This game uses troll tactics to teach critical thinking

The best medicine against online disinformation is an informed society that’s thinking critically. The problem is there are no shortcuts to universal education.

Enter Finnish Public Broadcasting Company, Yle, which is hoping to harness the engagement power of gamification to accelerate awareness and understanding of troll tactics and help more people spot malicious Internet fakes. It’s put together an online game, called Troll Factory, that lets you play at being, well, a hateful troll. Literally.

The game begins with a trigger warning that it uses “authentic social media content” that viewers may find disturbing. If you continue to play you’ll see examples of Islamophobic slogans and memes that have actually been spread on social media. So the trigger warning is definitely merited.

The game itself takes the form of a messaging app style conversation on a virtual smartphone in which you are tasked by the troll factory boss to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. You do this by making choices about which messages to post online and the methods used to amplify distribution.

Online disinformation tactics intended to polarize public discourse which are depicted in the game include the seeding of conspiracy theory memes on social media; the exploitation of real news events to spread fake claims; microtargeting of hateful content at different demographics and platforms; and the use of paid bots to amplify propaganda so that hateful views appear more widely held than they really are.

After completing an inaugural week’s work in the troll factory the game displays a rating and shows how many shares and follows your dis-ops garnered. This is followed by contextual information on the influencing methods demonstrated — putting the activity you’ve just participated in into wider context.

Yle, which is a not-for-profit public service broadcaster with a remit to educate and inform, released a Finnish version of the troll factory game back in May but decided to follow up with this international version (in English) after the game got such a strong local reception, including being picked up by people in natsec and education to use as an educational resource, according to Jarno Koponen, head of AI & personalization, at Yle Uutiset News Lab.

“The initial response in Finland was so encouraging: Something like this is needed,” he told us. “Something that makes information operations tangible and visible. We believe that it’s our duty as a public broadcasting company to promote methods, in Finland and abroad, that help citizen’s to better understand our everyday digital environments from their own standing point.

“We want simultaneously to collect more feedback on what’s working in the game-like storytelling, in order to use those findings to develop better products in the future, and to share those finding with for example with other public broadcasting companies in the world.”

Koponen said the team also wanted to test a specific hypotheses about the power of games to debunk junk — after a recent Cambridge University study showed gamified methods work in fighting fake news.

“Based on our data, news articles or more traditional social media analysis doesn’t reach and thus have effect on people en masse,” he said, when asked why Yle chose a game wrapper for its anti-disinformation message, rather than a more traditional educational format such as a documentary film.

“Social media is in your pocket and goes wherever you go. The means to educate you about social media need to be in your pocket too. Especially young people are a hard audience to reach. Thus we need to actively develop new storytelling methods to provide for them nonpartisan information and insight about the world around us. We experimented with different forms from data visualisations to interactive simulations and found game-like experience being the most effectual and engaging.”

“We’ve so far collected direct feedback from our users in social media (from Twitter to Reddit) and on our website,” he added. “Some of the descriptive comments were: ‘This is horrible, but thanks for making us aware of this’ or ‘Scary but illuminating’. It was picked up in social media especially by people and organisations working with younger people from teachers to public libraries, as well as information security and national security professionals.”

Asked whether he thinks social media platforms should be doing more to clear bots and inauthentic content off their platforms, Koponen called for increased transparency from platforms but added that media literacy remains key to influencing how tech giants behave too.

We believe that more transparency is needed on behalf of the social media platforms. However, the more aware the citizen is, the better equipped she’s to decide on her own behalf what works and what doesn’t. We believe that promoting media literacy is key in having meaningful impact on the practices and policies of social media platforms.”

Tech startups want to destigmatize sex

Sex, despite being one of the most fundamental human experiences, is still one of those businesses that some advertisers reject, banks are hesitant to financially support and some investors don’t want to fund.

Given how sex is such a huge part of our lives, it’s no surprise founders are looking to capitalize on the space. But the idea of pleasure versus function, plus the stigma still associated with all-things sex, is at the root of the barriers some startup founders face.

