Maybe you saw this coming nearly a decade ago, when #YourSlipIsShowing laid bare how racist Twitter users were impersonating Black women on the internet. Maybe, for you, it was during Gamergate, the online abuse campaign targeting women in the industry. Or maybe it was the mass shooting in Christchurch, when a gunman steeped in the culture of 8chan livestreamed himself murdering dozens of people.
Maybe it was when you, or your friend, or your community, became the target of an extremist online mob, and you saw online anger become real world danger and harm.
Or maybe what happened on Wednesday, when a rabble of internet-fuelled Trump supporters invaded the Capitol, came as a surprise.
For weeks they had been planning their action in plain sight on the internet—but they have been showing you who they are for years. The level of shock you feel right now about the power and danger of online extremism depends on whether you were paying attention.
The consequences of inaction
The mob who tried to block Congress from confirming Joe Biden’s presidential victory showed how the stupidity and danger of the far-right internet could come into the real world again, but this time it struck at the center of the US government. Neo-nazi streamers weren’t just inside the Capitol, they were putting on a show for audiences of tens of thousands of people who egged them on in the chats. The mob was having fun doing memes in the halls of American democracy as a woman—a Trump supporter whose social media history shows her devotion to QAnon—was killed trying to break into Congressional offices.
The past year, especially since the pandemic, has been one giant demonstration of the consequences of inaction; the consequences of ignoring the many, many people who have been begging social media companies to take the meme-making extremists and conspiracy theorists that have thrived on their platforms seriously.
Facebook and Twitter acted to slow the rise of QAnon over the summer, but only after the pro-Trump conspiracy theory was able to grow relatively unrestricted there for three years. Account bans and algorithm tweaks have long been too little, too late to deal with racists, extremists and conspiracy theorists, and they have rarely addressed the fact that these powerful systems were working exactly as intended.
I spoke with a small handful of the people who could have told you this was coming about this for a story in October. Researchers, technologists, and activists told me that major social media companies have, for the entirety of their history, chosen to do nothing, or to act only after their platforms cause abuse and harm.
Ariel Waldman tried to get Twitter to meaningfully address abuse there in 2008. Researchers like Shafiqah Hudson, I’Nasah Crockett, and Shireen Mitchell have tracked exactly how harassment works and finds an audience on these platforms for years. Whitney Phillips talked about how she’s haunted by laughter—not just from other people, but also her own—back in the earliest days of her research into online culture and trolling, when overwhelmingly white researchers and personalities treated the extremists among them as edgy curiosities.
Ellen Pao, who briefly served as CEO of Reddit in 2014 and stepped down after introducing the platform’s first anti-harassment policy, was astonished that Reddit had only banned r/The_Donald in June 2020, after evidence had built for years to show that the popular pro-Trump message board served as an organizing space for extremiss and a channel for mob abuse. Of course, by the time it was banned, many of its users had already migrated away from Reddit to TheDonald.win, an independent forum created by the same people who ran the previous version. Its pages were filled with dozens of calls for violence ahead of Wednesday’s rally-turned-attempted-coup.
Banning Trump doesn’t solve the issue
Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube didn’t create conspiracy thinking, or extremist ideologies, of course. Nor did they invent the idea of dangerous personality cults. But these platforms have—by design—handed those groups the mechanisms to reach much larger audiences much faster, and to recruit and radicalize new converts, even at the expense of the people and communities those ideologies target for abuse. And crucially, even when it was clear what was happening, they chose the minimal amount of change—or decided not to intervene at all.
In the wake of the attempted coup on the Capitol building, people are again looking at the major social media companies to see how they respond. The focus is on Trump’s personal accounts, which he used to encourage supporters to descend on DC and then praised them when they did. Will he be banned from Twitter? There are compelling arguments for why he should.
But as heavy and consequential as that would be, it’s also, in other ways… not. Abuse, harassment, conspiracy thinking, and racism will still be able to benefit from social media companies that remain interested in only acting when it’s too late, even without Trump retweeting them and egging them on.
