A digital marketing firm closely linked to the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA was responsible for a series of deceptive Facebook ads promoting Green party candidates during the 2018 US midterm elections, the Guardian can reveal.
In an apparent attempt to split the Democratic vote in a number of close races, the ads purported to come from an organization called America Progress Now (APN) and used socialist memes and rhetoric to urge leftwing voters to support Green party candidates.
Facebook was aware of the true identity of the advertiser – the conservative marketing firm Rally Forge – and the deceptive nature of the ads, documents seen by the Guardian show, but the company determined that they did not violate its policies.
“There were no policies at Facebook against pretending to be a group that did not exist, an abuse vector that has also been used by the governments of Honduras and Azerbaijan,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook employee and whistleblower who played a small role in the investigation of the Green party ads.
She added: “The fact that Rally Forge later went on to conduct coordinated inauthentic behavior with troll farms reminiscent of Russia should be taken as an indication that Facebook’s leniency led to more risk-taking behavior.”
Devon Kearns, a spokesperson for Facebook, said: “We removed Rally Forge from our platforms for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior. Since the 2018 midterms, we have strengthened our policies related to election interference and political ad transparency. We continue working to make political advertising more transparent on our platform and we welcome updated regulations and help from policymakers as we evolve our policies in this space.”
The revelation that the ads were linked to a rightwing organization raises questions about the Federal Election Commission’s enforcement of campaign finance laws. APN and its ads appeared to violate federal laws that require independent expenditures to be filed with the FEC and include proper disclosures on advertisements, as ProPublica and Vice News first reported in 2018.
The non-partisan campaign finance watchdog group Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint against APN and subsequently sued the agency in an attempt to force it to investigate the group. But in July 2020, the FEC voted to dismiss allegations that America Progress Now had violated federal law, after an individual, Evan Muhlstein, took responsibility for the ads and attributed the lack of proper disclosures and filings to his “inexperience”.
It is illegal to knowingly make false or fraudulent statements to federal agencies, and the FEC appears to have taken Muhlstein at his word that the ads were a sincere but novice attempt to support Green party candidates.
The former FEC commissioner Ann Ravel, who reviewed the case at the request of the Guardian, said that were she still on the FEC, she would now refer this “stunning” case to the justice department for investigation.
“It seems as if it’s a clear fraud,” Ravel said, noting that the FEC general counsel’s office appeared to have been “misled” by Muhlstein. “The requirement for the justice department to take on an electoral matter is that it be serious and willful, and clearly in this case it was willful, in my opinion.”
Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, said: “This is an example of why disclosure is so important in elections: swing state voters who saw ‘America Progress Now’ ads promoting Green party candidates would’ve had no idea that they were the handiwork of Republican political operatives. The FEC’s job is to enforce the transparency laws and protect voters’ right to know who is trying to influence them, but the agency here failed to conduct even a minimal investigation.”
‘A crystal clear example of astroturfing’
On 27 October 2018 – just days before the 6 November election – America Progress Now began running a series of ads that used leftist motifs, such as the red rose emoji and images of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to rail against the “corporate, two-party oligarchy” and the “corporate, capitalist wage system”. Some of the ads urged voters to choose a third party, but others endorsed Green party candidates by name – triggering FEC rules for independent expenditures.
Following the 5 November publication of a ProPublica/Vice News report on the “mysterious” group behind the ads, Facebook launched a “hi-pri[ority]” escalation to investigate whether they constituted “coordinated inauthentic behavior” (CIB) – the name Facebook gives to the kind of deceptive tactics that a Russian influence operation used during the 2016 election.
The investigation was straightforward since Facebook has access to information that regular users do not: the names of the people who control Facebook Pages. Investigators quickly realized that America Progress Now was administered by three individuals – Jake Hoffman, Connor Clegg and Colton Duncan – who also served as Facebook Page administrators for Turning Point USA, the rightwing college group founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012. Hoffman and Clegg were also administrators for Kirk’s Facebook Page.
