1. Good Monday Morning

It’s March 7th, almost exactly two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In America, we’re now about 2 months away from reaching the horrific milestone of one million deaths. In Mississippi, 1 out of every 245 residents has died. In Vermont, the number is about 1 out of every 1,000 people. Every state falls in between those two extremes.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,415 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:“I am an artist who was raised by an accountant and a businessman … My goal in all of this is to see what’s possible.“— Science fiction author Brandon Sanderson to The New York Times after he raised $1 million on Kickstarter in 35 minutes. By last night with more than 3 weeks to go, the author had raised $25 million from fans for four new books.

a) Samsung is throttling more than 10,000 apps on phones that it has produced since the S10, according to The Verge. The tech site points out that popular performance benchmarking apps are not throttled. The company says it slowed down the apps to manage the amount of heat the phones generate, and that it would ship software to allow consumers to disable the function. That stunning revelation led Ars Technica to ask why they would create software to turn off something needed for the phone to operate.

b) Wordle cheating is a big thing around 7 to 8 a.m., and especially in New Hampshire. That’s the word from word search site WordFinderX. They called out all of northern New England and Washington, D.C. as “the biggest cheaters.” The word most often searched outside New England was “tacit.”

c) U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is issuing a Request for Information about Health Information Misinformation during the pandemic. The deadline to submit comments is May 2. No entities, including technology companies, are required to respond at this stage.

3. Search Engine News — Google Releases Search Trend Insights

The Think With Google team released a set of 16 new search trends in four distinct categories: Sticky Trends, Seasonal Things, Reopening Continued, and Rising Expectations.

Rising Expectations are trends with big growth. They include late night searching, 24/7 customer service, next day flower delivery, and dog friendly restaurants (a thing I didn’t know until now that I wanted).

Sticky Trends were influenced early by the pandemic and remain a high volume search category. This is the group where you’ll find makeup games (literally games about cosmetics), best movies to stream, nursery plants near me, and hair trends for females.

Reopening Continued reflects changing attitudes around socializing as the Omicron wave diminishes. They consist of spring break, cinemas near me, seating charts, and unique things to do in a city.

Seasonal Trends reflect February as only these can: Valentine’s Day nails, figure skating, Winter Olympics, and winter vacation in different locations.

4. Spotlight Explainer — Tech Blocks Russia

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the first time that many people have seen a war and all of the attendant suffering in streaming media and 24/7. That’s despite years of American combat in Afghanistan, the Yemeni Civil War aided by Saudi Arabia, and conflict in Ethiopia with Eritrea. All three trouble spots experienced more than 10,000 casualties in the last year.

This war has captured American attention for reasons of race, status, and position that are far too complex for a newsletter to tackle. But because of the heightened interest, tech companies are responding in unprecedented ways to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine instead of, say, to Russia’s military incursions in the Syrian Civil War during which Russia has attacked civilian targets for years.

Social media cuts new content and monetization

Every major social media platform has stopped making new content available from Russia including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube. This follows reports in the world’s media that Russian propaganda was flooding social media.

Facebook, YouTube and others have also cut the ability for Russian companies, including government controlled media, to earn advertising revenue on content. A consensus of too little too late has sprung up around those initiatives.

No major fintech companies are offering payment processing

Mastercard and Visa have suspended operations in Russia and Belarus. They were followed by PayPal, and on Sunday, American Express.

Meanwhile, an inspiring Ukrainian moment came when the country’s Digital Transformation office issued a plea on Twitter for cryptocurrency donations and received more than $50 million in days. Reports this weekend came out that half of the funds have been spent on bulletproof vests, night-vision devices, food packages, and bandages.

That Airbnb meme is accurate, but tread cautiously

Western social media lit up on Friday when memes began circulating that people could buy an Airbnb stay in Ukraine and the money would be transferred to the individuals who were renting out the property. That’s true, and Airbnb quickly waived fees for Ukraine bookings. The big caveat is that you can give money directly to the Ukrainian government or to relief organizations. It’s a sweet story about direct giving, but seems pretty inefficient.

