Author: Taylor Hatmaker

Twitter will give political candidates a special badge during US midterm elections

Ahead of 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Twitter is taking a visible step to combat the spread of misinformation on its famously chaotic platform. In a blog post this week, the company explained how it would be adding “election labels” to the profiles of candidates running for political office.

“Twitter has become the first place voters go to seek accurate information, resources, and breaking news from journalists, political candidates, and elected officials,” the company wrote in its announcement. “We understand the significance of this responsibility and our teams are building new ways for people who use Twitter to identify original sources and authentic information.”

These labels feature a small government building icon and text identifying the position a candidate is running for and the state or district where the race is taking place. The label information included in the profile will also appear elsewhere on Twitter, even when tweets are embedded off-site.

The labels will start popping up after May 30 and will apply to candidates in state governor races as well as those campaigning for a seat in the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Twitter will partner with nonpartisan political nonprofit Ballotpedia to create the candidate labels. In a statement announcing its partnership, Ballotpedia explains how that process will work:

Ballotpedia covers all candidates in every upcoming election occurring within the 100 most-populated cities in the U.S., plus all federal and statewide elections, including ballot measures. After each state primary, Ballotpedia will provide Twitter with information on gubernatorial and Congressional candidates who will appear on the November ballot. After receiving consent from each candidate, Twitter will apply the labels to each candidate profile.

The decision to create a dedicated process to verify political profiles is a step in the right direction for Twitter. With major social platforms still in upheaval over revelations around foreign misinformation campaigns during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Twitter and Facebook need to take decisive action now if they intend to inoculate their users against a repeat threat in 2018.

Instagram adds emoji slider stickers to spice up polls

If you’ve been meaning to ask your friends just how eggplant emoji your new summer cutoffs are, you’re in luck. Today, Instagram is introducing a feature it’s calling the “emoji slider,” a new audience feedback sticker that polls your viewers on a rating scale using any emoji. The updated Instagram app is available now in the App Store and in Google Play.

For example, if you decide to stay in on a Friday night and take risqué selfies you could ask your friends to rate just how angel emoji or how inexplicably-purple-devil-emoji your behavior is. Or say you see an animal and can’t quite figure out if it’s a snake or a salamander with those little tiny legs, you could poll your Instagram story-goers to ask how snake emoji the thing was on a scale of no snake emoji to 100 percent snake emoji. The impractical applications are endless.

Instagram says the emoji slider grew out of the natural popularity of the poll sticker, which is admittedly a pretty fun way to pressure your friends and admirers into spontaneous audience participation. With the emoji slider, you can ask how [emoji] something is instead of just asking your followers to operate under a binary set of options, because binaries are over, man.

If you’re into it, you can find the emoji slider in the sticker tray with most of the other excellent stoner nonsense. Just select it, write out your question, slap that baby on your story and wait for the sweet, sweet feedback to roll in.

Tech watchdogs call on Facebook and Google for transparency around censored content

If a company like Facebook can’t even understand why its moderation tools work the way they do, then its users certainly don’t have a fighting shot. Anyway, that’s the idea behind what a coalition of digital rights groups are calling The Santa Clara Principles (PDF), “a set of minimum standards” aimed at Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech companies that moderate the content published on their platforms.

The suggested guidelines grew out of a set of events addressing “Content Moderation and Removal at Scale,” the second of which is taking place today in Washington, D.C. The group participating in these conversations shared the goal of coming up with a suggested ruleset for how major tech companies should disclose which content is being censored, why it is being censored and how much speech is censored overall.

“Users deserve more transparency and greater accountability from platforms that play an outsized role — in Myanmar, Australia, Europe, and China, as well as in marginalized communities in the U.S. and elsewhere — in deciding what can be said on the internet,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York said.

As the Center for Democracy and Technology explains, The Santa Clara principles (PDF) ask tech companies to disclose three categories of information:

  • Numbers (of posts removed, accounts suspended);
  • Notice (to users about content removals and account suspensions); and
  • Appeals (for users impacted by content removals or account suspensions).