“These admins are connected to Turning Point USA,” one staffer from the civic integrity team said, according to internal task management documents seen by the Guardian. “This is very inauthentic. I don’t know what the policy here is but this seems very sketchy.” Another staffer named Rally Forge as being responsible for the ads. APN had spent nearly $5,000 to have the ads shown to users nearly 300,000 times, a third staffer noted.
A rightwing political marketing firm that ran a $350,000 pro-Trump Super Pac in the 2016 election, Rally Forge was founded and run by Hoffman, an Arizona Republican who was at the time a member of the town council in Queen Creek, Arizona. In November 2020 Hoffman was elected to serve in the Arizona state legislature.
Clegg and Duncan were alumni of Texas State University, where they had been elected student body president and vice-president respectively in 2017. Clegg was impeached and removed from office shortly before his term would have ended in 2018. Duncan resigned from his post in 2017; he appears to have been hired directly by Turning Point USA in 2019.
Since 2017, Rally Forge has been Turning Point USA’s highest-compensated independent contractor, paid more than $1.1m over two years, according to the non-profit’s public filings. Turning Point Action, an affiliated organization also founded by Kirk, paid Rally Forge $700,000 for work supporting Trump and opposing Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign, and an additional $400,000 for work on the US Senate runoff races in Georgia.
Andrew Kolvet, a spokesperson for Turning Point USA, said that neither Turning Point USA nor Turning Point Action had “any involvement” with America Progress Now or its Facebook ads.
In addition to America Progress Now and Turning Point USA, Hoffman, Clegg and Duncan all also served as administrators for a number of other rightwing Facebook Pages. The trio each maintained two accounts to administer their Facebook Pages, one using their full names and one using their first and middle initials – a violation of the company’s policy that each user can only have one Facebook account. One of each of the three men’s accounts had been authorized by Facebook to run political ads, a process that required submitting a government ID to Facebook for verification.
One of Hoffman’s accounts had spent approximately $650,000 to run Facebook ads on behalf of 40 Pages, including the official Page of Donald Trump Jr.
Hoffman declined to answer detailed questions from the Guardian, including about the nature of Rally Forge’s relationship with Muhlstein. “The premise of your questions is either ill-informed or intentionally misleading,” he said in a statement. “Rally Forge is a marketing agency, not a compliance company. Furthermore, it is my understanding that the small handful of ads, totaling less than 2,500 dollars, which qualified as independent expenditures, have been fully disclosed by the responsible organization in coordination with the FEC.”
Duncan said that he had never heard of America Progress Now before the Guardian’s inquiries and had “zero knowledge or insight into the group”. When asked about the CG Duncan account, which had passed Facebook’s verification process and was an administrator of the APN page, he responded: “I urge you to reach out to JM [Hoffman]. Let me know what you find out, I’m as curious as you are.”
Clegg did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.
Despite possessing clear evidence of inauthenticity, Facebook staffers determined the Green party ads did not violate existing company policies related to political ads or CIB. They decided to deactivate the three men’s extra accounts, but after the election and only after providing them with advance notice.
The episode inspired some disquiet among Facebook staff.
“What I find very problematic is that the intention here is clearly to mislead users,” said the civic integrity staffer. “The users in question clearly created a new FB page to hide their identity, which would be grounds for removal on most surfaces,” she added, referring to Facebook’s rules requiring people to use their real names on their accounts.
One product manager produced an internal postmortem of the incident in which she described it as “a crystal clear example of astroturfing” – deceptive campaign tactics designed to appear as grassroots actions – “… as well as playing both sides … and political ad opacity, since users cannot see who they are. Furthermore, I could see making a case for voter suppression.”
“Unfortunately, it turned out there was nothing we could do against these ads,” she added. “We ended up only aiming to remove a few [duplicate] accounts under the fake account policy, but only after proper notice – and I believe we have not removed them yet.”
“Can we strengthen our ads transparency policies so that political ads are indeed transparent to the user?” she asked.
A Facebook spokesperson said that the company had indeed removed the duplicate accounts following the midterms, and that Rally Forge’s network of Pages and accounts had gone dormant after November 2018. The company made a number of updates to its policies on political ads before the 2020 elections, including requiring advertisers to provide more information about their organizations before being authorized to run ads. It also introduced a new policy to encourage more transparency regarding who runs networks of Facebook Pages.