Entertainment and news options are disappearing in Russia

News organizations have stopped reporting from Russia after the Russian government said that journalists printing what it calls “fake news” could face imprisonment for up to 15 years. Among the organizations halting news from and in Russia are CNN, CBS, ABC, the BBC, and probably many more by the time you read this.

Faced with a requirement to carry state-sponsored programming, Netflix has also ceased operating in Russia. They’ve been joined by Apple and Microsoft, who are no longer selling devices or apps in Russia. Meanwhile, Russian teams have been banned from participating in international soccer competitions related to the World Cup. Of all the actions, that one generated immediate and urgent appeals from the Russian government.

5. Did That Really Happen? — Can You Spot Fake News Stories?

With news about the Russian invasion occupying so much attention, there are a constant flurry of news hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation being published. We have previously told you about First Draft’s excellent interactive training that lets you check your news verifying skills.

There are all sorts of resources and quizzes you can use for free. This is worth your time to visit. They also publish a nice, free newsletter and have a free app.

6. Following Up — Nukemap is Popular Again

For a world that didn’t often have nuclear meltdowns or bombings top of mind, the richly detailed Nukemap is a return to decades of Cold War horror. Creator Alex Wellerstein launched the site 10 years ago, and it’s enjoyed surging popularity since the Russian invasion. 

You can target anywhere in the world and control for different factors. It’s macabre, but also fascinating.

7. Protip — Chromebook Expiration Dates

That’s right, Chromebooks, the tablet/laptop hybrid, have an expiration date. Once they reach that date, they won’t update their software. The current time frame is 8 1/2 years, but was previously 5. That’s the period from its release date, not when you activated it. This great WSJ explainer has details, including how to find out your device’s date.

8. Screening Room — Apple Card & Chocolate

A note-perfect short spot from Apple Card about what might happen if you enjoy that candy bar before you get to the register… and can’t find your wallet.

9. Science Fiction World — Google Can Read Your Body Language Without Cameras

This very cool story is an example of how a device can use radar instead of cameras to determine where you are and what you’re doing. Imagine getting a snack or going to the bathroom while watching a movie — and your TV pauses until it senses your return. There are many more applications from driving to sleeping and everything in between.

10. Coffee Break — Heardle

You know about Wordle, and you may have even heard about Quordle, a game that tests you with four words at once. There’s also Worldle for geography, and brand new: Heardle for music.

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

We’re back. What a busy week ahead. Don’t forget that Lent starts Wednesday. Take solace in Easter being six weeks away if the weather is too cold where you are. 

Today’s Spotlight is 1,329 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:“This was a poor choice of imagery for an NFT. It has not and will not be put up for auction.“— Associated Press spokesperson Lauren Easton after the famous news organization canceled a planned NFT auction showing a boat overcrowded with refugees in the Mediterranean. It was not even the weirdest NFT story lately. Keep reading. We unpack some strange ones in Spotlight Explainer.

a) Facebook and YouTube will no longer allow Russian state media organizations to receive advertising money on their platforms in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both companies continue to receive withering criticism about what is allowed to be monetized. One of the most recent was this post from Harvard’s Neiman Lab about Facebook allowing climate change denial content.

b) Walmart may be in their boat one day soon. The retail giant announced during its quarterly earnings call that it generated $2.1 billion in advertising revenue last year. Walmart is jumping into the deep end of the digital pool with augmented reality, gamification of retail, and yes, NFTs. 

c) What seems to be a coding shortcut made the Mecklenburg County (NC) Registrar of Deeds the target of some highly virulent memes. Counties in the state are responsible for making birth, marriage, land, and death records available online. As part of the same online order flow, people requesting birth certificates or marriage license records were asked if they were named in the record or if it was for someone else. Unfortunately, that code was left in place (although grayed out) for visitors who wanted to purchase death certificates.

