All posts in “Social”

Facebook launches “Hunt For False News” debunk blog as fakery drops 50%

Facebook hopes detailing concrete examples of fake news it’s caught — or missed — could improve news literacy or at least prove it’s attacking the misinformation problem. Today Facebook launched “The Hunt For False News”, in which it examines viral B.S., relays the decisions of its third-party fact checkers, and explains how the story was tracked down. The first edition reveals cases where false captions were put on old videos, people were wrongfully identified as perpetrators of crimes, or real facts were massively exaggerated.

The blog’s launch comes after three recent studies showed the volume of misinformation on Facebook has dropped by half since the 2016 election, while Twitter’s volume hasn’t declined as drastically. Unfortunately, the remaining 50 percent still threatens elections, civil discourse, dissident safety, and political unity across the globe.

In one of The Hunt’s first examples, it debunks that a man who posed for a photo with one of Brazil’s senators had stabbed the presidential candidate. Facebook explains that its machine learning models identified the photo, it was proven false by Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos, and Facebook now automatically detects and demotes uploads of the image. In a case where it missed the mark, a false story touting NASA would pay you $100,000 to study you staying in bed for 60 days “racked up millions of views on Facebook” before fact checkers found NASA had paid out $10,000 to $17,000 in limited instances for studies in the past.

While the educational “Hunt” series is useful, it merely cherry picks random false news stories from over a wide time period. What’s more urgent, and would be more useful, would be for Facebook to apply this method to currently circulating misinformation about the most important news stories. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently began using Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool to highlight the top 10 recent stories by engagement about topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

If Facebook wanted to be more transparent about its successes and failures around fake news, it’s publish lists of the false stories with the highest circulation each month and then apply the Hunt’s format more explaining how they were debunked. This could help to dispel myths in societies understanding that may be propagated by the mere abundance of fake news headlines, even if users don’t click through the read them.

The red line represents the decline of Facebook engagement with “unreliable or dubious” sites

But at least all of Facebook’s efforts around information security including doubling its security staff from 10,000 to 20,000 workers, fact checks, and using News Feed algorithm changes to demote suspicious content are paying off.

  • A Stanford and NYU study found that Facebook likes, comments, shares, and reactions to links to 570 fake news sites dropped by over half since the 2016 election while engagements through Twitter continued to rise, “with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares falling by approximately 60 percent.”
  • A University Of Michigan study coined the metric “Iffy Quotient” to assess the how much content from certain fake news sites was distributed on Facebook and Twitter. When engagement was factored in, it found Facebook’s levels had dropped to early 2016 volume that’s now 50 percent les than Twitter.
  • French newspaper Le Monde looked at engagement with 630 French websites across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Facebook engagement with sites dubbed “unreliable or dubious” has dropped by half since 2015.

Of course, given Twitter’s seeming paralysis on addressing misinformation and trolling, they’re not a great benchmark for Facebook to judge by. While it’s useful that Facebook is outlining ways to spot fake news, the public will have to internalize these strategies for society to make progress. That may be difficult when the truth has become incompatible with many peoples’ and politicians’ staunchly-held beliefs.

In the past, Facebook has surfaced fake news spotting tips atop the News Feed and bought full-page newspaper ads trying to disseminate them. The Hunt For Fake News would surely benefit from being embedded where the social network’s users look everyday instead of buried in its corporate blog.

Facebook hires former UK Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, as global policy chief

Facebook has confirmed it has hired the former leader of the UK’s third largest political party — Nick Clegg of the political middle ground Liberal Democrats — to head up global policy and comms.

The news was reported earlier by the Financial Times.

Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that Clegg’s title will be VP, global affairs and communications, and that he starts on Monday — and will be moving with his family to California in the New Year.

Former global policy and communications chief, Elliot Schrage, who has been in post for a decade is staying on as an advisor, according to Facebook, and in a post announcing Clegg’s hire COO Sheryl Sandberg thanked Schrage for his “leadership, tenacity, and wise counsel ‑- in good times and bad”.