Rally Forge reactivated its network of Pages and accounts in June 2020, according to Facebook. It established what the Washington Post described as a domestic “troll farm” in Phoenix, Arizona, that employed teenagers to churn out pro-Trump social media posts, some of which cast doubt on the integrity of the US election system or falsely charged Democrats with attempting to steal the election.
Facebook said that it had detected the operation when Rally Forge began making fake accounts, which were detected by the company’s automated systems, and “thinly veiled personas” to carry out deceptive campaigning. In October 2020, the platform permanently banned Rally Forge and Hoffman for violating its policy against CIB, work that Facebook said the firm had undertaken “on behalf of Turning Point USA” and another client.
A spokesman for Turning Point USA disputed the characterization of the operation as a “troll farm” and noted that it was a project of Turning Point Action, which is a separate entity.
Facebook did not take any enforcement action against Turning Point USA, Turning Point Action or Kirk with regard to the Phoenix operation. Facebook also did not disclose Rally Forge’s connection to America Progress Now and the deceptive Green Party ads.
A forestalled investigation
In September 2019, CLC filed a complaint alleging that APN’s failure to register with the FEC violated federal law. The FEC responded by sending a letter to an inaccurate address that America Progress Now had listed on its Facebook Page, but it does not appear to have taken further action, prompting CLC to sue it in February 2020.
“If nothing is done, the FEC will instead be sending a message that anonymous or fake entities like America Progress Now can pop into existence just prior to an election, exploit lax registration and reporting requirements by digital platforms, spend unlimited sums of money, and then disappear into thin air once an election is over,” the group said at the time.
On 15 April 2020, Evan Muhlstein responded to the FEC by email. Muhlstein described the lack of filing as an “error”, writing, “I believe that it is important for the commission to understand that any potential failure on either of those items is based entirely on my inexperience to the process.” He wrote that he had “assumed that Facebook’s ‘political disclaimer/disclosure’ was all that was necessary”, said his expenditures totaled “only $2,467.54”, and expressed surprised that “a spend as small as this would require any type of reporting”.
“I again offer my sincerest apology for any potential errors in failing to disclose,” Muhlstein wrote. “Given the apparent obstacles and unknowns of participating in the election process in this manner (of which I am learning some of now), it is highly unlikely I will ever participate in it again. I feel terrible for having been so ignorant to the process.”
Muhlstein also expressed his desire to come into compliance “correctly and quickly”. At no point in the communication did Muhlstein disclose that the advertisements had been handled by a major political marketing firm.
“Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC is extremely misleading and might warrant a criminal investigation,” said Fischer, of the CLC.
Muhlstein did not respond to multiple attempts to make contact with him. His connection to Rally Forge is not known. He is a resident of Queen Creek, Arizona, the town where Hoffman also lives.
The FEC has the power to issue subpoenas and carry out serious investigations, but only after a vote of four of its five commissioners.
In a report dated 4 May, the FEC’s general counsel argued that, while it appeared that Muhlstein had violated federal law, the small amount of money involved and Muhlstein’s statement that he was unlikely to engage in further political spending led it to recommend that the FEC exercise prosecutorial discretion and dismiss the allegations with a warning.
In July, the FEC voted to follow the general counsel’s recommendation and dismiss the case, forestalling any actual investigation.
Commissioner James “Trey” Trainor went further, lambasting the CLC in a statement of reasons. “Contrary to CLC’s wild speculation, this case wasn’t about a ‘fake political group … exploit[ing] Facebook rules … and hid[ing] spending from the FEC,’” he wrote. “In fact, APN was established by an unsophisticated individual trying to show his support for several third-party candidates, but he got tripped by the myriad regulations governing online political speech.”
Trainor asserted that “there was no evidence to contradict” Muhlstein’s statement to the FEC “and no evidence to support CLC’s salacious theories about the ‘unknown person or persons’ behind APN”.
It would not be until 23 December 2020 – six months after the FEC had voted not to pursue the allegations of law violations and more than two years after the election – that Muhlstein would provide the FEC with that evidence, when he finally registered APN with the FEC and disclosed that the independent expenditure had been made through Rally Forge.