3. Search Engine News — Google Acknowledges Cutting Traffic To Pirate Sites & Faces Conspiracy Theories

Google reported this month that a website that receives too many copyright violation notices can expect to experience their search visitor traffic to decrease an average of 89% after Google demotes the website. The data came from a Google report to the U.S. Copyright Office.

Google received an editorial recommendation from The New York Times last week after the newspaper analyzed search results from Google, Bing, and DuckDuckGo. The analysis was conducted after conservative commentators including Ben Shapiro and Joe Rogan told audiences to use non-Google search engines. The Times says that “Bing and DuckDuckGo surfaced more untrustworthy websites than Google…” while saying that some untrustworthy sites showed in Google results, but less prominently.

4. Spotlight Explainer — NFT Marketplaces Go Bonkers

NFTs Defined

Our first in-depth issue about NFTs was one year ago this week so it was serendipitous to see seemingly the entire NFT marketplace go off the deep end in February.

An NFT is rich content (think image, audio, or video) that has been placed on the same blockchain used by cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. Think of them as numbered items sold to collectors. They’re not exclusive and may be already well known in other areas.

For example, the NBA helped pioneer video clips of famous basketball plays that it sold to collectors. The buyer doesn’t own the rights to anything except that copy of that highlight. They’re often compared to buying a baseball card or record album. You own your copy, which you can sell, but you have no rights to the content and pay premium prices.

Yes, really.

The Associated Press Steps In and Jumps Out

The AP watched rights holders making serious money and decided to wade into the NFT waters given their deep news libraries. On Thursday (yes, the day Russia invaded Ukraine), the AP tweeted that it would be minting a new NFT the next day. In their own words, that NFT would be a video “of migrants drifting in an overcrowded boat in the Mediterranean.”

Despite the smell of money in the air, the AP hastily canceled their plans after the backlash they should have seen coming.

Sotheby’s and the CryptoPunks

The AP’s egregious behavior happened one day after posh auction house Sotheby’s reported that a sale of 104 CryptoPunks NFTs had been withdrawn only 25 minutes before its start. That collection was created by one of the NFT’s pioneering design firms. The entire collection is 10,000 pieces, and many have sold for more than $1 million each.

People Are Really Buying These?

Yep. Lots.

  • Chick’nCone, a 24 restaurant chain based in Florida, is selling 933 NFTs of their logos in different US markets for $14,500 each. If a buyer then franchises the chain, they get $22,500 off the fee.
  • Brands selling NFTs now include McDonald’s, Estee Lauder, Coca-Cola (and right after, Pepsi), and Budweiser.
  • In typical Nike fashion, they’re not just selling NFTs. They bought one of the top design studios.

Missteps And Weirdness Are Common in this Land Rush

Like every bubble from tulips to Beanie Babies, this crazy NFT marketplace has all the makings of a greater fool’s market that requires new buyers to keep coming in and elevate prices. Former first lady Melania Trump has sold three NFT collections although the latest sold for $170,000 to what appears to be herself. Experts say that shill bidding is common, and no one is really quite sure who is buying what since the sales are in typically anonymous cryptocurrency.

Meanwhile, Snoop Dogg just closed his acquisition of pioneering hip-hop record label Death Row Records. He says that the new company will be NFT-focused. He then sold $44 million worth of NFTs in five days.

5. Did That Really Happen? — 10 Photos and Videos That Are Not From the Russian Invasion

Amazing stories sprung from the first few days of the resistance of Ukraine to Russia’s invasion. This is the first streaming war we’ve experienced, and while disinformation and propaganda are long-used tactics, the tools used to create realistic hoaxes are better than ever. Here is a gallery of videos and images falsely attributed to the invasion.

6. Following Up — COVID Algorithm at the Pentagon

We’ve written a lot about different predictive algorithms that can be used to detect COVID-19. Now the Pentagon has announced that it has awarded a contract for work to continue on a project that uses trackers in a watch and ring to monitor personnel. An algorithm then receives the data from the trackers and predicts COVID-19 two days before the person shows symptoms.