“The Santa Clara Principles are the product of years of effort by privacy advocates to push tech companies to provide users with more disclosure and a better understanding of how content policing works,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo added.

“Facebook and Google have taken some steps recently to improve transparency, and we applaud that. But it’s not enough. We hope to see the companies embrace The Santa Clara Principles and move the bar on transparency and accountability even higher.”

Participants in drafting The Santa Clara Principles include the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, New America’s Open Technology Institute and a handful of scholars from departments studying ethics and communications.

Facebook’s Free Basics program ended quietly in Myanmar last year

As recently as last week, Facebook was touting the growth of its Internet.org app Free Basics, but the program isn’t working out everywhere. As the Outline originally reported and TechCrunch confirmed, the Free Basics program has ended in Myanmar, perhaps Facebook’s most controversial non-Western market at the moment.

Its mission statement pledging to “bring more people online and help improve their lives” is innocuous enough, but Facebook’s Internet.org strategy is extremely aggressive, optimized for explosive user growth in markets that the company has yet to penetrate. Free Basics, an initiative under Internet.org, is an app that offers users in developing markets a “free” Facebook-curated version of the broader internet.

The app provides users with internet access — stuff like the weather and local news — but keeps them within Facebook’s walled garden. The result in some countries with previously low connectivity rates was that the social network became synonymous with the internet itself — and as we’ve seen, that can lead to a whole host of very real problems.

While the Outline reports that Free Basics has ended in “half a dozen nations and territories” including Bolivia, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad and Tobago, Republic of Congo, Anguilla, Saint Lucia and El Salvador, Facebook notes that only two international mobile providers have ended the program, leaving room for interpretation about how other countries ended their involvement and why.

As a Facebook spokeswoman told TechCrunch, Facebook is still moving forward with the program:

“We’re encouraged by the adoption of Free Basics. It is now available in more than 50 countries with 81 mobile operator partners around the world. Today, more than 1,500 services are available on Free Basics worldwide, provided to people in partnership with mobile operators.

Free Basics remains live with the vast majority of participating operators who have opted to continue offering the service. We remain committed to bringing more people around the world online by breaking down barriers to connectivity.”

Facebook confirmed to TechCrunch that Free Basics did indeed end in Myanmar in September 2017, a little over a year since its June 2016 launch in the country. The company clarified that Myanmar’s state-owned telecom Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) cooperated with the Myanmar government to shut down access to all free services, including Free Basics in September of last year. The move was part of a broader regulatory effort by the Myanmar government.

In a press release, MPT described how the regulation shaped policy for the country’s three major telecoms:

“… As responsible operators, [MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor] abide by sound price competition practices – hallmarks of a healthy marketplace and to adhere to industry best practices and ethical business guidelines.

This [includes] compliance with the authority imposed floor pricing as set out in the Post and Telecommunications Department’s Pricing and Tariff Regulatory Framework of 28 June 2017, including refraining from behavior such as free distribution or sales of SIM cards and supplying services and handsets at below the cost including delivery.”

In Myanmar, Facebook’s Free Basics offering ran afoul of the same price floor regulations that restricted the distribution of free SIM cards.

Elsewhere, Facebook’s Free Basics program is winding down for other reasons. Last fall, the telecom Digicel ended access to Free Basics in El Salvador and some of its Caribbean markets. Digicel confirmed to TechCrunch that it stopped offering Free Basics due to commercial reasons on its end and that the decision was not a result of any action by Facebook or Internet.org.

As the Free Basics program is part of a partnership between Facebook and local mobile providers, the latter can terminate access to the app at will. Still, it’s not clear if that was the case in all the countries in which the app is no longer available.

In 2016, India regulated Facebook’s free internet deal out of existence, effectively blocking Facebook’s access to its most sought-after new market in the process. Since then, vocal critics have called Facebook’s Internet.org efforts everything from digital colonialism to a spark in the tinderbox for countries dealing with targeted violence against religious minorities.

Still, according to Facebook, even as some markets dry up, the program is quietly expanding. In late 2017 Facebook added Sudan and Cote d’Ivoire to its Free Basics roster. This year, Facebook launched the initiative in Cameroon and added additional mobile partners in Columbia and Peru.

