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How Facebook undermines privacy protections for its 2 billion WhatsApp users – The …

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When Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new “privacy-focused vision” for Facebook in March 2019, he cited the company’s global messaging service, WhatsApp, as a model.

Acknowledging that “we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” the Facebook CEO wrote that “I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about. We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp.”

Zuckerberg’s vision centred on WhatsApp’s signature feature, which he said the company was planning to apply to Instagram and Facebook Messenger: end-to-end encryption, which converts all messages into an unreadable format that is only unlocked when they reach their intended destinations. WhatsApp messages are so secure, he said, that nobody else — not even the company — can read a word. As Zuckerberg had put it earlier, in testimony to the US Senate in 2018, “We don’t see any of the content in WhatsApp”.

WhatsApp emphasises this point so consistently that a flag with a similar assurance automatically appears on-screen before users send messages: “No one outside of this chat, not even WhatsApp, can read or listen to them.”

Given those sweeping assurances, you might be surprised to learn that WhatsApp has more than 1,000 contract workers filling floors of office buildings in Austin, Dublin and Singapore. Seated at computers in pods organised by work assignments, these hourly workers use special Facebook software to sift through millions of private messages, images and videos. They pass judgment on whatever flashes on their screen — claims of everything from fraud or spam to child porn and potential terrorist plotting — typically in less than a minute. The workers have access to only a subset of WhatsApp messages — those flagged by users and automatically forwarded to the company as possibly abusive.

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The review is one element in a broader monitoring operation in which the company also reviews material that is not encrypted, including data about the sender and their account. Policing users while assuring them that their privacy is sacrosanct makes for an awkward mission at WhatsApp.

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A 49-slide internal company marketing presentation from December, obtained by ProPublica, emphasises the “fierce” promotion of WhatsApp’s “privacy narrative”. It compares its “brand character” to “the Immigrant Mother” and displays a photo of Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting by the Taliban and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a slide titled “Brand tone parameters”. The presentation does not mention the company’s content moderation efforts.

WhatsApp’s director of communications, Carl Woog, acknowledged that teams of contractors in Austin and elsewhere review WhatsApp messages to identify and remove “the worst” abusers. But Woog told ProPublica that the company does not consider this work to be content moderation, saying: “We actually don’t typically use the term for WhatsApp.”

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The company declined to make executives available for interviews for this article, but responded to questions with written comments.

“WhatsApp is a lifeline for millions of people around the world,” the company said. “The decisions we make around how we build our app are focused around the privacy of our users, maintaining a high degree of reliability and preventing abuse.”

WhatsApp’s denial that it moderates content is noticeably different from what Facebook says about WhatsApp’s corporate siblings, Instagram and Facebook. The company has said that some 15,000 moderators examine content on Facebook and Instagram, neither of which is encrypted. It releases quarterly transparency reports that detail how many accounts Facebook and Instagram have “actioned” for various categories of abusive content.

There is no such report for WhatsApp.

Deploying an army of content reviewers is just one of the ways that Facebook has compromised the privacy of WhatsApp users. Together, the company’s actions have left WhatsApp — the largest messaging app in the world, with two billion users — far less private than its users likely understand or expect. A ProPublica investigation, drawing on data, documents and dozens of interviews with current and former employees and contractors, reveals how, since purchasing WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has quietly undermined its sweeping security assurances in multiple ways.

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Many of the assertions by content moderators working for WhatsApp are echoed by a confidential whistleblower complaint filed last year with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The complaint — which ProPublica obtained — details WhatsApp’s extensive use of outside contractors, artificial intelligence systems and account information to examine user messages, images and videos. It alleges that the company’s claims of protecting users’ privacy are false.

“We haven’t seen this complaint,” the company spokesperson said. The SEC has taken no public action on it; an agency spokesperson declined to comment.

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Facebook has also downplayed how much data it collects from WhatsApp users, what it does with it and how much it shares with law enforcement authorities.

For example, WhatsApp shares metadata, unencrypted records that can reveal a lot about a user’s activity, with law enforcement agencies such as the Department of Justice. Some rivals, such as Signal, intentionally gather much less metadata to avoid incursions on its users’ privacy, and thus share far less with law enforcement. (“WhatsApp responds to valid legal requests,” the company spokesperson said, “including orders that require us to provide on a real-time going forward basis who a specific person is messaging.”)

WhatsApp user data, ProPublica has learned, helped prosecutors build a high-profile case against a Treasury Department employee who leaked confidential documents to BuzzFeed News that exposed how dirty money flows through US banks.