The FEC did not respond to questions from the Guardian, citing a policy not to comment on enforcement matters. Trainor did not respond to a request for comment. Fischer said: “It looks like we were right.”
Daniel Hernandez contributed reporting
Now people can share directly to Instagram Reels from some of their favorite apps
More people are creating, sharing and watching Reels than ever before. We’ve seen the creator community dive deeply into video content – and use it to connect with their communities. We’re running a limited alpha test that lets creators share video content directly from select integrated apps to Instagram Reels. Now, creators won’t be interrupted in their workflow, making it easier for them share share and express themselves on Reels.
“With the shift to video happening across almost all online platforms, our innovative tools and services empower creativity and fuel the creator economy and we are proud to be able to offer a powerful editing tool like Videoleap that allows seamless content creation, while partnering with companies like Meta to make sharing content that much easier.”- Zeev Farbman, CEO and co-founder of Lightricks.
Starting this month, creators can share short videos directly to Instagram Reels from some of their favorite apps, including Videoleap, Reface, Smule, VivaVideo, SNOW, B612, VITA and Zoomerang, with more coming soon. These apps and others also allow direct sharing to Facebook , which is available for any business with a registered Facebook App to use.
We hope to expand this test to more partners in 2023. If you’re interested in being a part of that beta program, please fill out this form and we will keep track of your submission. We do not currently have information to share about general availability of this integration.
Learn more here about sharing Stories and Reels to Facebook and Instagram and start building today.
Q. What is the difference between the Instagram Content Publishing API and Instagram Sharing to Reels?
A: Sharing to Reels is different from the Instagram Content Publishing API, which allows Instagram Business accounts to schedule and publish posts to Instagram from third-party platforms. Sharing to Reels is specifically for mobile apps to display a ‘Share to Reels’ widget. The target audience for the Share to Reels widget is consumers, whereas the Content Publishing API is targeted towards businesses, including third-party publishing platforms such as Hootsuite and Sprout Social that consolidate sharing to social media platforms within their third-party app.
Q: Why is Instagram partnering with other apps?
A: Creators already use a variety of apps to create and edit videos before uploading them to Instagram Reels – now we’re making that experience faster and easier. We are currently doing a small test of an integration with mobile apps that creators know and love, with more coming soon.
Q: How can I share my video from another app to Reels on Instagram?
A: How it works (Make sure to update the mobile app you’re using to see the new Share to Reels option):
- Create and edit your video in one of our partner apps
- Once your video is ready, tap share and then tap the Instagram Reels icon
- You will enter the Instagram Camera, where you can customize your reel with audio, effects, Voiceover and stickers. Record any additional clips or swipe up to add an additional clip from your camera roll.
- Tap ‘Next’ to add a caption, hashtag, location, tag others or use the paid partnerships label.
- Tap ‘Share’. Your reel will be visible where you share reels today, depending on your privacy settings.
Q: How were partners selected?
A. We are currently working with a small group of developers that focus on video creation and editing as early partners. We’ll continue to expand to apps with other types of creation experiences.
Q: When will other developers be able to access Sharing to Reels on Instagram?
A: We do not currently have a date for general availability, but are planning to expand further in 2023.
Q: Can you share to Facebook Reels from other apps?
A: Yes, Facebook offers the ability for developers to integrate with Sharing to Reels. For more information on third-party sharing opportunities, check out our entire suite of sharing offerings .
First seen at developers.facebook.com
What to know about Presto SQL query engine and PrestoCon
The open source Presto SQL query engine is used by a diverse set of companies to navigate increasingly large data workflows. These companies are using Presto in support of e-commerce, cloud, security and other areas. Not only do many companies use Presto, but individuals from those companies are also active contributors to the Presto open source community.
In support of that community, Presto holds meetups around the world and has an annual conference, PrestoCon, where experts and contributors gather to exchange knowledge. This year’s PrestoCon, hosted by the Linux Foundation, takes place December 7-8 in Mountain View, CA. This blog post will explore some foundational elements of Presto and what to expect at this year’s PrestoCon.
What is Presto?
