Facebook’s Oversight Board will review the decision to suspend Trump

Facebook announced Thursday that its newly-established external policy review group will take on one of the company’s most consequential acts: the decision to suspend former President Trump.

On January 7, Facebook suspended Trump’s account indefinitely. That decision followed the president’s actions the day prior, when he incited a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, leaving American democracy on a razor’s edge and a nation already deep in crisis even more shaken.

Facebook VP of Global Affairs and Communications Nick Clegg called the circumstances around Trump’s suspension an “unprecedented set of events which called for unprecedented action” and explained why the Oversight Board would review the case.

“Our decision to suspend then-President Trump’s access was taken in extraordinary circumstances: a US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power; five people killed; legislators fleeing the seat of democracy,” Clegg said in a blog post.

“This has never happened before — and we hope it will never happen again.”

In its own statement on taking the case, the Oversight Board explained that a five member panel will evaluate the case soon with a decision planned within 90 days. Once that smaller group reaches its conclusions on how to handle Trump’s Facebook status — and, potentially, future cases involving world leaders — the decision will require approval from the majority of the board’s members. After that, the pace picks up a bit and Facebook will have one week to implement the board’s final decision.

Facebook likes to say that the board is independent, but in spite of having the autonomy to make “binding” case-by-case decisions, the board grew out of Facebook itself. The company appointed the board’s four original co-chairs and those members went on to expand the group into a twenty-member body.

As we’ve previously reported, the mechanics of the board bias its activity toward Facebook content taken down — not the stuff that stays up, which generally creates larger headaches for the company and society at large. Facebook has responded to this critique, noting that while the board may initially focus on reviewing takedowns, content still up on the platforms will be part of the project’s scope “as quickly as possible.”

Given some of the criticism around the group, the Trump case is a big moment for how impactful the board’s decisions will really wind up being. If it were to overturn Facebook’s decision, that decision would likely kick up a new firestorm of interest around Trump’s Facebook account, even as the former president recedes from the public eye.

The most interesting bit about the process is that it will allow the former president’s account admins to appeal his own case. If they do so, the board will review a “user statement” arguing why Trump’s account should be reinstated.

Facebook’s external decision making body is meant as a kind of “supreme court” for the company’s own policy making. It doesn’t really move quickly or respond in the moment, but instead seeks to establish precedents that can lend insight to future policy cases. While the per-case decisions are binding, whether the broader precedents it creates will impact Facebook’s future policy decisions remains to be seen.

TikTok’s new Q&A feature lets creators respond to fan questions using text or video

TikTok is testing a new video Q&A feature that allows creators to more directly respond to their audience’s questions with either text or video answers, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. The feature works across both video and livestreams (TikTok LIVE), but is currently only available to select creators who have opted into the test, we understand.

Q&A’s have become a top way creators engage fans on social media, and have proven to be particularly popular in places like Instagram Stories and in other social apps like Snapchat-integrated YOLO, or even in smaller startups.

On TikTok, however, Q&A’s are now a big part of the commenting experience, as many creators respond to individual comments by publishing a new video that explains their answer in more detail than a short, text comment could. Sometimes these answers are meant to clarify or add context, while other times creators will take on their bullies and trolls with their video responses. As a result, the TikTok comment section has grown to play a larger role in shaping TikTok trends and culture.

Q&A’s are also a key means for creators to engage with fans when live streaming. But it can be difficult for creators to keep up with a flood of questions and comments through the current live chat interface.

Seeing how creators were already using Q&A’s with their fans is how the idea for the new feature came about. Much like the existing “reply to comments with video” feature, the Q&A option lets creators directly respond to their audience questions. Where available, users will be able to designate their comments as questions by tapping the Q&A button in a video’s comment field, or they can submit questions directly through the Q&A link on the creator’s profile page.

For creators, the feature simplifies the process of responding to questions, as it lets them view all their fans’ questions in one place.

There’s no limit to the number of questions that a creator can receive, though they don’t have to reply to each one.

