🔮 Digital Mimicry — #130

How Chinese Disinformation Strategies Echo Russian Tactics

Good morning,

I hope you had a nice, relaxing Easter holiday. I went hiking, ate too many sweets, and spent time with friends and family.

For me, Easter weekend also marked the transition into being a full-time entrepreneur. While it might sound like a small step to move from half-time to full-time when trying to start a company, it is a surprisingly big mental shift.

Focusing on one thing instead of three is a change. All my actions are contributing to the same goal. It is so much simpler.

I do not plan for this newsletter to be about the company per se. If anything, it might contain some entrepreneurial reflections. But since most of the readers of this newsletter probably ended up on this list at random and don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll now tell you:

  1. We are building a digital tool that identifies and interprets macro and market changes in real-time.

  2. We use artificial intelligence to monitor several disruption drivers: geopolitics, climate, new regulation, (dis)information, financial markets, and many other data sources.

  3. The tool provides companies with an understanding of (a) the impact of a potential business disruption and (b) suggested actions to take if you want to optimise for a successful outcome.

  4. We package the insights with business leaders (c-suites, management teams, boards, etc.) in mind, so that they can always be up-to-date with their unique business environment and make smarter strategic decisions on the go.

So, Better Odds is not just the logo at the top of this email. It is a company (we have a website), and we are currently looking for companies to help test the product we’ve built. We want to ensure that it is helpful for anyone trying to lead a business in this increasingly uncertain world.

I’m also looking for leaders in companies regularly challenged by disruption who are passionate about strategy and want to chat about what type of information could help them do it better.

Does that sound like you or your company? You can just reply to this email, and your response will land in my inbox.

If not, I also appreciate cheers, introductions to new people, newsletter referrals, LinkedIn shares and comments, audience insights, etc. Small acts of encouragement matter more than you think for anyone starting a new business.

One thing you learn very early on as an entrepreneur is to ask people for help. No one can do it alone. As you can tell, I’m practicing.

Anna

BookThe Anxious Generation by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt lays out the facts about the epidemic of teen mental illness that hit many countries at the same time. He then investigates the nature of childhood, including why children need play and independent exploration to mature into competent, thriving adults.

One of the insights from the book that I think a lot about now is how phones are “experience blockers”. They make us spend less time with our friends, sleep less, and go out in nature less. We don’t read books and have less of almost every other real-world experience. I haven’t been concerned about how I use my phone when alone, but I’m starting to.

Course — I’ve been taking the Machine Learning Specialization by Stanford and DeepLearning.ai on Coursera. I’d give it a 10 out of 10 and recommend it to anyone wanting to gain a deeper technical understanding of AI. (It helps if you don’t hate math).

Tool — I changed my everyday browser from Chrome to SigmaOS, and while it was a bit confusing during the first two hours, I’m very pleased about the move. It's a much more intuitive browsing experience when you get the hang of it. Some of my plugins don’t work (yet), so I’m using Chrome as a backup. But all in all, I’m sold.

PodcastThe Dream is a podcast that examines how our culture has created a pyramid scheme selling “human potential“. How life coaches, crystals, and side hustles are being used to sell a dream that isn’t so dreamy when you look behind the curtains.

Paper — This paper is a very nerdy read, but it is interestingly arguing for two types of existential risk from artificial intelligence: decisive and accumulative.

China Intensifies Its US Influence Operations Ahead of November Election With New Tactics

Disinformation, Geopolitics

Ahead of the US presidential election in November, undercover Chinese accounts are adopting new misinformation tactics uncovered by a group of disinformation researchers. The new efforts are mimicking tactics used by Russia in 2016: impersonating passionate American Trump supporters online. This marks a strategic shift in Beijing's approach to influencing American politics, directly targeting President Biden while promoting polarising narratives.

Why it matters: This development signals China's evolving strategy for geopolitical influence, focusing on stoking divisions and undermining specific political figures in the United States. The move has drawn concern from researchers and government officials, indicating a more fearless willingness from Beijing to meddle in American electoral politics.

The actors: A network known as Spamouflage, linked to the Chinese government, is central to these efforts. Researchers have also identified 170 fake Facebook pages and accounts contributing to this campaign, with tactics becoming increasingly sophisticated and harder to detect.

