Facebook won’t ban political ads, prefers to keep screwing democracy

It’s 2020 — a key election year in the US — and Facebook is doubling down on its policy of letting people pay it to fuck around with democracy.

Despite trenchant criticism — including from US lawmakers accusing Facebook’s CEO to his face of damaging American democracy the company is digging in, announcing as much today by reiterating its defence of continuing to accept money to run microtargeted political ads.

Instead of banning political ads Facebook is trumpeting a few tweaks to the information it lets users see about political ads — claiming it’s boosting “transparency” and “controls” while leaving its users vulnerable to default settings that offer neither.  

Political ads running on Facebook are able to be targeted at individuals’ preferences as a result of the company’s pervasive tracking and profiling of Internet users. And ethical concerns about microtargeting led the UK’s data protection watchdog to call in 2018 for a pause on the use of digital ad tools like Facebook by political campaigns — warning of grave risks to democracy.

Facebook isn’t for pausing political microtargeting, though. Even though various elements of its data-gathering activities are also subject to privacy and consent complaints, regulatory scrutiny and legal challenge in Europe, under regional data protection legislation.

Instead, the company made it clear last fall that it won’t fact-check political ads, nor block political messages that violate its speech policies — thereby giving politicians carte blanche to run hateful lies, if they so choose.

Facebook’s algorithms also demonstrably select for maximum eyeball engagement, making it simply the ‘smart choice’ for the modern digitally campaigning politician to run outrageous BS on Facebook — as long time Facebook exec Andrew Bosworth recently pointed out in an internal posting that leaked in full to the NYT.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s defence of his social network’s political ads policy boils down to repeatedly claiming ‘it’s all free speech man’ (we paraphrase).

This is an entirely nuance-free argument that comedian Sacha Baron Cohen expertly demolished last year, pointing out that: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’”

Facebook responded to the take-down with a denial that hate speech exists on its platform since it has a policy against it — per its typical crisis PR playbook. And it’s more of the same selectively self-serving arguments being dispensed by Facebook today.

In a blog post attributed to its director of product management, Rob Leathern, it expends more than 1,000 words on why it’s still not banning political ads (it would be bad for advertisers wanting to reaching “key audiences”, is the non-specific claim) — including making a diversionary call for regulators to set ad standards, thereby passing the buck on ‘democratic accountability’ to lawmakers (whose electability might very well depend on how many Facebook ads they run…), while spinning cosmetic, made-for-PR tweaks to its ad settings and what’s displayed in an ad archive that most Facebook users will never have heard of as “expanded transparency” and “more control”. 

In fact these tweaks do nothing to reform the fundamental problem of damaging defaults.

The onus remains on Facebook users to do the leg work on understanding what its platform is pushing at their eyeballs and why.

Even as the ‘extra’ info now being drip-fed to the Ad Library is still highly fuzzy (“We are adding ranges for Potential Reach, which is the estimated target audience size for each political, electoral or social issue ad so you can see how many people an advertiser wanted to reach with every ad,” as Facebook writes of one tweak.)

The new controls similarly require users to delve into complex settings menus in order to avail themselves of inherently incremental limits — such as an option that will let people opt into seeing “fewer” political and social issue ads. (Fewer is naturally relative, ergo the scale of the reduction remains entirely within Facebook’s control — so it’s more meaningless ‘control theatre’ from the lord of dark pattern design. Why can’t people switch off political and issue ads entirely?)

Another incremental setting lets users “stop seeing ads based on an advertiser’s Custom Audience from a list”.

But just imagine trying to explain WTF that means to your parents or grandparents — let alone an average Internet user actually being able to track down the ‘control’ and exercise any meaningful agency over the political junk ads they’re being exposed to on Facebook.

It is, to quote Baron Cohen, “bullshit”.

Nor are outsiders the only ones calling out Zuckerberg on his BS and “twisted logic”: A number of Facebook’s own employees warned in an open letter last year that allowing politicians to lie in Facebook ads essentially weaponizes the platform.

They also argued that the platform’s 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” — accusing the company’s leadership of making disingenuous arguments in defence of a toxic, anti-democratic policy. 

Nothing in what Facebook has announced today resets the anti-democratic asymmetry inherent in the platform’s relationship to its users.

Facebook users — and democratic societies — remain, by default, preyed upon by self-interested political interests thanks to Facebook’s policies which are dressed up in a self-interested misappropriation of ‘free speech’ as a cloak for its unfettered exploitation of individual attention as fuel for a propaganda-as-service business.

Yet other policy positions are available.

Twitter announced a total ban on political ads last year — and while the move doesn’t resolve wider disinformation issues attached to its platform, the decision to bar political ads has been widely lauded as a positive, standard-setting example.

Google also followed suit by announcing a ban on “demonstrably false claims” in political ads. It also put limits on the targeting terms that can be used for political advertising buys that appear in search, on display ads and on YouTube.

Still Facebook prefers to exploit “the absence of regulation”, as its blog post puts it, to not do the right thing and keep sticking two fingers up at democratic accountability — because not applying limits on behavioral advertising best serves its business interests. Screw democracy.

“We have based [our policies] on the principle that people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them, warts and all, and that what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public,” Facebook writes, ignoring the fact that some of its own staff already pointed out the sketchy hypocrisy of trying to claim that complex ad targeting tools and techniques are open to public scrutiny.

Facebook bans deceptive deepfakes and some misleadingly modified media

Facebook wants to be the arbiter of truth after all. At least when it comes to intentionally misleading deepfakes and heavily manipulated and/or synthesized media content, such as AI-generated photorealistic human faces that look like real people but aren’t.

In a policy update announced late yesterday, the social network’s VP of global policy management, Monika Bickert, writes that it will take a stricter line on manipulated media content from here on in — removing content that’s been edited or synthesized “in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person and would likely mislead someone into thinking that a subject of the video said words that they did not actually say”.

