Author: Jon Russell

Facebook bans Myanmar military accounts for ‘enabling human rights abuses’

Facebook is cracking down on the military leadership in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country where the social network has been identified as a factor contributing to ethnic tension and violence.

The U.S. company said today that it removed accounts belonging to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the military-owned Myawady television network.

In total, the purge has swept up 18 Facebook accounts, 52 Facebook Pages and an Instagram account after the company “found evidence that many of these individuals and organizations committed or enabled serious human rights abuses in the country.”

Some 30 million of Myanmar’s 50 million population is estimated to use Facebook, making it a hugely effective broadcast network. But with wide reach comes the potential with misuse, as has been most evident in the U.S.

But the Facebook effect is also huge far from the U.S. A report from the UN issued in March determined that Facebook had played a “determining role” in Myanmar’s crisis. The situation in the country is so severe that an estimated 700,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees are thought to have fled to neighboring Bangladesh following a Myanmar government crackdown that began in August. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has labeled the actions as ethnic cleansing.

Facebook’s action today comes a week after an investigative report from Reuters found more than 1,000 posts, comments and images that attacked Rohingya and other Muslim users on the platform.

“During a recent investigation, we discovered that they used seemingly independent news and opinion Pages to covertly push the messages of the Myanmar military. This type of behavior is banned on Facebook because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make,” Facebook said in a statement.

“While we were too slow to act, we’re now making progress – with better technology to identify hate speech, improved reporting tools, and more people to review content,” it added.

Twitter puts Infowars’ Alex Jones in the ‘read-only’ sin bin for 7 days

Twitter has finally taken action against Infowars creator Alex Jones, but it isn’t what you might think.

While Apple, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Spotify and many others have removed Jones and his conspiracy-peddling organization Infowars from their platforms, Twitter has remained unmoved with its claim that Jones hasn’t violated rules on its platform.

That was helped in no small way by the mysterious removal of some tweets last week, but now Jones has been found to have violated Twitter’s rules, as CNET first noted.

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

That means he will still be able to use the service and look up content via his account, but he’ll be unable to engage with it. That means no tweets, likes, retweets, comments, etc. He’s also been ordered to delete the offending tweet — more on that below — in order to qualify for a fully functioning account again.

That restoration doesn’t happen immediately, though. Twitter policy states that the read-only sin bin can last for up to seven days “depending on the nature of the violation.” We’re imagining Jones got the full one-week penalty, but we’re waiting on Twitter to confirm that.

The offending tweet in question is a link to a story claiming President “Trump must take action against web censorship.” It looks like the tweet has already been deleted, but not before Twitter judged that it violates its policy on abuse:

Abuse: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

When you consider the things Infowars and Jones have said or written — 9/11 conspiracies, harassment of Sandy Hook victim families and more — the content in question seems fairly innocuous. Indeed, you could look at President Trump’s tweets and find seemingly more punishable content without much difficulty.

But here we are.

The weirdest part of this Twitter caning is one of the reference points that the company gave to media. These days, it is common for the company to point reporters to specific tweets that it believes encapsulate its position on an issue, or provide additional color in certain situations.

In this case, Twitter pointed us — and presumably other reporters — to this tweet from Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson:

WTF, Twitter…

Twitter vows to continue spam fight despite negative impact on user numbers

Twitter has no intention of easing up on its fight against spam users and other factors that jeopardize the “health” of its service, despite the approach costing it three million in ‘lost’ monthly active users.

Investor panic sent Twitter’s stock price down by nearly 20 percent in early trading today following its latest financial report. Twitter posted a record profit of $100 million for Q2, but its monthly user count dropped by one million, with its U.S. number in particular down to 68 million from 69 million in the previous quarter.

The company said on an earnings call that efforts aimed at “prioritizing the health of the platform” combined with other factors cost it three million monthly users — a number which could have turned the user decline into a more favorable story of growth.

The company is anticipating another drop in the next quarter as it continues to double down on fighting spam and bots on its service. That isn’t the only factor reducing numbers, however. A reassessment of its paid partnerships with carriers worldwide — which help bring in and retain new users — in response to the development of its Lite app is also forecast to reduce MAU.

Investors may be concerned, but Twitter is bullish that an increase in the quality of users is ultimately better in the long run that the short-term gain of higher numbers.

Answering questions on an earnings call, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said the clean-up strategy would be ongoing as Twitter intends to “build [concerns for platform health] into our DNA.”

“When we do focus on removing some of the burden of people blocking/muting, we see positive results in our numbers,” he added. “We believe this will encourage our growth story.”

Yet the execs also played down the material impact by explaining that “many” of the “tens of millions” of removed accounts were already not counted within Twitter’s MAU metrics. Some, they added, had never been counted because they had been identified as questionable right from when they were registered.

