Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the weekly TechCrunch series that recaps the latest in mobile OS news, mobile applications and the overall app economy.
The app industry continues to grow, with a record 218 billion downloads and $143 billion in global consumer spend in 2020. Consumers last year also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone. And in the U.S., app usage surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours per day on their mobile devices.
Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re also a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus. In 2020, investors poured $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year.
This Week in Apps will soon be a newsletter! Sign up here: techcrunch.com/newsletters
Facebook and Instagram apps will let you hide the “Like” counts
Facebook this week will begin to publicly roll out the option to hide Likes on posts across both Facebook and Instagram, following earlier tests beginning in 2019. The project, which puts the decision about Likes in the hands of the company’s global user base, had been in development for years, but was deprioritized due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the response work required on Facebook’s part. When the company tested how people felt about Like counts, it got pushback from both sides — some wanted to see this information and others felt it was leading to a negative, competitive experience.
The company decided to split the difference and put the decision in its users’ hands. Via new settings, users can choose to disable Like counts on the posts they make and those that appear when they browse the social apps’ feeds.
The decision, however, indicates not one of user empowerment, but rather one representative of a company that’s so large (and intent on remaining the largest), it declines to have its own point of view on controversial matters for fear of causing a mass exit. You can see this in other areas of the business as well, like how it wanted to downplay its responsibility with regard to the misinformation it recirculated by leaving it to fact-checkers to handle, or how it offloaded hard decisions about takedowns to an advisory board. While it’s one thing to not want to piss off a large number of users, turning every toggle and setting into a user choice is just another way at shrugging off responsibility while claiming that something has been done.
Poparazzi hypes and growth hacks to the top
Meanwhile, a new app with its own point of view has made it to the top. Recently launched anti-selfie app Poparazzi sees itself as a referendum on the Instagram age of performative and self-obsessed social media. The app turns the “tag your friends in photos” feature from Instagram into a standalone, excellently marketed and growth-hacked app experience.
Your Poparazzi profile can only be added to by your friends, which makes the app feel more authentic as it captures casual, unpolished moments, not those you’ve rehearsed and filtered to perfection. But the viral app favors giving up some user privacy protections for network effects, which could potentially be harmful. In the end, it also overlooks why people use social media today: self-expression. Posting pictures to other profiles doesn’t fulfill that desire. That means the app either become an additive experience to be used alongside your existing preferred social app, or one that’s risking a bet on a future where people are actually less self-involved. We can only hope.
Apple-Epic trial officially adjourns
As the Apple-Epic App Store antitrust trial adjourns, the judge seemed leaning more to Epic’s point of view on specific matters, including the 30% cut Apple takes and its decision to ban companies from telling their customers where they could get a better deal on an in-app purchase. (Tim Cook taking the stand only to claim ignorance of certain key aspects of the App Store business didn’t help matters, either.)
At its core, the case is about whether or not Apple is a monopoly and could set the tone for later lawsuits and government regulation. Epic believes Apple has a monopoly over distribution to the iPhone, but Apple argued there were plenty of other places for a company like Epic to sell its games — including those that Epic pays a cut to without complaint, like Microsoft and Sony. Epic, meanwhile, argued that its metaverse is more than just a game, it’s a social place to hang out.
The judge pointed out both Epic’s plain-as-day ulterior motives (hint: $$$$), but also the extent to which mobile games — games that make up the lion’s share of App Store revenue — seem to be subsidizing the platform for others. That includes apps where Apple doesn’t take a cut of IAPs.
Still, for the judge to rule for Epic, she would have to find that Apple leveraged its market power as a monopoly. And that means Apple has to actually have a monopoly in the first place. But does it? There are other places to buy apps (Google’s Android devices, e.g.) and games, like console platforms. Epic wants the definition of a monopoly here narrowed to the market for apps on Apple devices, and that may not work. Though the trial has adjourned, a decision will still be months out, so don’t worry about prepping your in-app credit card forms and PayPal buttons yet.
