How tech ate the media and our minds - Axios
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How tech ate the media and our minds

Illustration by Rebecca Zisser

Let's face it: most of us are more distracted and more frazzled than ever. We are prisoners to our phones: tweeting our every thought, or snapping our every emotion, or Facebooking our every fantasy, feeling or family moment. We scroll, click and swipe our days away, better connected than at any point in humanity — but not necessarily better informed.

We've been hit with more technological innovations than we are capable of responsibly handling.

Ten short years ago: The iPhone was born, Facebook was a small social network used mostly by college students, and there was no Snapchat, Instagram or Pinterest. Most people still relied on three network evening newscasts and a local newspaper, hand delivered, to be informed about current events. If you wanted to share a photo, you probably mailed it; if you wanted to share your opinion, you screamed it at the TV in your basement or wrote a letter to the editor, maybe by hand.

But then technology blew up — and blew (and took over) our minds. Now, every day there are:

  • 1.2 billion web pageviews, per Chartbeat
  • Billions of Google searches, per Google
  • 13.8 billion hours + of video shared on YouTube, per Google
  • 13M audio/video calls made on Facebook Messenger, per Facebook
  • 50 billion messages sent on WhatsApp, per Facebook
  • 500 million Tweets sent, per Twitter

Our brains have been literally swamped and reprogrammed. On average, we check our phones 50 times each day — with some studies suggesting it could three times that amount. We spend around 6 hours per day consuming digital media. As a result, the human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to eight seconds since 2000, while the goldfish attention span is nine seconds. And we just mindlessly pass along information without reading or checking it. Columbia University found that nearly 60 percent of all social media posts are shared without being clicked on.

For better or worse, Google and Facebook are mostly to blame. Nearly 60% of our media-consumption time happens in mobile apps, and a majority that traffic is owned by those two companies. (See below). This paradigm has destroyed the business model for news publishers, creating perverse incentives for publishers to generate as many clicks as possible, creating a "crap trap" — the deal media companies made with the devil to dumb things down (and lose credibility) by seeking the broadest reach. But, the house always wins: Facebook and Google now eat up almost two thirds of all ads and gobbled up 90 percent of all growth in media spend — while publishers perish.

Data: 2016 Mobile App Report, comScore Mobile Metrix, U.S., Age 18+, June 2016; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

And, at least for now, the more we know, or can see, the less we trust. Roughly 62% of U.S. adults get news on social media and 68% of people don't trust the news they see or read. Think about that: most people don't trust REAL news. The proliferation of fake news is almost certain to get worse, as we see left-leaning groups racing to adapt manipulative techniques that helped conservatives in 2016. Case in point: A 2016 BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.

This has created a conundrum: There is more good information than at any point in humanity, but it's harder than ever to find and trust. Almost every trend cited here is getting worse, not better. And so much of the power to change it rests in the hands of the few, mainly Facebook but also Google, Twitter and Snapchat. Some publishers are putting the emphasis on quality content, which can help. And others are moving fast to adapt serious news and information to better fit in these exploding off-platform ecosystems. But ultimately, the burden will fall on individual consumers to exploit what should be the golden age of information by adjusting their own habits.

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Peter Thiel has parted ways with Y Combinator

Peter Thiel. Photo: Kevin Moloney / Fortune Brainstorm Tech

Famed investor Peter Thiel, who publicly supported Donald Trump during his candidacy and as president, is no longer affiliated with startup accelerator program Y Combinator, as BuzzFeed first reported and a blog post update confirms.

Be smart: Thiel isn't the only one departing the program. Y Combinator has shuttered its entire part-time partner program in which Thiel participated, according to BuzzFeed. So it's not quite the symbolic move many wanted YC to make last year.

  • The organization has been experimenting with various ways to involve alumni entrepreneurs who want to advise new startups, such as having "visiting partners" for a 6-month run.
  • And as a venture capitalist with close ties to the startup community and friendships with some of YC's executives, it's hard to believe that Thiel won't continue to meet with and invest in the accelerator program's startups.
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Report: War on ISIS killing 31 times more civilians than claimed

Airstrikes target ISIS positions on the edge of the Old City a day after Iraq's prime minister declared "total victory" in Mosul, Iraq. Photo: Felipe Dana / AP

The U.S.-led war against ISIS is claiming civilian lives at a rate 31 times higher than was previously acknowledged by the coalition, according to Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, NYT reporters who conducted an 18-month investigation in northern Iraq.