However edits for quality or cuts and splices to videos that simply curtail or change the order of words are not covered by the ban.

Which means that disingenuous doctoring — such as this example from the recent UK General Election (where campaign staff for one political party edited a video of a politician from a rival party who was being asked a question about brexit to make it look like he was lost for words when in fact he wasn’t) — will go entirely untouched by the new ‘tougher’ policy. Ergo there’s little to trouble Internet-savvy political ‘truth’ spinners here. The disingenuousness digital campaigning can go on.

Instead of grappling with that sort of subtle political fakery, Facebook is focusing on quick PR wins — around the most obviously inauthentic stuff where it won’t risk accusations of partisan bias if it pulls bogus content.

Hence the new policy bans deepfake content that involves the use of AI technologies to “merge, replace or superimpose content onto a video, making it appear to be authentic” — which looks as if it will capture the crudest stuff, such as revenge deepfake porn which superimposes a real person’s face onto an adult performer’s body (albeit nudity is already banned on Facebook’s platform).

It’s not a blanket ban on deepfakes either, though — with some big carve outs for “parody or satire”.

So it’s a bit of an open question whether this deepfake video of Mark Zuckerberg, which went viral last summer — seemingly showing the Facebook founder speaking like a megalomaniac — would stay up or not under the new policy. The video’s creators, a pair of artists, described the work as satire so such stuff should survive the ban. (Facebook did also leave it up at the time.)

But, in future, deepfake creators are likely to further push the line to see what they can get away with under the new policy.

The social network’s controversial policy of letting politicians lie in ads also means it could, technically, still give pure political deepfakes a pass — i.e. if a political advertiser was paying it to run purely bogus content as an ad. Though it would be a pretty bold politician to try that.

More likely there’s more mileage for political campaigns and opinion influencers to keep on with more subtle manipulations. Such as the doctored video of House speaker Nancy Pelosi that went viral on Facebook last year, which had slowed down audio that made her sound drunk or ill. The Washington Post suggests that video — while clearly potentially misleading — still wouldn’t qualify to be taken down under Facebook’s new ‘tougher’ manipulated media policy.

Bickert’s blog post stipulates that manipulated content which doesn’t meet Facebook’s new standard for removal may still be reviewed by the independent third party fact-checkers Facebook relies upon for the lion’s share of ‘truth sifting’ on its platform — and who may still rate such content as ‘false’ or ‘partly false’. But she emphasizes it will continue to allow this type of bogus content to circulate (while potentially reducing its distribution), claiming such labelled fakes provide helpful context.

So Facebook’s updated position on manipulated media sums to ‘no to malicious deepfakes but spindoctors please carry on’.

“If a photo or video is rated false or partly false by a fact-checker, we significantly reduce its distribution in News Feed and reject it if it’s being run as an ad. And critically, people who see it, try to share it, or have already shared it, will see warnings alerting them that it’s false,” Bickert writes, claiming: “This approach is critical to our strategy and one we heard specifically from our conversations with experts.

“If we simply removed all manipulated videos flagged by fact-checkers as false, the videos would still be available elsewhere on the internet or social media ecosystem. By leaving them up and labelling them as false, we’re providing people with important information and context.”

Last month Facebook announced it had unearthed a network of more than 900 fake accounts that had been spreading pro-Trump messaging — some of which had used false profile photos generated by AI.

The dystopian development provides another motivation for the tech giant to ban ‘pure’ AI fakes, given the technology risks supercharging its fake accounts problem. (And, well, that could be bad for business.)

“Our teams continue to proactively hunt for fake accounts and other coordinated inauthentic behavior,” suggests Bickert, arguing that: “Our enforcement strategy against misleading manipulated media also benefits from our efforts to root out the people behind these efforts.”

While still relatively nascent as a technology, deepfakes have shown themselves to be catnip to the media which loves the spectacle they create. As a result, the tech has landed unusually quickly on legislators’ radars as a disinformation risk — California implemented a ban on political deepfakes around elections this fall, for example — so Facebook is likely hoping to score some quick and easy political points by moving in step with legislators even as it applies its own version of a ban.

Bickert’s blog post also fishes for further points, noting Facebook’s involvement in a Deep Fake Detection Challenge which was announced last fall — “to produce more research and open source tools to detect deepfakes”.

While says Facebook has been working with news agency Reuters to offer free online training courses for journalists to help reporters identify manipulated visuals.

“As these partnerships and our own insights evolve, so too will our policies toward manipulated media. In the meantime, we’re committed to investing within Facebook and working with other stakeholders in this area to find solutions with real impact,” she adds.

Twitter offers more support to researchers — to ‘keep us accountable’

Twitter has kicked off the New Year by taking the wraps off a new hub for academic researchers to more easily access information and support around its APIs — saying the move is in response to feedback from the research community.

The new page — which it’s called ‘Twitter data for academic researchers’ — can be found here.

It includes links to apply for a developer account to access Twitter’s APIs; details of the different APIs offered and links to additional tools for researchers, covering data integration and access; analysis; visualization; and infrastructure and hosting.

“Over the past year, we’ve worked with many of you in the academic research community. We’ve learned about the challenges you face, and how Twitter can better support you in your efforts to advance understanding of the public conversation,” the social network writes, saying it wants to “make it even easier to learn from the public conversation”.

Twitter is also promising “more enhancements and resources” for researchers this year.

It’s likely no accident the platform is putting a fresh lick of paint on its offerings for academics given that 2020 is a key election year in the U.S. — and concerns about the risk of fresh election meddling are riding high.

Tracking conversation flow on Twitter also still means playing a game of ‘bot or not’ — one that has major implications for the health of democracies. And in Europe Twitter is one of a number of platform giants which, in 2018, signed up to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation that commits it to addressing fake accounts and online bots, as well as to empowering the research community to monitor online disinformation via “privacy-compliant” access to platform data.