Apple released its agenda for WWDC 2021, which will still be virtual. The keynote address will air June 7 at 10 AM PDT, followed by the Platform State of the Union at 2 PM PDT. The schedule also includes the Apple Design Awards on June 10 at 2 PM PDT. Plus, there will be more than 200 sessions and labs, as well as special activities and events. New this year is “Pavilions,” which will better organize event sessions, labs and activities around a given topic.
With iOS 14.6’s public launch, Apple released Apple Card Family and Apple Podcast subscriptions, Spatial Audio and lossless audio for Apple Music, added enhanced support for AirTags (you can now add emails for lost AirTags), and made Shortcuts actions run faster on both iPhone and iPad, among other features.
Apple’s watchOS 7.5 update brings the ECG app and its irregular heart rhythm notification features to more countries, as well as support for Apple Card Family, Podcast subscriptions, and more.
Apple updated age ratings setting in App Store Connect. The Gambling and Contests setting is now split into two settings, allowing app developers to indicate these content types separately. They’re also indicated separately on the App Store. If your setting was previously yes or no, it will remain across both content types now if you don’t make any adjustments.
App Annie analyzed the top Apple SDKs by iOS installs globally following the release of iOS 14.5. The top six were all in the tools and utilities categories, indicting many developers are looking for SDKs to add functionality to create better user experiences.
ATT opt-in update. According to new data form AppsFlyer, there were 78M instances were users saw an ATT prompt and allowed tracking. The advertiser side opt-in rates remain consistent at 35%-40%. In addition, spend in iOS apps increased 20% since ATT was enforced. Android budgets, by comparison, remained mostly the same (+2%).
Apple pulled an app from the App Store that forced users to leave a good review. The scammy app was yet another that developer Kosta Eleftheriou highlighted as an example of Apple dropping the ball on App Store fraud protection, user safety and security.
The review: “This app forced me to give it a good rating before I could use it.”
You: “Pfff, no one’s FORCING you!”
The app: 🤯 pic.twitter.com/R6ytFAguhU
— Kosta Eleftheriou (@keleftheriou) May 25, 2021
Emojigraph took a deep dive into the new emoji in the Android 12 beta and its more than 389 updated designs.
The games teams at Google announced the return of the Google for Games Developer Summit 2021 on July 12th-13th. The event will feature experts from Google who will speak about new game solutions, best practices, connecting with players and scaling your games business. The event is free and open to all game developers.
E-commerce + Food delivery
Instagram adds a new section called Drops in its Shopping tab that will feature current and upcoming drops — a newer type of online flash sale where sellers create buzz in advance and often only have limited quantities available for a short period of time. Users can browse drops and be notified about those of interest to them, then check out in the app at time of purchase.
Amazon’s ad revenue is now 2.4x as large as Snap, Twitter, Roku and Pinterest combined, and is growing 1.7x more quickly, a report from Loop Capital (via CNBC) found. Amazon’s “Other” unit, which is mostly its ads business, grew revenue 77% YoY to reach more than $6.9 billion in the quarter.
Amazon is shutting down its Prime Now fast delivery app, and will instead integrate the faster, two-hour grocery and household essentials delivery service into its main app.
Instacart rolls out a speedier Priority Delivery service in select markets. For smaller, less complex orders, Instacart may be able to deliver within 30 minutes for a small upcharge, it says. The app will show the faster delivery option with a lightning bolt icon.
Despite restaurants’ re-opening, DoorDash was the No. 1 food and drink app in April 2021 in the U.S., App Annie noted, and received 2.1 million new downloads, a continuation of their No. 1 ranking in Q1 2021 by downloads in the U.S.
PayPal expands its crypto plans. The company recently announced its PayPal and Venmo app users would be able to buy, hold and sell Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies using the apps, but now it’s adding support for third-party wallets. That means users will soon be able to send Bitcoin to each other and to other platforms.
Square’s app revealed the company’s plans to offer checking and savings accounts in a future version. Code in the iOS app showed the accounts would integrate with Square’s debit card for businesses and would have no monthly service fees or overdraft fees.
