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Tech News

Twitter is auditing itself for toxicity

July 30, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Bloomberg

Whether it’s the veil of anonymity, the controversial nature of political discourse, or both — conversations on social media can quickly turn into emotionally charged quarrels. To combat these ongoing issues, Twitter has cracked down on fake accounts, added extra verification steps for new users, and acquired Smyte — a software company that’s dedicated to preventing spam and abuse. Now the social networking site is turning to university experts to promote healthier dialog.

Leiden University’s Dr. Rebekah Tromble will head a team of researchers to investigate the formation of echo chambers and underlying causes of uncivil discourse. The joint project will look to measure how communities take shape around political discussions, and observe any problems that manifest. To do this, the researchers will gauge how frequently Twitter users engage with diverse viewpoints, and develop algorithms that determine whether a conversation is ‘uncivil’ — one that breaks politeness norms — or ‘intolerant’, responses that fall more in line with hate speech, racism, or xenophobia:

“In the context of growing political polarization, the spread of misinformation, and increases in incivility and intolerance, it is clear that if we are going to effectively evaluate and address some of the most difficult challenges arising on social media, academic researchers and tech companies will need to work together much more closely,” Dr. Tromble said.

In the past, Leiden studies have indicated that the similarity of opinions in echo chambers tends to foster hostility and resentment towards people with opposing perspectives.

Oxford University researchers are also joining Twitter’s initiative to cultivate a healthier, less discriminatory online space. Social psychology professor Miles Hewstone says communicating with individuals from different backgrounds is a proven method for reducing prejudice, and his team is interested in determining whether the positivity of an interaction online is transferred when a user logs off.

In an age where the boundaries between online and real-world identities have become increasingly blurred, and words can be used as weapons, such initiatives may prove useful for Twitter. After all, the rush of happiness we experience after a pleasant online conversation with a stranger is very much real.

Tech News

UK politicians blame Facebook for the rise of fake news

July 30, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Francois Lenoir / Reuters

After an 18 month investigation, the UK parliament has issued a scathing report on the handling of fake news and illegal election ads by tech companies, especially Facebook. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee said Facebook “obfuscated” information and refused to probe potential Russian abuse until forced to by the US Senate. Worst of all, the social network helped spread disinformation and hatred against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. “Facebook is releasing a product that is dangerous to consumers and deeply unethical,” the report states.

The first part of the report details Facebook’s failings and proposes measures that would result in drastic changes at the social network. For one, it recommends criminal prosecution against Facebook if it fails to act against harmful and illegal content.

It also recommends bans on micro-targeted political ads, the creation of a new designation for Facebook that’s somewhere in between platform and publisher, new powers for the UK Electoral Commission to combat fake news on social media, and a comprehensive overhaul of election advertising legislation. Finally, it issued another demand that Mark Zuckerberg “come to the committee to answer questions to which Facebook has not responded adequately to date.”

A professional global Code of Ethics should be developed by tech companies, in collaboration with this and other governments, academics, and interested parties, including the World Summit on Information Society, to set down in writing what is and what is not acceptable by users on social media, with possible liabilities for companies and for individuals working for those companies, including those technical engineers involved in creating the software for the companies.

The committee also expressed concern about Cambridge Analytica, specifically that it had worked for the UK government with a “secret clearance.” It also points out that the firm had ties with a Malta-based company that was essentially selling passports to Malta (and by extension to Europe). It notes that investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated by a car bomb last year, was investigating that very passport scheme.

Finally, the DCMS urged an investigation into Russia’s ties to disinformation on social media. Committee chair Damian Collins said that early inquiries into Russian disinformation on Facebook soon led to questions about interference in Brexit and other UK elections. “And we noticed an aggressive campaign against us even asking these questions. It underlined the need to persist, which we have done,” he told the Observer.

It said that the millionaire backer of Leave.EU had ties to Russian companies and officials, and urged the National Crime Agency (NCA) to follow the money used that paid for ads on Facebook and other sites. It also criticized statements by Facebook’s UK Policy Director Simon Milner that the company wasn’t aware of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. “We deem Mr. Milner’s comments to the Committee to have been disingenuous

Tech News

Twitter's tougher stance on users is hurting its growth

July 27, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

The number of people actively using Twitter fell in the second quarter of 2018, the company confirmed today. Monthly active users slipped to 335 million in the three-month period, down from 334 million. Curiously, the one million drop-off came from America, rather than any of the company’s international markets. For Twitter, that’s a serious concern, though not an unexpected one. The company has been under pressure to tackle bots and extremist accounts that are breaking community guidelines. Chief executive Jack Dorsey has promised to do better, with moderators reportedly suspending over 70 million accounts over the last two months.