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Like other social media and communications platforms, WhatsApp is caught between users who expect privacy and law enforcement entities that effectively demand the opposite: that WhatsApp turn over information that will help combat crime and online abuse. WhatsApp has responded to this dilemma by asserting that it’s no dilemma at all. “I think we absolutely can have security and safety for people through end-to-end encryption and work with law enforcement to solve crimes,” said Will Cathcart, whose title is head of WhatsApp, in a YouTube interview with an Australian think tank in July.

The tension between privacy and disseminating information to law enforcement is exacerbated by a second pressure: Facebook’s need to make money from WhatsApp. Since paying $22 billion to buy WhatsApp in 2014, Facebook has been trying to figure out how to generate profits from a service that doesn’t charge its users a penny. That conundrum has periodically led to moves that anger users, regulators or both.

The goal of monetising the app was part of the company’s 2016 decision to start sharing WhatsApp user data with Facebook, something the company had told European Union regulators was technologically impossible. The same impulse spurred a controversial plan, abandoned in late 2019, to sell advertising on WhatsApp. And the profit-seeking mandate was behind another botched initiative in January: the introduction of a new privacy policy for user interactions with businesses on WhatsApp, allowing businesses to use customer data in new ways. That announcement triggered a user exodus to competing apps.

WhatsApp’s increasingly aggressive business plan is focused on charging companies for an array of services — letting users make payments via WhatsApp and managing customer service chats — that offer convenience but fewer privacy protections.

The result is a confusing two-tiered privacy system within the same app where protections of end-to-end encryption are further eroded when WhatsApp users employ the service to communicate with businesses.

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The company’s December marketing presentation captures WhatsApp’s diverging imperatives. It states that “privacy will remain important”. But it also conveys what seems to be a more urgent mission: the need to “open the aperture of the brand to encompass our future business objectives.”

Content Moderation Associates


In many ways, the experience of being a content moderator for WhatsApp in Austin is identical to being a moderator for Facebook or Instagram, according to interviews with 29 current and former moderators. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, many with past experience as store clerks, grocery checkers and baristas, the moderators are hired and employed by Accenture, a huge corporate contractor that works for Facebook and other Fortune 500 behemoths.

The job listings advertise “Content Review” positions and make no mention of Facebook or WhatsApp. Employment documents list the workers’ initial title as “content moderation associate.” Pay starts around $16.50 an hour. Moderators are instructed to tell anyone who asks that they work for Accenture, and are required to sign sweeping non-disclosure agreements.

Citing the NDAs, almost all the current and former moderators interviewed by ProPublica insisted on anonymity. (An Accenture spokesperson declined comment, referring all questions about content moderation to WhatsApp.)

When the WhatsApp team was assembled in Austin in 2019, Facebook moderators already occupied the fourth floor of an office tower on Sixth Street, adjacent to the city’s famous bar-and-music scene. The WhatsApp team was installed on the floor above, with new glass-enclosed work pods and nicer bathrooms that sparked a tinge of envy in a few members of the Facebook team. Most of the WhatsApp team scattered to work from home during the pandemic.

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Whether in the office or at home, they spend their days in front of screens, using a Facebook software tool to examine a stream of “tickets”, organised by subject into “reactive” and “proactive” queues.

Collectively, the workers scrutinise millions of pieces of WhatsApp content each week. Each reviewer handles upwards of 600 tickets a day, which gives them less than a minute per ticket. WhatsApp declined to reveal how many contract workers are employed for content review, but a partial staffing list reviewed by ProPublica suggests that, at Accenture alone, it’s more than 1,000. WhatsApp moderators, like their Facebook and Instagram counterparts, are expected to meet performance metrics for speed and accuracy, which are audited by Accenture.

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Their jobs differ in other ways. Because WhatsApp’s content is encrypted, artificial intelligence systems can’t automatically scan all chats, images and videos, as they do on Facebook and Instagram. Instead, WhatsApp reviewers gain access to private content when users hit the “report” button on the app, identifying a message as allegedly violating the platform’s terms of service. This forwards five messages — the allegedly offending one along with the four previous ones in the exchange, including any images or videos — to WhatsApp in unscrambled form, according to former WhatsApp engineers and moderators. Automated systems then feed these tickets into “reactive” queues for contract workers to assess. Artificial intelligence initiates a second set of queues — so-called proactive ones — by scanning unencrypted data that WhatsApp collects about its users and comparing it against suspicious account information and messaging patterns (a new account rapidly sending out a high volume of chats is evidence of spam), as well as terms and images that have previously been deemed abusive.