Myanmar’s access to Free Basics is now restricted, but Facebook indicated that its efforts to connect the country — and its 54 million newly-minted or yet to be converted Facebook users — are not over.

Pro-Trump social media duo accuses Facebook of anti-conservative censorship

Following up on a recurring thread from Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional appearance earlier this month, the House held a hearing today on perceived bias against conservatives on Facebook and other social platforms. The hearing, ostensibly about “how social media companies filter content on their platforms,” focused on the anecdotal accounts of social media stars Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), a pro-Trump viral web duo that rose to prominence during Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Facebook used one mechanism at a time to diminish reach by restricting our page so that our 1.2 million followers would not see our content, thus silencing our conservative voices,” Diamond and Silk said in their testimony.

“It’s not fair for these Giant Techs [sic] like Facebook and YouTube get to pull the rug from underneath our platform and our feet and put their foot on our neck to silence our voices; it’s not fair for them to put a strong hold on our finances.”

During the course of their testimony, Diamond and Silk repeated their unfounded assertions that Facebook targeted their content as a deliberate act of political censorship.

What followed was mostly a partisan back-and-forth. Republicans who supported the hearing’s mission asked the duo to elaborate on their claims and Democrats pointed out their lack of substantiating evidence and their willingness to denounce documented facts as “fake news.”

Controversially, they also denied that they had accepted payment from the Trump campaign, in spite of public evidence to the contrary. On November 22, 2016, the pair received $1,274.94 for “field consulting,” as documented by the FEC.

Earlier in April, Zuckerberg faced a question about the pair’s Facebook page from Republican Rep. Joe Barton:

Why is Facebook censoring conservative bloggers such as Diamond and Silk? Facebook called them “unsafe” to the community. That is ludicrous. They hold conservative views. That isn’t unsafe.

At the time, Zuckerberg replied that the perceived censorship was an “enforcement error” and had been in contact with Diamond and Silk to reverse its mistake. Senator Ted Cruz also asked Zuckerberg about what he deemed a “pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship” against conservative voices on the platform.

Today’s hearing, which California Rep. Ted Lieu dismissed as “stupid and ridiculous,” was little more than an exercise in idle hyper-partisanship, but it’s notable for a few reasons. For one, Diamond and Silk are two high-profile creators who managed to take their monetization grievances with tech companies, however misguided, all the way to Capitol Hill. Beyond that, and the day’s strange role-reversal of regulatory stances, the hearing was the natural escalation of censorship claims made by some Republicans during the Zuckerberg hearings. Remarkably, those accusations only comprised a sliver of the two days’ worth of testimony; in a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans mostly cooperated in grilling the Facebook CEO on his company’s myriad failures.

Congressional hearing or not, the truth of Facebook’s platform screw-ups is far more universal than political claims on the right or left might suggest. As Zuckerberg’s testimony made clear, Facebook’s moderation tools don’t exactly work as intended and the company doesn’t even really know the half of it. Facebook users have been manipulating the platform’s content reporting tools for years, and unfortunately that phenomenon coupled with Facebook’s algorithmic and moderation blind spots punishes voices on both sides of the U.S. political spectrum — and everyone in between.

Twitter banned Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab from buying ads

The U.S. government isn’t the only one feeling skittish about Kaspersky Lab. On Friday, the Russian security firm’s founder Eugene Kaspersky confronted Twitter’s apparent ban on advertising from the company, a decision it quietly issued in January.

“In a short letter from an unnamed Twitter employee, we were told that our company ‘operates using a business model that inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices,'” Kaspersky wrote.

“One thing I can say for sure is this: we haven’t violated any written – or unwritten – rules, and our business model is quite simply the same template business model that’s used throughout the whole cybersecurity industry: We provide users with products and services, and they pay us for them.”

He noted that the company has spent around than €75,000 ($93,000 USD) to promote its content on Twitter in 2017.

Kaspersky called for Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to specify the motivation behind the ban after failing to respond to an official February 6 letter from his company.