Twitter seems to be cleaning up its platform, albeit slowly. That tough, but necessary work should improve the service for everyone, earning goodwill from longtime users and creating a healthier business in the process. The short-term drop in active accounts, though, won’t be appreciated by many investors. Following the release of its second quarter earnings, Twitter shares plunged more than 15 percent in premarket trading. Not good.

For Dorsey and his team, it’s a tricky balancing act. If the company can eradicate toxic accounts, it should encourage users to stay on the platform and log in more frequently. That ray of hope shines through in the company’s steady growth in daily active users — Twitter doesn’t disclose the actual figure, but confirmed that it’s risen by 11 percent year-over-year. That’s a fraction higher than last quarter and roughly in line with every quarter in 2017. The company will, undoubtedly, like that growth to be higher, but it’s a positive number in an otherwise lackluster report.

Twitter might be losing users, but it’s making money. The company made $711 million in revenue during the quarter, up from $665 million before. That led to $100 million in profit — a huge jump from the $61 million reported in its last financial earnings. It’s the third consecutive quarter that Twitter has turned a profit, and its third ever, meaning the company has finally found a seemingly stable business model. “We’re maintaining profitability while we make investments in the business,” Ned Segal, Twitter’s CFO said, “achieving strong revenue growth and introducing product updates that make Twitter both healthier and easier to use.”

In a press release, Dorsey confirmed that the drop in monthly active users was a direct consequence of the company’s clean-up operation. “Our second quarter results reflect the work we’re doing to ensure more people get value from Twitter every day,” he said. “We want people to feel safe freely expressing themselves and have launched new tools to address problem behaviors that distort and distract from the public conversation.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

Tech News

Why are Trump and sex workers angry about shadow banning?

July 26, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

On Thursday morning, United States President Donald Trump tweeted about how Twitter was “shadow banning” prominent republicans, presumably after reading reports that it wasn’t auto-suggesting the names of members of his party when people searched for them on its app. “Not good,” Trump said. “We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.” But, while some people may appreciate what Twitter is doing, the company says this wasn’t done on purpose — it was simply a side effect of a change it made back in May aimed at cleaning up the platform.

The issue, which Twitter says it’s fixing, was simple: If you searched for, say, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, simply typing the first few letters of her name wouldn’t bring up her account. But the same couldn’t be said for Democrats. Twitter’s Product Lead, Kayvon Beykpour, explained that the behavioral ranking that caused this “doesn’t make judgements based on political views or the substance of tweets.” He said the problem was that Twitter’s “usage of the behavior signals within search” made results seem inaccurate, and as a result users could only find accounts like McDaniel’s if they searched for her full name

Twitter “SHADOW BANNING” prominent Republicans. Not good. We will look into this discriminatory and illegal practice at once! Many complaints.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2018

This isn’t the first time Twitter has dealt with this type of issue. Last November, the company faced backlash after it was accused of blocking search results for content relevant to the LGBT community. Regardless of what a user’s filtering settings were, searching for terms like such as #bisexual or #gay wouldn’t bring up any content. Much like today, Twitter eventually issued a fix (and an apology), saying it had identified an error with search results for certain terms.

Additionally, Twitter has also been accused of shadow banning sex workers and users in the adult-entertainment industry. But the issue here is more complex, since it relates to Twitter’s safety settings: They’re set to hide sensitive content by default, unless a user manually checks it off. So, if someone’s account gets labeled as sensitive, which would be the case for a user posting adult pictures, that filter would prevent their profile and their tweets from showing up in search results. For some sex workers, the main problem seems to be that this practice restricts any of their content, even if it isn’t sexual, from being surfaced beyond people they follow (or are followed by) on the site. Twitter has denied any wrongdoing, but this shows that these accusations of shadow banning aren’t limited to conservative politicians.

On 2) Some accounts weren’t being auto-suggested even when people were searching for their specific name. Our usage of the behavior signals within search was causing this to happen & making search results seem inaccurate. We’re making a change today that will improve this.

— Kayvon Beykpour

Tech News

Despite scandals, Facebook is still raking in cash and users

July 25, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Getty

It’s no secret that 2018 has been quite a rocky year for Facebook, after controversies over the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal and, most recently, its handling of fake news on the platform. But, despite these troubling issues, the company’s bottom line hasn’t been affected — it made $12 billion during the last quarter alone. And today, Facebook reported a total revenue of $13.23 billion in Q2 2018, a 42 percent year-over-year increase. Meanwhile, daily and monthly active user numbers are still growing, though they didn’t jump by much compared to Q1 2018. Monthly users are now at 2.23 billion, only up 1.54 percent from the last quarter.