“At Twitter, we value the contributions of academic researchers and see the potential for them to help us better understand our platform, keeping us accountable, while helping us tackle new challenges through discoveries and innovations,” the company writes on the new landing page for researchers while also taking the opportunity to big up the value of its platform — claiming that “if it exists, it’s probably been talked about on Twitter”.

If Twitter lives up to its promises of active engagement with researchers and their needs, it could smartly capitalism on rival Facebook’s parallel missteps in support for academics.

Last year Facebook was accused of ‘transparency-washing’ with its own API for researchers, with a group of sixty academics slamming the ad archive API as as much a hinderance as a help.

Months later Facebook was still being reported to have done little to improve the offering.

Is Facebook dead to Gen Z?

The writing is on the wall for Facebook — the platform is losing market share, fast, among young users.

Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study from early 2019 showed that 62% of U.S. 12–34 year-olds are Facebook users, down from 67% in 2018 and 79% in 2017. This decrease is particularly notable as 35–54 and 55+ age group usage has been constant or even increased.

There are many theories behind Facebook’s fall from grace among millennials and Gen Zers — an influx of older users that change the dynamics of the platform, competition from more mobile and visual-friendly platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and the company’s privacy scandals are just a few.

We surveyed 115 of our Accelerated campus ambassadors to learn more about how they’re using Facebook today. It’s worth noting that this group skews older Gen Z (ages 18–24); we suspect you’d get different results if you surveyed younger teens.

Overall penetration is still high, as 99% of our respondents have Facebook accounts. And most aren’t abandoning the platform entirely — 59% are on Facebook every day, and another 32% are on weekly. Daily Facebook usage is much lower than Instagram, however, which 82% of our respondents use daily and 7% use weekly.

Data from our scouts also confirms that the shift in usage in the last few years is particularly dramatic among younger users. 66% report using Facebook less frequently over the past two years, compared to 11% who use it more frequently (23% say their usage hasn’t changed).

What’s most interesting is what college students are using Facebook for. When we were in high school and college in the early/mid 2010s, our friends used Facebook to post (broadcast) content via their status, photos, and posts on friends’ Walls. Today, very few students use Facebook to “broadcast” content. Only 5% of our respondents say they regularly upload photos to Facebook, 4% post on friends’ Walls, and 3.5% post content to the Newsfeed (statuses). What are they doing instead?

Reddit links UK-US trade talk leak to Russian influence campaign

Reddit has linked account activity involving the leak and amplification of sensitive UK-US trade talks on its platform during the ongoing UK election campaign to a suspected Russian political influence operation.

Or, to put it more plainly, the social network suspects that Russian operatives are behind the leak of sensitive trade data — likely with the intention of impacting the UK’s General Election campaign.

The country goes to the polls next week, on December 12.

The UK has been politically deadlocked since mid 2016 over how to implement the result of the referendum to leave the European Union . The minority Conservative government has struggled to negotiate a brexit deal that parliament backs. Another hung parliament or minority government would likely result in continued uncertainty.

In a post discussing the “Suspected campaign from Russia”, Reddit writes:

We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK. We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.

Earlier this year Facebook discovered a Russian campaign on its platform, which was further analyzed by the Atlantic Council and dubbed “Secondary Infektion.” Suspect accounts on Reddit were recently reported to us, along with indicators from law enforcement, and we were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination. We were then able to use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit. This group provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics.

Reddit says that an account, called gregoratior, originally posted the leaked trade talks document. Later a second account, ostermaxnn, reposted it. The platform also found a “pocket of accounts” that worked together to manipulate votes on the original post in an attempt to amplify it. Though fairly fruitlessly, as it turned out; the leak gained little attention on Reddit, per the company.

As a result of the investigation Reddit says it has banned 1 subreddit and 61 accounts — under policies against vote manipulation and misuse of its platform.

The story doesn’t end there, though, because whoever was behind the trade talk leak appears to have resorted to additional tactics to draw attention to it — including emailing campaign groups and political activists directly.

This activity did bear fruit this month when the opposition Labour party got hold of the leak and made it into a major campaign issue, claiming the 451-page document shows the Conservative party, led by Boris Johnson, is plotting to sell off the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use National Health Service (NHS) to US private health insurance firms and drug companies.

Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, showed a heavily redacted version of the document during a TV leaders debate earlier this month, later calling a press conference to reveal a fully un-redacted version of the data — arguing the document proves the NHS is in grave danger if the Conservatives are re-elected.

Johnson has denied Labour’s accusation that the NHS will be carved up as the price of a Trump trade deal. But the leaked document itself is genuine.

It details preliminary meetings between UK and US trade negotiators, which took place between July 2017 and July 2019, in which discussion of the NHS does take place, in addition to other issues such as food standards.

Although the document does not confirm what position the UK might seek to adopt in any future trade talks with the US.

The source of the heavily redacted version of the document appears to be a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by campaigning organisation, Global Justice Now — which told Vice it made an FOI request to the UK’s Department for International Trade around 18 months ago.

The group said it was subsequently emailed a fully unredacted version of the document by an unknown source which also appears to have sent the data directly to the Labour party. So while the influence operation looks to have originated on Reddit, the agents behind it seem to have resorted to more direct means of data dissemination in order for the leak to gain the required attention to become an election-influencing issue.

Experts in online influence operations had already suggested similarities between the trade talks leak and an earlier Russian operation, dubbed Secondary Infektion, which involved the leak of fake documents on multiple online platforms. Facebook identified and took down that operation in May.

In a report analysing the most recent leak, social network mapping and analysis firm Graphika says the key question is how the trade document came to be disseminated online a few weeks before the election.

“The mysterious [Reddit] user seemingly originated the leak of a diplomatic document by posting it around online, just six weeks before the UK elections. This raises the question of how the user got hold of the document in the first place,” it writes. “This is the single most pressing question that arises from this report.”