Just last month, Samsung was forced to apologize to sextech startup Lioness after it wrongfully asked the company to take down its booth at an event it was co-hosting. Lioness is a smart vibrator that aims to improve orgasms through biofeedback data.

Sextech companies that relate to the ability to reproduce or, the ability to not reproduce, don’t always face the same problems when it comes to everything from social acceptance to advertising to raising venture funding. It seems to come down to the distinction between pleasure and function, stigma and the patriarchy. 

This is where the trajectories for sextech startups can diverge. Some startups have raised hundreds of millions from traditional investors in Silicon Valley while others have struggled to raise any funding at all. As one startup founder tells me, “Sand Hill Road was a big no.”

A market worth billions or trillions?

Reps from DHS, the FBI and the ODNI met with tech companies at Facebook to talk election security

Representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security met with counterparts at tech companies including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter to discuss election security, Facebook confirmed.

The purpose was to build on previous discussions and further strengthen strategic collaboration regarding the security of the 2020 U.S. state, federal, and presidential elections,” according to a statement from Facebook head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher.

First reported by Bloomberg, the meeting between America’s largest technology companies and the trio of government security agencies responsible for election security is a sign of how seriously the government and the country’s largest technology companies are treating the threat of foreign intervention into elections.

Earlier this year the Office of the Inspector General issued a report saying that the Department of Homeland Security has not done enough to safeguard elections in the United States.

Throughout the year, reports of persistent media manipulation and the dissemination of propaganda on social media platforms have cropped up not just in the United States but around the world.

In April, Facebook removed a number of accounts ahead of the Spanish election for their role in spreading misinformation about the campaign.

Companies have responded to the threat by updating different mechanisms for users to call out fake accounts and improving in-house technologies used to combat the spread of misinformation.

Twitter, for instance, launched a reporting tool whereby users can flag misleading tweets.

“Improving election security and countering information operations are complex challenges that no organization can solve alone,” said Gleicher in a statement. “Today’s meeting builds on our continuing commitment to work with industry and government partners, as well as with civil society and security experts, to better understand emerging threats and prepare for future elections.”

Someone hacked Jack Dorsey’s own Twitter account

A hacker has broken into Jack Dorsey’s own Twitter account.

It’s not clear how it happened, but the hacker posted over a dozen tweets in quick succession, including racial epithets. Not only that, it means the unnamed hacker also has access to the Twitter chief executive’s private direct messages.

Dorsey has over 4.21 million followers.

Twitter allows users to secure their accounts with two-factor authentication. Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg once had his Twitter account hacked because his account didn’t use the secondary security feature. He also had a ridiculously easy-to-guess password.

We’ve reached out to Twitter for more but did not immediately hear back.

Google says China used YouTube to meddle in Hong Kong protests

Google has disabled 210 YouTube accounts after it said China used the video platform to sow discord among protesters in Hong Kong.

The search giant, which owns YouTube, followed in the footsteps of Twitter and Facebook, which earlier this week said China had used their social media sites to spread misinformation and discord among the protesters, who have spent weeks taking to the streets to demand China stops interfering with the semi-autonomous region’s affairs.

Earlier this week Twitter said China was using its service to “sow discord” through fake accounts as part of a “a coordinated state-backed operation.”

In a brief blog post, Google’s Shane Huntley said the company took action after it detected activity which “behaved in a coordinated manner while uploading videos related to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.”

“This discovery was consistent with recent observations and actions related to China announced by Facebook and Twitter,” said Huntley.

In line with Twitter and Facebook’s findings, Google said it detected the use of virtual private networks — or VPNs — which can be used to tunnel through China’s censorship system, known as the Great Firewall. Facebook, Twitter and Google are all banned in China. But Google said little more about the accounts, what they shared, or whether it would disclose its findings to researchers.

When reached, a Google spokesperson only referred back to the blog post and did not comment further.

Over a million protesters took to the streets this weekend to peacefully demonstrate against the Chinese regime, which took over rule from the United Kingdom in 1997. Protests erupted earlier this year after a bid by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to push through a highly controversial bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. The bill was suspended, effectively killing it from reaching the law books, but protests have continued, pushing back at claims that China is trying to meddle in Hong Kong’s affairs.

