Author: Taylor Hatmaker

WhatsApp now marks forwarded messages to curb the spread of deadly misinformation

WhatsApp just introduced a new feature designed to help its users identify the origin of information that they receive in the messaging app. For the first time, a forwarded WhatsApp message will include an indicator that marks it as forwarded. It’s a small shift for the messaging platform, but potentially one that could make a big difference in the way people transmit information, especially dubious viral content, over the app.

The newest version of WhatsApp includes the feature, which marks forwarded messages in subtle but still hard to miss italicized text above the content of a message.

The forwarded message designation is meant as a measure to control the spread of viral misinformation in countries like India, where the company has 200 million users. Misinformation spread through the app has been linked to the mob killing of multiple men who were targeted by false rumors accusing them of kidnapping children. Those rumors are believed to have spread through Facebook and WhatsApp.

Last week, India’s Information Technology Ministry issued a warning to WhatsApp specifically:

Instances of lynching of innocent people have been noticed recently because of large number of irresponsible and explosive messages filled with rumours and provocation are being circulated on WhatsApp. The unfortunate killing in many states such as Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura and west Bengals are deeply painful and regretable.

While the Law and order machinery is taking steps to apprehend the culprits, the abuse of platform like WhatsApp for repeated circulation of such provocative content are equally a matter of deep concern. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent  proliferation of  these  fake  and at times motivated/sensational messages. The Government has also directed that spread of such messages should be immediately contained through the application of appropriate technology.

It has also been pointed out that such platform cannot evade accountability and responsibility specially when good technological inventions are abused by some miscreants who resort to provocative messages which lead to spread of violence.

The Government has also conveyed in no uncertain terms that WhatsApp must take immediate action to end this menace and ensure that their platform is not used for such malafide activities.

In a blog post accompanying the new message feature, WhatsApp encouraged its users to stop and think before sharing a forwarded message.

Twitter’s efforts to suspend fake accounts have doubled since last year

Bots, your days of tweeting politically divisive nonsense might be numbered. The Washington Post reported Friday that in the last few months Twitter has aggressively suspended accounts in an effort to stem the spread of disinformation running rampant on its platform.

The Washington Post reports that Twitter suspended as many as 70 million accounts between May and June of this year, with no signs of slowing down in July. According to data obtained by the Post, the platform suspended 13 million accounts during a weeklong spike of bot banning activity in mid-May.

Sources tell the Post that the uptick in suspensions is tied to the company’s efforts to comply with scrutiny from the congressional investigation into Russian disinformation on social platforms. The report adds that Twitter investigates bots and other fake accounts through an internal project known as “Operation Megaphone” through which it buys suspicious accounts and then investigates their connections.

Twitter declined to provide additional information about The Washington Post report, but pointed us to a blog post from last week in which it disclosed other numbers related to its bot-hunting efforts. In May of 2018, Twitter identified more than 9.9 million suspicious accounts — triple its efforts in late 2017.

Chart via Twitter

When Twitter identifies an account that it deems suspicious, it then “challenges” that account, giving legitimate Twitter users an opportunity to prove their sentience by confirming a phone number. When an account fails this test it gets the boot, while accounts that pass are reinstated.

As Twitter noted in its recent blog post, bots can make users look good by artificially inflating follower counts.

“As a result of these improvements, some people may notice their own account metrics change more regularly,” Twitter warned. The company noted that cracking down on fake accounts means that “malicious actors” won’t be able to promote their own content and accounts as easily by inflating their own numbers. Kicking users off a platform, fake or not, is a risk for a company that regularly reports its monthly active users, though only a temporary one.

As the report notes, at least one insider expects Twitter’s Q2 active user numbers to dip, reflecting its shift in enforcement. Still, any temporary user number setback would prove nominal for a platform that should focus on healthy user growth. Facebook is facing a similar reckoning as a result of the Russian bot scandal, as the company anticipates user engagement stats to dip as it moves to emphasize quality user experiences over juiced-up quarterly numbers. In both cases, it’s a worthy trade-off.

Tinder bolsters its security to ward off hacks and blackmail

This week, Tinder responded to a letter from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden calling for the company to seal up security loopholes in its app that could lead to blackmail and other privacy incursions.

In a letter to Sen. Wyden, Match Group General Counsel Jared Sine describes recent changes to the app, noting that as of June 19, “swipe data has been padded such that all actions are now the same size.” Sine added that images on the mobile app are fully encrypted as of February 6, while images on the web version of Tinder were already encrypted.

The Tinder issues were first called out in a report by a research team at Checkmarx describing the app’s “disturbing vulnerabilities” and their propensity for blackmail:

“The vulnerabilities, found in both the app’s Android and iOS versions, allow an attacker using the same network as the user to monitor the user’s every move on the app. It is also possible for an attacker to take control over the profile pictures the user sees, swapping them for inappropriate content, rogue advertising or other type of malicious content (as demonstrated in the research).

“While no credential theft and no immediate financial impact are involved in this process, an attacker targeting a vulnerable user can blackmail the victim, threatening to expose highly private information from the user’s Tinder profile and actions in the app.”

