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Meta Said to Curtail Election Misinformation Efforts as US Midterm Vote Approaches: Details

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Facebook owner Meta is quietly curtailing some of the safeguards designed to thwart voting misinformation or foreign interference in US elections as the November midterm vote approaches.

It’s a sharp departure from the social media giant’s multibillion-dollar efforts to enhance the accuracy of posts about US elections and regain trust from lawmakers and the public after their outrage over learning the company had exploited people’s data and allowed falsehoods to overrun its site during the 2016 campaign.

The pivot is raising alarm about Meta’s priorities and about how some might exploit the world’s most popular social media platforms to spread misleading claims, launch fake accounts and rile up partisan extremists.

“They’re not talking about it,” said former Facebook policy director Katie Harbath, now the CEO of the tech and policy firm Anchor Change. “Best case scenario: They’re still doing a lot behind the scenes. Worst case scenario: They pull back, and we don’t know how that’s going to manifest itself for the midterms on the platforms.”

Since last year, Meta has shut down an examination into how falsehoods are amplified in political ads on Facebook by indefinitely banishing the researchers from the site.

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CrowdTangle, the online tool that the company offered to hundreds of newsrooms and researchers so they could identify trending posts and misinformation across Facebook or Instagram, is now inoperable on some days.

Public communication about the company’s response to election misinformation has gone decidedly quiet. Between 2018 and 2020, the company released more than 30 statements that laid out specifics about how it would stifle US election misinformation, prevent foreign adversaries from running ads or posts around the vote and subdue divisive hate speech.

Top executives hosted question and answer sessions with reporters about new policies. CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote Facebook posts promising to take down false voting information and authored opinion articles calling for more regulations to tackle foreign interference in US elections via social media.

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But this year Meta has only released a one-page document outlining plans for the fall elections, even as potential threats to the vote remain clear. Several Republican candidates are pushing false claims about the US election across social media. In addition, Russia and China continue to wage aggressive social media propaganda campaigns aimed at further political divides among American audiences.

Meta says that elections remain a priority and that policies developed in recent years around election misinformation or foreign interference are now hard-wired into company operations.

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“With every election, we incorporate what we’ve learned into new processes and have established channels to share information with the government and our industry partners,” Meta spokesman Tom Reynolds said.

He declined to say how many employees would be on the project to protect US elections full time this year.

During the 2018 election cycle, the company offered tours and photos and produced head counts for its election response war room. But The New York Times reported the number of Meta employees working on this year’s election had been cut from 300 to 60, a figure Meta disputes.

Reynolds said Meta will pull hundreds of employees who work across 40 of the company’s other teams to monitor the upcoming vote alongside the election team, with its unspecified number of workers.

The company is continuing many initiatives it developed to limit election misinformation, such as a fact-checking program started in 2016 that enlists the help of news outlets to investigate the veracity of popular falsehoods spreading on Facebook or Instagram. The Associated Press is part of Meta’s fact-checking program.

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This month, Meta also rolled out a new feature for political ads that allows the public to search for details about how advertisers target people based on their interests across Facebook and Instagram.

Yet, Meta has stifled other efforts to identify election misinformation on its sites.

It has stopped making improvements to CrowdTangle, a website it offered to newsrooms around the world that provides insights about trending social media posts. Journalists, fact-checkers and researchers used the website to analyse Facebook content, including tracing popular misinformation and who is responsible for it.

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That tool is now “dying,” former CrowdTangle CEO Brandon Silverman, who left Meta last year, told the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.

Silverman told the AP that CrowdTangle had been working on upgrades that would make it easier to search the text of internet memes, which can often be used to spread half-truths and escape the oversight of fact-checkers, for example.

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“There’s no real shortage of ways you can organise this data to make it useful for a lot of different parts of the fact-checking community, newsrooms and broader civil society,” Silverman said.

Not everyone at Meta agreed with that transparent approach, Silverman said. The company has not rolled out any new updates or features to CrowdTangle in more than a year, and it has experienced hourslong outages in recent months.

Meta also shut down efforts to investigate how misinformation travels through political ads.

The company indefinitely revoked access to Facebook for a pair of New York University researchers who they said collected unauthorised data from the platform. The move came hours after NYU professor Laura Edelson said she shared plans with the company to investigate the spread of disinformation on the platform around the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, which is now the subject of a House investigation.

“What we found, when we looked closely, is that their systems were probably dangerous for a lot of their users,” Edelson said.

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Privately, former and current Meta employees say exposing those dangers around the American elections have created public and political backlash for the company.

Republicans routinely accuse Facebook of unfairly censoring conservatives, some of whom have been kicked off for breaking the company’s rules. Democrats, meanwhile, regularly complain the tech company hasn’t gone far enough to curb disinformation.

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“It’s something that’s so politically fraught, they’re more trying to shy away from it than jump in head first.” said Harbath, the former Facebook policy director. “They just see it as a big old pile of headaches.”

Meanwhile, the possibility of regulation in the US no longer looms over the company, with lawmakers failing to reach any consensus over what oversight the multibillion-dollar company should be subjected to.

Free from that threat, Meta’s leaders have devoted the company’s time, money and resources to a new project in recent months.

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Zuckerberg dived into this massive rebranding and reorganisation of Facebook last October, when he changed the company’s name to Meta Platforms. He plans to spend years and billions of dollars evolving his social media platforms into a nascent virtual reality construct called the “metaverse” — sort of like the internet brought to life, rendered in 3D.

His public Facebook page posts now focus on product announcements, hailing artificial intelligence, and photos of him enjoying life. News about election preparedness is announced in company blog posts not written by him.