Robinhood rival Public is launching its own Clubhouse-like audio programming feature in its app. Public Live, as it’s being called, won’t be a free-for-all, but will instead be moderated chats from paid hosts who will speak about financial-focused topics, like earnings. At launch, users can’t ask questions or go onstage, but can react with emoji instead.
Instagram added new Insights to its TikTok rival, Reels, as well as Instagram Live. The tools previously focused on public metrics, like views, likes or comments. Now, creators can see more detailed metrics, like Accounts Reached, Saves and Shares for their Reels, as well as Peak Concurrent Viewers for Live videos.
Instagram is exploring new ideas, including subscriptions, NFTs and a creator fund that’s similar to what YouTube and Snap are offering, reports The Information.
ByteDance’s video editor CapCut, a companion app to TikTok, rocketed to the top of the U.S. App Store and Google Play. The app allows users to access an array of features, like stickers and effects, that they can use to create videos that are published to TikTok and elsewhere. The app has increased advertising on TikTok but was benefitting from a viral trend where TikTok users used CapCut to make 3D Photos.
ByteDance rival Kuaishou, which makes the second most popular short-form video app after ByteDance’s Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), saw its shares tumble after livestreaming sales fell 20% — almost three times faster than a year earlier.
TikTok’s hugely popular text-to-speech voice has been changed. The voice actor involved had sued the company saying she never agreed to having her voice recordings appear in the app like this — her recordings were only authorized for translations. The new voice TikTok has now added is more upbeat, which doesn’t work as well in some videos where the point was to use a monotone.
Tinder announced it will be using an AI algorithm to scan private messages and then compare those against messages that had previously been flagged by users for inappropriate language. If the scan determines the message may be inappropriate, the app will show users a prompt that asks them to reconsider before hitting Send.
The Biden administration is working with dating app makers to add new features that will encourage users to get vaccinated. The apps will let users promote their vaccination status and locate a nearby vaccination site, among other things. Tinder, OkCupid, Hinge, BLK, Chispa, Plenty of Fish and Badoo will be working on these efforts.
India’s government said WhatsApp’s lawsuit challenging the new local IT ruling was a “clear act of defiance.” WhatsApp says it’s fighting rules that would allow people’s private messages to become traceable by the government authorities, and would open the app to mass surveillance.
Streaming & Entertainment
SiriusXM partnered with TikTok on a range of new initiatives. The music company will launch a TikTok channel on SiriusXM across all platforms (including mobile), will roll out hosted TikTok playlists on Pandora’s app and will stream re-airings of Pandora LIVE events on TikTok.
Clubhouse rolled out payments to all iOS users, allowing anyone to send monetary support to favorite creators. Android will soon follow. The company also this week poached a longtime Google engineer, Justin Uberti, who had been an engineering lead for Google Stadia’s cloud gaming service and led the team that made the Stadia for iOS’ web app.
Apple delayed the launch of Apple Podcast Subscriptions until June and made some tweaks to the revamped Podcasts app, following user feedback with iOS 14.6.
Verizon began offering customers free Apple Arcade or Google Play Pass subscriptions for up to a year as part of a new promotion. The length of the deal will depend on your mobile plan.
Netflix is expanding its gaming efforts, The Information reported. The streamer has been approaching gaming industry vets about joining the company. Netflix already launches a Stranger Things game from a third-party developer, which is available across several platforms, including mobile.
The U.S. share of consumer spending in mobile gaming reached an all-time high of 28% last year, reports Sensor Tower. That’s higher than Japan (22%) and China (18%, excluding third-party Android app stores).
Health & Fitness
A thinly sourced report indicates Apple may be planning to sherlock MyFitnessPal in an upcoming version of iOS. Reportedly, iOS 15’s Health app may include a food tracking feature that would allow users to log food items they consume to get nutritional details and calorie tracking data.
Productivity + Utilities
Navigation app Waze gets a new CEO. The company named former Hotwire president and Carvana board member Neha Parikh as its CEO, replacing Noam Bardin, who stepped down in April after 12 years at Google.