More than two months have passed since then, and the only reply we received from Twitter was the copy of the same boilerplate text. Accordingly, I’m forced to rely on another (less subtle but nevertheless oft and loudly declared) principle of Twitter’s – speaking truth to power – to share details of the matter with interested users and to publicly ask that you, dear Twitter executives, kindly be specific as to the reasoning behind this ban; fully explain the decision to switch off our advertising capability, and to reveal what other cybersecurity companies need to do in order to avoid similar situations.

In a statement about the incident, Twitter reiterated that Kaspersky Lab’s business model “inherently conflicts with acceptable Twitter Ads business practices.” In a statement to CyberScoop, Twitter pointed to the late 2017 Department of Homeland Security directive to eliminate Kaspersky software from Executive Branch systems due to the company’s relationship with Russian intelligence.

“The Department is concerned about the ties between certain Kaspersky officials and Russian intelligence and other government agencies, and requirements under Russian law that allow Russian intelligence agencies to request or compel assistance from Kaspersky and to intercept communications transiting Russian networks,” DHS asserted in the directive at the time.

Zuckerberg denies knowledge of Facebook shadow profiles

The fact that Facebook probably has a profile of you whether you’re a Facebook user or not might come as a surprise to some users, though today even the company’s chief executive denied knowledge of the practice — or at least the term used to describe it.

In this morning’s hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, New Mexico Representative Ben Lujan cornered Mark Zuckerberg with a question about so-called “shadow profiles” — the term often used to refer to the data that Facebook collects on non-users and other hidden data that Facebook holds but does not offer openly on the site for users to see.

In one of the handful of slightly candid moments of the past few days, Rep. Lujan pressed Zuckerberg on the practice today:

Lujan: Facebook has detailed profiles on people who have never signed up for Facebook, yes or no?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, in general we collect data on people who have not signed up for Facebook for security purposes to prevent the kind of scraping you were just referring to [reverse searches based on public info like phone numbers].

Lujan: So these are called shadow profiles, is that what they’ve been referred to by some?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, I’m not, I’m not familiar with that.

Lujan: I’ll refer to them as shadow profiles for today’s hearing. On average, how many data points does Facebook have on each Facebook user?

Zuckerberg: I do not know off the top of my head.

Lujan: Do you know how many points of data Facebook has on the average non-Facebook user?

Zuckerberg: Congressman, I do not know off the top of my head but I can have our team get back to you afterward.

Lujan: It’s been admitted by Facebook that you do collect data points on non-[Facebook users]. My question is, can someone who does not have a Facebook account opt out of Facebook’s involuntary data collection?

Zuckerberg: Anyone can turn off and opt out of any data collection for ads, whether they use our services or not, but in order to prevent people from scraping public information… we need to know when someone is repeatedly trying to access our services.

Lujan: It may surprise you that we’ve not talked about this a lot today. You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you’re collecting data on people who are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement.

And it may surprise you that on Facebook’s page when you go to “I don’t have a Facebook account and would like to request all my personal data stored by Facebook” it takes you to a form that says “go to your Facebook page and then on your account settings you can download your data.”

So you’re directing people that don’t even have a Facebook page to sign up for a Facebook page to access their data… We’ve got to change that.

As TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas explained during a 2013 Facebook privacy scandal:

Chances are someone you have corresponded with — by email or mobile phone — has let Facebook’s data spiders crawl through their correspondence, thereby allowing your contact data to be assimilated entirely without your knowledge or consent.

During that privacy breach, Facebook exposed the email addresses and phone numbers of six million users, though it later became apparent that a chunk of those accounts were never handed over to the platform directly by Facebook users. This information can be drawn into Facebook’s vast data aggregation machine through friends or friends of friends via all kinds of channels, including the “find friends” feature that allows the app to scan mobile contacts.

For all of Zuckerberg’s claims that Facebook users own their data, users — and non-users — have no way of determining the full trove of data that the company stores on an individual. As Rep. Lujan was suggesting, it’s likely that the Facebook data users are able to view on the platform is likely only the tip of the company’s immense data iceberg.