The unencrypted data available for scrutiny is extensive. It includes the names and profile images of a user’s WhatsApp groups as well as their phone number, profile photo, status message, phone battery level, language and time zone, unique mobile phone ID and IP address, wireless signal strength and phone operating system, as a list of their electronic devices, any related Facebook and Instagram accounts, the last time they used the app and any previous history of violations. The WhatsApp reviewers have three choices when presented with a ticket for either type of queue: Do nothing, place the user on “watch” for further scrutiny, or ban the account. (Facebook and Instagram content moderators have more options, including removing individual postings. It’s that distinction — the fact that WhatsApp reviewers can’t delete individual items — that the company cites as its basis for asserting that WhatsApp reviewers are not “content moderators”.)

WhatsApp moderators must make subjective, sensitive and subtle judgements, interviews and documents examined by ProPublica show. They examine a wide range of categories, including “Spam Report”, “Civic Bad Actor” (political hate speech and disinformation), “Terrorism Global Credible Threat”, “CEI” (child exploitative imagery) and “CP” (child pornography). Another set of categories addresses the messaging and conduct of millions of small and large businesses that use WhatsApp to chat with customers and sell their wares. These queues have such titles as “business impersonation prevalence,” “commerce policy probable violators” and “business verification”.

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Moderators say the guidance they get from WhatsApp and Accenture relies on standards that can be simultaneously arcane and disturbingly graphic. Decisions about abusive sexual imagery, for example, can rest on an assessment of whether a naked child in an image appears adolescent or prepubescent, based on comparison of hip bones and pubic hair to a medical index chart. One reviewer recalled a grainy video in a political-speech queue that depicted a machete-wielding man holding up what appeared to be a severed head: “We had to watch and say, ‘Is this a real dead body or a fake dead body?’”

In late 2020, moderators were informed of a new queue for alleged “sextortion.” It was defined in an explanatory memo as “a form of sexual exploitation where people are blackmailed with a nude image of themselves which have been shared by them or someone else on the Internet.” The memo said workers would review messages reported by users that “include predefined keywords typically used in sextortion/blackmail messages.”

WhatsApp’s review system is hampered by impediments, including buggy language translation. The service has users in 180 countries, with the vast majority located outside the US. Even though Accenture hires workers who speak a variety of languages, for messages in some languages there’s often no native speaker on site to assess abuse complaints. That means using Facebook’s language-translation tool, which reviewers said could be so inaccurate that it sometimes labelled messages in Arabic as being in Spanish. The tool also offered little guidance on local slang, political context or sexual innuendo.

“In the three years I’ve been there,” one moderator said, “it’s always been horrible.”

The process can be rife with errors and misunderstandings. Companies have been flagged for offering weapons for sale when they are selling straight shaving razors. Bras can be sold, but if the marketing language registers as “adult”, the seller can be labelled a forbidden “sexually oriented business”. And a flawed translation tool set off an alarm when it detected kids for sale and slaughter, which, upon closer scrutiny, turned out to involve young goats intended to be cooked and eaten in halal meals.

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The system is also undercut by the human failings of the people who instigate reports. Complaints are frequently filed to punish, harass or prank someone, according to moderators. In messages from Brazil and Mexico, one moderator explained, “we had a couple of months where AI was banning groups left and right because people were messing with their friends by changing their group names” and then reporting them. “At the worst of it, we were probably getting tens of thousands of those. They figured out some words the algorithm did not like.”

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Other reports fail to meet WhatsApp standards for an account ban. “Most of it is not violating,” one of the moderators said. “It’s content that is already on the internet, and it’s just people trying to mess with users.”

Still, each case can reveal up to five unencrypted messages, which are then examined by moderators. The judgment of WhatsApp’s AI is less than perfect, moderators say. “There were a lot of innocent photos on there that were not allowed to be on there,” said Carlos Sauceda, who left Accenture last year after nine months. “It might have been a photo of a child taking a bath, and there was nothing wrong with it.” As another WhatsApp moderator put it, “A lot of the time, the artificial intelligence is not that intelligent.”

Facebook’s written guidance to WhatsApp moderators acknowledges many problems, noting “we have made mistakes and our policies have been weaponised by bad actors to get good actors banned. When users write inquiries pertaining to abusive matters like these, it is up to WhatsApp to respond and act (if necessary) accordingly in a timely and pleasant manner.”

Of course, if a user appeals a ban that was prompted by a user report, according to one moderator, it entails having a second moderator examine the user’s content.