Graphika’s analysis concludes that the manner of leaking and amplifying the trade talks data “closely resembles” the known Russian information operation, Secondary Infektion.

“The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it,” it adds.

Internet-enabled Russian influence operations that feature hacking and strategically timed data dumps of confidential/sensitive information, as well as the seeding and amplification of political disinformation which is intended to polarize, confuse and/or disengage voters, have become a regular feature of Western elections in recent years.

The most high profile example of Russian election interference remains the 2016 hack of documents and emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee — which went on to be confirmed by US investigators as an operation by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.

In 2017 emails were also leaked from French president Emmanuel Macron’s campaign shortly before his election — although with apparently minimal impact in that case. (Attribution is also less clear-cut.)

Russian activity targeting UK elections and referendums remains a matter of intense interest and investigation — and had been raised publicly as a concern by former prime minister, Theresa May, in 2017.

Although her government failed to act on recommendations to strengthen UK election and data laws to respond to the risks posed by Internet-enabled interference. She also did nothing to investigate questions over the extent of foreign interference in the 2016 brexit referendum.

May was finally unseated by the ongoing political turmoil around brexit this summer, when Johnson took over as prime minister. But he has also turned a wilfully blind eye to the risks around foreign election interference — while fully availing himself of data-fuelled digital campaign methods whose ethics have been questioned by multiple UK oversight bodies.

A report into Russian interference in UK politics which was compiled by the UK’s intelligence and security parliamentary committee — and had been due to be published ahead of the general election — was also personally blocked from publication by the prime minister.

Voters won’t now get to see that information until after the election. Or, well, barring another strategic leak…

Facebook launches a photo portability tool, starting in Ireland

It’s not friend portability, but Facebook has announced the launch today of a photo transfer tool to enable users of its social network to port their photos directly to Google’s photo storage service, via encrypted transfer.

The photo portability feature is initially being offered to Facebook users in Ireland, where the company’s international HQ is based. Facebook says it is still testing and tweaking the feature based on feedback but slates “worldwide availability” as coming in the first half of 2020.

It also suggests porting to other photo storage services will be supported in the future, in addition to Google Photos — which specifying which services it may seek to add.

Facebook says the tool is based on code developed via its participation in the Data Transfer Project — a collaborative effort started last year that’s currently backed by five tech giants (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) who have committed to build “a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers, enabling a seamless, direct, user initiated portability of data between the two platforms”.

Facebook also points to a white paper it published in September — where it advocates for “clear rules” to govern the types of data that should be portable and “who is responsible for protecting that data as it moves to different providers”.

Behind all these moves is of course the looming threat of antitrust regulation, with legislators and agencies on both sides of the Atlantic now closely eyeing platforms’ grip on markets, eyeballs and data.

Hence Facebook’s white paper couching portability tools as “helping keep competition vibrant among online services”. (Albeit, if the ‘choice’ being offered is to pick another tech giant to get your data that’s not exactly going to reboot the competitive landscape.)

It’s certainly true that portability of user uploaded data can be helpful in encouraging people to feel they can move from a dominant service.

However it is also something of a smokescreen — especially when A) the platform in question is a social network like Facebook (because it’s people who keep other people stuck to these types of services); and B) the value derived from the data is retained by the platform regardless of whether the photos themselves travel elsewhere.

Facebook processes user uploaded data such as photos to gain personal insights to profile users for ad targeting purposes. So even if you send your photos elsewhere that doesn’t diminish what Facebook has already learned about you, having processed your selfies, groupies, baby photos, pet shots and so on. (It has also designed the portability tool to send a copy of the data; ergo, Facebook still retains your photos unless you take additional action — such as deleting your account.)

The company does not offer users any controls (portability tools or access rights) over the inferences it makes based on personal data such as photos.

Or indeed control over insights it services from its analysis of usage of its platform or wider browsing of the Internet (Facebook tracks both users and non users across the web via tools like social plug-ins and tracking pixels).

Given its targeted ads business is powered by a vast outgrowth of tracking (aka personal data processing), there’s little risk to Facebook to offer a portability feature buried in a sub-menu somewhere that lets a few in-the-know users click to send a copy of their photos to another tech giant.

Indeed, it may hope to benefit from similar incoming ports from other platforms in future.

“We hope this product can help advance conversations on the privacy questions we identified in our white paper,” Facebook writes. “We know we can’t do this alone, so we encourage other companies to join the Data Transfer Project to expand options for people and continue to push data portability innovation forward.”

Competition regulators looking to reboot digital markets will need to dig beneath the surface of such self-serving initiatives if they are to alight on a meaningful method of reining in platform power.

Facebook unveils its first foray into personal digital healthcare tools

Nearly a year and a half after the Cambridge Analytica scandal reportedly scuttled Facebook’s fledgling attempts to enter the healthcare market, the social media giant is launching a tool called “Preventive Health” to prompt its users to get regular checkups and connect them to service providers.

The architect of the new service is Dr. Freddy Abnousi, the head of the company’s healthcare research, who was previously linked to an earlier skunkworks initiative that would collect anonymized hospital data and use a technique called “hashing” to match the data to individuals that exist in both data sets — for research, according to CNBC reporting.

Working with the American Cancer Society; the American College of Cardiology; the American Heart Association; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Facebook is developing a series of digital prompts that will encourage users to get a standard battery of tests that’s important to ensure health for populations of a certain age.

The company’s initial focus is on the top two leading causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease and cancer — along with the flu, which affects millions of Americans each year.

“Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women around the world and in many cases it is 100% preventable. By incorporating prevention reminders into platforms people are accessing every day, we’re giving people the tools they need to be proactive about their heart health,” said Dr. Richard Kovacs, the president of the American College of Cardiology, in a statement.

Users who want to access Facebook’s Preventive Health tools can search in the company’s mobile app to find which checkups are recommended by the company’s partner organizations based on the age and gender of a user.