Why it matters: This staggering number of deaths "is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history," per NYT. It also raises questions about civilian casualties in neighboring Syria, and how far this reporting problem reaches around the world.

What they did, per the NYT: The reporters went to roughly 150 airstrike sites in northern Iraq to interview witnesses and local officials, photograph bomb fragments, search local records and news sources, and map out the destruction through satellite imagery. They visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition is based and interviewed coalition officials and advisers. They provided coalition analysts with coordinates and date ranges of 103 air strikes to examine and compare their responses.

What they found, per the NYT: The coalition claims 1 civilian is killed in every 157 airstrikes but their on-the-ground analysis shows 1 civilian is killed in every 5 airstrikes. They added the coalition is doing a poor job of investigating claims or even to keep proper records to make investigation possible.

"While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants," according to Khan and Gopal.

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White House on sexual allegations: Franken admitted wrongdoing, Trump hasn't

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during a press briefing at the White House. Photo: Alex Brandon / AP

Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Friday that the allegations of sexual misconduct against Sen. Al Franken are different from those against President Trump because, "Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing, and the president hasn't. That's a very big distinction."

Key quote: When asked why allegations against Franken merit an investigation but those against Trump don't, Sanders replied "The American people spoke very loud and clear when they elected the president."

More from Sanders:

  • Is it the WH position that Trump's accusers are lying? "The president has denied those allegations."
  • Does Trump believe the women who accused Roy Moore? "The president certainly finds the allegations extremely troubling ... and he feels it's up to [Alabama] ... to make a determination."

Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Kevin Hassett, joined Sanders to discuss the latest on tax reform:

  • Trickle-down economics: "There's nothing about that's controversial."
  • Difficulty of passing tax reform in the Senate: "I'm hopeful that people can work it out, and that everybody, even Democrats, will end up wanting to vote for it."
  • Temporary tax cuts: Hassett said he hopes future congresses won't let them expire.
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Florida Democratic Chair resigns after sexual harassment claims

Stephen Bittel apologized to the women who felt uncomfortable. Screengrab via YouTube

Stephen Bittel, Florida's Democratic Party chairman since last January, resigned today after several women accused him of making inappropriate comments toward them, according to Politico's interviews with six women.

Key quote: "There was a lot of boob stuff in his office," one woman, a former fundraiser for Bittel, told Politico. "I was told by other women not to go into his bathroom. I was warned."

Why it matters: Bittel is another Democrat after Franken who has faced allegations of sexual harassment, and he's likely not going to be the last. His resignation is one example of some of the consequences these men will face in the wake of these revelations.

His statements:

  • To Politico on Thursday, before his official resignation: "Every person, regardless of their gender, race, age or sexuality should be treated with respect and valued for their hard work and contributions to our community and if any of my comments or actions did not reflect that belief I am deeply sorry. I have much to learn, but my goal is and has always been to make sure every member of our party has a safe environment in which to succeed. It seems I've not been successful in that goal, and I will do better."
  • On the day of his resignation: "When my personal situation becomes distracting to our core mission of electing Democrats and making Florida better, it is time for me to step aside. I am proud of what we have built as a Party and the wins we have had for Florida families, but I apologize for all who have felt uncomfortable under my tenure at the Democratic Party. I am working with our leadership to elect my successor."
One more quote: "He's just so f----ng creepy," a former party staffer told Politico. "He just leers at you, and stares. I don't know if you know what that feels like, but he just leers at you. I don't know how to describe the feeling."
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Report: Trump administration plans to halt work permits for H-1B spouses

Computer information specialist and immigrant from India, Santosh Pala, right, carries his three-month-old son Hemang during a prayer procession at the Karya Siddhi Hanuman Temple in Frisco, Texas, in 2015. Photo: LM Otero / AP.

The Trump administration plans to halt work permits for the spouses of H-1B visa holders, which would discourage H-1B visa applicants from staying in the country and would revoke the ability to work for thousands of visa holders' spouses, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Why it matters: It's another move by the Trump administration to make it more difficult for foreign workers to come to America in its larger effort to safeguard American jobs.