Facebook has banned Trump indefinitely, and also increased the extent of their moderation of groups, where a lot of conspiracy-fueled activity lives. These changes are good, but again, not new: people have told Facebook about this for years; Facebook employees have told Facebook about this for years. Groups were instrumental in organizing Stop the Steal protests in the days after the election, and before that, in anti-mask protests, and before that in spreading fake news, and before that in as a central space for anti-vaccine misinformation. None of this is new.
There are only so many ways to say that more people should have listened. If you’re paying attention now, maybe you’ll finally start hearing what they say.
NASA has flown its Ingenuity drone helicopter on Mars for the first time
The news: NASA has flown an aircraft on another planet for the first time. On Monday, April 19, Ingenuity, a 1.8-kilogram drone helicopter, took off from the surface of Mars, flew up about three meters, then swiveled and hovered for 40 seconds. The historic moment was livestreamed on YouTube, and Ingenuity captured the photo above with one of its two cameras. “We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said MiMi Aung, the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference. “We, together, flew at Mars, and we, together, now have our Wright brothers moment,” she added, referring to the first powered airplane flight on Earth in 1903.
In fact, Ingenuity carries a tribute to that famous flight: a postage-stamp-size piece of material from the Wright brothers’ plane tucked beneath its solar panel. (The Apollo crew also took a splinter of wood from the Wright Flyer, as it was named, to the moon in 1969.)
The details: The flight was a significant technical challenge, thanks to Mars’s bone-chilling temperatures (nights can drop down to -130 °F/-90 °C) and its incredibly thin atmosphere—just 1% the density of Earth’s. That meant Ingenuity had to be light, with rotor blades that were bigger and faster than would be needed to achieve liftoff on Earth (although the gravity on Mars, which is only about one-third of Earth’s, worked in its favor). The flight had originally been scheduled to take place on April 11 but was delayed by software issues.
Why it’s significant: Beyond being a significant milestone for Mars exploration, the flight will also pave the way for engineers to think about new ways to explore other planets. Future drone helicopters could help rovers or even astronauts by scoping out locations, exploring inaccessible areas, and capturing images. Ingenuity will also help inform the design of Dragonfly, a car-size drone that NASA is planning to send to Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027.
What’s next: In the next few weeks, Ingenuity will conduct four more flights, each lasting up to 90 seconds. Each one is designed to further push the limits of Ingenuity’s capabilities. Ingenuity is only designed to last for 30 Martian days, and is expected to stop functioning around May 4. Its final resting place will be in the Jezero Crater as NASA moves on to the main focus of its mission: getting the Perseverance rover to study Mars for evidence of life.
The $1 billion Russian cyber company that the US says hacks for Moscow
The public side of Positive is like many cybersecurity companies: staff look at high-tech security, publish research on new threats, and even have cutesy office signs that read “stay positive!” hanging above their desks. The company is open about some of its links to the Russian government, and boasts an 18-year track record of defensive cybersecurity expertise including a two-decade relationship with the Russian Ministry of Defense. But according to previously unreported US intelligence assessments, it also develops and sells weaponized software exploits to the Russian government.
One area that’s stood out is the firm’s work on SS7, a technology that’s critical to global telephone networks. In a public demonstration for Forbes, Positive showed how it can bypass encryption by exploiting weaknesses in SS7. Privately, the US has concluded that Positive did not just discover and publicize flaws in the system, but also developed offensive hacking capabilities to exploit security holes that were then used by Russian intelligence in cyber campaigns.
Much of what Positive does for the Russian government’s hacking operations is similar to what American security contractors do for United States agencies. But there are major differences. One former American intelligence official, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss classified material, described the relationship between companies like Positive and their Russian intelligence counterparts as “complex” and even “abusive.” The pay is relatively low, the demands are one-sided, the power dynamic is skewed, and the implicit threat for non-cooperation can loom large.
Tight working relationship
American intelligence agencies have long concluded that Positive also runs actual hacking operations itself, with a large team allowed to run its own cyber campaigns as long as they are in Russia’s national interest. Such practices are illegal in the western world: American private military contractors are under direct and daily management of the agency they’re working for during cyber contracts.
Former US officials say there is a tight working relationship with the Russian intelligence agency FSB that includes exploit discovery, malware development, and even reverse engineering of cyber capabilities used by Western nations like the United States against Russia itself.