7. Protip — Uber Driver Ratings for Passengers

Today some of you learned that Uber drivers rate passengers. Some of you already knew that you could see your average rating. Hopefully more of you are now learning that you can see how many ratings you’ve received at each level. Here’s how.

8. Screening Room — Drew Barrymore & Her Chicken

Meat substitute maker Quorn calls Drew Barrymore their Chief Mom Officer and offers this spot about her frolicking with her friend, ChiQin. I liked her better in E.T., but I’ll take it.

 9. Science Fiction World — DNA Sequencing Cut to 5 Hours

A Stanford lab has shaved hours from the time needed to sequence a genome. They’re being feted now for shattering a Guinness World Record by shrinking the time from 14 hours to 5 hours. Team leader Dr. Euan Ashley offered even better news, “I think we can halve it again. If we’re able to do that, we’re talking about being able to get an answer before the end of a hospital ward round. That’s a dramatic jump.”

10. Coffee Break — World Photography Winners & Shortlisted Photos

Who doesn’t like to look at stunning photos? Now you’ve got access to this year’s winners and shortlisted photos plus galleries from the past ten years to occupy many coffee breaks.

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

Thanks for being Spotlight’s Valentine today.  Quick housekeeping note: we’re off next week for President’s Day and then we’ll be with you every Monday straight to Memorial Day.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,310 words — about a 5 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted:“If you receive calls, emails, or other communications claiming to be from the Treasury Department and offering COVID-19 related grants or stimulus payments in exchange for personal financial information, or an advance fee, or charge of any kind, including the purchase of gift cards, please do not respond. These are scams. Please contact the FBI at www.ic3.gov so that the scammers can be tracked and stopped.“— Treasury Department instructions as COVID-19 fraud and scams continue. Keep reading for more on this issue in Spotlight Explainer below.

a) The IRS rescinded its policy that people use their private contractor’s facial recognition program to retrieve personal data online. One day later, the contractor made facial recognition optional for all of its government programs. The company also said that people who had submitted their face images could opt to delete them.

b)   Amazon Care, the company’s telehealth service offering, has now rolled out nationally ahead of Amazon launching in-person care in 20 U.S. cities this year. 

c) Social media sharing could become more difficult in the future. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Cynthia Loomis (R-WY) have introduced legislation that direct the National Science Foundation and National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to create content-neutral ways to slow down sharing. One example already in place: a Twitter prompt that lets someone know if they’re sharing an article they haven’t read yet. 

3. Search Engine News — Original Photos for Reviews

Using manufacturer images to accompany product reviews is convenient, but Google suggests using unique images. The search company also said that enhancing the stock photo isn’t enough to make it unique. And as a good analysis from Search Engine Journal points out, original images will be a big benefit for your  site when it is manually reviewed by the Google Quality Rater team.

Not every website is manually reviewed by a quality rater, but with 10,000 of them throughout the world, the chances are good that it can happen. We’ve published info about that group’s guidelines before, but you can access the 172 page document at will.

4. Spotlight Explainer — COVID Fraud Online

The Situation

The U.S. government has prosecuted more than 100 people for fraud related to the Paycheck Protection Program and seized over $75 million in cash. There were new warnings last week that COVID fraud would continue to be a Justice Department priority. Those cases have received most of the media coverage, but the pandemic has created other opportunities for online fraud.

Print Your Own Vaccine Card

I keep asking business leaders how they’re verifying vaccination cards for employees or customers. No one has a good answer yet, and that’s because they’re handwritten records on easily available paper stock.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also made an odd choice counter to their own recommendations by providing a link to printable vaccine cards. Grid News broke that story after following up on their previous reporting. 

This is the simplest form of COVID fraud and yet people continue paying for fake cards. In one very public case that came to light several weeks ago two nurses were charged with selling forged vaccination cards and entering fake records into New York’s database. Their prices ranged from $85 for a child to $220 for an adult.