The tool allows Facebookers to mark when the tests are completed, set reminders to schedule future tests and tell people in their social network about the tool.

Facebook will even direct users to resources on where to have the tests. One thing that the company will not do, Facebook assures potential users, is collect the results of any test.

“Health is particularly personal, so we took privacy and safety into account from the beginning. For example, Preventive Health allows you to set reminders for your future checkups and mark them as done, but it doesn’t provide us, or the health organizations we’re working with, access to your actual test results,” the company wrote in a statement. “Personal information about your activity in Preventive Health is not shared with third parties, such as health organizations or insurance companies, so it can’t be used for purposes like insurance eligibility.”

The company said that people can also use the new health tool to find locations that administer flu shots.

“Flu vaccines can have wide-ranging benefits beyond just preventing the disease, such as reducing the risk of hospitalization, preventing serious medical events for some people with chronic diseases, and protecting women during and after pregnancy,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, CDC, in a statement. “New tools like this will empower users with instant access to information and resources they need to become a flu fighter in their own communities.”

MediaLab acquires messaging app Kik, expanding its app portfolio

Popular messaging app Kik is, indeed, “here to stay” following an acquisition by the Los Angeles-based multimedia holding company, MediaLab.

It echoes the same message from Kik’s chief executive Tim Livingston last week when he rebuffed earlier reports that the company would shut down amid an ongoing battle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Livingston had tweeted that Kik had signed a letter-of-intent with a “great company,” but that it was “not a done deal.”

Now we know the the company: MediaLab. In a post on Kik’s blog on Friday the MediaLab said that it has “finalized an agreement” to acquire Kik Messenger.

Kik is one of those amazing places that brings us back to those early aspirations,” the blog post read. “Whether it be a passion for an obscure manga or your favorite football team, Kik has shown an incredible ability to provide a platform for new friendships to be forged through your mobile phone.”

MediaLab is a holding company that owns several other mobile properties, including anonymous social network Whisper and mixtape app DatPiff. In acquiring Kik, the holding company is expanding its mobile app portfolio.

MediaLab said it has “some ideas” for developing Kik going forwards, including making the app faster and reducing the amount of unwanted messages and spam bots. The company said it will introduce ads “over the coming weeks” in order to “cover our expenses” of running the platform.

Buying the Kik messaging platform adds another social media weapon to the arsenal for MediaLab and its chief executive, Michael Heyward .

Heyward was an early star of the budding Los Angeles startup community with the launch of the anonymous messaging service, Whisper nearly 8 years ago. At the time, the company was one of a clutch of anonymous apps — including Secret and YikYak — that raised tens of millions of dollars to offer online iterations of the confessional journal, the burn book, and the bathroom wall (respectively).

In 2017, TechCrunch reported that Whisper underwent significant layoffs to stave off collapse and put the company on a path to profitability.

At the time Whisper had roughly 20 million monthly active users across its app and website, which the company was looking to monetize through programmatic advertising, rather than brand-sponsored campaigns that had provided some of the company’s revenue in the past. Through widgets, the company had an additional 10 million viewers of its content per-month using various widgets and a reach of around 250 million through Facebook and other social networks on which it published posts.

People familiar with the company said at the time that it was seeing gross revenues of roughly $1 million and was going to hit $12.5 million in revenue for that calendar year. By 2018 that revenue was expected to top $30 million, according to sources at the time.

The flagship Whisper app let people post short bits of anonymous text and images that other folks could like or comment about. Heyward intended it to be a way for people to share more personal and intimate details —  to be a social network for confessions and support rather than harassment.

The idea caught on with investors and Whisper managed to raise $61 million from investors including Sequoia, Lightspeed Venture Partners, and Shasta Ventures . Whisper’s last round was a $36 million Series C back in 2014.

Fast forward to 2018 when Secret had been shut down for three years while YikYak also went bust — selling off its engineering team to Square for around $1 million. Whisper, meanwhile, seemingly set up MediaLab as a holding company for its app and additional assets that Heyward would look to roll up. The company filed registration documents in California in June 2018.

According to the filings, Susan Stone, a partner with the investment firm Sierra Wasatch Capital, is listed as a director for the company.

Heyward did not respond to a request for comment.

Zack Whittaker contributed reporting for this article. 

Twitter and TweetDeck are experiencing partial outages

It’s not just you, Twitter has gone wobbly again. Users of the social network in Asia and Europe are reporting a range of problems tweeting and viewing certain types of content this morning.

Among the problems being reported are not being able to post certain types of content to the site (such as polls and media), though at least some users are still able to post text tweets saying they’re having problems.

Other users aren’t seeing latest replies to their tweets. In my case I’m unable to view latest replies on Twitter’s desktop product but can see them on an (older) version of Twitter’s iOS app.

Some Twitter users are also reporting problems posting to Android. Trending topics also appears to be down.

A Twitter spokeswoman confirmed to TechCrunch it’s having problems — pointing us to a tweet from @TwitterSupport where the company says it’s experiencing outages across both Twitter and its alternative client, TweekDeck.

The problem is also affecting being able to view DMs, per the tweet.

“We’re currently working on a fix, and should be back to normal soon,” Twitter adds, without providing detail about the cause of the issues.

The flakey service comes a few months after a major outage for Twitter.

Back in July Twitter’s service went down for a full hour. In that case an “internal configuration change” caused the issue — which Twitter subsequently rolled back.

It also suffered problems with direct messages in the same month.

Coincidentally or not, the company rolled out a major redesign of its desktop product this summer.

Twitter’s new ‘Facebook-style’ look has not been universally popular, to put it politely. Whether the redesign is the root cause of the recent bout of service flakiness remains to be seen.

Twitter’s status page sheds zero light on the matter — currently reporting that “all systems are operational” when that’s patently not the case.

We’ll update this report with any further details on the problems from Twitter.