While both daily and monthly active users did have an 11 percent year-over-year growth during Q2 2018, Facebook would likely prefer that 1.54 quarterly increase to be much higher — it was 3.14 percent in Q1 of this year. It’s unclear if this dip came as a result of the many scandals Facebook’s been dealing with, but it’s safe to say those aren’t helping its reputation among people all across the world.

Still, Facebook continues to make a ton of money every quarter, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the latest one wasn’t any different. Facebook attributes a big chunk of this to mobile, which it says represented 91 percent of its $13 billion advertising revenue and had an 87 percent increase compared to the second quarter of 2017. If you had any doubt mobile was the future for companies like Facebook, think again.

Embattled CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosting a conference call at 2PM PT/5PM ET to talk more about today’s results, and we’ll be updating with this post with any new information that may come from it.

Tech News

Facebook's 'shared viewing' video feature is coming to all groups

July 25, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

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Facebook has made it clear that it wants to make video a crucial part of its business, as it looks to compete with the likes of YouTube, Amazon and Netflix. And, over the past few months, the company’s been making changes to help it get there, launching new features aimed at making videos more social. One of those is Watch Party, an experimental tool introduced in January that lets members of Facebook groups watch videos together and simultaneously. That shared watching experience, which works with both live and pre-recorded videos, was only available to select users when it was first announced, but now Facebook is bringing it to every group worldwide.

With more than 1.4 billion users per month, groups has become a core product for Facebook, and it intends to use Watch Party to keep even more people locked in and connected to those who share similar interests. Facebook says that it’s heard from group leaders that Watch Party is perfect for people watching things like Q&A sessions and how-to tutorials about cooking, crafting, home improvement, playing an instrument and more. Back in April, the company said that nearly two billion people had watched Facebook Live broadcasts to date, demonstrating the potential for features like Watch Party — especially since users who watch together can comment and add emoji reactions in real time.

Soon, those Watch Parties won’t just be limited to groups. Facebook also revealed that it is already testing the tool with profiles, while pages (public profiles for businesses and other organizations) could get it in the near future, as well. Facebook says that, in its internal testing, some Watch Parties were able to generate thousands of comment from people who were watching a particular video simultaneously, with some groups dedicating over 10 hours to a single Watch Party. The success of Twitch has already proven that there’s a dedicated audience looking to watch internet video with others, regardless of the genre.

For profiles, Watch Party could be a good way to have shared viewing experiences with close friends and family members. The same goes for pages of brands or news publications that want to show videos of, say, an unboxing of a product or host a conversation about a recent story. For Facebook, the goal here is simple: To keep users interacting with one another as much as possible.

Naturally, as Facebook continues to deal with controversies around the spread of toxic content on its site, Watch Party isn’t exempt from that. Erin Connolly, Facebook’s product manager of social video, to Engadget thatthe company will use all the tools at its disposal (including artificial intelligence) to ensure that Watch Parties are safe for everyone. She added that Facebook will also rely on group administrators and other users to report any content or interactions that may be harmful, just as it’s done for any video on Facebook Live. “Keeping the communication safe is something that’s

Tech News

Instagram adds status markers to your DM list

July 19, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Instagram

Instagram started telling you when your friends were active in the direct message list last January. Now the photo-centric social network is expanding the feature with a new green dot to indicate who is online and active.

You’ll be able to see the green dot in your direct message inbox as well as your friend list when you share a post from your feed. You’ll only see the status indicator for friends who follow you, or people you’ve already exchanged direct messages with. Just like before, you can turn this off (and hide your own status) in your Instagram settings.

Tech News

Congress' social media hearing was a ‘stupid’ sideshow

July 18, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Tuesday marked another chapter in the “Tech Companies go to Congress” story, with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing, titled “Examining the Content Filtering Practices of Social Media Giants,” was supposed to shed light on how these companies are keeping their sites safe for users by filtering out toxic content. But, instead, we learned very little. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube simply echoed what they’ve been saying in other congressional hearings since 2017. They talked about how they’re using a combination of artificial intelligence and human reviewers to fight fake news, bots and toxic content like hate speech.

Those are efforts we were already aware of, though we did find out out that Facebook, apparently, can’t decide when it should ban offensive pages like InfoWars. But the fact that the latest hearing was another wasted opportunity, just like Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress in April, isn’t completely Facebook, Twitter or YouTube’s fault.