Amazon rolled out a new feature in India that allows consumers to read magazine articles inside its shopping app. The quietly launched “Featured Articles” appeared on its shopping app and website, offering feature articles, commentary and analysis on a wide range of topics, including politics, governance, entertainment, sports, business, finance, health, fitness, books and food.
Government & Policy
The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) ordered 105 apps to stop improperly collecting and using people’s personal data. Among the apps listed are Microsoft’s LinkedIn and Bing, Chinese TikTok Douyin, video sharing app Kuaishou, music streaming service Kugou and apps from local search engines Sogou and Baidu.
💰 RevenueCat raised $40 million in Series B funding for its in-app subscription platform. The funding was led by Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund and values the startup at $300 million. The company has more than 6,000 apps live on its platform, with over $1 billion in subscription revenue being managed by its tools. That’s double the number of apps that were using its service as of last August.
💰 Newly launched Poparazzi app raised $20 million in new funding from Benchmark shortly after its app shot to the top of the App Store. The company behind the app, TTYL, is also backed by Floodgate, Dream Machine, Shrug Capital and Weekend Fund.
💰 Yalo raised $50 million to build c-commerce services for chat apps. The company offers a suite of tools that allow businesses to better use WhatsApp to interact and sell to their customers. The Series C round was led by B Capital. Yalo counts Unilever, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Walmart among its customers.
💰 Indian Twitter rival Koo raised $30 million in a new round led by Tiger Global Management, valuing the startup at over $100 million. The app was launched last year and has fewer than 6.5 million MAUs.
💰 Weight-loss app Noom raised $540 million in Series F funding in a round led by Silver Lake. The app, which has 45 million global installs, saw increased demand during the pandemic, generating $400 million in revenues in 2020.
💰 Whatnot raised $50 million to let people sell Pokémon cards, Funko Pops and more via livestreams. The Series B was led by Anu Hariharan of Y Combinator Continuity fund, and backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Animal Capital and a number of angels.
💰 Bad Robot Games, raised more than $40 million in Series B funding to create cross-platform video games. The studio leverages its connection to Bad Robot’s film, animation and TV creative departments, but has not announced its first project or where and when it will be available.
💰 Mental health app Wysa raised $5.5 million in Series A funding from Boston’s W Health Ventures, the Google Assistant Investment Program, pi Ventures and Kae Capital. The app, which claims 3 million users, leverages AI to converse with users, categorize statements and assign a type of therapy.
📈 Investing app Acorns filed to go public in a $2.2 billion SPAC deal. The company is merging with Pioneer Merger Corp., a public blank-check company. Acorns CEO Noah Kerner and “Pioneer’s sponsor” are each giving 10% of their equity to select customers. The entity will trade on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol OAKS.
💰 Relationship care app Paired raised $3.6 million in seed funding led by Eka Ventures, after growing its user base to over 5,000 users in couples, who use the app for quizzes, tips from experts and relationship tracking.
💰 Penfold raised $8.5 million for its app that offers a full stack pension to its mobile customers. The round was led by Bridford Group, the Family Office of Jorg Mohaupt, allegedly the only Angel investor in Adyen.
💰 Greg, an app for plant lovers, raised $5.4 million in seed funding. The app uses machine learning to help people care for their plants by telling them when to water based on plant species, location, sun exposure and more.
Flexibits, the company behind the popular productivity app Fantastical, updated its contacts management app Cardhop for Mac and iOS. This second major update to Cardhop brings several new features, including business card scanning, iOS widgets for your favorite Cardhop actions, organizational charts and family trees, and improved integrations with Fantastical. For example, you can now create an event with everyone in a Cardhop group. The updated app and premium version of Fantastical is being bundled in a single Flexibits Premium subscription ($4.99/mo or $39.99/yr), but a free version with fewer features is also available.
Recently launched from public beta, Hoptale is ready to kick off the post-Covid summer travel season with its travel journal and discovery app. The startup uses smart technology to organize trip plans and your photos, and users metadata to create trips as well as “hops” within your trips — meaning the individual stops you made during trips at different locations. This creates a travel journal of sorts where you itinerary, points of interest, map and, optionally, your own commentary are organized for you.