The portrait of an avatar as a young artist

In this episode of Flux I talk with LaTurbo Avedon, an online avatar who has been active as an artist and curator since 2008.  Recently we’ve seen a wave of next-gen virtual stars rise up, from Lil Miquela in the west to pop-stars like Kizuna AI in the east. As face and body tracking make real-time avatar representation accessible, what emergent behaviors will we see? What will our virtual relationships evolve? How will these behaviors translate into the physical world when augmented reality is widespread?
LaTurbo was early to exploring these questions of identity and experimenting with telepresence. She has shape-shifted across media types, spending time in everything from AOL and chat rooms, to MMOs, virtual worlds and social media platforms. In this conversation she shares her thoughts on how social networks have breached our trust, why a breakup is likely, and how users should take control of their data. We get into the rise of battle royale gaming, why multiplicity of self is important, and how we can better express agency and identity online.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full podcast on iTunes and transcript on Medium.

***

ALG: Welcome to the latest episode of Flux. I am excited to introduce LaTurbo Avedon. LaTurbo is an avatar and artist originating in virtual space, per her website and online statement. Her works can be described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and explosion of forms exploring topics of virtual authorship and the physicality of the Internet. LaTurbo has exhibited all over the world from Peru to Korea to the Whitney in New York. I’m thrilled to have her on the show. Metaphorically of course. It’s just me here in the studio. LaTurbo is remote. 

When we got the demo file earlier I was excited to hear the slight Irish lilt in your robotic voice. As a Brit I feel like we have a bond there.

LaTurbo: Thank you for the patience. It is like a jigsaw puzzle, our voices together.

ALG: Of course it’s all about being patient as we try out new things on the frontier. And you represent that frontier. This show is about people that are pushing the boundaries in their fields. A lot of them are building companies, some are scientists. Recently we’ve had a few more artists on and that’s something I believe is important in all of these fields. Because you’re taking the time to do the hard work and think about technology and its impact and how we can stretch it and use it in different ways and broaden our thinking. You play an important role.

LaTurboWe will get things smoothed out eventually as my vocalization gets easier and more natural with better tools. Alice I appreciate you trekking out here with me and trying this format out.

ALG: I love a good trek. Maybe you can give a brief intro on who is LaTurbo. I believe you started in Second Life. I’d love to hear about those origins. Phil Rosedale was one of the first people I interviewed on this podcast, the founder of Second Life. Shout out to Phil. I’d love to hear what’s been your journey since then. Oh and also happy 10th birthday.

“I’ve spent decades inside of virtual environments, in many ways I came of age alongside the Internet. My early years in my adolescence in role-playing games. From the early years I was enamored by cyber space”

LaTurboI know that it is circuitous at times but this process has made me work hard to explore what it takes to be here like this. Well I started out early on in the shapes of America Online, intranets, and private message boards. Second Life opened this up incredibly, taking things away from the closed worlds of video games. We had to work even harder to be individuals in early virtual worlds using character editors, roleplaying games, and other platforms in shared network spaces. This often took the shape of default characters — letting Final Fantasy, Goldeneye, or other early game titles be the space where we performed alternative identities.

ALG: If you’re referring to Goldeneye on N64 I spent considerable time on it growing up. So I might have seen you running around there.

LaTurbo: It was a pleasure to listen to your conversation with Philip Rosedale as he continues to explore what comes next, afterwards, in new sandboxes. What was your first avatar?

ALG: I did play a lot of video games growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and was exposed mostly to the Nintendo and Sega side of things, so maybe one of those Mario Kart characters — Princess Peach or really I went for Yoshi if those count as avatars. I’d love to get into your experience in gaming. You said you started off exploring more closed world games and then you discovered Second Life. You’ve spent a lot of time in MMORPGs and obviously that’s one of the main ways that people have engaged with avatars. I’d love to hear how your experiences have been in different games and any commentary on the worlds you’re spending time in now.

LaTurbo: I think that even if they weren’t signature unique identities or your own avatar, those forms of early video games were a first key to understand more about facets of yourself through them. For me gaming is like water being added to the creative sandbox. There is fusion inside of game worlds — narrative, music, performance, design, problem solving, communication, so many different factors of life and creativity that converge within a pliable file. Some of the most Final Fantasies of games are now realities. Users move place to place using many maps and system menus on their devices. The physical world so closely bonded by users like me that brought bits of the game out with us. Recently I spent several months wandering around inside of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoyed the narrative of the main storyline though I was far more interested in having quiet moments away from all of the violence. I named my horse Sontag and went out exploring, taking photographs and using slow motion game exploits to make videos. Several months as the weary cowboy named Arthur, and then I carried on my way. I take bits and pieces with me on the way.

LaTurbo’s Overwatch avatar

ALG: As you’ve gone across different games and platforms like Red Dead Redemption 2 are there specific people you’ve made friends with? How have your friendships formed in these different communities and do they travel between games? 

LaTurbo: I have had many gaming friends. Virtual friends overlap between all of these worlds. My Facebook friends are not very different than those I fight with in Overwatch or the ones I challenge scores with in Tetris Effect.

ALG: One thing you’ve said about gaming and I’ll read the quote straight out:

“I love the MMO or massively multiplayer online experience for a lot of reasons but primarily because I want to create works collaboratively with my network, because we are in this moment together. For a long time virtual worlds were partitioned from the public because you either had to be invested in gaming or a chat room/ BBS user to get into them.”

I want to explore that. Gaming has come a long way in the 10 years since you were created. It’s more widespread now. Things like Fortnite. I saw that Red Dead Redemption is introducing a Fortnite like feature where they’re going to have battle royale mode and toss people into a battle zone and force them to search for weapons to survive. I think a lot of people are looking at the success of Fortnite and replicating elements of it. Can you comment on how gaming has become more widespread or more in the public mind and what you think of the rise of Fortnite?