Presto is a distributed SQL query engine for data platform teams. Presto users can perform interactive queries on data where it lives using ANSI SQL across federated and diverse sources. Query engines allow data scientists and analysts to focus on building dashboards and utilizing BI tools so that data engineers can focus on storage and management, all while communicating through a unified connection layer.
In short, the scientist does not have to consider how or where data is stored, and the engineer does not have to optimize for every use case for the data sources they manage. You can learn more about Presto in a recent ELI5 video below.
Caption: Watch the video by clicking on the image above.
Presto was developed to solve the problem of petabyte-scale, multi-source data queries taking hours or days to return. These resources and time constraints make real-time analysis impossible. Presto can return results from those same queries in less than a second in most cases, allowing for interactive data exploration.
Not only is it highly scalable, but it’s also extensible, allowing you to build your own connector for any data source Presto does not already support. At a low level, Presto also supports a wide range of file types for query processing. Presto was open sourced by Meta and later donated to the Linux Foundation in September of 2019.
Here are some Presto resources for those who are new to the community:
What is PrestoCon?
PrestoCon is held annually in the Bay Area and hosted by the Linux Foundation. This year, the event takes place December 7-8 at the Computer History Museum. You can register here. Each year at PrestoCon, you can hear about the latest major evolutions of the platform, how different organizations use Presto and what plans the Technical Steering Committee has for Presto in the coming year.
Presto’s scalability is especially apparent as every year we hear from small startups, as well as industry leaders like Meta and Uber, who are using the Presto platform for different use cases, whether those are small or large. If you’re looking to contribute to open source, PrestoCon is a great opportunity for networking as well as hearing the vision that the Technical Steering Committee has for the project in the coming year.
Explore what’s happening at PrestoCon 2022:
Where is Presto used?
Since its release in November of 2013, Presto has been used as an integral part of big data pipelines within Meta and other massive-scale companies, including Uber and Twitter.
The most common use case is connecting business intelligence tools to vast data sets within an organization. This enables crucial questions to be answered faster and data-driven decision-making can be more efficient.
How does Presto work?
First, a coordinator takes your statement and parses it into a query. The internal planner generates an optimized plan as a series of stages, which are further separated into tasks. Tasks are then assigned to workers to process in parallel.
Workers then use the relevant connector to pull data from the source.
The output of each task is returned by the workers, until the stage is complete. The stage’s output is returned by the final worker towards the next stage, where another series of tasks must be executed.
The results of stages are combined, eventually returning the final result of the original statement to the coordinator, which then returns to the client.
How do I get involved?
We would love for you to join the Presto Slack channel if you have any questions or need help. Visit the community page on the Presto website to see all the ways you can get involved and find other users and developers interested in Presto.
Where can I learn more?
To learn more about Presto, check out its website for installation guides, user guides, conference talks and samples.
First seen at developers.facebook.com
How to Interpret Webhook Components in the WhatsApp Business Platform
The ways customers want to connect are changing. The WhatsApp Business Platform gives businesses an integrated way to communicate with customers right where they are. In order to integrate properly when using the Cloud API, hosted by Meta, you’ll need to leverage webhooks so applications have a way to respond to events. Webhooks allow your application to monitor three primary events on WhatsApp so you can react with different functionality depending on your goals.
This article looks at these three components, goes through the information they carry, and provides some use-case scenarios to give you an idea of the possibilities.
Interpreting Different Webhook Components
To send and receive messages on WhatsApp, it’s critical to keep track of statuses and errors to help ensure you’re communicating effectively with your customers, which you can do with webhooks.
With webhooks, the WhatsApp Business Platform monitors events and sends notifications when one occurs. These events are one of three components: messages, statuses, and errors.
Let’s explore each of these and examine examples of how you can use them.
The messages component is the largest of the three event types and contains two core objects:
Contacts — which contain information about the message’s sender.
Messages — which provide information about a message’s type and contents.
These two event types allow your application to manage and respond to people that interact with your application. The contacts object contains two pieces of information: name and WhatsApp Id. The contact’s name allows your application to use their name without further lookups. In contrast, the contact’s WhatsApp ID lets you keep track of these contacts or use the contacts/ endpoint to add additional functionality.