Twitter explained as much in its earnings release:

When we suspend accounts, many of the removed accounts have already been excluded from MAU or DAU, either because the accounts were already inactive for more than one month at the time of suspension, or because they were caught at signup and were never included in MAU or DAU. We will continue to work hard to improve the health of the platform, providing updates on our progress at least quarterly, and prioritizing health efforts regardless of the near-term impact on metrics, as we believe the best driver of long-term growth of Twitter as a daily utility is a healthy conversation.

On the positive side, the executives played up the development of overseas revenue, which grew 44 percent year-on-year and now accounts for 48 percent of Twitter’s total income.

Facebook trips on its own moderation failures

After weeks of speculation around how it plans to handle conspiracy website Infowars, its creator Alex Jones and others that spread false information, Facebook finally gave us an answer: inconsistently.

The company hit Jones with a 30-day ban after it removed four videos that he shared on the Infowars Facebook Page.

The move is Facebook’s first that curtails the reach of Jones, who has been a major talking point in the media because he is continually allowed a voice on the social network, despite spreading “alternative theories” on events like 9/11 and the San Bernardino shootings.

Confusion

Sounds good so far, but, for a six-hour period today, it didn’t seem as though Facebook itself even knew what is going on.

CNET reported that Jones’ had been hit by a 30-day suspension for posting four videos that violate its community standards on the Infowars page that counts him as a moderator. When reached by TechCrunch to confirm the report, Facebook said Jones had only been handed a warning and that, in the event of another warning, a 30-day ban would then follow.

After hours of waiting for further confirmation and emails to the contrary, Facebook clarified that in fact Jones’ personal account was given a 30-day ban, while Infowars received a warning but no ban.

Facebook is literally shooting the messenger but allowing the page — which pushed the video out to its audience — to remain in place.

In subsequent emails, Facebook explained that the inconsistency is because Jones’ personal account had already received a past warning, which triggers the 30-day ban. Surprisingly, though, this is a first warning for the Infowars page.

At least, that’s what we think has happened because Facebook hasn’t fully clarified the exact summary of events. (We have asked.)

Beyond the four videos, there’s a lot riding on this decision — it sets a precedent. Infowars is one of the largest of its kind, but there are plenty of other organizations that thrive on pumping out misleading/false content that plays into insecurities, misplayed nationalistic pride and more.

That’s why Infowars (involuntarily) became the subject of two Facebook video events held with press his month. On both occasions, Facebook executives said that even those peddling false information deserve to have a voice on the social network, no matter how questionable or inflammatory their views may be. CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself even said Holocaust deniers have free speech on the service.

Based on today, so long as they spew their message within the Facebook community rules, they are fine.

Follow fast

In fact, you could take it further and suggest that if they don’t raise the suspicions of rival platforms like YouTube, they’ll remain untouched on Facebook.

The Jones/Infowars videos were pulled by Facebook days after being removed from YouTube. Indeed, one of the Facebook videos had even survived a review after it was flagged to Facebook moderators last month. The reviewer marked the video as acceptable and it remained on the platform — until this week.

Facebook called that decision a mistake, but arguably it’s a mistake that wouldn’t have been rectified had YouTube not raised the alarm by banning the videos on its platform first. (YouTube has well-documented content moderation problems so that it is it running circles around Facebook should draw much concern from the social network’s management.)

That Facebook is unable to communicate a significant decision like this in a cohesive manner doesn’t give the confidence to think it has its house in order when it comes to video moderation. If anything, it shows that the social network is playing catch up and winging what is a critical topic.

Its platform is being used nefariously worldwide, whether it is to sway elections or incite racial violence in foreign lands, so now, more than ever, Facebook needs to nail down the basics of handling malicious content like Infowars which, unlike those other threats, is hiding in plain sight.

Facebook also removes 4 Infowars videos, including one it previously cleared

Days after defending its decision to give a voice to conspiracy theory peddler Alex Jones and his Infowars site, Facebook has removed four of his videos for violating its community standards.

But one of the four had already been allowed to slip through the firm’s review system. A source within Facebook told TechCrunch that one of the videos had previously been flagged for review in June but, after being looked over by a checker, it was allowed remain on the social network. That decision was described as “erroneous” and it has now been removed.

Facebook’s removal of the videos comes days after YouTube scrubbed four videos from Jones from its site for violating its policies on content. The Facebook source confirmed that three of the videos it has removed were flagged for the first time on Wednesday — presumably after, or in conjunction with, them being highlighted to YouTube — but the fact that one had gotten the all-clear one again raises question marks about the consistency of Facebook’s review process.

Contrary to some media reports, Jones has not received a 30-day ban from Facebook following these removals. TechCrunch understands that such a ban will be issued if Jones violates the company’s policies in the future, but, for now, he has been given a warning.