You can also share trips publicly with the Hoptale community or privately with friends and family. That could make it easier for sharing your favorite recommendations with someone who wants to know what to do and see from a place you’ve already visited. The beta version had hundreds of users who cataloged thousands of trips, and the app is now open to the wider public.
Well, you have to see what all the hype is about, right? The new social app for iOS and Android offers Instagram-like photo profiles with one big difference: you can’t post pictures yourself. Instead, the app only allows users to post photos to their friends’ profiles, arguing against the self-absorbed nature of today’s social media. After a lot of pre-launch hype on TikTok, the app shot to the top of the App Store at launch where it sits poised to be the viral trendy app of the post-COVID summer.
- Stratechery: App Store Arguments
- Motherboard: ‘FIND THIS FUCK:’ Inside Citizen’s Dangerous Effort to Cash In On Vigilantism
- Wired: How to Avoid App Store Scams
Someone make this chart but with as-is App Store commission versus 10/15% commision, for the next 5 years.
Q: How much money is Apple ruining their reputation for. pic.twitter.com/8PIyIRKC0C
— Ryan Jones (@rjonesy) May 28, 2021
What’s new in Swift 5.5? It’s easier to ask what *isn’t* new in Swift 5.5, because so much is changing – async/await, concurrency, actors, throwing properties, CGFloat/Double bridging, local lazy, property wrappers for function parameters, and more 🤯 https://t.co/nYbjOYKWKu
— Paul Hudson (@twostraws) May 28, 2021
“If ATT is rolled out slowly, its impact on the ecosystem will be revealed equally slowly and won’t make headlines that call Apple’s motivations into question. The frog that’s being boiled doesn’t scream for help.” https://t.co/bJt5gB7QAI
— David Barnard (@drbarnard) May 28, 2021
This seems like a good time to mention that Twitterrific has Twenty-two custom app icons to choose from, 10 fonts, 10 interface themes, and the ability to create your *own* themes, all for free. 🎨👩🎨👍 pic.twitter.com/UvPxcbPGdg
— Twitterrific (@Twitterrific) May 28, 2021
Oldham cat which wanders into Co-op store becomes TikTok and Instagram star
A POPULAR cat which regularly wanders into a convenience store has become an overnight social media star.
Sarah Naylor and her son William welcomed a nine-month old kitten into their home in Lees around two years ago after he was in the care of charity Cat Protection.
The kitten has been rescued off the street.
William, who supported Tottenham Hotspur Football Club at the time, decided to name him Deli Alli, after the England international who plays for the London side.
And since he has lived with Sarah and William he has been known for venturing into nearby places, such as the Co-Op store on Owl Mill Street.
He also pops into the Angel Inn on Nicholson Street and Cartax Radio Cars on High StreetM Sarah said.
But it is his adventures in the Co-Op which is he mostly known for and this week, one of his fans took to social media platform TikTok and shared a post about him.
FAMILY: William with Deli Alli
LOVING: Deli Alli
Including a picture of Deli Alli, the post read: “Don’t ask (be)cause I have no idea, but yes, there was a cat sat on my shopping.”
It has since been widely shared and has attracted more than 1m views and over 62,000 likes.
Deli Alli’s fame has shot up further after a meme was created about him on another social media outlet, Instagram.
Sarah, 38, said: “He is the first cat I have ever had and he was wild when we first got him.
“But now he is just like normal.
“He goes out and into the Co-Op and walks up and down the aisles and knows all the staff.
“He likes to hide in the baby food aisle and jump out at people and there’s a chair near the tills that he sits on.”
William, eight, is thrilled that his feline companion has been recognised widely online.
POPULAR: In the Co-Op in Lees
Reacting to Deli Alli’s newfound fame, he added: “I think it is really funny and I am really proud of him.”
Emily Lees, who works at the Co-Op store, said: “Delli Ali just lingers around all the time, he’s lovely.