LaTurboOur histories are fluid, intersecting and changing depending on the world we choose to inhabit. Sometimes we are discussing art on Instagram. Other times we are discussing game lore or customization of ourselves. This variety is so important to me. There is a lot exchanged between worlds like Fortnite and the general physical day to day. Expectations are real and high. The battle royale model has pushed people to a sort of edge at all times. A constant pressure of chance and risk, it crosses between games but also into general attention. Video apps like TikTok have a similar model — always needing to have the drop on the creators around you.

ALG: It’s interesting that tension. These games are driven to create competition. They are businesses so they’re supposed to build in loops and mechanics that keep people engaging. But as you describe of your experience in Red Redemption you’ve also found quiet moments of exploration being alone and not necessarily fiercely competing. 

LaTurbo: Red Dead could be a hundred games in one. Yet for some reason we come back to the royale again. It is a maximal experience in a lot of ways. One that uses failure and frustration to keep users trying again perpetually. This is a telling sign as you’ve said about the business of games. The loop. I worry that this is a risky model because it doesn’t encourage a level of introspection very often.

ALG: I love video games but have never been a fan of first person shooters. I don’t enjoy the violence. But I’ve always loved strategy and exploration games. To your point about exploring, I would spend hours wandering on Epona [the horse] in Zelda, running across the fields. But I didn’t feel that a lot of those games were designed for women or people who weren’t interested in the violence or the GTA type approach. I’m excited to see more of that happening now and gaming CEOs realizing there’s a huge untapped market of people that want to play in different modes and experience gaming in different ways. It feels like we are moving towards that future. I do want to get in to how you have expanded beyond gaming. I’ll read some of your quotes from when you started out:

“I’ve been making work in digital environments since 2008 to 2009, though I’ve only been using social media for about a year now since I can’t go out and mingle with people it’s been quite nice to use social platforms to share my work. This way I can be in real life IRL as much as people allow me to be.”

I want to get to the question of how you’ve expanded from gaming to social media, building your Twitter and Instagram presence and how you think about your engagement on those platforms.

LaTurbo: I celebrate the multiplicity of self. Walt Whitman spoke of their contradictions years ago accepting themselves in the sense that they contain multitudes. As I wandered the fields of fictitious Admiral Grant in Red Dead Redemption 2, it occurred to me that I was wondering inside of Leaves of Grass. It made sense that I too was wandering around out in the fields and trees. Virtual life in poetry, song, or simulation gives us a different sort of armor where our forms can forget about borders, rules and expectations that have yet to change outside.

It has been quite a decade. Events of the past 10 years could easily be the plot of a William Gibson novel. A cyber drama and all its actors. With and without consent users have watched their personal data slip away from their control, quick to release in the terms of service. Quick to be public, to have more followers and visibility. Is it real without the Instagram proof? I chose to socialize away from game worlds for a few different purposes. To imbue my virtual identity with the moment of social media. But also to create a symbol of a general virtual self. A question mark or a mirror, to encourage reflection before people fully drown themselves in the stream.

ALG: One of the reasons it’s fascinating to talk to you now is that you’ve come of age as the Internet has come of age. You’ve navigated and shape-shifted across these platforms. And so much has happened since 2008. You’ve been on everything from Tumblr to Pinterest to Vine to Snapchat to Instagram. I’m curious where you think we are in the life cycle of these social media platforms?

LaTurbo: It has been quite a journey, seeing these services pop up, new fields, new places. But it is clear that not many of these things will remain very long. A new Wild West of sorts. They are more like ingredients in a greater solution as we try to make virtual relationships that are comfortable for both mind and body.

ALG: Speaking of these services popping up I want to get to something you tweeted out, your commentary on Facebook:

“If it wasn’t bad already just imagine how toxic Facebook will be when we collectively decide to break up with them. Anticipate a paid web and an underweb. We just start spinning them out on our own, smaller and away from all these analytics moneymakers. The changeover from MySpace era networks to Facebook felt minimal because it hadn’t become such a market-oriented utility. But this impending social network breakup is going to be felt in all sorts of online sectors.”

That’s an interesting opinion. The delete Facebook movement is strong right now. But I wonder how far it will go and how many people really follow it?

LaTurbo: Business complicates this as companies extend too far and make use of this data for personal gain or manipulation. In the same way that Google Glass failed because of a camera, these services destroy themselves as they breach the trust of those who use them. These companies know that these are toxic relationships whether it is on a game economy or a social network. They know that the leverage over your personal data is valuable. Losing this, our friends, and our histories is frightening. We need to find some way to siphon ourselves and our data back so we can learn to express agency with who we are online. Your data is more valuable than the services that you give it to. The idea that people feel that it is fair to let their accounts be inherently bound to a single service is disturbing. Our virtual lives exceed us and will continue to do so onward into time. Long after us this data may still linger somewhere.

ALG: I’m going to throw in a Twitter poll you did a few months ago. “If you had the choice to join some sort of afterlife simulation that would keep you around forever at the expense of having your data used for miscellaneous third party purposes would you?” 35% said yes and 65% said no in this poll. I bet if you ask that every two years, over time the answers will continue to change as we get more comfortable with our digital identities and what that really means. You’re pushing us to ask these questions.

LaTurboWe see in museums now torn parchments, scrolls, ancient wrappings of lives and histories. As we become more virtual these documents will inherently change too. A markup and data takes this place. However we consent to let it be represented. If we leave this to the Facebooks and Twitters of this period, our histories are in many ways contingent on the survival of these platforms. If not we have lost a dark ages, it is a moment that we will lose forever.

ALG: I’m curious what you think of the different movements to export your personal data, own it, have it travel with you across platforms and build a new pact with the companies. Are you following any of the movements to take back personal data and rewrite the social technological contract?