Facebook told us that Sandberg and founder Mark Zuckerberg were both deeply involved in the hiring process, beginning discussions with Clegg over the summer — as fallout from the Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal continued to rain down around it — and emphasizing they have already spent a lot of time with him.

Facebook also made a point of noting that Clegg is the most senior European politician to ever take up a senior executive leadership role in Silicon Valley. 

The hire certainly looks like big tech waking up to the fact it needs a far better relationship with European lawmakers.

In a post on Facebook announcing his new job, Clegg says as much, writing: “Having spoken at length to Mark and Sheryl over the last few months, I have been struck by their recognition that the company is on a journey which brings new responsibilities not only to the users of Facebook’s apps but to society at large. I hope I will be able to play a role in helping to navigate that journey.”

“Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, Oculus and Instagram are at the heart of so many people’s everyday lives – but also at the heart of some of the most complex and difficult questions we face as a society: the privacy of the individual; the integrity of our democratic process; the tensions between local cultures and the global internet; the balance between free speech and prohibited content; the power and concerns around artificial intelligence; and the wellbeing of our children,” he adds.

“I believe that Facebook must continue to play a role in finding answers to those questions – not by acting alone in Silicon Valley, but by working with people, organizations, governments and regulators around the world to ensure that technology is a force for good.”

In her note about Clegg’s hire, Sandberg lauds Cleggs as “a thoughtful and gifted leader who… understands deeply the responsibilities we have to people who use our service around the world” — before also discussing the big challenges ahead.

“Our company is on a critical journey. The challenges we face are serious and clear and now more than ever we need new perspectives to help us though this time of change. The opportunities are clear too. Every day people use our apps to connect with family and friends and make a difference in their communities. If we can honor the trust they put in us and live up to our responsibilities, we can help more people use technology to do good,” she writes. “That’s what motivates our teams and from all my conversations with Nick, it’s clear that he believes in this as well. His experience and ability to work through complex issues will be invaluable in the years to come.”

One former Facebook policy staffer we spokes to for an insider perspective on Clegg’s hire, couched it as a sign Facebook is finally taking Europe seriously — i.e. as a regulatory force with the ability to bring big tech to rule.

“When I started at fb there were two people in a Regus office doing EU policy,” the person told us, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now they have an army, and they’re still hiring.”

In Europe, the region’s new data protection framework, GDPR, which came into force at the end of May, has put privacy and security at the top of the tech agenda. And more regulations are coming — with the EU’s data protection supervisor warning today that GDPR is not enough.

“The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica revelations are still under investigation in Europe and America, but they are only the tip of the iceberg, a sign of a much wider problem and a symptom of many more problems still unnoticed,” writes Giovanni Buttarelli in a blog entitled: The urgent case for a new ePrivacy law.

“They didn’t take it seriously and they’re catching up now. I think it also just sends a strong signal that they’re not a U.S. centric company,” the source added of Facebook’s attitude to EU policy, dating the shift in approach to around 2016 — which was also the year that domestic election interference came home to roost for Zuckerberg, after Kremlin meddling in the US presidential elections.

So no more ‘pretty crazy ideas’ from Zuckerberg where politics is concerned — Nick Clegg instead.

For Brits, though, this is actually a pretty crazy idea, given Clegg is the awkwardly familiar face of middle ground, middler performance politics.

And, more importantly, the sacrificial lamb of political compromise, after his party got punished for its turn in coalition government with David Cameron’s Brexit triggering Conservatives.

Our ex-Facebooker source said they’d heard rumors linking the former Labour MP, David Miliband, and the Conservatives’ George Osborne to the global policy position too. Whatever the truth of those rumors, in the event Facebook went with Clegg’s third way — which of course meshes perfectly with the company’s desire to be a platform for all views; be that conservative, liberal and Holocaust denier too.

In Clegg it will have found a true believer that compromise can trump partisan tribalism.

Though Facebook’s business will probably test the limits of Clegg’s powers of accommodation.