“He does not like leavingm I think he thinks it’s his house.”
Facebook’s AI treats Palestinian activists like it treats American Black activists. It blocks them.
The companies blamed the errors on glitches in artificial intelligence software.
In Twitter’s case, the company said its service mistakenly identified the rapid-firing tweeting during the confrontations as spam, resulting in hundreds of accounts being temporarily locked and the tweets not showing up when searched for. Facebook-owned Instagram gave several explanations for its problems, including a software bug that temporarily blocked video-sharing and saying its hate speech detection software misidentified a key hashtag as associated with a terrorist group.
The companies said the problems were quickly resolved and the accounts restored. But some activists say many posts are still being censored. Experts in free speech and technology said that’s because the issues are connected to a broader problem: overzealous software algorithms that are designed to protect but end up wrongly penalizing marginalized groups that rely on social media to build support. Black Americans, for example, have complained for years that posts discussing race are incorrectly flagged as problematic by AI software on a routine basis, with little recourse for those affected.
Despite years of investment, many of the automated systems built by social media companies to stop spam, disinformation and terrorism are still not sophisticated enough to detect the difference between desirable forms of expression and harmful ones. They often overcorrect, as in the most recent errors during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or they under-enforce, allowing harmful misinformation and violent and hateful language to proliferate, including hoaxes about coronavirus vaccines and violent posts ahead of the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.
The Palestinian situation erupted into a full-blown public relations and internal crisis for Facebook. Last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg dispatched the company’s top policy executive, Nick Clegg, to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leadership, according to the company. Meanwhile, Palestinians launched a campaign to knock down Facebook’s ranking in app stores by leaving one-star reviews. The incident was designated “severity 1” — the company’s term for a sitewide emergency, according to internal documents reviewed by The Washington Post and first reported by NBC. The documents noted that Facebook executives reached out to Apple, Google, and Microsoft to request that the posts be deleted.
Meanwhile, a group of 30 Facebook employees, some of whom said they had friends and family affected by the conflict, have complained of “over-enforcement” on the Palestinian content in an open letter on the company’s workforce messaging boards, according to another set of internal documents reviewed by The Post. The group has filed at least 80 tickets to report “false positives” with the company’s automation systems in relation to the conflict, noting many of the problems were with the AI mistakenly labeling images of protests as “harassment or bullying.”
Jillian York, a director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group that opposes government surveillance, has researched tech company practices in the Middle East. She said she doesn’t believe that content moderation — human or algorithmic — can work at scale.
“Ultimately, what we’re seeing here is existing offline repression and inequality being replicated online, and Palestinians are left out of the policy conversation,” York said.
Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company’s “policies are designed to give everyone a voice while keeping them safe on our apps, and we apply these policies equally.” She added that Facebook has a dedicated team of Arabic and Hebrew speakers closely monitoring the situation on the ground, but declined to say whether any were Palestinian. In an Instagram post May 7, Facebook also gave an account of what it said led to the glitch.
Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said the enforcement actions were “more severe than intended under our policies” and that the company had reinstated the accounts where appropriate. “Defending and respecting the voices of the people who use our service is one of our core values at Twitter,” she said.
Palestinian activists took to the social media platforms as they began staging protests in late April ahead of an impending Israeli Supreme Court case over whether settlers had the right to evict families from their homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Potential evictees live-streamed confrontations and documented footage of injuries after Israeli police stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
The conflict descended into war after terrorist group Hamas, which governs Gaza, fired explosive rockets into Israel. Israel responded with an 11-day bombing campaign that killed 254 Palestinians, including 66 children. Twelve people in Israel were killed, including two children.
During the barrage, Palestinians posted photos on Twitter showing homes covered in rubble and children’s coffins. A cease-fire took effect May 20.
Palestinian activists and experts who study social movements say it was another watershed historical moment in which social media helped alter the course of events. They compared it to a decade ago, when social media platforms were key to organizing the pro-Democracy uprising known as the Arab Spring. But at the time, tech companies didn’t rely on policing algorithms, rather humans making decisions. And while mistakes were made, nothing occurred on the scale of today, York said.