For instance, you can verify the customer and start the opt-in process within the customer-initiated conversation, which allows you to message them outside the initial 24-hour response window. It’s important to note that only the text, contacts, and location message types provide contact information.
The message object is where the bulk of the information is stored, including the message contents, type of message, and other relevant information. Depending on the message type, the actual payload of the message component can vary widely. It’s crucial to determine the message type to understand the potential payload. Message types include:
Text: a standard text-only message
Contact: contains a user’s full contact details
Location: address, latitude, and longitude
Unknown: unsupported messages from users, which usually contain errors.
Ephemeral: disappearing messages
Media message types: contain information for the specified media file. These types include:
These different data types can have very different uses, from reviewing images and screenshots from concerned customers to collecting information about where to ship goods and send services. To use these different data types most effectively, you can create applications to handle different forms of communication, with functionalities such as:
Ask your customers to provide a shipping or mailing address. You can use the location-based message feature to capture your users’ location to determine where to send their goods and services.
Show customers products and communicate product details through a message. You can use the referred_product field within messages to offer your users specific product details. Using this field develops a more personal, conversational shopping experience and customer interactions.
Build support functionality that allows customers to take and send images and videos of product concerns, and submit those for a support case. Once the user has submitted a support ticket, the app can track the case — including steps taken towards resolution and conversations between support teams and the customer through WhatsApp — using a unique case identifier.
These are just some potential features you can build using the interactivity provided by webhooks and the message object. These features extend your current communication channels and provide additional options for customers.
Where the messages component provides your application with insight into events that originate directly from your customers, the statuses component keeps track of the results of messages you send and the conversation history. There are six status components:
- Sent: the application sent your message and is in transit.
- Delivered: the user’s device successfully received the message.
- Read: the user has read your message.
- Deleted: a user deleted a message that you sent.
- Warning: a message sent by your application contains an item that isn’t available or doesn’t exist.
- Failed: a message sent by your application failed to arrive.
Status components also contain information on the recipient ID, the conversation, and the pricing related to the current conversation. Conversations on WhatsApp are a grouping of messages within a 24-hour window that are either user-initiated or business-initiated. Keeping track of these conversations is vital, as a new conversation occurs when you send additional responses after the 24-hour period ends.
Some functionality you may want to add to your application based on status events includes:
- Ensuring your application has sent generated messages, they arrived, and the recipient potentially read them by using a combination of these status types and timestamps within the status object. This information allows your application to follow up with customers if they didn’t engage.
- Keep analytical information about your application’s messages, especially regarding business-initiated conversations. For example, if your application uses a WhatsApp customer contact list to send offer messages, the status component helps you understand how many were sent, delivered, read, responded to, or failed to measure your campaign’s success.
Finally, the errors component allows your application to receive any out-of-band errors within WhatsApp that affect your platform. These errors don’t stop your application from compiling or working but are typically caused when your application is misusing specific functionality. The following are some typical errors.
Error Code 368, Temporarily Blocked for Policy Violations
If your application violates WhatsApp Business Messaging or Commerce policy, your account may be temporarily banned. You can monitor this and pause your application while troubleshooting.
Error 506, Duplicate Post
If your workflows unintentionally generate duplicate messages, you can monitor this to find the source.
Error 131043, Message Expired
Sometimes, messages are not sent during their time to live (TTL) duration. Use this code to know which messages to schedule for resending if needed.
Error handling is a broad, complex subject, and there are many other use cases for which you should be implementing error handling. The errors component helps extend your error handling on the WhatsApp Business Platform for greater consistency.
This article took a high-level look at messages, statuses, and errors returned by webhooks and explored ways you can use these three components to expand your application’s functionality.
Messages provide information on customer interactions, statuses give insight into messages your app sends, and error notices enable you to increase your application’s resilience. Webhooks are critical to ensuring your app interacts with customers seamlessly.
The WhatsApp Business Platform’s webhooks provide your applications with real-time data, enabling you to build better experiences as you interact with customers. Ready to know more? Dive deeper into everything the WhatsApp Business Platform has to offer.
First seen at developers.facebook.com
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