  • Approximately 100,000 spouses and children of H-1B visa holders come to the U.S. every year on a visa known as H-4.
  • These workers were not able to work in the U.S. before 2015, when President Barack Obama created a work permit for some H-4 holders.
  • Silicon Valley will be disproportionately affected, since many high-tech employers employ H-1B workers. Because of the region's high cost of living, It is difficult for a family to survive on one salary and, as a result, may not be able to stay in the country.
  • A decision on the H-4 work authorization will likely come soon, immigration attorneys told The Chronicle.

Other efforts: Earlier this week, a House committee advanced Rep. Darrell Issa's bill to increase restrictions on how "H-1B dependent" companies can obtain the work permits for employees. Find details of Issa's bill here, and the Indian firms' lobbying efforts against crack downs on H-1B visas here.

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Franken's former female staffers defend him amid allegations

Jim Mone / AP

Amid a firestorm of criticism for his alleged sexual misconduct, eight of Sen. Al Franken's former female staffers issued a joint statement obtained by the Star Tribune Friday saying the senator treated them "with the utmost respect" and "was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our offices."

Franken's former chief of staff, Casey Aden-Wansbury, also told ABC News that during the eight years she had known him, "he has always worked hard to create a respectful environment for his staff." She added that "the inappropriate behavior reported today does not live up to the values I know he holds."

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Spotify acquires yet another startup as it prepares to go public

Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

Spotify has acquired Swedish collaborative music-making startup Soundtrap, the latter said on its website. Spotify paid at least $30 million, according to Breakit.

The big picture: As Spotify eyes a public listing of its stock next year (as it has been reported and sources tell Axios), the company has to keep growing its music business beyond streaming existing tracks. This way, it can provide more services, such as music collaboration tools to artists.

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White House requests 3rd disaster relief package

Volunteers sort supplies for those affected by Hurricane Maria. Photo: Carlos Giusti / AP

The White House requested an additional $44 billion from Congress on Friday for disaster recovery, which if approved would bring the total to almost $100 billion for Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Politico reports.

Go deeper: The latest on Puerto Rico recovery, per Puerto Rico's government site and FEMA:

  • Almost 82% of the island has water.
  • Nearly 45% of the island has electricity.
  • There are 15,000 civilian/military personnel assisting in recovery, plus 2,800 FEMA personnel.
  • 84% of gas stations are up and running.
  • Almost 89% of supermarkets are running.
  • There are 1,822 people taking shelter in 50 shelters.
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Kayla Moore says her husband will not step down

Roy Moore's wife, Kayla, said that he will not step down from the U.S. senate race in the face of sexual harassment allegations.

Moore also said the "liberal press" and others who have attacked President Trump are now attacking them and taking spotlight away from the Russia investigation: "To the President, I would say now is a good time to get some things done in Congress."

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How evolution shaped passenger pigeons' DNA — and their fate

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon before dying in 1914, can be seen at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

A new study suggests passenger pigeons, which once covered North America with massive flocks before their extinction in the early 20th century, may have maintained stable populations for thousands of years until human hunters came along, per The Washington Post. That counters previous research that found the species had already taken a downturn by that time.

The double whammy: Besides the sudden influx of human predators, the birds' genome had been tuned to the size of its population. It had surprisingly low genetic variation in some parts of its genome, which "provided few avenues for the bird to respond to human pressures, which ultimately drove it to extinction," according to the study, published Thursday in Science.

Role of genetics: One way genomes evolve is via random mutation (also called neutral evolution). Those mutations don't necessarily have an immediate benefit but sometimes can in the long run. Another process is selection in which one version of a gene is preferred — or not — over another because it influences survival. Researchers found the passenger pigeon's genome was diverse overall compared to other birds but that diversity wasn't uniform across their chromosomes. The researchers think that suggests their large population size allowed them to adapt quickly to their environment (via selection) but the cost was that there wasn't much neutral evolution happening, which left them with little genetic variation.

"Large population size appears to have allowed for faster adaptive evolution and removal of harmful mutations, driving a huge loss in their neutral genetic diversity," the researchers wrote. "These results demonstrate the effect that selection can have on a vertebrate genome and contradict results that suggested that population instability contributed to this species's surprisingly rapid extinction."

The bottom line: The study says having a huge population was initially a key survival mechanism for the passenger pigeon. However, the birds' surprisingly low genetic variation caused it to be unable to recover from humanity's overhunting practices. As one of the study authors told WashPost, "It's impossible to adapt to gunfire."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to provide further information.