The feature was first spotted by social media consultant Matt Navarra, who posted screenshots of what the feature looks like in action, including how it appears on users’ profiles.

During the test, the new Q&A feature is only being made available to creators with public Creator Accounts that have over 10,000 followers and who have opted into the feature within their Settings, TikTok confirmed to TechCrunch. Participants in the test today include some safelisted creators from TikTok’s Creative Learning Fund program, announced last year, among others.

TikTok says the Q&A feature is currently in testing globally, and it aims to roll out it to more users with Creator Accounts in the weeks ahead.

Facebook and Instagram’s AI-generated image captions now offer far more details

Every picture posted to Facebook and Instagram gets a caption generated by an image analysis AI, and that AI just got a lot smarter. The improved system should be a treat for visually impaired users, and may help you find your photos faster in the future.

Alt text is a field in an image’s metadata that describes its contents: “A person standing in a field with a horse,” or “a dog on a boat.” This lets the image be understood by people who can’t see it.

These descriptions are often added manually by a photographer or publication, but people uploading photos to social media generally don’t bother, if they even have the option. So the relatively recent ability to automatically generate one — the technology has only just gotten good enough in the last couple years — has been extremely helpful in making social media more accessible in general.

Facebook created its Automatic Alt Text system in 2016, which is eons ago in the field of machine learning. The team has since cooked up many improvements to it, making it faster and more detailed, and the latest update adds an option to generate a more detailed description on demand.

The improved system recognizes 10 times more items and concepts than it did at the start, now around 1,200. And the descriptions include more detail. What was once “Two people by a building” may now be “A selfie of two people by the Eiffel Tower.” (The actual descriptions hedge with “may be…” and will avoid including wild guesses.)

But there’s more detail than that, even if it’s not always relevant. For instance, in this image the AI notes the relative positions of the people and objects:

The Facebook smartphone app showing detailed captions for an image.

Image Credits: Facebook

Obviously the people are above the drums, and the hats are above the people, none of which really needs to be said for someone to get the gist. But consider an image described as “A house and some trees and a mountain.” Is the house on the mountain or in front of it? Are the trees in front of or behind the house, or maybe on the mountain in the distance?

In order to adequately describe the image, these details should be filled in, even if the general idea can be gotten across with fewer words. If a sighted person wants more detail they can look closer or click the image for a bigger version — someone who can’t do that now has a similar option with this “generate detailed image description” command. (Activate it with a long press in the Android app or a custom action in iOS.)

Perhaps the new description would be something like “A house and some trees in front of a mountain with snow on it.” That paints a better picture, right? (To be clear, these examples are made up, but it’s the sort of improvement that’s expected.)

The new detailed description feature will come to Facebook first for testing, though the improved vocabulary will appear on Instagram soon. The descriptions are also kept simple so they can be easily translated to other languages already supported by the apps, though the feature may not roll out in other countries simultaneously.

India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy, expresses ‘grave concerns’

India has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the planned change to its privacy policy, posing a new headache to Facebook-owned service that identifies the South Asian nation as its biggest market by users.

In an email to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, the nation’s IT ministry said WhatsApp’s planned update to its data-sharing policy raised “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens… Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes.”

The ministry also sought clarification from WhatsApp on its data-sharing agreement with Facebook and other commercial firms and has asked why users in the EU are exempt from the new privacy policy but users in India have no choice but to comply.

“Such a differential treatment is prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern by the government,” the ministry wrote, adding that “the government of India owes a sovereign responsibility to its citizens to ensure that their interests are not compromised and therefore it calls upon WhatsApp to respond to concerns raised in this letter.”

Through an in-app alert earlier this month, WhatsApp had asked users to agree to new terms of conditions that grants the app the consent to share with Facebook some personal data about them, such as their phone number and location. Users were initially provided until February 8 to comply with the new policy if they wished to continue using the service. (WhatsApp has since offered clarification and also deferred the enforcement date of the planned policy.)

“This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach takes away any meaninful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security,” the ministry said in the email, a copy of which was reviewed by TechCrunch.

