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WhatsApp just fixed a huge problem with its Android app

Image: HAYOUNG JEON/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

WhatsApp, the cross-platform instant messenger owned by Facebook, will finally allow Android users to choose how different types of notification appear.

This update is great news for many Android users, Android Police reports. The lack of notification channels was impeding the app’s everyday functionality. 

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Here’s what the problem was: Android 8.0 Oreo, released in August 2017, introduced “notification channels” to Android phones. 

This feature is pretty convenient, in theory. It allows users to assign priority to different types of notification. For example, I could set a Facebook notification to “Urgent” importance, meaning it would make a noise and show a message on my screen, and a Facebook friend request to “Medium” importance, meaning I’d see a message, but hear no sound. 

The problem is that apps have to be individually updated by their third-party developers to include notification channel functionality. Until an app was optimized for Android 8.0 Oreo, users couldn’t assign any importance to notifications from that app. 

This means for the past few months, it was impossible to change WhatsApp notifications at all. You couldn’t control whether it made a noise or showed an icon, or disable certain notifications without disabling all of the app’s notifications. 

This was quite annoying for Android users. Android Police reported that the issue was starred 216 times

Finally, the nuisance is at an end. 

WhatsApp has been updated to accommodate notification channels. They’ve showed up in the app’s 2.18.18 beta

There are 10 notification channels that you can now customize for different settings: group notifications, message notifications, chat history backup, critical app alerts, failure notifications, media playback, uncategorized, other notifications, sending media, and silent notifications. This means you could put high importance on your message notifications, but low importance on your group notifications, and disable uncategorized notifications, for example. 

WhatsApp did not respond to a request for comment. 

The customization is super easy to do. The next time you see a WhatsApp notification on your Android device, press and hold it, then select “All Categories.” 

Then, you can choose what to do with each notification. 6427 cfdc%2fthumb%2f00001

Facebook’s latest News Feed update will prioritize trustworthy publishers

Facebook is gearing up to prioritize news content by publishers a group of Facebook users have deemed trustworthy. Facebook head of News Feed Adam Mosseri said the company surveyed “a diverse and representative sample” of U.S.-based people about their familiarity and trust in various sources of news, he wrote in a blog post.

That data, Mosseri said, will serve to inform News Feed rankings. The plan is to first do this in the U.S. before rolling it out internationally. That means, starting next week, “publications deemed trustworthy by people using Facebook may see an increase in their distribution,” Mosseri wrote. “Publications that do not score highly as trusted by the community may see a decrease.”

As part of Facebook’s ongoing quality surveys, Facebook will now ask people if they’re familiar with a news source and if they trust it. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg provided a bit more detail about the thinking behind it in a post:

“The idea is that some news organizations are only trusted by their readers or watchers, and others are broadly trusted across society even by those who don’t follow them directly,” Zuckerberg wrote. “(We eliminate from the sample those who aren’t familiar with a source, so the output is a ratio of those who trust the source to those who are familiar with it.)”

Prioritizing news from trusted publishers is part of Facebook’s broader effort to revamp the News Feed and “encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption,” Zuckerberg wrote. Last week, Facebook announced major changes to News Feed, which entails less public content, like news and nonsense from brands.

Facebook also now expects news make up four percent, instead of about five percent, of content in the News Feed,  Zuckerberg said. But Zuckerberg also says the update “will not change the amount of news you see.”

“It will only shift the balance of news you see towards sources that are determined to be trusted by the community,” Zuckerberg wrote. “My hope is that this update about trusted news and last week’s update about meaningful interactions will help make time on Facebook time well spent: where we’re strengthening our relationships, engaging in active conversations rather than passive consumption, and, when we read news, making sure it’s from high quality and trusted sources.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that public content would make up 4 percent of News Feed. Rather, news will now roughly make up 4 percent of content in News Feed.

Facebook and WhatsApp malware attack is yet another stark reminder: Be wary of links

Image: Sergei Konkov\TASS via Getty Images

Hackers continue to successfully dupe people into clicking on shady (though carefully disguised) links, thereby gaining access to the text messages, Facebook accounts, and e-mails on both computers and phones. 

A new in-depth cybersecurity report — undertaken by the cybersecurity firm Lookout and digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation — show that professionals of all persuasions are making poor clicking decisions: military personnel, medical professionals, journalists, lawyers, and universities.

The perpetrators of this recently uncovered hacking scheme have been dubbed “Dark Caracal” by the report, and the cybersecurity researchers present compelling evidence that the group has been operating out of a building in Beirut, Lebanon (which happens to be owned by the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security) since 2011. Phones or computers were breached in at least 21 countries, including the United States, China, and Russia.

The hackers used common, though still sophisticated, phishing techniques to steal text messages, call records, audio recordings, photos, and other data from their targets. Broadly speaking, phishing involves hackers disguising themselves as trustworthy or known sources — perhaps an e-mail from a bank or social media account — and then tricking people into sharing confidential information.