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In public statements and on the company’s websites, Facebook is noticeably vague about WhatsApp’s monitoring process. The company does not provide a regular accounting of how WhatsApp polices the platform. WhatsApp’s FAQ page and online complaint form note that it will receive “the most recent messages” from a user who has been flagged. They do not, however, disclose how many unencrypted messages are revealed when a report is filed, or that those messages are examined by outside contractors. (WhatsApp told ProPublica it limits that disclosure to keep violators from “gaming” the system.)

By contrast, both Facebook and Instagram post lengthy “Community Standards” documents detailing the criteria its moderators use to police content, along with articles and videos about “the unrecognised heroes who keep Facebook safe” and announcements on new content review sites. Facebook’s transparency reports detail how many pieces of content are “actioned” for each type of violation. WhatsApp is not included in this report.

When dealing with legislators, Facebook officials also offer few details — but are eager to assure them that they don’t let encryption stand in the way of protecting users from images of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

For example, when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Facebook about the impact of encrypting its platforms, the company, in written follow-up questions in January 2020, cited WhatsApp in boasting that it would remain responsive to law enforcement. “Even within an encrypted system,” one response noted, “we will still be able to respond to lawful requests for metadata, including potentially critical location or account information… We already have an encrypted messaging service, WhatsApp, that — in contrast to some other encrypted services — provides a simple way for people to report abuse or safety concerns.”

Sure enough, WhatsApp reported 400,000 instances of possible child-exploitation imagery to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2020, according to its head, Cathcart. That was ten times as many as in 2019. “We are by far the industry leaders in finding and detecting that behaviour in an end-to-end encrypted service,” he said.

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During his YouTube interview with the Australian think tank, Cathcart also described WhatsApp’s reliance on user reporting and its AI systems’ ability to examine account information that isn’t subject to encryption.

Asked how many staffers WhatsApp employed to investigate abuse complaints from an app with more than two billion users, Cathcart didn’t mention content moderators or their access to encrypted content. “There’s a lot of people across Facebook who help with WhatsApp,” he explained. “If you look at people who work full time on WhatsApp, it’s above a thousand. I won’t get into the full breakdown of customer service, user reports, engineering, etc. But it’s a lot of that.”

In written responses for this article, the company spokesperson said: “We build WhatsApp in a manner that limits the data we collect while providing us tools to prevent spam, investigate threats, and ban those engaged in abuse, including based on user reports we receive. This work takes extraordinary effort from security experts and a valued trust and safety team that works tirelessly to help provide the world with private communication.”

The spokesperson noted that WhatsApp has released new privacy features, including “more controls about how people’s messages can disappear” or be viewed only once. He added, “Based on the feedback we’ve received from users, we’re confident people understand when they make reports to WhatsApp we receive the content they send us.”

Additional reporting by Alex Mierjeski and Doris Burke.

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This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

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Facebook Messenger Is Launching a Split Payments Feature for Users to Quickly Share Expenses

Meta has announced the arrival of a new Split Payments feature in Facebook Messenger. This feature, as the name suggests, will let you calculate and split expenses with others right from Facebook Messenger. This feature essentially looks to bring an easier method to share the cost of bills and expenses — for example, splitting a dinner bill with friends. Using this new Split Payment feature, Facebook Messenger users will be able to split bills evenly or modify the contribution for each individual, including their own.

The company took to its blog post to announce the new Split Payment feature in Facebook Messenger. 9to5Mac reports that this new bill splitting feature is still in beta and will be exclusive to US users at first. The rollout will begin early next week. As mentioned, it will help users share the cost of bills, expenses, and payments. This feature is especially useful for those who share an apartment and need to split the monthly rent and other expenses with their mates. It could also come handy at a group dinner with many people.

With Split Payments, users can add the number of people the expense needs to be divided with and, by default, the amount entered will be divided in equal parts. A user can also modify each person’s contribution including their own. To use Split Payments, click the Get Started button in a group chat or the Payments Hub in Messenger. Users can modify the contribution in the Split Payments option and send a notification to all the users who need to make payments. After entering a personalised message and confirming your Facebook Pay details, the request will be sent and viewable in the group chat thread.

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Once someone has made the payment, you can mark their transaction as ‘completed’. The Split Payment feature will automatically take into account your share as well and calculate the amount owed accordingly.


For the latest tech news and reviews, follow Gadgets 360 on Twitter, Facebook, and Google News. For the latest videos on gadgets and tech, subscribe to our YouTube channel.

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Tasneem Akolawala is a Senior Reporter for Gadgets 360. Her reporting expertise encompasses smartphones, wearables, apps, social media, and the overall tech industry. She reports out of Mumbai, and also writes about the ups and downs in the Indian telecom sector. Tasneem can be reached on Twitter at @MuteRiot, and leads, tips, and releases can be sent to tasneema@ndtv.com.