New Delhi also noted that it is reviewing the Personal Data Protection Bill, which is meant to oversee how data of users are shared with third-party firms. “Since the Parliament is seized of the issue, making such a momentous change for Indian users at this time puts the cart before the horse. Since the Personal Data Protection Bill strongly follows the principle of ‘purpose limitation,’ these changes may lead to significant implementational challenges for WhatsApp should the Bill become an Act,” the letter said.

More to follow…

Cryptocat author gets insanely fast backing to build p2p tech for social media

The idea for Capsule started with a tweet about reinventing social media.

A day later cryptography researcher, Nadim Kobeissi — best known for authoring the open source e2e encrypted desktop chat app Cryptocat (now discontinued) — had pulled in a pre-seed investment of $100,000 for his lightweight mesh-networked microservices concept, with support coming from angel investor and former Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, William J. Pulte and Wamda Capital.

The nascent startup has a post-money valuation on paper of $10M, according to Kobeissi, who is working on the prototype — hoping to launch an MVP of Capsule in March (as a web app), after which he intends to raise a seed round (targeting $1M-$1.5M) to build out a team and start developing mobile apps.

For now there’s nothing to see beyond Capsule’s landing page and a pitch deck (which he shared with TechCrunch for review). But Kobeissi says he was startled by the level of interest in the concept.

“I posted that tweet and the expectation that I had was that basically 60 people max would retweet it and then maybe I’ll set up a Kickstarter,” he tells us. Instead the tweet “just completely exploded” and he found himself raising $100k “in a single day” — with $50k paid in there and then.

“I’m not a startup guy. I’ve been running a business based on consulting and based on academic R&D services,” he continues. “But by the end of the day — last Sunday, eight days ago — I was running a Delaware corporation valued at $10M with $100k in pre-seed funding, which is insane. Completely insane.”

Capsule is just the latest contender for retooling Internet power structures by building infrastructure that radically decentralizes social platforms to make speech more resilient to corporate censorship and control.

The list of decentralized/p2p/federated protocols and standards already out there is very long — even while usage remains low. Extant examples include ActivityPub, Diaspora, Mastodon, p2p Matrix, Scuttlebutt, Solid and Urbit, to name a few.

Interest in the space has been rekindled in recent weeks after mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter took decisions to shut down US president Donald Trump’s access to their megaphones — a demonstration of private power that other political leaders have described as problematic

Kobeissi also takes that view, while adding the caveat that he’s not “personally” concerned about Trump’s deplatforming. But he says he is concerned about giant private corporations having unilateral power to shape Internet speech — whether takedown decisions are being made by Twitter’s trust & safety lead or Amazon Web Services (which recently yanked the plug on right-wing social network Parler for failing to moderate violent views).

He also points to a lawsuit that’s been filed in US court seeking damages and injunctive relief from Apple for allowing Telegram, a messaging platform with 500M+ users, to be made available through its iOS App Store — “despite Apple’s knowledge that Telegram is being used to intimidate, threaten, and coerce members of the public” — raising concerns about “the odds of these efforts catching on”.

“That is kind of terrifying,” he suggests.

Capsule would seek to route around the risk of mass deplatforming via “easy to deploy” p2p microservices — starting with a forthcoming web app.

“When you deploy Capsule right now — I have a prototype that does almost nothing running — it’s basically one binary. And you get that binary and you deploy it and you run it, and that’s it. It sets up a server, it contacts Let’s Encrypt, it gets you a certificate, it uses SQLite for the database, which is a server-less database, all of the assets for the web server are within the binary,” he says, walking through the “really nice technical idea” which snagged $100k in pre-seed backing insanely fast.

“There are no other files — and then once you have it running, in that folder when you set up your capsule server, it’s just the Capsule program and a Capsule database which is a file. And that’s it. And that is so self-contained that it’s embeddable everywhere, that’s migratable — and it’s really quite impossible to get this level of simplicity and elegance so quickly unless you go this route. Then, for the mesh federation thing, we’re just doing HTTPS calls and then having decentralized caching of the databases and so on.”