“Our Community Standards make it clear that we prohibit content that encourages physical harm [bullying], or attacks someone based on their religious affiliation or gender identity [hate speech]. We remove content that violates our standards as soon as we’re aware of it. In this case, we received reports related to four different videos on the Pages that Infowars and Alex Jones maintain on Facebook. We reviewed the content against our Community Standards and determined that it violates. All four videos have been removed from Facebook,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the company’s head of News Feed John Hegeman said of Infowars content — which includes claims 9/11 was an inside job and alternate theories to the San Bernardino shootings — that “just for being false, doesn’t violate the community standards.” He added: “We created Facebook to be a place where different people can have a voice.”

Facebook seemed to double down on that stance on Monday when, at another event, VP of product Fidji Simo called Infowars “absolutely atrocious” but then said that “if you are saying something untrue on Facebook, you’re allowed to say it as long as you’re an authentic person and you are meeting the community standards.”

It’s not been a good week for Facebook. A poor earnings report spooked investors and caused its valuation drop by $123 billion in what is the largest-single market cap wipeout in U.S. trading history. That’s not the kind of record Facebook will want to own.

RIP Klout

Remember Klout?

The influencer market service that purportedly let social media influencers get free stuff is finally closing its doors this month.

Perhaps, like me, you’re surprised that Klout is still running in 2018, but time is nearly up. The closure will happen May 25 — you have until then to see what topics you’re apparently an expert on. The shutdown comes more than four years after it was acquired by social media software company Lithium Technologies for a reported $200 million. The plan was for Lithium to IPO, but that never happened.

Lithium operates a range of social media services, including products that handle social media marketing campaigns and engagement with customers, and now it has decided that Klout is no longer part of its vision.

“The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy,” CEO Pete Hess wrote in a short note.

Hess said those apparent AI and ML smarts will be put to work in the company’s other product lines.

He did tease a potential Klout replacement in the form of “a new social impact scoring methodology based on Twitter” that Lithium is apparently planning to release soon. I’m pretty sure someone out there is already pledging to bring Klout back on the blockchain and is frantically writing up an ICO whitepaper as we speak because that’s how it is these days.

RIP Klout

Twitter doesn’t care that someone is building a bot army in Southeast Asia

Facebook’s lack of attention to how third parties are using its service to reach users ended up with CEO Mark Zuckerberg taking questions from Congressional committees. With that in mind, you’d think that others in the social media space might be more attentive than usual to potentially malicious actors on their platforms.

Twitter, however, is turning the other way and insisting all is normal in Southeast Asia, despite the emergence of thousands of bot-like accounts that have followed prominent users in the region en masse over the past month.

Scores of reporters and Twitter users with large followers — yours truly included — have noticed swarms of accounts with generic names, no profile photo, no bio and no tweets have followed them over the past month.

These accounts might be evidence of a new ‘bot farm’ — the creation of large numbers of accounts for sale or usage on-demand which Twitter has cracked down on — or the groundwork for more nefarious activities, it’s too early to tell.

In what appears to be the first regional Twitter bot campaign, a flood of suspicious new followers has been reported by users across Southeast Asia and beyond, including Thailand, Myanmar Cambodia, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Sri Lanka among other places.

While it is true that the new accounts have done nothing yet, the fact that a large number of newly-created accounts have popped up out of nowhere with the aim of following the region’s most influential voices should be enough to concern Twitter. Especially since this is Southeast Asia, a region where Facebook is beset with controversies — from its role inciting ethnic hatred in Myanmar, to allegedly assisting censors in Vietnam, witnessing users jailed for violating lese majeste in Thailand, and aiding the election of controversial Philippines leader Duterte.

Then there are governments themselves. Vietnam has pledged to build a cyber army to combat “wrongful views,” while other regimes in Southeast Asia have clamped down on social media users.

Despite that, Twitter isn’t commenting.

The U.S. company issued a no comment to TechCrunch when we asked for further information about this rush of new accounts, and what action Twitter will take.

A source close to the company suggested that the sudden accumulation of new followers is “a pretty standard sign-up, or onboarding, issue” that is down to new accounts selecting to follow the suggested accounts that Twitter proposes during the new account creation process.

Twitter is more than 10 years old, and since this is the first example of this happening in Southeast Asia that explanation already seems inadequate at face value. More generally, the dismissive approach seems particularly naive. Twitter should be looking into the issue more closely, even if for now the apparent bot army isn’t being put to use yet.

Facebook is considered to be the internet by many in Southeast Asia, and the social network is considerably more popular than Twitter in the region, but there remains a cause for concern here.

“If we’ve learned anything from the Facebook scandal, it’s that what can at first seem innocuous can be leveraged to quite insidious and invasive effect down the line,” Francis Wade, who recently published a book on violence in Myanmar, told the Financial Times this week. “That makes Twitter’s casual dismissal of concerns around this all the more unsettling.”