In one of Zuckerberg’s posts last October, after an ex-Facebook employee leaked internal documents showing how the platform magnifies hate and misinformation, he defended the company. He also reminded his followers that he had pushed Congress to modernise regulations around elections for the digital age.

“I know it’s frustrating to see the good work we do get mischaracterised, especially for those of you who are making important contributions across safety, integrity, research and product,” he wrote on October 5. “But I believe that over the long term if we keep trying to do what’s right and delivering experiences that improve people’s lives, it will be better for our community and our business.”

It was the last time he discussed the Menlo Park, California-based company’s election work in a public Facebook post.

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Biden Administration Tells US Supreme Court Section 230 of Communications Decency Act Has Limits

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The Biden administration argued to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday that social media giants like Google could in some instances have responsibility for user content, adopting a stance that could potentially undermine a federal law shielding companies from liability.

Lawyers for the US Department of Justice made their argument in the high-profile lawsuit filed by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23-year-old American citizen killed in 2015 when Islamist militants opened fire on the Paris bistro where she was eating.

The family argued that Google was in part liable for Gonzalez’ death because YouTube, which is owned by the tech giant, essentially recommended videos by the Islamic State group to some users through its algorithms. Google and YouTube are part of Alphabet (GOOGL.O).

The case reached the Supreme Court after the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Google, saying they were protected from such claims because of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Section 230 holds that social media companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by other users.

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The law has been sharply criticised across the political spectrum. Democrats claim it gives social media companies a pass for spreading hate speech and misinformation.

Republicans say it allows censorship of voices on the right and other politically unpopular opinions, pointing to decisions by Facebook and Twitter to ban dissemination of a New York Post article about the son of then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s adult son, Hunter, in October 2020.

The Biden administration, in its filing to the Supreme Court, did not argue that Google should be held liable in the Gonzalez case and voiced strong support for most of Section 230’s protections of social media companies.

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But the DOJ lawyers said that algorithms used by YouTube and other providers should be subject to a different kind of scrutiny. They called for the Supreme Court to return the case to the 9th Circuit for further review.

Attorneys for Google could not be reached for comment on Wednesday night.

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© Thomson Reuters 2022


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WhatsApp Avatar Feature Rolling Out to Users With Support for 36 Customisable Stickers

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WhatsApp has begun rolling out Avatars, a feature that allows users to make a digital representation of themselves. The Meta-owned instant messaging service previously rolled out the Bitmoji-like feature to beta testers on Android and iOS. The feature which is now making its way to all users as part of a full-scale rollout, will allow users to curate their digital representation or personal avatar from a combination of hairstyles, facial features, and outfits, according to the company. WhatsApp will also provide 36 custom stickers that reflect different emotions and actions.

The instant messaging platform announced the new Avatars feature via a blog post on Wednesday. A user can set an Avatar as their WhatsApp profile photo, or use them as stickers. Meta says that these stickers will be available in 36 versions of popular emojis and actions, adding that avatars could provide users “a fast and fun way to share feelings with friends and family.”

Personalised avatars were first made popular on social media by Snapchat which now owns Bitmoji which was initially created by Bitstrips. Instagram, which is also owned by Meta, previously added support for Avatars, just like Facebook and Facebook Messenger.

WhatsApp’s support for Bitmoji-like 3D avatars appears to be the same set of models that are available on other Meta-owned apps. Facebook was the first amongst the Meta family to be introduced to Avatars through Messenger and the News Feed in 2019. A year later in 2020, the company added support for adding these digital avatars on Facebook comments and stories.

The company intends to serve Avatars as a mode for fun and creative expression as well as a privacy feature. Avatar can be a “great way to represent yourself without using your real photo so it feels more private,” added the company blog post.

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Users may access the Avatars feature by updating their WhatsApp to the latest version and navigating to Settings > Avatar > Create Your Avatar.

WhatsApp is also promising to bring future enhancements in the form of lighting, shading, hairstyle textures, and more that will improve the experience.

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The feature was previously tested with a few beta testers on WhatsApp beta version 2.22.23.9 for Android, about a month before it was eventually rolled out to all users.


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Twitter Blue Pricing to Be Lowered for Web Users to $7, App Store Subscribers to Pay $11: Report

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Twitter plans to change the pricing of its Twitter Blue subscription product to $7 (roughly Rs. 600) from $7.99 (roughly Rs. 700) if users pay for it through the website, and $11 (roughly Rs. 900) if they do so through its iPhone app, the Information reported on Wednesday, citing a person briefed on the plans.

The move was likely a pushback against the 30 percent cut that Apple takes on revenues from apps on its operating system, the report said, with lower pricing for the website likely to drive more users to that platform as opposed to signing up on their iPhones.

It did not mention whether pricing would change for the Android platform as well.

Last week, Musk accused Apple of threatening to block Twitter from its App Store without saying why in a series of tweets that also said it had stopped advertising on the social media platform.

In the first quarter of 2022, Apple was the top advertiser on Twitter, spending $48 million (roughly Rs. 390 crore) and accounting for more than 4 percent of total revenue for the period, the Washington Post reported, citing an internal Twitter document.

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Among the list of grievances tweeted by Musk was the up to 30 percent fee Apple charges software developers for in-app purchases.

He also posted a meme suggesting he was willing to “go to war” with Apple rather than paying the commission.

The fee has drawn criticism and lawsuits from companies such as Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, while attracting the scrutiny of regulators globally.

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The commission could weigh on Musk’s attempts to boost subscription revenue at Twitter, in part to make up for the exodus of advertisers over content moderation concerns.

Musk later met Apple chief executive Tim Cook at the company’s headquarters and later tweeted that the misunderstanding about Twitter being removed from Apple’s App Store was resolved.

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Twitter and Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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