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Facebook Owner Meta Launches New Platform, Safety Hub to Protect Women in India

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Meta (formerly Facebook) on Thursday announced a slew of steps to protect woman users on its platform, including the launch of StopNCII.org in India that aims to combat the spread of non-consensual intimate images (NCII).

Meta has also launched the Women’s Safety Hub, which will be available in Hindi and 11 other Indian languages, that will enable more women users in India to access information about tools and resources that can help them make the most of their social media experience, while staying safe online.

This initiative by Meta will ensure women do not face a language barrier in accessing information Karuna Nain, director (global safety policy) at Meta Platforms, told reporters here.

“Safety is an integral part of Meta’s commitment to building and offering a safe online experience across the platforms and over the years the company has introduced several industry leading initiatives to protect users online.

“Furthering our effort to bolster the safety of users, we are bringing in a number of initiatives to ensure online safety of women on our platforms,” she added.

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StopNCII.org is a platform that aims to combat the spread of non-consensual intimate images (NCII).

“It gives victims control. People can come to this platform proactively, hash their intimate videos and images, share their hashes back with the platform and participating companies,” Nain said.

She explained that the platform doesn’t receive any photos and videos, and instead what they get is the hash or unique digital fingerprint/unique identifier that tells the company that this is a known piece of content that is violating. “We can proactively keep a lookout for that content on our platforms and once it”s uploaded, our review team check what”s really going on and take appropriate action if it violates our policies,” she added.

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In partnership with UK Revenge Porn Helpline, StopNCII.org builds on Meta’s NCII Pilot, an emergency programme that allows potential victims to proactively hash their intimate images so they can”t be proliferated on its platforms.

The first-of-its-kind platform, has partnered with global organisations to support the victims of NCII. In India, the platform has partnered with organisations such as Social Media Matters, Centre for Social Research, and Red Dot Foundation.

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Nain added that the company is hopeful that this becomes an industrywide initiative, so that victims can just come to this one central place to get help and support and not have to go to each and every tech platform, one by one to get help and support.

Also, Bishakha Datta (executive editor of Point of View) and Jyoti Vadehra from Centre for Social Research are the first Indian members in Meta”s Global Women”s Safety Expert Advisors. The group comprises 12 other non-profit leaders, activists, and academic experts from different parts of the world and consults Meta in the development of new policies, products and programmes to better support women on its apps.

“We are confident that with our ever-growing safety measures, women will be able to enjoy a social experience which will enable them to learn, engage and grow without any challenges.

“India is an important market for us and bringing Bishakha and Jyoti onboard to our Women”s Safety Expert Advisory Group will go a long way in further enhancing our efforts to make our platforms safer for women in India,” Nain said.

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Facebook Adds New Trend Insights in Creator Studio, Which Could Help Shape Your Posting Strategy

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Facebook’s looking to provide more content insight within Creator Studio with the rollout of a new ‘Inspiration Hub’ element, which highlights trending content and hashtags within categories related to your business Page.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

As you can see in these screenshots, posted by social media expert Matt Navarra, when it becomes available to you, you’ll be able to access the new Inspiration Hub from the Home tab in Creator Studio.

At the right side of the screen, you can see the first of the new insights, with trending hashtags and videos from the last 24 hours, posted by Pages similar to yours, displayed above a ‘See more’ prompt.

When you tap through to the new hub, you’ll have a range of additional filters to check out trending content from across Facebook, including Page category, content type, region, and more.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

That could be hugely valuable in learning what Facebook users are responding to, and what people within your target market are engaging with in the app.

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The Hub also includes insights into trending hashtags, within your chosen timeframe, which may further assist in tapping into trending discussions.

Facebook Inspiration Hub

How valuable hashtags are on Facebook is still up for debate, but you’ll also note that you can filter the displayed results by platform, so you can additionally display Instagram hashtag trends as well, which could be very valuable in maximizing your reach.

Much of this type of info has been available within CrowdTangle, Facebook’s analytics platform for journalists, for some time, but not everyone can access CrowdTangle data, which could make this an even more valuable proposition for many marketers.

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Of course, overall performance really relates to your own creative, and thinking through the action that you want your audience to take when reading your posts. But in terms of detecting new content trends, including hashtag usage, caption length, videos versus image posts, and more, there’s a lot that could be gleaned from these tools and filters.

It’s a significant analytics addition – we’ve asked Facebook for more info on the rollout of the new option, and whether it’s already beyond test mode, etc. We’ll update this post if/when we hear back.

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