The current state of the Lib Dem political animal — a party with now just a handful of MPs left in the UK parliament — does also hold a cautionary message for Facebook’s mission to be all things to all men.

A target some less machiavellian types might judge ‘mission impossible’.

Add to that, given Facebook’s now dire need to win back user trust — i.e. in the wake of a string of data scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica affair (and indeed ongoing attempts by unknown forces to use its platform for voter manipulation) — Clegg is rather an odd choice of hire, given he’s the man who led a political party that fatally burnt the trust of its core supporters who punished it with near political oblivion at the ballet box.

Still, at least Clegg knows how to say sorry in a way that be turned into a hip and shareable meme …

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A ton of people don’t know that Facebook owns WhatsApp

Americans looking to reduce their reliance on products from tech’s most alarmingly megalithic companies might be surprised to learn just how far their reach extends.

Privacy-minded browser company DuckDuckGo conducted a small study to look into that phenomenon and the results were pretty striking.

“… As Facebook usage wanes, messaging apps like WhatsApp are growing in popularity as a ‘more private (and less confrontational) space to communicate,’” DuckDuckGo wrote in the post. “That shift didn’t make much sense to us because both services are owned by the same company, so we tried to find an explanation.”

DuckDuckGo gathered a random sample of 1,297 adult Americans who are “collectively demographically similar to the general population of U.S. adults” (i.e. not just DuckDuckGo diehards) using SurveyMonkey’s audience tools. The survey found that 50.4% of those surveyed who had used WhatsApp in the prior 6 months (247 participants) did not know that the company is owned by Facebook.

Similarly, DuckDuckGo found that 56.4% of those surveyed who had used Waze in the past 6 months (291 participants) had no idea that the navigation app is owned by Google. A similar study conducted back in April found the same phenomenon when it came to Facebook/Instagram and Google/YouTube, though for Instagram the effect was even stronger (wow).

If you’re reading TechCrunch it’s probably almost impossible to imagine that average people aren’t tracing the lines between tech’s biggest companies and the products scooped up or built under their wings. And yet, it is so.

Even as companies like Google and Facebook suffer blowback from privacy crises, it’s clear that they can lean on the products they’ve picked up along the way to chart a path forward. If this survey is any indication, half of U.S. consumers will have no idea that they’ve jumped ship from a big tech product into a lifeboat captained by the very same company they sought to escape.

And for the biggest tech companies, it’s at least one reason that keeping satellite products at arm’s length from their respective motherships is advantageous for maintaining trust — especially while aggressive data sharing happens behind the scenes.

Call for social media adtech to be probed by UK competition watchdog

A British Conservative politician, who has called repeatedly for Mark Zuckerberg to come to parliament to answer questions about how Facebook fences fake news — only to be repeatedly rebuffed — has made a public call for the UK’s competition regulator to look into social media giants’ adtech operations.

Damian Collins, the chair of the DCMS committee which has spent months this year asking questions about how disinformation spreads online — culminating in a report, this summer, recommending the government impose a levy on social media to defend democracy — made the suggestion in a tweet that references a news article reporting on a U.S. class action lawsuit against Facebook.

Advertisers in the US lawsuit allege Facebook knowingly inflated video viewing stats and thus mislead them into spending more money on its ad platform than they otherwise would have.

But Facebook disputes the allegations, saying the lawsuit is “without merit”. It has also filed a motion to dismiss the claims of ad fraud.

Although, two years ago, it did ‘fess up to a ‘miscalculation’ around average video viewing times, saying it had mistakenly discounted all the people who dropped out of watching a video in the first 3 seconds in calculating averages — thereby bumping viewing averages up.

At about the same time, it also said it had discovered some other ad-related bugs and errors in its system that had led to the wrong numbers being reported across four products, including Instant Articles, video and Page Insights.

The advertisers in the class action lawsuit — which was filed back in 2016 — had originally claimed Facebook engaged in unfair business practices. After receiving tens of thousands of documents in relation to the case they amended their complaint to accuse the company of fraud, CBS reports.