LaTurboIt would be sad to have less record of this period of innovation and self-discovery because we didn’t back things up or control our data appropriately. Where do you keep it? Who protects it? Who is a steward of your records? All of this needs to begin with the user and end with the user. An album, a solid state tablet of your life, something you can take charge of without concern that it is marketing fodder or some large shared database. As online as we are as a society, I recommend people have an island. Not a cloud but a private place, plugged in when you request it. A drive of your own where you have a private order. Oddly enough in an older world sense you can find solitude in solid states, when you have the retreat to files that are not connected to the Internet.

ALG: And have it backed up and air-gapped from the internet for safety and possibly in a Faraday cage in case you get EMP’ed. One thing that leads on from that — Facebook has capitalized on using our real data, our personal data. I have the statement on authentic identity from their original S-1 here:

“We believe that using your real name, connecting to your real friends and sharing your genuine interests online creates more engaging and meaningful experiences. Representing yourself with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience and we believe that it is central to the future of the Web. Our terms of service require you to use your real name. And we encourage you to be your true self online enabling us and platform developers to provide you with more personalized experiences.”

LaTurbo: The use of a real name, authenticity, and Facebook’s message of truth. It is peculiar that Facebook used this angle because it was such a gloved gesture for them to access our accurate records. The verification is primarily to make businesses comfortable with their investment in marketing. I wish it came to celebrate personal expression not to tune business instruments.

ALG: Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a movement towards Facebook and being our real selves. Now there’s kind of a backlash both to the usage of Facebook but perhaps also to the idea that your real identity, your true self that you have offline, that that’s what you should be representing online. You are an anonymous artist and there’s precedent for that. There have been many writers with nom de plumes over centuries and in the present day we’ve got Daft Punk, Banksy, Elena Ferrante, fascinating creators. I’m curious your thoughts as we move away from real selves being represented online to expressing our other selves online. We’ve been living in an age of shameless self-promotion. Do you think that the rise of people representing themselves with digital avatars is a backlash to that? Society usually goes through a back and forth, a struggle for balance. Do you think people are getting disenchanted with the unrelenting narcissism of social media, the celebrity worship culture? Do you think this is a bigger movement that’s going to stick?

LaTurbo: I see this as an opportunity and I am wary of this chance being usurped by business. If I had the chance to see all of my friends in the avatar forms of their wishes and dreams I believe I’d be seeing them for the first time. A different sort of wholeness against the sky, where they had the chance to say and be exactly what they wished others to find. If you haven’t created an avatar before please do. Explore yourself in many facets before these virtual spaces get twisted into stratified arenas of business.

A full talk from LaTurbo Avedon is available here

I don’t seek to be anonymous but to represent myself in this strand of experiences, fully. That’s who I have become. As an artist I will continue to change with what surrounds me. Each step forward. Each new means of making and learning. I celebrate this and who I will become, even if I continue to find definition over a period of time that I right now cannot fully comprehend.

I am often in the company of crude avatars of the past. As I read journals, view sketches and works from artists past, if they understood their avatar identities and how they would be here now in 2019. I wonder what they would have done differently. What would they think of their graphic design and exhibitions? How their work is shown in other mediums? How their work is sold?

ALG: Taking that with your earlier point, you said if you had the chance you would love to see all your friends in their avatar forms “express all their wishes and dreams.” It fascinates me, the idea that we persistently remain one to one with our offline/online identities. It doesn’t make sense. I feel like everyone has multiple selves and multiple things to express. Do you feel that most people should have a digital identity or abstraction? Do you think it’s healthy to have an extension of something that’s inside of you, especially since as you say some of these avatars are pretty crude. How do you feel about most people creating a digital avatar? People have been doing this for a while without realizing through things like a Tinder bio or Instagram stories. They’re already putting out ideas of themselves. But creating true anonymous digital avatars, is that something people should pursue?

LaTurbo: Avatars remain in places that we often don’t even intend them to. Symbols of self. For those that pass or those we never had the chance to meet, there seems to be importance here. To need to take this seriously so that it isn’t misunderstood. The most beautiful experiences I’ve had online are when I feel I am interacting with a user how they wish to be seen. Whether this is in the present or for people later, finding this inward representation feels essential especially for those exposed to oppressive societies. Whether it’s toxic masculinity, cultural restrictions, or other hindrances that prevent people from showing deeper parts of their identity.

I have four essential asks of users creating avatars. Though these apply well outside of just this topic. 1/ Be sweet. 2/ Encourage others to explore themselves and all of their differences. 3/ Learn about the history of virtual identities, now, then, and long before. This means going back. Read about identities before the internet, pen names, mythologies. 4/ Celebrate your ownership of self. You, not your services, subscriptions, or products, are the one to decide your way. Don’t become billboards. I’ve been asked by many companies over the years to promote their products, to drop the branded text on my clothing or to push a new service. These are exciting times but brands know this too. Be wary of exploitation. Protect yourself and your heart.

ALG: That’s really beautiful and important. We’re rushing into this future fast and I don’t think people are stopping to pause and think about some of the ideas you’ve spent a long time thinking about. It’s probably a good place to end. I have a million more things I want to ask, hopefully we can continue this chat over Discord, Twitter, Instagram, Second Life or wherever it is. I’m in VR a lot so I’d love to meet you in there. If there’s anything you want to end on, any final comments or projects you’re working on?

LaTurbo: Yes I agree with you very much. Technology moves quickly but we need to take the time to consider ourselves as we move inside this space. We have so much potential to be inside and out simultaneously. I am excited for this new year. I hope it brings positivity to everyone. I am showing a new piece called “Afterlife Beta” in London at the Arebyte Gallery. After this I will be working on my first monograph. I am excited to make something printed that might stick around in the physical world for a while.

ALG: That’s awesome. Love a good physical piece. And congratulations on “Afterlife Beta.” I appreciate your patience with my jumping in at all times in this conversation. I’ve been following your work and hope everyone else will too. You’re a fascinating, critical thinker and artist at this current point in history. Thanks LaTurbo.

LaTurbo: Thank you for your patience with my format. As time goes on I hope it is easier for us to be here together.