Twitter blocks state-controlled media outlets from advertising on its social network

Twitter is now blocking state-run media outlets from advertising on its platform.

The new policy was announced just hours after the company identified an information operation involving hundreds of accounts linked to China as part of an effort to “sow political discord” around events in Hong Kong after weeks of protests in the region. Over the weekend over 1 million Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest what they see as an encroachment by the mainland Chinese government over their rights.

State-funded media enterprises that do not rely on taxpayer dollars for their financing and don’t operate independently of the governments that finance them will no longer be allowed to advertise on the platform, Twitter said in a statement. That leaves a big exception for outlets like the Associated Press, the British Broadcasting Corp., Public Broadcasting Service, and National Public Radio, according to reporting from BBC reporter, Dave Lee.

 

The affected accounts will be able to use Twitter, but can’t access the company’s advertising products, Twitter said in a statement.

“We believe that there is a difference between engaging in conversation with accounts you choose to follow and the content you see from advertisers in your Twitter experience which may be from accounts you’re not currently following. We have policies for both but we have higher standards for our advertisers,” Twitter said in its statement.

The policy applies to news media outlets that are financially or editorially controlled by the state, Twitter said. The company said it will make its policy determinations on the basis of media freedom and independence including editorial control over articles and video, the financial ownership of the publication, the influence or interference governments may exert over editors, broadcasters and journalists, and political pressure or control over the production and distribution process.

Twitter said the advertising rules wouldn’t apply to entities that are focused on entertainment, sports, or travel, but if there’s news in the mix, the company will block advertising access.

Affected outlets have 30 days before they’re removed from Twitter and the company is halting all existing campaigns.

State media has long been a source of disinformation and was cited as part of the Russian campaign to influence the 2016 election. Indeed, Twitter has booted state-financed news organizations before. In October 2017, the company banned Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising on its platform (although a representative from RT claimed that Twitter encouraged it to advertise ahead of the election).

 

Twitter is blocked in China, but its state news agency is buying promoted tweets to portray Hong Kong protestors as violent

Twitter is being criticized for running promoted tweets by China’s largest state news agency that paint pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong as violent, even though the rallies, including one that drew an estimated 1.7 million people this weekend, have been described as mostly peaceful by international media.

Promoted tweets from China Xinhua News, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, were spotted and shared by the Twitter account of Pinboard, the bookmarking service founded by Maciej Ceglowski, and other users.

The demonstrations began in March to protest a now-suspended extradition bill, but have grown to encompass other demands including the release of imprisoned protestors, inquiries into police conduct, the resignation of current Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and a more democratic process for electing Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive.

While China Xinhua News has repeatedly described demonstrators as violent, international observers have criticized the Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force against peaceful protestors, including incidents documented in footage verified by Amnesty International.

The irony of China Xinhua News’ tweets is that they let the Chinese Communist Party disseminate its version of events to a worldwide audience even though Twitter is officially banned in China (along with other U.S. social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat).

The Chinese government has also recently begun to keep a closer eye on citizens who use VPNs to access blocked services. For example, the Washington Post reported in January that even though there are only an estimated 10 million Chinese citizens on Twitter, its role as a platform for critics of the Chinese government means users are under increased scrutiny.

In June, Twitter was accused of censoring critics of the Chinese government after numerous Chinese-language user accounts were removed days before the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The company said that the accounts had been removed by error and, despite speculation, “were not mass reported by the Chinese authorities.”

It is unknown how much China Xinhua News has spent on promoted tweets or where they are being targeted. Twitter has been contacted for comment.

Twitter to test a new filter for spam and abuse in the Direct Message inbox

Twitter is testing a new way to filter unwanted messages from your Direct Message inbox. Today, Twitter allows users to set their Direct Message inbox as being open to receiving messages from anyone, but this can invite a lot of unwanted messages, including abuse. While one solution is to adjust your settings so only those you follow can send you private messages, that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people — like reporters, for example — want to have an open inbox in order to have private conversations and receive tips.