Government response: The United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence has highlighted China's growing influence campaigns as a threat to democracy, expressing concerns over Beijing's potential use of advanced methods to impact the American electoral process.

Beijing's stance: The Chinese Embassy in Washington has denied allegations of election interference, reaffirming China's commitment to the principle of noninterference in other countries' domestic affairs.

The bigger picture: The operation reflects a broader trend of foreign actors leveraging social media to exploit political divisions within the United States, raising alarms about the integrity of upcoming elections and the challenge of countering sophisticated disinformation campaigns.

Looking ahead: With China and Russia refining their influence operations, the months leading up to the November election are being watched with increasing anxiety. The effectiveness of these disinformation campaigns in swaying public opinion or affecting voter behaviour remains a critical concern for national security and democratic institutions worldwide.

British Civil Servants Call for Halt on Arms Exports to Israel

Geopolitics, Human Rights

Why it matters: United Kingdom civil servants are demanding a stop to arms exports to Israel, fearing complicity in potential war crimes amid rising violence and scrutiny over Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Driving the news: The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) seeks urgent talks with the UK Department for Business and Trade over civil servants' legal risks, following international concerns that Israel's actions might amount to genocide.

Legal implications: The United Nations Arms Trade Treaty bans exports aiding genocide or serious humanitarian law breaches. The United Kingdom''s ongoing weapon sales to Israel, against a backdrop of war crimes allegations, might contravene international law.

Global stance: Countries like Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the Japanese Itochu Corporation have stopped arms sales to Israel. Yet, major suppliers like Germany and the US remain unmoved.

By the numbers: The UK's arms exports to Israel represent a tiny fraction (0.02%) of Israel’s military imports, mainly from the United States, underscoring the debate’s symbolic weight.

The backdrop: Despite over 600 legal experts warning against potential international law breaches, the UK government continues case-by-case export assessments. Notably, the Netherlands and Denmark face legal challenges over exporting F35 parts to the United States, parts that, when assembled, are used by Israel in Gaza.

What's next: Prime Minister Sunak is under increasing pressure to halt arms sales while the PCS considers legal action to shield its members from engaging in possibly unlawful activities.

Google Considers Subscription Fees for AI Search, Shaking Up Revenue Model Due to Rising AI Costs

Artificial Intelligence, Big Tech

Google is considering charging for its AI search, signalling a major revamp of its revenue model towards subscriptions due to the high costs of AI.

Why it's important: This move underscores the financial challenges of providing AI-enhanced searches as the tech industry grapples with the costs of advanced AI functionalities.

Costly AI: Amazon's AI training expenses reached $65 million for a single run, highlighting the significant investment required for AI development.

What Google's doing: Currently in beta, Google's AI search offers conversational, direct answers. This premium feature may soon require a subscription, a significant shift from Google's traditionally free search services.

Competition watch: Rivals like Perplexity and Microsoft's Bing have introduced subscription-based AI search services. Google's potential pricing could impact the competitive landscape, possibly benefiting these players.

Challenges ahead: Generative AI's operational costs and its unsuitability for conventional ad models pose dilemmas for Google, especially given AI's tendency to provide all-encompassing answers that could diminish external link clicks and, consequently, advertising opportunities.

Looking forward: Google's decision could herald a shift to paid digital services, prompting a reevaluation of free information access and setting a precedent for the tech industry's approach to monetizing AI technologies.

Harvard Hit by Application Decline From Gen Z's College Skepticism

Education, Gen Z

Harvard University faces a 5.14% drop in applications this year, reflecting broader doubts among Generation Z about the value of higher education. This marks a significant shift for an institution that's seen over 50,000 applicants annually for the last four years.

Why it matters: While Harvard has faced campus controversies, including a criticised response to antisemitism and adjustments after the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling, the decline in applicants mirrors a national trend: many young people question the cost and necessity of a college degree.

By the numbers:

  • Harvard's applications dipped to 54,008 this year.

  • Tuition rose to $82,866, a 4.3% increase, while financial aid thresholds were not raised.

  • A July poll found that only 39% of Gen Z see advancing education as important, with 46% deeming college not worth the cost.