The company’s marquee annual event, Positive Hack Days, was described in recent US sanctions as “recruiting events for the FSB and GRU.” The event has long been famous for being frequented by Russian agents.
NSA director of cybersecurity Rob Joyce said the companies being sanctioned “provide a range of services to the SVR, from providing the expertise to developing tools, supplying infrastructure and even, sometimes, operationally supporting activities,” Politico reported.
One day after the sanctions announcement, Positive issued a statement denying “the groundless accusations” from the US. It pointed out that there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing and said it provides all vulnerabilities to software vendors “without exception.”
Tit for tat
Thursday’s announcement is not the first time that Russian security companies have come under scrutiny.
The biggest Russian cybersecurity company, Kaspersky, has been under fire for years over its relationships with the Russian government—eventually being banned from US government networks. Kaspersky has always denied a special relationship with the Russian government.
But one factor that sets Kaspersky apart from Positive, at least in the eyes of American intelligence officials, is that Kaspersky sells antivirus software to western companies and governments. There are few better intelligence collection tools than an antivirus, software which is purposely designed to see everything happening on a computer, and can even take control of the machines it occupies. US officials believe Russian hackers have used Kaspersky software to spy on Americans, but Positive—a smaller company selling different products and services—has no equivalent.
Recent sanctions are the latest step in a tit for tat between Moscow and Washington over escalating cyber operations, including the Russian-sponsored SolarWinds attack against the US, which led to nine federal agencies being hacked over a long period of time. Earlier this year, the acting head of the US cybersecurity agency said recovering from that attack could take the US at least 18 months.
NASA selects SpaceX’s Starship as the lander to take astronauts to the moon
Surprising selection: Last year, NASA awarded three different groups contracts to further develop their own proposals for lunar landers: $135 million to SpaceX, $253 million to defense company Dynetics (which was working with Sierra Nevada Corporation), and $579 million to a four-company team led by Blue Origin (working with Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Draper).
SpaceX didn’t just receive the least amount of money—its proposal also earned the worst technical and management ratings. NASA’s associate administrator (now acting administrator) Steve Jurczyk wrote (pdf) that Starship’s propulsion system was “notably complex and comprised of likewise complex individual subsystems that have yet to be developed, tested, and certified with very little schedule margin to accommodate delays.” The uncertainties were only exacerbated by SpaceX’s notoriously poor track record with meeting deadlines.
What changed: Since then, SpaceX has gone through a number of different flight tests of several full-scale Starship prototypes, including a 10-kilometer high-altitude flight and safe landing in March. (It also exploded a few times.) According to the Washington Post, documents suggest NASA was enamored with Starship’s ability to ferry a lot of cargo to the moon (up to 100 tons), not to mention its $2.9 billion bid for the contract, which was far lower than its rivals’.
“This innovative human landing system will be a hallmark in spaceflight history,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the lunar lander system. “We’re confident in NASA’s partnership with SpaceX.”
What this means: For SpaceX’s rivals, it’s a devastating blow—especially to Blue Origin. The company, founded by Jeff Bezos, had unveiled its Blue Moon lander concept in 2019 and has publicly campaigned for NASA to select it for future lunar missions. Blue Moon was arguably the most well-developed of the three proposals when NASA awarded its first round of contracts.
For SpaceX, it’s a big vote of confidence in Starship as a crucial piece of technology for the next generation of space exploration. It comes less than a year after the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle was certified as the only American spacecraft capable of taking NASA astronauts to space. And it seems to confirm that the SpaceX is now NASA’s biggest private partner, supplanting veteran firms like Northrop Grumman and shunting newer ones like Blue Origin further to the sidelines. However, there’s at least one major hurdle: Starship needs to launch using a Super Heavy rocket—a design that SpaceX has yet to fly.
For NASA, the biggest implication is that SpaceX’s vehicles will only continue to play a bigger role for Artemis, the lunar exploration program being touted as the successor to Apollo. Former president Donald Trump’s directive for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 was never actually going to be realized, but the selection of a single human lander concept suggests NASA may not miss that deadline by much. The first Artemis missions will use Orion, and the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket is expected to be ready soon.