In its statement denying the suit’s claims, Facebook also said: “Suggestions that we in any way tried to hide this issue from our partners are false. We told our customers about the error when we discovered it — and updated our help center to explain the issue.” 

The company declined to comment on Collins’ remarks about adtech industry practices today.

A spokeswoman for the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also declined to comment when asked whether it has any concerns related to practices in the adtech sector.

Given market sensitivity to regulatory action it’s normal for the CMA to not want to stoke any speculation around a particular company.

For the same reason it would not normally discuss any complaints it’s received until the point of actually launching any investigation.

However this is not the first time the CMA has been urged by concerned politicians to investigate the adtech sector.

This fall another UK committee, the Lords Select Committee on Communications, directly asked the body to investigate digital advertising.

And earlier this month the CMA’s CEO, Andrea Coscelli, told the committee it is indeed considering doing so, if only it can carve out the resources to do so — saying he was worried about “potential gaps” in the regulatory framework around competition and consumer issues.

“A month ago, this Committee asked us to look at digital advertising. That is something we are actively considering, subject to Brexit in the next few weeks, because it has a big resource implication for us,” said Coscelli on October 9. “It is certainly something where we are interested in getting involved. If we did, we would work closely with Ofcom and give serious thought to the regulatory framework in that context.”

The CMA has also generally been ramping up its activity on the digital market front, recently spinning up a new data unit and appointing a chief data and digital insights officer, Stefan Hunt, hired in from the Financial Conduct Authority — to help it “develop and deliver an effective data and digital insight strategy… to better understand the impact that data, machine learning and other algorithms have on markets and people”.

So it sounds like a case of ‘watch this regulatory space’ for more action at the very least.

Elsewhere in Europe competition regulators have also been paying closer attention to the adtech industry in recent years — examining a variety of practices by adtech giants, Facebook and Google, and coming away with a range of antitrust-related concerns.

In preliminary findings at the end of last year, for example, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office accused Facebook of using its size to strong-arm users into handing over data.

While, earlier this year, the French Competition Authority suggested it was planning to investigate Facebook and Google‘s dominance of the adtech market, publishing a report in which it identified a raft of problematic behaviors — and pointed out that the two companies act as both publishers and technical intermediaries for advertisers, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.

Italian regulators have also been probing competition concerns related to big data for more than a year.

As we’ve reported before, the European Commission is also actively eyeing digital platforms’ market power — and looking to reshape competition policy to take account of how tech giants are able to draw on network effects and leverage their position from one market to another.

And when you’re talking about platform power, you are also — in the current era — talking about adtech.

There’s no doubt closer scrutiny of the digital advertising sector is coming. And with a brighter spotlight, tighter accountability screws applied to its practices.

Privacy reviews of adtech platforms have already raised plenty of ethical questions, in addition to flagging actual violations of the law.

This summer the UK’s data protection watchdog also called for an ethical pause of the use of social media ads for political purposes, writing that: “It is important that there is greater and genuine transparency about the use of such techniques to ensure that people have control over their own data and that the law is upheld.”

So while it remains to be seen what any competition investigations of the adtech sector will conclude, political momentum is building to increase transparency and ensure accountability — which makes regulation more likely.

Twitter tests out ‘annotations’ in Moments

Twitter is trying out a small new change to Moments that would provide contextual information within its curated stories. Spotted by Twitter user @kwatt and confirmed by a number of Twitter product team members, the little snippets appear sandwiched between tweets in a Moment.

Called “annotations” — not to be confused with Twitter’s metadata annotations of yore — the morsels of info aim to clarify and provide context for the tweets that comprise Twitter’s curated trending content. According to the product team, they are authored by Twitter’s curation group.

In our testing, annotations only appear on the mobile app and not on the same Moments on desktop. So far we’ve seen them on a story about the NFL, one about Moviepass and another about staffing changes in the White House.

While it’s a tiny feature tweak, annotations are another sign that Twitter is exploring ways to infuse its platform with value and veracity in the face of what so far appears to be an intractable misinformation crisis.