This new experiment will test a filter that will move unwanted messages, including those with offensive content or spam, to a separate tab.

Instead of lumping all your messages into a single view, the Message Requests section will include the messages from people you don’t follow, and below that, you’ll find a way to access these newly filtered messages.

Users would have to click on the “Show” button to even read these, which protects them from having to face the stream of unwanted content that can pour in at times when the inbox is left open.

And even upon viewing this list of filtered messages, all the content itself isn’t immediately visible.

In the case that Twitter identifies content that’s potentially offensive, the message preview will say the message is hidden because it may contain offensive content. That way, users can decide if they want to open the message itself or just click the delete button to trash it.

The change could allow Direct Messages to become a more useful tool for those who prefer an open inbox, as well as an additional means of clamping down on online abuse.

It’s also similar to how Facebook Messenger handles requests — those from people you aren’t friends with are relocated to a separate Message Requests area. And those that are spammy or more questionable are in a hard-to-find Filtered section below that.

It’s not clear why a feature like this really requires a “test,” however — arguably, most people would want junk and abuse filtered out. And those who for some reason did not, could just toggle a setting to turn off the filter.

Instead, this feels like another example of Twitter’s slow pace when it comes to making changes to clamp down on abuse. Facebook Messenger has been filtering messages in this way since late 2017. Twitter should just launch a change like this, instead of “testing” it.

The idea of hiding — instead of entirely deleting — unwanted content is something Twitter has been testing in other areas, too. Last month, for example, it began piloting a new “Hide Replies” feature in Canada, which allows users to hide unwanted replies to their tweets so they’re not visible to everyone. The tweets aren’t deleted, but rather placed behind an extra click — similar to this Direct Message change.

Twitter is updating is Direct Message system in other ways, too.

At a press conference this week, Twitter announced several changes coming to its platform, including a way to follow topics, plus a search tool for the Direct Message inbox, as well as support for iOS Live Photos as GIFs, the ability to reorder photos and more.

Twitter leads $100M round in top Indian regional social media platform ShareChat

Is there room for another social media platform? ShareChat, a four-year-old social network in India that serves tens of million of people in regional languages, just answered that question with a $100 million financing round led by global giant Twitter .

Other than Twitter, TrustBridge Partners, and existing investors Shunwei Capital, Lightspeed Venture Partners, SAIF Capital, India Quotient and Morningside Venture Capital also participated in the Series D round of ShareChat.

The new round, which pushes ShareChat’s all-time raise to $224 million, valued the firm at about $650 million, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. ShareChat declined to comment on the valuation.

sharechat screenshot

Screenshot of Sharechat home page on web

“Twitter and ShareChat are aligned on the broader purpose of serving the public conversation, helping the world learn faster and solve common challenges. This investment will help ShareChat grow and provide the company’s management team access to Twitter’s executives as thought partners,” said Manish Maheshwari, managing director of Twitter India, in a prepared statement.

Twitter, like many other Silicon Valley firms, counts India as one of its key markets. And like Twitter, other Silicon Valley firms are also increasingly investing in Indian startups.

ShareChat serves 60 million users each month in 15 regional languages, Ankush Sachdeva, co-founder and CEO of the firm, told TechCrunch in an interview. The platform currently does not support English, and has no plans to change that, Sachdeva said.

That choice is what has driven users to ShareChat, he explained. The early incarnation of the social media platform supported English language. It saw most of its users choose English as their preferred language, but this also led to another interesting development: Their engagement with the app significantly reduced.

The origin story

“For some reason, everyone wanted to converse in English. There was an inherent bias to pick English even when they did not know it.” (Only about 10% of India’s 1.3 billion people speak English. Hindi, a regional language, on the other hand, is spoken by about half a billion people, according to official government figures.)

So ShareChat pulled support for English. Today, an average user spends 22 minutes on the app each day, Sachdeva said. The learning in the early days to remove English is just one of the many things that has shaped ShareChat to what it is today and led to its growth.