Among the Twitter back-and-forth about how (or whether) Kobeissi’s concept differs to various other decentralized protocols, someone posted a link to this XKCD cartoon — which lampoons the techie quest to resolve competing standards by proposing a tech that covers all use-cases (yet is of course doomed to increase complexity by +1). So given how many protocols already offer self-hosted/p2p social media services it seems fair to ask what’s different here — and, indeed, why build another open decentralized standard?

Kobeissi argues that existing options for decentralizing social media are either: A) not fully p2p (Mastodon is “self-hosted but not decentralized”, per a competitive analysis on Capsule’s pitch deck, ergo its servers are “vulnerable to Parler-style AWS takedowns”); or B) not focused enough on the specific use-case of social media (some other decentralized protocols like Matrix aim to support many more features/apps than social media and therefore can’t be as lightweight is the argument); or C) simply aren’t easy enough to use to be more than a niche geeky option.

He talks about Capsule having the same level of focus on social media as Signal does on private messaging, for example — albeit intending it to support both short-form ‘tweet’ style public posts and long-form Medium-style postings. But he’s vocal about not wanting any ‘bloat’.

He also invokes Apple’s ‘design for usability’ philosophy. Albeit, it’s a lot easier to say you want to design something that ‘just works’ vs actually pulling off effortless mainstream accessibility. But that’s the bar Kobeissi is setting himself here.

“I always imagine Glenn Greenwald when I think of my user,” he says on the usability point, referring to the outspoken journalist and Intercept co-founder who recently left to launch his own newsletter-based offering on Substack. “He’s the person I see setting this up. Basically the way that this would work is he’d be able to set this up or get someone to set it up really easily — I think Capsule is going to offer automated deployments as also a way to make revenue, by the way, i.e. for a bit extra we deploy the server for you and then you’re self-hosting but we also make a margin off of that — but it’s going to be open source, you can set it up yourself as well and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not going to be hindered at all in that sense.

“In the case of Capsule, each content creator has their own website — has their own address, like Capsule.Greenwald.com — and then people go there and their first discovers of the mesh is through people that they’re interested in hearing from.”

Individual Capsules would be decentralized from the risk of platform-level censorship since they’d be beyond the reach of takedowns by a single centralizing entity. Although they would still be being hosted on the web — and therefore could be subject to a takedown by their own web host. That means illegal speech on Capsule could still be removed. However there wouldn’t be a universal host that could be hit up with the risk of a whole platform being taken down at a sweep — as Parler just was by AWS.

“For every takedown it is entirely between that Capsule user and their hosting provider,” says Kobeissi. “Capsule users are going to have different hosting providers that they’re able to choose and then every time that there is a takedown it is going to be a decision that is made by a different entity. And with a different — perhaps — judgement, so there isn’t this centralized focus where only Amazon Web Services decides who gets to speak or only Twitter decides.”

And while the business of web hosting at platform giant level involves just a handful of cloud hosting giants able to offer the required scalability, he argues that that censorship-prone market concentration goes away once you’re dealing with scores of descentralized social media instances.   

“We have the big hosting providers — like AWS, Azure, Google Cloud — but aside from that we have a lot of tiny hosting providers or small businesses… Sure if you’re running a big business you do get to focus on these big providers because they allow you to have these insane servers that are very powerful and deployable very easily but if you’re running a Capsule instance, as a matter of fact, the server resource requirements of running a Capsule instance are generally speaking quite small. In most instances tiny.”

Content would also be harder to scrub from Capsule because the mesh infrastructure would mean posts get mirrored across the network by the poster’s own followers (assuming they have any). So, for example, reposts wouldn’t just vanish the moment the original poster’s account was taken down by their hosting provider.

Separate takedown requests would likely be needed to scrub each reposted instance, adding a lot more friction to the business of content moderation vs the unilateral takedowns that platform giants can rain down now. The aim is to “spare the rest of the community from the danger of being silenced”, as Kobeissi puts it.