Competitors doing better: Unlike Harvard, its Ivy peers Yale, Columbia, and Dartmouth haven't seen a drop in interest, suggesting that some Harvard-related concerns in the last few years may influence applicant numbers.

Context: Last year, Harvard was spotlighted for not strongly condemning antisemitism in connection to the Israel and Hamas conflict, which affected donor relations and drew political scrutiny. Additionally, legacy admissions practices are under investigation following a pivotal Supreme Court decision.

Nationwide issue: A decline in student aid applications by nearly 29% indicates a broader hesitation towards pursuing higher education, driven by financial barriers and scepticism about its value.

What's next: As the landscape of higher education shifts, institutions like Harvard may need to reassess their value propositions to align with upcoming generations' priorities and financial realities.

Study Shows Massive Health Gains from Low-Traffic Urban Planning Initiatives

Health, Transportation

A recent study reveals that London's low-traffic neighbourhoods and active travel initiatives offer public health benefits up to 100 times their costs, marking a significant boost for policies promoting walking and cycling.

Why it matters: Given growing concerns about urban pollution and sedentary lifestyles, low-traffic neighbourhoods present a cost-effective solution with long-term health rewards. They challenge cities worldwide to rethink traffic management and urban planning.

By the numbers: Over a 20-year period, the health benefit per local adult in three studied London boroughs could reach as much as £4,800, vastly outweighing the low-traffic neighbourhood construction costs of £28–£35, or £112 per person.

Between the lines: The benefits of low-traffic neighbourhoods, including increased rates of walking and cycling, become more pronounced over time, suggesting the importance of patience in evaluating their success.

Big picture: With initial benefit-to-cost ratios estimated between 50 to 1 and 200 to 1, low-traffic neighbourhoods are not just about reducing traffic but also enhancing public health, reducing car ownership, and potentially saving lives.

What they're finding: Those living within low-traffic neighbourhood areas reported significant upticks in walking and cycling, translating into a combined public health windfall of over £1bn from the initiatives, with £821m attributed to health improvements.

The takeaway: As cities grapple with the dual challenges of congestion and public health, low-traffic neighbourhoods offer a proven, cost-effective strategy for encouraging active travel. This underscores the need for urban policies that prioritise well-being over convenience.

Chinese E-commerce Giant Temu Becomes Meta's Top Advertiser, Shaking Up Online Retail

Business, Geopolitics

Temu, the Chinese e-commerce newcomer, emerged as Meta’s top advertiser in 2023 and ranked among Google's top five. With nearly $2 billion spent on Meta ads last year, Temu's aggressive marketing strategy has surprised industry giants, boosting their ad businesses amid a broader market recovery.

Why it Matters: Temu's entry has escalated digital ad prices and underscored the evolving dynamics of online retail competition. It challenges established commerce players and offers new revenue lifelines for tech behemoths like Meta and Google. However, the trade relationship between the US and China is complicated, and the massive growth of Chinese players challenges domestic US retailers.

By the numbers:

  • PDD Holdings, Temu's parent, reported nearly $2 billion in ad spending at Meta.

  • Meta's China operations revenue soared to $13.69 billion in 2023, nearly doubling from the previous year.

  • Goldman Sachs estimates Temu's marketing efforts result in a $7 loss per order, spotlighting the high cost of capturing market share.

Market Reactions: Meta's stock surged following its best quarterly sales growth over two years, partly thanks to Temu's ad expenditures. The company's focus on the American market through substantial ad buys on platforms like Google has introduced a new heavyweight spender in digital advertising.

Super Bowl Splash: Temu's multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ads, part of its US market penetration strategy, have significantly boosted its brand visibility despite controversy over alleged supply chain issues and the climate impact of consumption.

The Competition Heats Up: Temu's spending spree is felt across the e-commerce landscape, with companies like Etsy and Pinterest acknowledging the impact on advertising costs. The influx of Chinese e-commerce ad dollars is a double-edged sword, offering opportunities and challenges for domestic and global tech platforms.

Looking Ahead: As Temu continues its bold foray into the US market, its long-term sustainability and the broader implications for the digital ad ecosystem remain to be seen. Tech giants are closely watching, hoping Temu's investment heralds a sustained trend rather than a fleeting boom.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new. ✨

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