In February, Wyden called for Tinder to address the vulnerability by encrypting all data that moves between its servers and the app and by padding data to obscure it from hackers. In a statement to TechCrunch at the time, Tinder indicated that it heard Sen. Wyden’s concerns and had recently implemented encryption for profile photos in the interest of moving toward deepening its privacy practices.

“Like every technology company, we are constantly working to improve our defenses in the battle against malicious hackers and cyber criminals” Sine said in the letter. “… Our goal is to have protocols and systems that not only meet, but exceed industry best practices.”

Facebook’s longtime head of policy and comms steps down

A prominent figure that helped shape Facebook public perception over the course of the last decade is on the way out. In a Facebook post today, Elliot Schrage, vice president of communications and public policy, announced his departure.

Schrage joined the company in 2008 after leaving his position in the same role at Google. He had come under fire over the last year at Facebook for his influence in shaping Facebook’s highly criticized public reaction to a series of scandals that began with the platform’s policies during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In response to questions about Facebook’s potential unwitting role in influencing the outcome of the election, Mark Zuckerberg famously dismissed such concerns as a “pretty crazy idea.”

via Facebook/Elliot Schrage

In a Facebook post, Schrage elaborates:

After more than a decade at Facebook, I’ve decided it’s time to start a new chapter in my life. Leading policy and communications for hyper growth technology companies is a joy — but it’s also intense and leaves little room for much else. Mark, Sheryl and I have been discussing this for a while. I’ll lead the search to identify someone new to oversee our communications and policy teams. We expect to find someone with the same passion, integrity, determination and energy that our teams bring to Facebook every day. Mark and Sheryl have asked me to stay to manage the transition and then to stay on as an advisor to help on particular projects – and I’m happy to help.

Earlier this week, Schrage reportedly apologized for comments made in response to questions from Arjuna Capital Managing Partner Natasha Lamb during an investor meeting. Lamb inquired about Facebook’s plans to correct it gender pay gap among other uncomfortable lines of questioning for the company. Schrage reportedly told Lamb that the company would not answer her questions because she was “not nice.” It’s not clear if that event influences the timing of Schrage’s departure.

Instagram adds shopping tags directly into Stories

Instagram’s shoppable tags are about to pop up in Stories. The company started testing the feature back in 2016 with a limited set of 20 partners. Since then it’s been a hit, expanding broadly to regular brand posts in the feed. Starting today, hitting a little shopping bag sticker in a Story will lead you to more details on the cute and/or dope thing that caught your eye and how to score it.

It’s a simple addition, but given the success of Stories it’s a potent one for brands that drive sales on the platform.

“With 300M using Instagram Stories everyday, people are increasingly finding new products from brands they love,” Instagram said in a press release.

“In a recent survey, Instagrammers said they often watch stories to stay in the-know with brands they’re interested in, get an insider view of products they like, and find out about new products that are relevant to them.”

As a longtime daily Instagram user, I used to be skeptical that people really engaged with brands like this and not just their friends or dogs they know. Now, after seeing my fiancée’s considerable #engagement around makeup brands running wildly popular accounts, Stories and all, I get it. Well, I don’t get it, but I get that some people get it and that the often vast and expertly crafted brand Stories are a logical evolution for a platform trying to get more users buying more stuff in the product categories that call to them.

Here are 454 pages of Facebook’s written follow-up answers to Congress

Facebook finished its homework. In a pair of newly uploaded letters, the two Senate committees that grilled Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in April have published the social media giant’s written answers to their considerable body of questions.

Zuckerberg faced criticism for not answering many of the more intricate or controversial questions from members of Congress in the moment, but by playing it safe the company bought two months’ worth of time to craft its answers in perfect legalese. If you’re interested in combing through the 454 pages worth of explanations on everything from accusations of conservative censorship to Cambridge Analytica, you can dig into the documents, embedded below.

Facebook’s answers to questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee:

Facebook’s answers to questions from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation:

Twitter’s emoji for Trump’s North Korea nuclear summit is very weird

As U.S. President Trump preps for a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Twitter doesn’t want you to forget to tweet about it under the right hashtag.

In a choice that seems to make light of a lot of really quite serious things at once, Twitter is promoting its new #TrumpKimSummit emoji for Tuesday’s summit in Singapore.

The event-specific symbol features what appears to be a high-five between a hand representing the U.S. president and one representing the North Korean dictator known for executing his political enemies and exiling large swaths of his nation to prison camps, where they face starvation and torture.

Presumably they are high-fiving over the successful but by no means guaranteed or likely negotiation of an extremely delicate denuclearization agreement and the deescalated international threat of the mass loss of life through nuclear annihilation.

The summit won’t be Trump’s first foray into treating an established despot and human rights abuser like or perhaps better than the leader of an allied nation, though it is Twitter’s first time treating such an event like a Game of Thrones season finale. Twitter’s event-specific emojis, sometimes called hashflags, are usually reserved for things like Coca-Cola branding campaigns (#ShareACoke) or the Super Bowl, not possibly misguided diplomacy efforts between international adversaries. In the future, they should probably stay that way.

We’ve reached out to Twitter with questions about what inspired the #TrumpKimSummit emoji campaign and will update this story if we hear back or manage to make any sense of it ourselves. Assuming that nuclear war doesn’t break out.