Even after the companies said the glitches were fixed, 170 Instagram posts and five Twitter posts that activists believe were wrongly removed were still offline, according to 7amleh, the Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media, a group that advocates for Palestinian digital rights. The group said in a report in late May that it was told by the companies that some of the remaining posts are under review.
Facebook and Twitter declined to comment.
During the early protests in East Jerusalem, some posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were taken down for using the hashtag #SaveSheikhJarrah, the name of the neighborhood in dispute, said Iyad Alrefaie, director of Sada Social, a group that tracks digital rights in the Palestinian territories.
Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian-American journalist who covers the West Bank for Al Jazeera and other outlets, posted on Instagram that she had her account restricted by Twitter for purportedly violating the company’s social media policy while covering a protest. She said in media interviews that she did not know which tweets broke the rules. The company later restored her account and tweets, saying it made an error, according to spokeswoman Rosborough.
Digital rights groups Access Now, 7amleh and other organizations have spent the years since the Arab Spring documenting problems with how social media companies handle Palestinian content, as well as content from the region at large.
In 2016, Facebook blocked the accounts of several editors at two Palestinian news organizations without giving a reason, Al Jazeera reported at the time. After complaints, the social media company reversed the bans and said they had been accidental. In 2019, Twitter suspended accounts run by a Palestinian news organization, Quds News Network, in a sweep of terrorist accounts (which have since been reinstated, Twitter said). In May 2020, Facebook deactivated the accounts of more than 50 Palestinian journalists and activists without providing an explanation, activists said, including from journalists who posted footage of attacks by Israeli settlers on Palestinian farmers in occupied territories.
Facebook declined comment on those examples.
Facebook took down a post from a father wishing his infant son, named Qassam, a happy birthday, according to Alrefaie, the director of Sada Social. The group assumed that it was because the company blocks many posts about al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.
“These words are part of our discourse, it’s a part of our culture,” Alrefaie said. “Facebook didn’t differentiate between any context.” Facebook declined comment on that incident.
Marwa Fatafta, digital rights policy manager for the Middle East and North Africa region for Access Now, said other keywords, such as the term Zionist, are often banned when Palestinians use them because it’s assumed to be antisemitic.
“Under our current policies, we allow the term ‘Zionist’ in political discourse, but remove attacks against Zionists in specific circumstances, when there’s context to show it’s being used as a proxy for Jews or Israelis, which are protected characteristics under our hate speech policy,” Facebook’s Lever said.
Some activists have developed workarounds to the algorithms, including using an ancient method of writing Arabic, according to an article by independent Egyptian news website Mada Masr. Some U.S. activists use similar tactics, purposely misspelling common words like “white” to avoid algorithmic censorship during discussions of race, The Post has reported.
Activists have also decried tech companies’ relationship with the Israeli government, and in particular the Ministry of Justice’s Cyber Unit — which has a direct channel to technology companies to report potential content violations. They have asked tech companies to be transparent about when the government secretly refers accounts to be blocked or content to be removed, including whether the unit was involved in takedowns during the war.
Facebook, Google and Twitter all said they comply with local laws and regularly respond to takedown requests from governments, which they publish in biannual transparency reports. Twitter said the spam filter issue had nothing to do with Israeli authorities. Facebook did not respond to several requests for comment about the nature of reports by Israeli authorities during the recent crisis. A Google spokesman declined to say whether it received bulk requests from the Cyber Unit.
Journalists and activists have also complained that Google hasn’t updated its maps of Gaza with higher-resolution images, despite a U.S. law limiting the degree of detail in public maps of the area being lifted in 2020. Detailed maps help document the damage from airstrikes.
Google declined to comment on why the Gaza maps have not been updated.
Payment app Venmo also mistakenly suspended transactions of humanitarian aid to Palestinians during the war. The company said it was trying to comply with U.S. sanctions and had resolved the issues.
Tech companies are caught between governments trying to stop unrest or violence and activists advocating for free democratic expression, said James Grimmelmann, a law professor at Cornell Tech.