Throughout yesterday’s session, US House Representatives from both sides of the aisle seemed to be more interested on their personal agenda. Republicans like Rep. Smith (TX) talked about how he felt conservatives were being censored, accusing Google of blocking his searches for “Jesus, Chick-fil-A and the Catholic religion.” Democrats, on the other hand, said the committee should be having hearings on Russian election interference and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin instead. “This committee needs to proceed with hearings involving the question of the Russian intrusion and stealing of the 2016 election,” Rep. Lee (D-CA) said. “And I’ve come to a conclusion now that it was truly stolen. Dealing with these engines that have been effective for the United States on that issue seems to be a stretch and inappropriate.”

Rep. Lieu (D-CA) went as far as calling the hearing “dumb” and “stupid,” saying there were more important issues the House Judiciary Committee should be focusing on. “I served on active duty in the US military, I never thought I would see the American Commander-in-Chief deliver the talking points of the Kremlin. Are we having a hearing on that? No.” he said. “As we sit here today there [are] nearly three thousand babies and kids ripped away from their parents by the Trump administration, they have not been reunified yet. Are we having a hearing on that? No.” Instead, he added, “we’re having this ridiculous hearing on the content of speech of private sector companies. It’s stupid because there’s this thing called the First Amendment — we can’t regulate content. The only thing worse than an Alex Jones video is the government trying to tell Google not to do it, to prevent people from watching [it]. “

Meanwhile, Chairman Goodlatte (R-VA) asked Facebook, Twitter and YouTube why the shouldn’t be regulated as non-utilities like hotels or clubs, which at a certain point have a legal liability for how consumers use their services. Goodlatte’s concern is that these social media giants

Tech News

World Cup tweets were viewed 115 billion times

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Ian MacNicol via Getty Images

Twitter had high hopes that the World Cup would be a big hit on its platform. The previous games in 2014 happened before the platform released video features, but this time around, it secured a deal with the event’s US rights holder Fox Sports, as well as others across the world, for exclusive content like highlight clips and interviews. As the dust settles following the French team’s triumph over underdog Croatia’s squad in Sunday’s final game, Twitter has released its own numbers to give us an idea how the World Cup went for the platform.

For starters, the big number: Twitter had 115 billion impressions (i.e. views of tweets) during the World Cup. While that’s a lot, the company didn’t break that down to explain which matches attracted more interactions than others — even when reached for comment. Twitter told Engadget it wasn’t sharing specific numbers, like it did for the 2014 World Cup when it announced the Germany vs. Brazil finals attracted 35 million tweets.

Twitter explained that tweet volume didn’t necessarily correlate with an event’s ‘success’ on the platform, just how consumers reacted. Impressions, on the other hand, show how fans consumed content throughout the World Cup.

The Fox Sports-produced FIFA World Cup Now show that appeared exclusively on Twitter had clearer success, netting 7.1 million video views over the course of the matches. The other numbers were more interesting than revelatory As expected, the final game had the most tweets, with Brazil’s last two matches against Belgium and Mexico in second and third, respectively. Naturally, more tweets came from Brazil than any other country (with Japan and the UK following). Kylian Mbappé’s fourth goal for France against Croatia was the most-tweeted moment of the whole World Cup, while the most-mentioned player was, of course, Neymar, Jr.

Tech News

Egypt will subject popular social accounts to anti-fake news laws

July 17, 2018 — by Engadget.com0

Marco Vacca via Getty Images

Egypt’s parliament has passed a new law that will categorize social media accounts and blogs with more than 5,000 followers as media outlets. As such, they’ll be regulated by the Supreme Council for the Administration of the Media and be subject to media laws that criminalize the spread of fake news. Additionally, the regulatory body can now block websites and file criminal complaints against those deemed to be “inciting people to violate laws” and spreading “defamation against individuals and religions.”

In 2015, the country passed legislation that made it a crime to publish or share news stories that went against the government’s official statements and these new laws, which need to be ratified by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, are opposed by those who see them as a way for the government to suppress criticism and control the media. “These proposed laws would increase the Egyptian government’s already broad powers to monitor, censor and block social media and blogs, as well as criminalize content that violates vaguely defined political, social or religious norms,” Amnesty International’s Najia Bounaim said about the laws earlier this month.

Amnesty International says that Egyptian authorities have already blocked 500 websites over the past year and the Wall Street Journal reports that the government has arrested a number of journalists, researchers and critics for charges that range from disturbing public order to spreading false news.

Earlier this year, Malaysia passed a law that criminalized the spread of fake news, legislation that, just weeks after it was implemented, resulted in a one-month prison sentence for a Danish citizen. Those found to be in violation of the law can face up to six years in prison and a fine of up to 500,000 ringgit (approximately $124,000).