In 2014, Sachdeva and two of his friends — Bhanu Singh and Farid Ahsan, all of whom met at the prestigious institute IIT Kanpur — got the idea of building a debate platform by looking at the kind of discussions people were having on Facebook groups.

They identified that cricket and movie stars were popular conversation topics, so they created WhatsApp groups and aggressively posted links to those groups on Facebook to attract users.

It was then when they built chatbots to allow users to discover different genres of jokes, recommendations for phones and food recipes, among other things. But they soon realized that users weren’t interested in most of such offerings.

“Nobody cared about our smartphone recommendations. All they wanted was to download wallpapers, ringtones, copy jokes and move on. They just wanted content.”

sharechat team

So in 2015, Sachdeva and company moved on from chatbots and created an app where users can easily produce, discover and share content in the languages they understand. (Today, user generated content is one of the key attractions of the platform, with about 15% of its user base actively producing content.)

A year later, ShareChat, like tens of thousands of other businesses, was in for a pleasant surprise. India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, launched his new telecom network Reliance Jio, which offered users access to the bulk of data at little to no charge for an extended period of time.

This immediately changed the way millions of people in the country, who once cared about each megabyte they consumed online, interacted with the internet. On ShareChat people quickly started to move from sharing jokes and other messages in text format to images and then videos.

Path ahead and monetization

That momentum continues to today. ShareChat now plans to give users more incentive — including money — and tools to produce content on the platform to drive engagement. “There remains a huge hunger for content in vernacular languages,” Sachdeva said.

Speaking of money, ShareChat has experimented with ads on the app and its site, but revenue generation isn’t currently its primary focus, Sachdeva said. “We’re in the Series D now so there is obviously an obligation we have to our investors to make money. But we all believe that we need to focus on growth at this stage,” he said.

ShareChat, which is headquartered in Bangalore, also has many users in Bangladesh, Nepal and the Middle East, where many users speak Indian regional languages. But the startup currently plans to focus largely on expanding its user base in India, hopefully doubling it in the next one year, he said.

It will use the new capital to strengthen the technology infrastructure and hire more tech talent. Sachdeva said ShareChat is looking to open an office in San Francisco to hire local engineers there.

A handful of local and global giants have emerged in India in recent years to cater to people in small cities and villages, who are just getting online. Pratilipi, a storytelling platform has amassed more than 5 million users, for instance. It recently raised $15 million to expand its user base and help users strike deals with content studios.

Perhaps no other app poses a bigger challenge to ShareChat than TikTok, an app where users share short-form videos. TikTok, owned by one of the world’s most valued startups, has over 120 million users in India and sees content in many Indian languages.

But the app — with its ever growing ambitions — also tends to land itself in hot water in India every few weeks. In all sensitive corners of the country. On that front, ShareChat has an advantage. Over the years, it has emerged as an outlier in the country that has strongly supported proposed laws by the Indian government that seek to make social apps more accountable for content that circulates on their platforms.

Twitter tests ways for users to follow and snooze specific topics

You may soon be able to organize Twitter’s web of hashtags and handles in a smarter way, that is if the company can pull off its ambitious new rethinking of the app’s timelines.

The company isn’t getting rid of the process of a following users but at a press event in SF, company execs announced that they are planning to push users to start following “topics” that bring in well-engaged tweets from a variety of accounts that the user might not necessarily follow. Twitter is currently testing the feature on Android with topics focused around sports “from MMA to Formula 1” to specific professional franchises.

The company plans to greatly expand the scope of these topics so that fans will be able to have timelines devoted to BTS and skincare routines. The feature is focused on helping users find new accounts and communities that they can dive deeper into.

The company is curating the overall topics manually, but Twitter will be relying on machine learning to intelligently populate the topics themselves so that the tweets can stay up to date. The company is also testing the ability to not only follow topics in your central timeline, but create your own secondary timelines that you can bring multiple topics, accounts and hashtags into.

A feature that Twitter says it is also starting to experiment with is the ability to temporarily unfollow a topic so you can keep certain tweets out of your timeline like tweets chronicling an ongoing finale of a TV show or a football game. You can currently mute specific words and accounts indefinitely or for a finite amount of time.