Facebook expands fact-checking program, adopts new technology for fighting fake news

Facebook this morning announced an expansion of its fact-checking program and other actions it’s taking to combat the scourge of fake news on its social network. The company, which was found to be compromised by Russian trolls whose disinformation campaigns around the November 2016 presidential election reached 150 million Americans, has been increasing its efforts at fact-checking news through a combination of technology and human review in the months since.

The company began fact-checking news on its site last spring, with help from independent third-party fact-checkers certified through the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network. These fact checkers rate the accuracy of the story, allowing Facebook to take action on those rated false by lowering them in the News Feed, and reduced the distribution of those Pages that are repeat offenders.

Today, Facebook says it has since expanded this program to 14 countries around the world, and plans to roll it out to more countries by year-end. It also claims the impact of fact-checking reduced the distribution of fake news by an average of 80 percent.

The company also announced the expansion of its program for fact-checking photos and video. First unveiled this spring, Facebook has been working to fact-check things like manipulated  videos or misused photos where images are taken out of context in order to push a political agenda. This is a huge issue, because memes have become a popular way of rallying people around a cause on the internet, but they often do so by completely misrepresenting the facts by using images from different events, places, and times.

One current example of this is the photo used by Drudge Report showing young boys holding guns in a story about the U.S.-Mexico border battle. The photo was actually taken nowhere near the border, but rather was snapped in Syria in 2012 and was captioned: “Four young Syrian boys with toy guns are posing in front of my camera during my visit to Azaz, Syria. Most people I met were giving the peace sign. This little city was taken by the Free Syrian Army in the summer of 2012 during the Battle of Azaz.”

Using fake or misleading images to stoke fear, disgust, or hatred of another group of people is a common way photos and videos are misused online.

Facebook also says it’s taking advantage of new machine learning technology to help it find duplicates of already debunked stories, and will working with fact-checking partners to use Schema.org‘s Claim Review, an open-source framework that will allow fact-checkers to share ratings with Facebook so the company can act more quickly, especially in times of crisis.

And the company says it will expand its efforts in downranking fake news by using machine learning to demote foreign Pages that are spreading financially-motivated hoaxes to people in other countries.

In the weeks ahead, an elections research commission working in partnership with Facebook to measure the volume and effect of misinformation on the social network will launch its website and its first request for proposals.

The company had already announced its plans to further investigate the role social media plans in elections and in democracy. The commission will receive access to privacy-protected data sets with a sample of links that people engaged with on Facebook, which will allow it to understand what sort of content is being shared. Facebook says the research will “help keep us accountable and track our progress.”

Twitter acquires anti-abuse technology provider Smyte

Twitter this morning announced it has agreed to buy San Francisco-based technology company Smyte, which describes itself as “trust and safety as a service.” Founded in 2014 by former Google and Instagram engineers, Smyte offers tools to stop online abuse, harassment, and spam, and protect user accounts.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but this is Twitter’s first acquisition since buying consumer mobile startup Yes, Inc. back in December 2016

Online harassment has been of particular concern to Twitter in recent months, as the level of online discourse across the web has become increasingly hate-filled and abusive. The company has attempted to combat this problem with new policies focused on the reduction of hate speech, violent threats, and harassment on its platform, but it’s fair to say that problem is nowhere near solved.

As anyone who uses Twitter will tell you, the site continues to be filled with trolls, abusers, bots, and scams – and especially crypto scams, as of late.

This is where Smyte’s technology – and its team – could help.

The company was founded by engineers with backgrounds in spam, fraud and security.

Smyte CEO Pete Hunt previously led Instagram’s web team, built Instagram’s business analytics products, and helped to open source Facebook’s React.js; co-founder Julian Tempelsman worked on Gmail’s spam and abuse team, and before that Google Wallet’s anti-fraud team and the Google Drive anti-abuse team; and co-founder Josh Yudaken was a member of Instagram’s core infrastructure team.

The startup launched out of Y Combinator in 2015, with a focus on preventing online fraud.

Today, its solutions are capable of stopping all sorts of unwanted online behavior, including phishing, spam, fake accounts, cyberbullying, hate speech and trolling, the company’s website claims.

Smyte offer customers access to its technology via a REST API, or it can pull data directly from its customer’s app or data warehouse to analyze. Smyte would then import the existing rules, and use machine learning to create new rules and other machine learning models suited to the business’s specific needs.

The customers data scientists could also use Smyte to deploy (but not train) their own custom machine learning models, too.

Smyte’s system includes a dashboard where analysts can surface emerging trends in real-time, as well as conduct manual reviews of individual entities or clusters of related entities and take bulk actions.

Non-technical analysts could use Smyte to create custom rules tested on historical data, then roll them out to production and watch how they perform in real-time.

For Twitter, the use case for Smyte is obvious – its technology will be integrated with Twitter itself and its backend systems for monitoring and managing reports of abuse, while also taking aim at bots, scammers and a number of other threats today’s social networks typically face.

Of course, combatting abuse and bullying will remain Twitter’s most pressing area of concern – especially as it’s the place where President Trump tweets, and the daily news is reported and discussed (and angrily fought about).

But Twitter could use some help with its troll and bot problem, too. The company, along with Facebook, was home to Russian propaganda during the 2016 U.S presidential election. In January, Twitter notified at least 1.4 million users they saw content created by Russian trolls; it also was found  to have hosted roughly 50,000 Russian bots tweeting election-related content in November 2016.

Presumably, Smyte’s technology could help weed out some of these bad actors, if it works as well as described.

Twitter didn’t provide much detail as to how, specifically, it plans to put Smyte’s technology to use.

Instead, the company largely touted the team’s expertise and the “proactive” nature of Smyte’s anti-abuse systems, in today’s announcement:

From ensuring safety and security at some of the world’s largest companies to specialized domain expertise, Smyte’s years of experience with these issues brings valuable insight to our team. The Smyte team has dealt with many unique issues facing online safety and believes in the same proactive approach that we’re taking for Twitter: stopping abusive behavior before it impacts anyone’s experience. We can’t wait until they join our team to help us make changes that will further improve the health of the public conversation.

According to Smyte’s website, the company has a number of high-profile clients, including Indiegogo, GoFundMe, npm, Musical.ly, TaskRabbit, Meetup, OLX, ThredUp, YouNow, 99 Designs, Carousell, and Zendesk.

Twitter tells us that Smyte will wind down its operations with those customers – it didn’t acquire Smyte for its revenue-generation potential, but rather for its talent and IP.

 

LinkedIn reports there are only a couple dozen employees at Smyte today, including the founders. But Smtye’s own website lists just nineteen. Twitter wouldn’t confirm Smtye’s current headcount but says it’s working to find positions for all.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Smyte had raised $6.3 million in funding from Y Combinator, Baseline Ventures, Founder Collective, Upside Partnership, Avalon Ventures, and Harrison Metal, according to Crunchbase.