“One of the interesting things about this ongoing attack is that it doesn’t require a sophisticated or expensive exploit. Instead, all Dark Caracal needed was application permissions that users themselves granted when they downloaded the apps, not realizing that they contained malware,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation technologist Cooper Quintin in a statement

In the case of the once-secret Dark Caracal operation, these hackers used WhatsApp messages and Facebook group links to successfully dupe people into clicking, and thereby allow spying and password collecting malware to enter their Android phones and computers. In the cybersecurity realm, these are called “waterhole attacks,” in which hackers identify the specific websites or apps used by a certain group of people — like an activist group or military organization — and infects these sites with malware in hopes that someone will click.

For instance, Dark Caracal sent WhatsApp messages to specific individuals, suggesting that they click on a link in a message. Dark Caracal also dropped links into Facebook groups and created mock login portals for Facebook, Google, and Twitter accounts — where some folks invariably typed in their passwords. 

Successful phishing campaigns are inherently deceptive, intended to feel trustworthy and encourage interaction. These sort of operations are surely not going away — in fact, they appear to be expanding in use and popularity. 

For this reason, one can employ two simple tactics in a malice-filled web: First using two-factor authentication to add a layer of security to your e-mail and social media accounts (although this is far from full proof — Dark Caracal appears to have even stolen 2-FA pass codes). The second is to always carry a healthy sense of distrust on the web, which in short means, don’t click. 

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Facebook, Twitter, YouTube praised for “steady progress” quashing illegal hate speech in Europe

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are likely to be breathing a little easier in Europe after getting a pat on the back from regional lawmakers for making “steady progress” on removing illegal hate speech.

Last week the European Commission warned it could still draw up legislation to try to ensure illegal content is removed from online platforms if tech firms do not step up their efforts.

Germany has already done so for, implementing a regime of fines of up to €50M for social media firms that fail to promptly remove illegal hate speech, though the EC is generally eyeing a wider mix of illegal content when it talks tough on this topic — including terrorist propaganda and even copyrighted material.

Today, on the specific issue of illegal hate speech on social media, it was sounding happy with the current voluntary approach. It also announced that two more social media platforms — Instagram and Google+ — have joined the program.

In 2016 Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft signed up to a regional Code of Conduct on illegal hate speech, committing to review the majority of reported hate speech within 24 hours and — for valid reports — remove posts within that timeframe too.

The Commission has been monitoring their progress on social media hate speech, specifically to see whether they are living up to what they agreed in the Code of Conduct.

Today it gave the findings from its third review — reporting that the companies are removing 70 per cent of notified illegal hate speech on average, up from 59 per cent in the second evaluation, and 28 per cent when their performance was first assessed in 2016.

Last year, Facebook and YouTube announced big boosts to the number of staff dealing with safety and content moderation issues on their platforms, following a series of content scandals and a cranking up of political pressure (which, despite the Commission giving a good report now, has not let up in every EU Member State).

Also under fire over hate speech on its platform last year, Twitter broadened its policies around hateful conduct and abusive behavior — enforcing the more expansive policies from December.

Asked during a press conference whether the EC would now be less likely to propose hate speech legislation for social media platforms, Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality commissioner Věra Jourová replied in the affirmative.

“Yes,” she said. “Now I see this as more probable that we will propose — also to the ministers of justice and all the stakeholders and within the Commission — that we want to continue this [voluntary] approach.”

Though the commissioner also emphasized she was not talking about other types of censured online content, such as terrorist propaganda and fake news. (On the latter, for instance, France’s president said last month he will introduce an anti-fake news election law aimed at combating malicious disinformation campaigns.)

“With the wider aspects of platforms… we are looking at coming forward with more specific steps which could be taken to tighten up the response to all types of illegal content before the Commission reaches a decision on whether legislation will be required,” Jourová added.

She noted that some Member States’ justice ministers are open to a new EU-level law on social media and hate speech — in the event they judge the voluntary approach to have failed — but said other ministers take a ‘hands off’ view on the issue.

“Having these quite positive results of this third assessment I will be stronger in promoting my view that we should continue the way of doing this through the Code of Conduct,” she added.

While she said she was pleased with progress made by the tech firms, Jourová flagged up feedback as an area that still needs work.

“I want to congratulate the four companies for fulfilling their main commitments. On the other hand I urge them to keep improving their feedback to users on how they handle illegal content,” she said, calling again for “more transparency” on that.

“My main idea was to make these platforms more responsible,” she added of the Code. “The experience with the big Internet players was that they were very aware of their powers but did not necessarily grasp their responsibilities.

“The Code of Conduct is a tool to enforce the existing law in Europe against racism and xenophobia. In their everyday business, companies, citizens, everyone has to make sure they respect the law — they do not need a court order to do so.

“Let me make one thing very clear, the time of fast moving, disturbing companies such as Google, Facebook or Amazon growing without any supervision or control comes to an end.”

In all, for the EC’s monitoring exercise, 2,982 notifications of illegal hate speech were submitted to the tech firms in 27 EU Member during a six-week period in November and December last year, split between reporting channels that are available to general users and specific channels available only to trusted flaggers/reporters.