“So the platforms really have to make deeply political choices,” he said.
The latest issues began May 5, when Instagram started receiving reports that people participating in protests in Colombia could not share video, the company later said in a post in which it apologized for its errors. The next day, similar reports came from people participating in demonstrations in Canada and in East Jerusalem. Executives discovered a glitch in a long-planned update to video-sharing products, called Stories. In its apology, the company noted that the bug had nothing to do with these particular events, and in fact had affected more users in the United States than elsewhere.
Several days later, citizens and activists began reporting their posts about al-Aqsa Mosque, using the hashtag #AlAqsa or its Arabic counterparts, were being restricted. The restrictions were often accompanied by a pop-up that said the term was associated with “violence or dangerous organizations.”
On May 11, a Facebook employee filed a grievance, according to a report by BuzzFeed. Facebook said in response that the name of the mosque was a designated terrorist organization. Facebook later told The Post that the hashtag had been restricted in several ways, not only blocking individual posts but also limiting people’s ability to search for it.
Around the same time, Twitter began fielding reports that influential accounts tweeting about the conflict were being unexpectedly suspended, the company said, due to AI mistaking posts for spam. The company says it restored the accounts a few hours later.
Twitter spokeswoman Rosborough noted that similar incidents of overly severe enforcement took place during the 2020 presidential debates and during protests against a coup this spring in Myanmar.
And sometimes, she pointed out, algorithms get things right: At one point during the conflict, an algorithm also automatically restricted the Israeli army’s official account. The account was trying to post the same tweet twice, of emergency sirens going off in the southern city of Beersheba, and Twitter blocked it.
“We know it’s repetitive — but that’s the reality for Israelis all over the country,” the tweet said.
Karen from Brighton’s Instagram post with new Melbourne lockdown song
Social media sensation Karen from Brighton has returned with a new song to help boost Melburnians spirits during the latest lockdown.
Jodi Grollo, who shot to fame as Karen from Brighton last year when she complained about walking the same streets of the posh bayside suburb, says she has returned home from Noosa to help get Victorians through another lockdown.
In her latest Instagram post on Thursday, she covered the Backstreet Boys’ smash hit Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) with lyrics adapted to Victoria’s situation.
“Everybody, yeah, I’m so sorry,” she sang.
“Everybody, lock your doors tonight, Covid’s back all right.
“Oh my God it’s back again. Everybody’s locked inside again.
“Covid’s back another variant now, 12 months on and we still don’t know how.
“Is it original, maybe.”
Ms Grollo then had another subtle swipe at the Premier Dan Andrews and Health Minister Martin Foley, who she has heavily criticised in the past for their handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Can we blame Danny? Not likely,” she continued.
“How’s about Foley? Well probably.
“All I know is that we need to lock our bloody doors again tonight. Crap.”
The post has already gathered more than 10,500 views in just 24 hours.
Ms Grollo rose to social media fame when she was interviewed on Nine News from Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens track during last year’s crippling lockdown and was asked about a new restriction not to cross council boundaries while exercising.
“Well, you get sick of walking the same streets,” she said. “You know, I’ve done all of Brighton.”
She was then involved in a bitter war of words with the Premier before she eventually packed up and moved to Queensland via the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs facility to escape Victoria’s lockdown.
Although she indicated the move would probably be permanent at the time, she says she has returned this week to “help get us through another lockdown”.
The viral celebrity is the daughter of pokies king Bruce Mathieson and the wife of Gianni Grollo, whose family controls the prominent Grollo construction empire.
Some have dubbed her ‘Karen from Brighton’ for her response to Melbourne’s lockdown on Nine News.
You can now view your entire comment history via the My comments link in the subscriber menu at the top right of each page. Click here for more details.
Reader comments on this site are moderated before publication to promote lively, but civil and respectful debate. We encourage your comments but submitting one does not guarantee publication. You can read our comment guidelines here. If you believe a comment has been rejected in error, email email@example.com and we’ll investigate. Please ensure you include the email address you use to log in so we can locate your comment.