Selling Vaccine Misinformation

Nearly every publisher and online platform contains vaccine misinformation. Spotify’s issues with Joe Rogan are the well known ones, but hardly unique. Think about the anti-vaccination misinformation monetized on YouTube and other platforms while Amazon sells books by vaccine skeptics. 

One well known skeptic who has been deplatformed elsewhere is Joseph Mercola, an osteopath who has generated more than $2.2 million selling anti-vaccination newsletters on Substack. The Substack platform allows creators to keep up to 90% of revenue.

Ongoing PPP Fallout

The latest big COVID fraud case to make national news is the search for Tamara Dadyan, a California real estate broker who along with family members formed a group of eight who filed 150 fake PPP applications that netted them $18 million. Dadyan’s ten year prison sentence was due to begin two weeks ago, but she and two others have escaped.

Fake Tests & Surveys

The Department of Health and Human Services is warning that COVID fraud and scams are increasing online. These include surveys, sales of fake tests, and identity theft. The agency warns that you could be on the hook if someone gains your personal information and bills Medicare or Medicaid for unauthorized tests or procedures. Here’s their warning video.

 5. Did That Really Happen? — The Government is Not Distributing Crack Pipes

Comedian Robert Wuhl’s classic bit about printing the legend that is more interesting than the boring truth continues flourishing with pundit claims and opinion hosts posing as newscasters.

The Washington Free Beacon, whose costs are underwritten by a hedge fund billionaire, poses as a conservative news website. They posted an article citing anonymous sources that falsely stated the Biden administration was giving drug-smoking pipes to millions of people. 

Without checking to find out it was true, multiple outlets and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) commented on and criticized the program that did not exist. Instead, the so-called safer smoking part of the kit includes alcohol swabs, lip balm, and other materials to help reduce disease transmission.

USA Today has the fact-checked details.

 6. Following Up — Missouri Prosecutor Won’t Charge Reporter

We’ve been writing about the case of reporter Josh Renaud who privately warned the Missouri government that Social Security Numbers and other personal information about teachers could be accessed by the public on a state website. Renaud promised not to publish the news until the state fixed the flaw, but Gov. Mike Parson targeted Renaud and referred to him on multiple occasions as a criminal.

Renaud didn’t commit a crime. He pressed the button on his browser that allowed him to see the website code. Parson has held fast to the criminal narrative for months, but the county prosecutor confirmed last Friday that he will not press charges.

7. Protip — Using Air Tags for Stalking Is A No-No

I wasn’t sure how to feel when my wife sent me Kashmir Hill’s great piece on tracking her husband’s movements using Air Tags and other trackers. (Hill, maybe the best general circulation privacy reporter around, had her husband’s permission.)

But I am almost 100% certain that Apple’s statements about abusing Air Tags for stalking came directly as a result of Hill’s piece. And you should read this because Apple says they will work with law enforcement to help them prosecute those cases.

8. Screening Room — Super Bowl Free

We’ve all seen enough TV commercials these past few days so let’s revisit this fantastic tweet from Adidas. The message posted last Wednesday morning featured images of 25 pairs of bare breasts as Adidas promoted their sports bra line in one of the most inclusive and body positive ways possible.

9. Science Fiction World — DARPA’s Autonomous Helicopter For the U.S. Military

You do too know about DARPA. They started a project back in 1966 that became ARPANET, which became the internet. And they do other cool stuff. Now there’s news that the agency tested a 30 minute autonomous Black Hawk helicopter flight around Fort Campbell two weeks ago.

 10. Coffee Break — Tom Cruise Deepfake (A New One)

We’ve shown you deepfakes for years. Many feature Tom Cruise, but the state-of-the-art is reaching a point where lay people can’t detect the video manipulation.

Here’s a short video of Paris Hilton from last week with what appears to be a much younger Tom Cruise. It’s really Miles Fisher, who resembles the actor in the same way a nightclub impersonator might present as a singer. But a little computer magic makes that resemblance become identical.

 11. Sign of The Times