.’ … I had these five guys who were born on a secret science barge and raised by evil genetic engineers, and they’d spent all this time together, and so finding out how they would talk to each other, like brothers, and how each of them would have a distinct personality, that was the most fun of the book. So before I ever started really any of the plot, I would sit and let them talk to each other—I would just keep typing, trying to come up with dialogue — and that’s where I found the book, was in these five guys, the way they would bicker, and how each of them would be funny in a different way.”


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‘The Internet Remains Undefeated’ Must Be Defeated


To a wide-ranging group of social media users like Hall, “The internet remains undefeated” is, on its face, a simple expression of joy, or nostalgia for a more joyous era of the internet. Ryan Milner, a professor of internet culture at the College of Charleston and author of The World Made Meme, says the phrase harkens back to a time, between roughly 2003 and 2013, when the internet was “still kind of this other place that didn’t operate by and could maybe transcend real-world rules.” This was the heyday of early YouTube and message boards like Something Awful, 4chan, and Reddit, “when you saw a flurry of subcultural activity and content creation that became kind of a tone setter for people who are still extremely online.” So in 2021, people comment “The internet remains undefeated” to a flourishing of memes about Bernie Sanders and his mittens or the discord between your fall plans and the Delta variant, because it recalls when life online seemed less about livestreamed mass murders and the algorithmically driven death of democracy and more about rickrolling and lolcats. At the surface level, says Milner, the phrase “is a way to kind of appreciate when the early spirit of collective creativity online resurfaces.”

People also use the phrase, Milner adds, as a way of “reacting to the randomness of what they encounter online.” Every piece of content “is made by a real person at the other end of the tubes. But we just see the funny picture. So instead of saying ‘Tim from Madison, Wisconsin, remains undefeated,’ we tend to collapse everything from everyone as being from ‘the internet,’ as if it’s this singular mystical being.” In that sense, the saying is a collectivist antivenom to unhinged individualism online.

But exuberant and egalitarian as the expression may appear, its undertones are much darker. For one thing, “The internet remains undefeated” is also a symptom of what Milner and fellow internet culture scholar Whitney Phillips call fetishistic flattening. This is the tendency for internet users to fixate on a meme or tweet itself, and not consider how or why it was created, the backstory of who or what’s being depicted and shared, or who may be harmed in the process. (The “Hide your kids, hide your wife” song, which belittles the man in the original clip, and deepfaked drunk Nancy Pelosi are all standard examples of fetishization.) In this way, “The internet remains undefeated” glorifies the removal of context, nuance, and thought. “Undefeated” in particular also captures how on social media, context is subsumed by combativeness. Beneath the surface, says Milner, the phrase is often “antagonistic and barbed,” and of “an atmosphere where how funny you are about what you produce and say, and how many people respond no matter what you say, is seen as a competition.”

Of course, context removal and ruthless competitiveness are embedded in dozens of other popular memes and replies to memes: Distracted Boyfriend, Galaxy Brain, Swole Doge vs. Meek Doge, so and so “woke up and chose violence.” But whereas those all celebrate the defeat of a single common enemy or idea lampooned in the meme itself, what makes “The internet remains undefeated” so deflating is that it celebrates our own collective defeat of ourselves. The internet’s unstated, vanquished opponent is us, the users who both consume and are the butts of the memes that phrase is often a response to. But deep down we all understand that we are also the internet, as the ones who populate it, generate its content, and created it in the first place. As Jeffrey Bloechl, a philosophy professor and phenomenologist at Boston College, told me, any problems that appear on the internet “can be traced back to things we human beings either did or failed to do when we made the thing.” After all, he adds, humans designed the internet to be boundless. “If the internet, strictly as internet, is fundamentally mathematical, it cannot itself be the source of any limits.” By that logic, “there is no way not to wonder whether in unleashing a power that is undefeated,” one that can transcend the limits of our own bodies and minds, we’ve also unleashed “a power to change what we are,” a power to defeat the human condition.

That is the horrifying economy of Those Four Words: There is no more haunting a distillation of the unstoppable seepage of technology into every fabric of our being than “The internet remains undefeated.” These words are a glaring reminder that the internet, of which I am a part, is defeating me. That in the moment I am reading them, I am devoting my attention not to my wife, infant daughter, friends, family, colleagues, wind rattling the window pane, or my breathing, but to what faceless strangers are saying about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friends’ balls, and to what quippy things I should be saying to faceless strangers about Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friends balls. That gif of the Teletubbies having tantric sex? It exists only in my smooth, broken brain, a brain the internet broke so that I think in the way the internet wants me to think.

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‘We Are The Caretakers’ Puts Afrofuturism Front and Center


Afrofuturism, if you’re unfamiliar, is a movement in literature, music, art, video games, movies, etc., featuring futuristic or science fiction themes which incorporate elements of global Black history and culture, or better yet, making them central themes. We’ve seen some games that take the concept to heart, like Usoni, but few go beyond including Black or African characters to actually include their stories or experiences.

We Are The Caretakers is an unapologetically Afrofuturist sci-fi squad-management RPG about protecting endangered animals—and your planet—from extinction. In the game, you recruit, train, manage and build squads of arcane protectors called the Caretakers. Set in the land of Shadra, a fictional nation in Africa, the story revolves around defending Raun, rhino-like creatures, from human and alien poachers. The game tries to go past the usual Western lens of wildlife conservation to see what people who live in areas where poaching is a common way of life go through. Some people need a way to survive, so they’re involved not because they want to be but out of economic need. We also see people who are in it for sport. And in between is the wildlife, on the brink of extinction.

Upon entering a fight, the game transforms into turn-based-style combat. The goal is familiar to RPG fans: Wear the poachers down by Will, indicated by a blue bar, or Stamina, indicated by a red bar. Then you use a finishing move to send them packing. The most surprising thing about fighting enemies in this game is that it’s extremely hard to diminish their Will.

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The inspiration for We Are the Caretakers came from previous titles in the turn-based RPG genre, like Ogre Battle, XCOM, and Northgard. The game is well-polished, but it’s an even better representation of the Afrofuturism genre.

Scott Brodie, founder of Heart Shaped Games and lead developer on the game, told WIRED, “I look at Afrofuturism as a way to center stories around Black people and the broader diaspora and not being so Western-centric. I was first introduced to it through Black Panther. As well, throughout this project, I’ve really become a fan of Nnedi Okorafor,” the two-time Hugo award-winning Nigerian American writer. “It’s been great learning about other works in the genre while working on the game. I do think we ultimately saw that there is a non-Western story here that we could tell, and Afrofuturism really fit what we wanted to try to do.”

Afrofuturism doesn’t only promote representation for the Black diaspora; it can also create a sense of understanding between Black creators and viewers of all backgrounds—or at least a want or need to understand those lived experiences. Black people are often told those experiences are untrue. Afrofuturism often works to amplify elements and themes of Black culture: people, history, persecution, liberation, joy, community, and more. 

For example, people who can’t wrap their head around systemic racism can easily understand that the mutants in the Marvel Universe are treated poorly and should have protective rights. Afrofuturism will replace mutants with Black people directly—not as a stand-in race or group of people—and forces viewers and readers to engage with us as real people in complicated worlds. Art can make people think, change their minds, and understand human beings better. Afrofuturism in science fiction and speculative fiction can showcase what a world would look like based on different histories, or worlds where racism is but a dark splotch on human history. The more common approach is to swap in a mythological species for the struggles of real humans, or present racism in terms of genocide or warfare, which only encourages viewers or readers to have empathy when lives are at risk: something that doesn’t truly include or value those lives. We Are The Caretakers doesn’t take this approach.