In 81.7% of the cases the exercise found that the social media firms assessed notifications in less than 24 hours; in 10% in less than 48 hours; in 4.8% in less than a week; and in 3.5% it took more than a week.

Performance varied across the companies with Facebook achieving the best results — assessing the notifications in less than 24 hours in 89.3% of the cases and 9.7% in less
than 48 hours — followed by Twitter (80.2% and 10.4% respectively), and lastly YouTube (62.7% and 10.6%).

Twitter was found to have made the biggest improvement on notification review, having only achieved 39% of cases reviewed within a day as of May 2017.

In terms of removals, Facebook removed 79.8% of the content, YouTube 75% and Twitter 45.7%. Facebook also received the largest amount of notifications (1 408), followed by Twitter (794) and YouTube (780). Microsoft did not receive any.

According to the EC’s assessment, the most frequently reported grounds for hate speech are ethnic origin, anti-Muslim hatred and xenophobia.

Acknowledging the challenges that are inherent in judging whether something constitutes illegal hate speech or not, Jourová said the Commission does not have a target of 100% removals on illegal hate speech reports — given the “difficult work” that tech firms have to do in evaluating certain reports.

Illegal hate speech in Europe is defined as hate speech that has the potential to incite violence.

“They have to take into consideration the nature of the message and its potential impact on the behavior of the society,” she noted. “We do not have the goal of 100% because there are those edge cases. And… in case of doubt we should have the messages remain online because the basic position is that we protect the freedom of expression. That’s the baseline.”

Facebook won’t retreat from Stories as it adds desktop posting

Facebook Stories might feel redundant since 300 million people use its other Snapchat clones on Instagram and WhatsApp. But Facebook is convinced that the narrative, ephemeral, camera-first format is the future of sharing…and advertising.

So despite criticism and a slow start for traction, Facebook is doubling down on Stories by testing the ability to create them from desktop, and a much more prominent placement for viewing Stories atop the News Feed instead of in the sidebar.

“We are always working to ensure people can easily navigate and enjoy Facebook, regardless of how they connect” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “We are testing the option to create and share Stories from Facebook on desktop and are also testing moving the Stories tray from the top right corner to above News Feed, just like on mobile.” Previously you could only consume Stories on web that had to be created on mobile.

All Aboard The Stories Train

Brands, Event promoters, and Group admins who manage their Facebook presence from desktop might embrace Stories more now that they can post from their too. Collaborative Stories where Group members and Event attendees can all contribute are one of the most exciting opportunities for Facebook Stories.

But the company has to be careful that brands don’t drown out friends’ Stories, but that’s one of the advantages of algorithmically filtering the slideshows that disappear in 24 hours. Expect Facebook not to make the same mistake it made allowing professional publishers to overwhelm the News Feed, which it’s now walking back in a massive change to its content ranking strategy.

Advertisers might also be more comfortable getting aboard Stories thanks to desktop access. Digiday reports Facebook is building an augmented reality team in London to help it pitch sponsored AR filters to advertisers, similar to how Snapchat monetizes beyond injecting traditional display ads between Stories as Facebook does on Instagram.

Facebook users will be able to upload photos or videos, or shoot them with their webcam to post from desktop. That could attract the monologue-style YouTube vloggers who have trained themselves to talk into their computer.

By showing Stories above the News Feed instead of the to the side, Facebook clearly thinks the content deserves more attention, and is even willing to push down its status update composer and News Feed posts to make room. That’s a bold shift, considering Facebook hesitated until August to show Stories on desktop after their January launch and March rollout on mobile.

Stories Are Critical To Facebook’s AR Future

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that while eyeglass computers might be the future of augmented reality, Facebook won’t wait for it, and the smartphone is already a capable AR device. But for Facebook to have a functioning AR strategy — whether for keeping people coming back to play with AR face masks, watch friends jazz up their lives, or giving advertisers creative tools — it has to get people watching Stories en masse.

That’s why it started syncing Facebook Stories across Facebook and Messenger so posts on one show up in both. It’s why it’s allowing people to syndicate their Instagram Stories to Facebook Stories. It’s why it’s recruiting an army of outside developers to build AR tools for Story-tellers. And it’s why Facebook’s desktop site now fully adopting Stories.

Whether users warm up to them is another question. Facebook’s social graph has bloated to include distant acquaintances and family you might not want to be able to see a raw view into your day-to-day adventures. That’s the advantage of Snapchat’s closer-friends network, and something Facebook may need a better privacy solution for to get people to share.

But remember that people protested the News Feed when it first arrived on Facebook. And the younger generation that’s addicted to Snapchat shows how users can pour a half hour a day into sending, posting, and watching camera-based content. If that’s any portent, Facebook might just be early to delivering mainstream users the shift from text to Stories. And if you give people a prominent space to show off for friends, vanity and narcissism may eventually compel them to fill that space with snippets of their life.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch