Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There are a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward as its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011, Facebook said that 95% of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past eight years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same three people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends, as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots (above) of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking creepier sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals, as those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept,” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, live streaming and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends,” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

Define and manage growth on your own terms

Welcome to this edition of The Operators, a recurring Extra Crunch column, podcast, and YouTube show that brings you insights and information from inside top tech companies. Our guests are execs with operational experience at fast-rising startups, like Brex, Calm, DocSend, and Zeus Living, and more established companies, like AirBnB, Facebook, Google, and Uber. Here, they share strategies and tactics for building your first company and charting your career in tech.

In this episode, we’re talking about growth. Growth means different things inside different organizations, but correctly identifying avenues for sustainable and scalable growth is a priority for almost all companies. We’ll cover:

  1. Defining growth and being good at it
  2. Managing growth without losing sight of the big picture
  3. How companies should approach growth

To learn more, we spoke with two experts:

Isaac Silverman began his career as an entrepreneur before joining Zynga to work on growth development. At Zynga, he focused on some of the most cutting-edge approaches to growth and development. He then moved to Postmates, where he focused on growth product and is now the head of rider growth at Uber.

Matias Honorato is a senior manager on the growth team at Tally, a growth-stage tech company, and also brings his own entrepreneurial roots and experience at companies like Earnest and Tradecraft.

Below is a summary of our conversation; check out The Operators for the full episode.

Defining growth and being good at it

Growth as a concept and discipline originates from the term “growth hacking.” It can be hard to grasp as distinct from functions and goals that usually sit with the marketing team or product development team and may be best thought of as a combination of both. We think of it as the domain responsible for designing, implementing, and measuring approaches to acquiring and retaining customers. It’s a mix of marketing and product, but also sales and data analytics, and sometimes even operations.

Great growth professionals can be successful with a wide variety of work or educational backgrounds, and are most often curious, persistent, and adept at thinking holistically, creatively, quantitatively, and interdisciplinarily.

“There’s definitely a lot of deep analysis and how all the pieces fit together and there’s a lot of product work, and there’s a lot of marketing work,” said Silverman. “I think part of what I find so deeply interesting and engaging about it is it brings together everything. It’s really the exercise we go through, and I don’t want to overstate our role, but the exercise we go through is, ‘let’s imagine that we’re the CEO and what are the things that we think are really important. Let’s see the whole picture and then figure out what are the areas that we should ultimately focus on within it.’ So that is ultimately deeply, deeply, stimulating and dynamic and changes on a day to day basis. And sometimes it’s more product manager-y, sometimes it’s more something else.”

Honorato said that to be a great growth professional, “you have to have a really good understanding of your business, what are your goals, how the product works, how their financial side of the business works.”

The responsibilities of growth teams range from simple tasks like split-testing marketing copy and landing pages to more complex strategies like enabling the integration of a file storage and management solution into workflow applications and then subsequently partnering with those workflow applications to acquire users and become a default solution. Being cross-functional in nature, growth initiatives often require resources and contributions from other teams like marketing, design, and engineering. This can create conflict due to resource constraints and company politics, regardless of how small or large a company is. These are meaningful challenges before even evaluating the effectiveness of growth initiatives! Great growth teams must know how to navigate these types of issues as well, making effective growth teams hard to build, but very valuable if you can build an effective one.

“I tend to believe teams exist on spectrum,” said Silverman. “You got that sort of optimizer or specific functionality or specific parts of the funnel or whatever growth themes and then in the spectrum you have, the entire purpose of the company after you’ve achieved product market fit is to grow. I tend to believe that a lot of companies think they need the former and actually need the latter… One thing that I want to make sure is absolutely clear, the growth at Uber is the product of a very high number of very, very competent people, very diligently thinking about their part of the business, and [growth is] a portion of that much, much larger equation.”

Managing growth without losing sight of the big picture

Facebook Dating now integrates with Instagram and Facebook Stories

Facebook Dating, an opt-in feature of the main Facebook app, will begin to tap into the content users are already creating across both Facebook and Instagram to enhance its service. Today, Facebook Dating users will be able to add their Facebook or Instagram Stories to Facebook Dating, in order to share their everyday moments with daters.

As opposed to more polished profile photos, Stories can give someone better insight into what a person is like by showcasing what activities they like to engage in, their hobbies, their interests, their personality, and their humor, among other things. And if the daters themselves appear in a Story, it lets others see what they really look like, even if their online photos are out-of-date.

The way the feature is being implemented on Facebook Dating puts the user in control of what’s being shared. That is, your Facebook or Instagram Stories are not automatically copied over to Facebook Dating by default. Instead, users can select which of their Stories are shared and which are not.

In addition, people daters have blocked or passed on Facebook Dating won’t be able to see them.

If a Story is inappropriate, you can also block the user and report it, like you can with other content elsewhere on Facebook.

One thing to be aware of is that this feature is a way to share a Story to Facebook Dating, but the Story isn’t exclusively designed for Facebook Dating. That means, if you decide to use the Story feature as some sort of video dating intro, your Facebook and Instagram friends could see this, as well.

When browsing Facebook Dating, you’ll be able to view other people’s Stories along with their profiles. And if you match with someone, you can continue to view their Stories and then even use that to spark a conversation, which takes place in the app. This is similar to how you can respond to someone’s Facebook or Instagram Story today, which then appears in Messenger or Instagram’s Messages section, respectively.

The new Stories feature could be a potential competitive advantage for Facebook Dating, because it allows users a new way to express themselves without requiring them to create new content just for the dating service itself. Even if a rival dating app like Tinder or Bumble introduced their own version of Stories, many wouldn’t think to launch a dating app to capture their everyday moments.

Stories integration is rolling out starting today to Facebook Dating.

Dating, as a Facebook feature, is currently available in 20 countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Suriname, Thailand, United States, Uruguay, and Vietnam. It will be in Europe by early 2020, Facebook says.

The company has not disclosed how many people are using Facebook Dating at this time.

Amnesty International latest to slam surveillance giants Facebook and Google as “incompatible” with human rights

Human rights charity Amnesty International is the latest to call for reform of surveillance capitalism — blasting the business models of “surveillance giants” Facebook and Google in a new report which warns the pair’s market dominating platforms are “enabling human rights harm at a population scale”.

“[D]despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost,” Amnesty warns. “The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.”

“This isn’t the internet people signed up for,” it adds.

What’s most striking about the report is the familiarly of the arguments. There is now a huge weight of consensus criticism around surveillance-based decision-making — from Apple’s own Tim Cook through scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff and Zeynep Tufekci to the United Nations — that’s itself been fed by a steady stream of reportage of the individual and societal harms flowing from platforms’ pervasive and consentless capturing and hijacking of people’s information for ad-based manipulation and profit.

This core power asymmetry is maintained and topped off by self-serving policy positions which at best fiddle around the edges of an inherently anti-humanitarian system. While platforms have become practiced in dark arts PR — offering, at best, a pantomime ear to the latest data-enabled outrage that’s making headlines, without ever actually changing the underlying system. That surveillance capitalism’s abusive modus operandi is now inspiring governments to follow suit — aping the approach by developing their own data-driven control systems to straitjacket citizens — is exceptionally chilling.

But while the arguments against digital surveillance are now very familiar what’s still sorely lacking is an effective regulatory response to force reform of what is at base a moral failure — and one that’s been allowed to scale so big it’s attacking the democratic underpinnings of Western society.

“Google and Facebook have established policies and processes to address their impacts on privacy and freedom of expression – but evidently, given that their surveillance-based business model undermines the very essence of the right to privacy and poses a serious risk to a range of other rights, the companies are not taking a holistic approach, nor are they questioning whether their current business models themselves can be compliant with their responsibility to respect human rights,” Amnesty writes.

“The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google’s surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals. Despite the companies’ assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations.”

Needless to say Facebook and Google do not agree with Amnesty’s assessment. But, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

Amnesty’s report notes there is now a whole surveillance industry feeding this beast — from adtech players to data brokers — while pointing out that the dominance of Facebook and Google, aka the adtech duopoly, over “the primary channels that most of the world relies on to engage with the internet” is itself another harm, as it lends the pair of surveillance giants “unparalleled power over people’s lives online”.

“The power of Google and Facebook over the core platforms of the internet poses unique risks for human rights,” it warns. “For most people it is simply not feasible to use the internet while avoiding all Google and Facebook services. The dominant internet platforms are no longer ‘optional’ in many societies, and using them is a necessary part of participating in modern life.”

Amnesty concludes that it is “now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end” — saying further state-based regulation will be necessary. Its call there is for legislators to follow a human rights-based approach to rein in surveillance giants.

You can read the report in full here (PDF).

Facebook announces dates for its 2020 F8 developers conference

Facebook announced its plans for its F8 annual developer conference, which is where the company shows off its latest technology, apps and its vision for the future. The company says the next event will take place on May 5-6, 2020 at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

Interested attendees can sign up at www.f8.com to be notified when registration opens and receive updates.

Last year, the company used the F8 event to introduce a huge redesign of Facebook.com, plus upgrades, products, and expansions in areas like Messenger, WhatsApp, Dating, Marketplace and beyond. It also showed off how it’s putting new technology to work, including with VR, smart home, hardware, and other developer-facing technology, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

Facebook isn’t yet talking about what it will show off at F8 in 2020, but says it will feature: “product demos, deep-dive sessions that showcase how technology can enable you to come together and create your best work, and opportunities for you to network with our global developer community and learn from each other,” according to its announcement.

Beyond the news that comes from F8 in terms of individual products, the conference gives Facebook a platform to present its overarching vision.

Last year, for example, it was one of a network that’s trying to become more private and working to retain users. More recently, Facebook’s initiatives show a company that’s still trying to be disruptive, with new products like Libra. But some of its launches also demonstrate that the company is painfully aware of how much it’s ceding traction to other social apps, like Snapchat and TikTok. We’ll see if Facebook has any new responses to those challenges, or to the larger, more existential issues Facebook now faces with the rise of anti-trust investigations that put Facebook in their crosshairs.

Facebook’s Libra code chugs along ignoring regulatory deadlock

“5 months and growing strong” the Libra Association announced today in an post about its technical infrastructure that completely omits the fierce regulatory backlash to its cryptocurrency.

40 wallets, tools, and block explorers plus 1,700 Github commits have how now been built on its blockchain testnet that’s seen 51,000 mock transactions in the past two months. Libra nodes that process transactions are now being run by Coinbase, Uber, BisonTrails, Iliad, Xapo, Anchorage, and Facebook’s Calibra. Six more nodes are being established, plus there are 8 more getting set up from members who lack technical teams, meaning all 21 members have nodes running or in the works.

But the update on the Libra backend doesn’t explain how the association plans to get all the way to its goal of 100 members and nodes by next year when it originally projected a launch. And it gives no nod to the fact that even if Libra is technically ready to deploy its mainnet in 2020, government regulators in the US and around the world still won’t necessarily let it launch.

Facebook itself seems to be hedging its bets on fintech in the face of pushback against Libra. This week it began the launch of Facebook Pay, which will let users pay friends, merchants, and charities with a single payment method across Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram.

Facebook Pay could help the company drive more purchases on its platform, get more insights into transactions, and lead merchants to spend more on ads to lure in sales facilitated by quicker payments. That’s most of what Facebook was trying to get out of Libra in the first place, beyond better financial inclusion.

Last month’s congressional testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was less contentious than Libra board member David Marcus’ appearances on Capitol Hill in July. Yet few of lawmakers’ core concerns about how Libra could facilitate money laundering, endanger users’ assets, and give Facebook even more power amidst ongoing anti-trust investigations were assuaged.

This set of announcements from the Libra Core summit of technical members was an opportunity for the project to show how it was focused on addressing fraud, security, and decentralization of power. Instead, the Libra Association took the easy route of focusing on what the Facebook-led development team knows best: writing code, not fixing policy. TechCrunch provided questions to the Libra Association and some members but the promised answers were not returned before press time.

For those organizations without a technical team to implement a node, the Libra Association is working on a strategy to support deployment in 2020, when the Libra Core feature set is complete” the Association’s Michael Engle writes. “The Libra Association intends to deploy 100 nodes on the mainnet, representing a mix of on-premises and cloud-hosted infrastructure.” It feels a bit like Libra is plugging its ears.

Having proper documentation, setting up CLAs to ease GitHub contributions, standardizing the Move code language, a Bug Bounty program, and a public technical roadmap are a good start. But until the Association can answers Congress’ questions directly, they’re likely to refuse Libra approval which Zuckerberg said the project won’t launch without.

This ride-hailing PR pitch shows platforms and digital campaign ‘dark arts’ want democracy to be pay to play

A UK PR firm pitching to run an account for Ola has proposed running a campaign to politicize ride-hailing as a tactic to shift regulations in its favor.

The approach suggests that, despite the appearance of ride-hailing platforms taking a more conciliatory position with regulators that are now wise to earlier startup tactics in this space, there remains a calculus involving realpolitik, propaganda and high-level lobbying between companies that want to enter or expand in markets, and those who hold the golden tickets to do so.

In 2017 Estonia-based ride-hailing startup Taxify tried to launch in London ahead of regulatory approval, for example, but city authorities clamped down straight away. It was only able to return to the UK capital 21 months later (now known as Bolt).

In Western markets ride-hailing companies are facing old and new regulatory roadblocks that are driving up costs and creating barriers to growth. In some instances unfavorable rule changes have even led companies to pull out of cities or regions all together. Even as there are ongoing questions around the employment classification of the drivers these platforms depend on to deliver a service.

The PR pitch, made by a Tufton Street-based PR firm called Public First, suggests Ola tackle legislative friction in UK regions with a policy influence campaign targeted at local voters.

The SoftBank-backed Indian ride-hailing startup launched in the U.K. in August, 2018 and currently offers services in a handful of regional locations including South Wales, Merseyside and the West Midlands. Most recently it gained a licence to operate in London, and last month launched services in Coventry and Warwick — saying then that passengers in the UK had clocked up more than one million trips since its launch.

Manchester is also on its target list — and features as a focus in the strategy proposal — though an Ola spokesman told us it has no launch date for the city yet. The company met with Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, during a trade mission to India last month.

The Public First proposal suggests a range of strategies for Ola to get local authorities and local politicians on-side, and thus avoid problems in potential and future operations, including the use of engagement campaigns and digital targeting to mobilize select coalitions around politicized, self-serving talking points — such as claims that public transport is less safe and convenient; or that air quality improves if fewer people drive into the city — in order to generate pressure on regulators to change licensing rules.

Another suggestion is to position the company less as a business, and more as an organization representing tens of thousands of time-poor people.

Public First advocates generally for the use of data- and technology-driven campaign methods, such as microtargeted digital advertising, as more effective than direct lobbying of local government officials — suggesting using digital tools to generate a perception that an issue is politicized will encourage elected representatives to do the heavy lifting of pressuring regulators because they’ll be concerned about losing votes.

The firm describes digital campaign elements as “crucial” to this strategy.

“Through a small, targeted online digital advertising campaign in both cities, local councillors’ email inboxes would begin to fill with requests from a number of different people (students, businesses, and other members of [a commuter advocacy group it proposes setting up to act as a lobby vehicle]) for the local authority to change its approach on local taxi licensing — in effect, to make it easier for Ola to launch,” it offers as a proposed strategy for building momentum behind Ola in Manchester and Liverpool.

Public First confirmed it made the pitch to Ola but told us: “This was merely a routine, speculative proposal of the sort we generate all the time as we meet people.”

“Ola Cabs has no relationship whatsoever with Public First,” it added.

A spokesperson for Ola also confirmed that it does not have a business relationship with Public First. “Ola has never had a relationship with Public First, does not currently have one and nor will it in the future,” the spokesman told us.

“Ola’s approach in the UK has been defined by working closely and collaborating with local authorities and we are committed to being fully licensed in every area we operate,” he added, suggesting the strategy it’s applying is the opposite of what’s being proposed.

We understand that prior to Public First pitching their ideas to a person working in Ola’s comms division, Ola’s director of legal, compliance and regulation, Andrew Winterton, met with the firm over coffee — in an introductory capacity. But that no such tactics were discussed.

It appears that, following first contact, Public First took the initiative to draw up the strategy suggesting politicizing ride-hailing in key target regions which it emailed to Winterton but only presented to a more junior Ola employee in a follow-up meeting the legal director did not attend.

Ola has built a major ride-hailing business in its home market of India — by way of $3.8BN in funding and aggressive competition. Since 2018 it has been taking international steps to fuel additional growth. In the U.K. its approach to date has been fairly low key, going to cities and regional centers outside of high-profile London first, as well as aiming to serve areas with big Indian populations to help recruit riders and drivers.

It’s a strategy that’s likely been informed by being able to view the track record of existing ride-hailing players — and avoid Uber-style regulatory blunders.

The tech giant was dealt a major shock by London’s transport regulator in 2017, when TfL denied it a licence renewal — citing concerns over Uber’s approach to passenger safety and corporate governance, including querying its explanation for using proprietary software that could be used to evade regulatory oversight.

The Uber story looks to be the high water mark for blitzscaling startup tactics that relied on ignoring or brute forcing regulators in the ride-hailing category. Laws and local authorities have largely caught up. The name of the game now is finding ways to get regulators on side.

Propaganda as a service

The fact that strategic proposals such as Public First’s to Ola are considered routine enough to put into a speculative pitch is interesting, given how the lack of transparency around the use of online tools for spreading propaganda is an issue that’s now troubling elected representatives in parliaments all over the world. Tools such as those offered by Facebook’s ad platform.

In Facebook’s case the company provides only limited visibility into who is running political and issue-based ads on its platform. The targeting criteria being used to reach individuals is also not comprehensively disclosed.

Some of the company’s own employees recently went public with concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral-tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech”, as they put it.

At the same time, platforms providing a conduit for corporate interests to cheaply and easily manufacture ‘politicized’ speech looks to be another under-scrutinized risk for democratic societies.

Among the services Public First lists on its website are “policy development”, “qualitative and quantitative opinion research”, “issues-based campaigns”, “coalition-building” and “war gaming”. (Here, for example, is a piece of work the firm carried out for Google — where its analysis-for-hire results in a puffy claim that the tech giant’s digital services are worth at least $70BN in annual “economic value” for the UK.)

Public First’s choice of office location, in Tufton Street, London, is also notable as the area is home to an interlinked hub of right-leaning think tanks, such as the free market Center for Policy Studies and pro-Brexit Initiative for Free Trade. These are lobby vehicles dressed up as policy wonks which put out narratives intended to influence public opinion and legislation in a particular direction without it being clear who their financial backers are.

Some of the publicity strategies involved in this kind of work appear to share similarities with tactics used by Big Tobacco to lobby against anti-smoking legislation, or fossil fuel interests’ funding of disinformation and astroturfing operations to create a perception of doubt around consensus climate science.

“A lot of what used to get sold in this space essentially was access [to policymakers],” says one former public relations professional, speaking on background. “What you’re seeing an increasingly amount of now is the ‘technification’ of that process. Everyone’s using those kinds of tools — clearly in terms of trying to understand public sentiment better and that kind of thing… But essentially what they’re saying is we can set up a set of politicized issues so that they can benefit you. And that’s an interesting change. It’s not just straight defence and attack; promote your brand vs another. It’s ‘okay, we’re going to change the politics around an issue… in order to benefit your outcome’. And that’s fairly sophisticated and interesting.”

Mat Hope, editor of investigative journalism outlet DeSmog — which reports on climate-related misinformation campaigns — has done a lot of work focused on Tufton Street specifically, looking at the impact the network’s ‘policy-costumed’ corporate talking points have had on UK democracy.

“There is a set of organisations based out of offices in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster, just around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, which in recent years have had an outsized impact on British democracy. Many of the groups were at the forefront of the Leave campaign, and are now pushing for a hard or no-deal Brexit,” he told us, noting that Public First not only has offices nearby but that its founders and employees “have strong ties to other organisations based there”.

“The groups regularly lobby politicians in the interests of specific companies or big industry through the guise of grassroots or for-the-people campaigns,” he added. “One way they do this is through targeting adverts or social media posts, using groups with benign sounding names. This makes it hard to trace the campaign back to any particular company, and gives the issue an impression of grassroots support that is, on the whole, artificial.”

Platform power without responsibility

Ad platforms such as Facebook which profit by profiling people offer cheap yet powerful tools for corporate interests to identify and target highly specific sub-sets of voters. This is possible thanks to the vast amounts of personal data they collect — an activity that’s finally coming under significant regulatory scrutiny — and custom ad tools such as lookalike audiences, all of which enables behavioral microtargeting at the individual user/voter level.

Lookalike audiences is a powerful ad product that allows Facebook advertisers to upload customer data yet also leverage the company’s pervasive people-profiling to access new audiences that they do not hold data on but who have similar characteristics to their target. These so-called lookalike audiences can be tightly geotargeted, as well as zeroed in on granular interests and demographics. It’s not hard to see how such tools can be applied to selectively hit up only the voters most likely to align with a business’ interests.

The upshot is that an online advertiser is able to pay little to tap into the population-scale reach and vast data wealth of platform giants — turning firehose power against individual voters who they deem — via focus group work or other voter data analysis — to be aligned with a corporate agenda. The platform becomes a propaganda machine for manufacturing the appearance of broad public engagement and grassroots advocacy for a self-interested policy change.

The target voter, meanwhile, is most likely none the wiser about why they’re seeing politicized messaging. It’s that lack of transparency that makes the activity inherently anti-democratic.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee raised Facebook’s lookalike audiences as a risk to democracy during a recent enquiry into online disinformation and digital campaigning. It went on to recommend an outright ban on political microtargeting to lookalike audiences online. Though the UK government has so far failed to act on that or its fuller suite of recommendations. (Nor has Facebook responded to increasingly loud calls from politicians and civic society to ban political and issue ads altogether.)

Even a code of conduct published by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) emphasizes transparency — with member organizations committing to “be open and transparent in declaring their name, organisation and the interest they represent”. (Albeit, the IPRA’s member list is not itself public.)

While online targeting of social media users remains a major problem for democracies, on account of the lack of transparency and individual consent to targeting (or, indeed, to data-based profiling), in recent years we’ve also seen more direct efforts by companies to use their own technology tools to generate voter pressure.

Examples such as ride-hailing giant Uber which, under its founding CEO, Travis Kalanick, became well known for a ‘push button’ approach to mobilizing its user base by sending calls to action to lobby against unfavorable regulatory changes.

Airbnb has also sought to use its platform-reach to beat against local authority rule changes that threaten its ‘home sharing’ business model.

However it’s the opaque tech-fuelled targeting enabled by ad platforms like Facebook that’s far more problematic for democracies as it allows vested interests to generate self-interested pressure remotely — including from abroad — while remaining entirely shielded from view.

Fixing this will require regulatory muscle to enforce existing laws around personal data collection (at least where such laws exist) — and doing so in a way that prevents microtargeting from being the cheap advertising default. Democracies should not allow their citizens to be mirrored in the data because it sets them up to be hollowed out; their individuals aggregated, classified and repackaged as all-you-can-eat attention units for whoever is paying.

And likely also legislation to set firm boundaries around the use of political and campaigning/issue ads online. Turning platform power against the individual is inherently asymmetrical. It’s never going to be a fair fight. So fair ground rules for digital political campaigning — and a proper oversight regime to enforce them — are absolutely essential.

Another democratic tonic is transparency. Which means raising awareness about tech-fuelled tactics that are designed to generate and exploit data-based asymmetries in order to hack and manipulate public opinion. Such skewed stuff only really works when the target is oblivious to what’s afoot. In that respect, every little disclosure of these ‘dark arts’ and the platforms that enable them provides a much-needed counter boost for critical thinking and democracy.

Facebook quietly built “Popular Photos”, an in-app Instagram

Facebook is copying Instagram while simultaneously invading its acquisition with branding and links back to the mothership. TechCrunch has spotted Facebook testing a feature called Popular Photos, which affixes an endless scroll of algorithmically selected pics from friends beneath the full-screen view of a photo opened from the News Feed. The result is an experience that feels like the Instagram feed, but inside of Facebook.

Popular Photos could offer users a more relaxing, lean-back browsing experience that omits links you have to click through, status updates you have to read, and other content types that bog down the News Feed. Instead, users can just passively watch the pretty pictures go by.

Facebook’s text and link-heavy feed looks increasingly stodgy and exhausting compared to visual communication-based social networks like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Users have to do the work of digging into the meaning of News Feed each post rather than being instantly entertained. That experience doesn’t fit as well into short browsing sessions throughout the day, or when users are already drained from work, school, or family. Facebook used to have a dedicated Photos bookmark on desktop that would let you just browse that content type, but at some point it disappeared.

A Facebook spokesperson confirms that Facebook was running a small test of Popular Photos in October when we spotted it. That trial has concluded but the team is now iterating on the product and plans to do updated tests in the future. The company refused to disclose more details or its motives for Popular Photos. Given Facebook already has Stories, messaging, profiles, and its IGTV-esque Watch video hub, it’s only the Explore tab and a dedicated media feed that are missing from it being a full clone of Instagram.

Here’s how Popular Photos works. When users discover a photo in the News Feed or a profile, they can tap on it to see it full-screen on a black theater-view background. Typically, if users swipe or scroll on that photo, they’re just booted back out to where they came from. But with the Popular Photos feature, Facebook splays out more images for users to scroll through after the original.

By scrolling down past the Popular Photos title, they’ll see additional pics and a “See More Photos” label beckoning them to keep whipping through more public and friends-only images shared by friends and who they follow. Like on Instagram but unlike the News Feed, Facebook truncates the captions of Popular Photos after only around 65 characters so the stream doesn’t look overwhelmingly wordy. The black backgrounds give a more cinematic feel to the Popular Photos, putting emphasis on the imagery.

Facebook started showing Related Videos in 2014 when users scrolled past a video they’d opened full-screen. Now this “More Videos” feature will auto-play the next video and automatically bump users down the feed to view it. The feature even shows video ads. That could foreshadow Facebook inserting advertisers’ photos into the Popular Photos tab to monetize the extra browsing.

Facebook hasn’t been shy about trying to leverage Instagram to benefit itself. The company has placed an Open Facebook button in the Instagram navigation sidebar.

Previously, Instagram tried showing Facebook alerts in its own Notifications tab, and an annoying red counter for Facebook notifications on the three-line hamburger button that opens the Instagram sidebar in an attempt to drive referral traffic back to the Facebook app. Facebook has also tried notifying users in its app asking them to Like the Facebook Pages of people they follow on Instagram. And now, a “from Facebook” and new FACEBOOK logo can be found appended to the Instagram loading screen.

For Facebook to keep growing after 15 years in the market, it needs to fully embrace visual communication. It’s already copied Snapchat Stories and implemented the ephemeral photo and video format across its apps. Clearly it’s not above copying its own subsidiary Instagram to offer an alternative take on feed scrolling. I wonder how Instagram’s team feels about its parent company building a direct competitor?

The ONNX format becomes the newest Linux Foundation project

The Linux Foundation today announced that ONNX, the open format that makes machine learning models more portable, is now a graduate-level project inside of the organization’s AI Foundation. ONNX was originally developed and open-sourced by Microsoft and Facebook in 2017 and has since become somewhat of a standard, with companies ranging from AWS to AMD, ARM, Baudi, HPE, IBM, Nvidia and Qualcomm supporting it. In total, over 30 companies now contribute to the ONNX code base.

It’s worth noting that only the ONNX format is included here, not the ONNX runtime, which Microsoft open-sourced a year ago. The runtime is an inference engine for models in the ONNX format and I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point, Microsoft put that under the guidance of a foundation, too, but for now, that’s not the case.

“ONNX is not just a spec that companies endorse, it’s already being actively implemented in their products,” said Dr. Ibrahim Haddad, Executive Director of the LF AI Foundation, in today’s announcement. “This is because ONNX is an open format and is committed to developing and supporting a wide choice of frameworks and platforms. Joining the LF AI shows a determination to continue on this path, and will help accelerate technical development and connections with the wider open source AI community around the world.”

In its own announcement, Microsoft stressed that it remains committed to ONNX and highlights the work it did on making it easier to generate ONNX models from popular frameworks like PyTorch, TensorFlow, Keras and SciKit-Learn. “We are proud of the progress that ONNX has made and want to recognize the entire ONNX community for their contributions, ideas, and overall enthusiasm,” wrote Eric Boyd, the Corporate VP at Microsoft in charge of Azure AI (not Microsoft AI). “We are excited about the future of ONNX and all that is to come.”

Daily Crunch: John Carmack steps down at Oculus

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. John Carmack steps down at Oculus to pursue AI passion project ‘before I get too old’

Legendary coder John Carmack is leaving Facebook’s Oculus after six years to focus on a personal project — no less than the creation of Artificial General Intelligence, or “Strong AI.” He’ll remain attached to the company in a “Consulting CTO” position, but will be spending all his time working on, perhaps, the AI that finally surpasses humanity.

This follows the departure of Oculus’ founders and early executives. His plan is to pursue his research from home, “Victorian Gentleman Scientist” style, and make his kid help.

2. Fourteen years after launching, 1Password takes a $200M Series A

1Password has been around for 14 years, and the founders grew the company the old-fashioned way — without a dime of venture capital. But when they decided to take venture help, they went all in.

3. Instagram tests hiding Like counts globally

Instagram tells TechCrunch the hidden Likes test is expanding to a subset of users globally. The change could make those users more comfortable sharing what’s important to them without the embarrassment of receiving a tiny number of likes.

4. Disney+ to launch in India, Southeast Asian markets next year

Disney plans to bring its on-demand video streaming service to India and some Southeast Asian markets as soon as the second half of next year, sources told TechCrunch. In India, the company plans to bring Disney+’s catalog to Hotstar, a popular video streaming service it owns.

5. Apple Research app arrives on iPhone and Apple Watch with three opt-in health studies

In September, Apple announced its plans for a research app that would allow U.S. consumers to participate in health studies from their Apple devices. Users can currently opt to participate in three health studies, including a women’s health study, a hearing study and a heart and movement study.

6. Eigen nabs $37M to help banks and others parse huge documents using natural language and ‘small data’

Eigen is working primarily in the financial sector, but the plan is to use the funding to continue expanding to cover other verticals, such as insurance and healthcare — two other big areas that deal in large, wordy documentation that is often inconsistent in how it’s presented, full of essential fine print, and typically a strain on an organization’s resources to handle correctly.

7. Micromobility’s next big opportunities

Despite the over-saturation of the market, there are still opportunities for new players. Currently, there are two key areas that have yet to see a lot of action and are therefore ripe for disruption. (Extra Crunch membership required.)