Trump’s deplatforming does seem to have triggered a major penny dropping moment for some that allowing a handful of corporate giants to own and operate centalized mass communication machines isn’t exactly healthy for democratic societies as this unilateral control of infrastructure gives them the power to limit speech. (As, indeed, their content-sorting algorithms determine reach and set the agenda of much public debate.)

Current social media infrastructure also provides a few mainstream chokepoints for governments to lean on — amplifying the risk of state censorship.

With concerns growing over the implications of platform power on data flows — and judging by how quickly Kobeissi’s tweet turned heads — we could be on the cusp of an investor-funded scramble to retool Internet infrastructure to redefine where power (and data) lies.

It’s certainly interesting to note that Twitter recently reupped its own decentralized social media open standard push, Bluesky, for example. It obviously wouldn’t want to be left behind any such shift.

“It seems to really have blown up,” Kobeissi adds, returning to his week-old Capsule concept. “I thought when I tweeted that I was maybe the only person who cared. I guess I live in France so I’m not really in tune with what’s going on in the US a lot — but a lot of people care.”

“I am not like a cypherpunk-style person these days, I’m not for full anonymity or full unaccountability online by any stretch,” he adds. “And if this is abused then sincerely it might even be the case that we would encourage — have a guidelines page — for hosting providers like on how to deal with instances of someone hosting an abusive Capsule instance. We do want that accountability to exist. We are not like a full on, crazy town ‘free speech’ wild west thing. We just think that that accountability has to be organic and decentralized — just as originally intended with the Internet.”

Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg explains his plans for taking the company public

Bustle Digital Group — owner of Bustle, Inverse, Input, Mic and other titles — could eventually join the ranks of startups going public via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

During an interview about the state of BDG and the digital media industry at the end of 2020, founder and CEO Bryan Goldberg laid out ambitious goals for the next few years.

“Where do I want to see the company in three years? I want to see three things: I want to be public, I want to see us driving a lot of profits and I want it to be a lot bigger, because we’ve consolidated a lot of other publications,” he said.

He added that those goals connect, because by going public, BDG can raise “hundreds of millions dollars,” which Goldberg wants to use to “buy a lot of media companies.”

That might seem like bluster after a year in which many digital media companies (including BDG) had to make serious cuts. But Goldberg said that the company would be profitable in 2020, with revenue that’s “a little bit under $100 million.” And it won’t be the first digital media company to take a similar route — Group Nine created a SPAC that went public last week.

“I want to prove that we can be highly profitable,” he said. “A lot of startups don’t have that goal. A lot of VCs tell their startups: Don’t worry about profits, don’t worry about losing money. I don’t believe in that.”

In addition to his plans to go public, Goldberg also discussed how acquisitions have helped Bustle’s business, his joint venture to purchase W Magazine and digital media’s “overcapitalization” problem. You can read our full conversation, edited for length and clarity, below.

TechCrunch: The last time I caught up with someone at BDG, it was with [the company’s president Jason Wagenheim] and that was when you guys were dealing with the initial fallout [from the pandemic]. Now we’re a lot further into whatever this new world is, so what is your sense of where BDG is now, versus where it was in the early days of the pandemic?

Bryan Goldberg: It might be the craziest, most eventful six months for many of us in our lives. And certainly, for those of us in this industry, the difference between April and October, it’s really hard to fathom, it’s complete night and day. April was a very frightening time for everyone, personally and professionally across the country, across the world.

From an advertising standpoint, it was a really scary time, because we have clients across every industry, and every industry was impacted differently. We have clients who were greatly impacted — theme parks, car makers, hotel companies, airlines — and then we had clients who were not as badly affected, such as a lot of CPG clients, who everybody depended upon so much during the pandemic.

There was a huge pause in our business in in March, April and May. For a lot of clients, tossing advertising was a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the sudden shock of COVID, and so we saw a huge negative impact in our second quarter. What we started to see in the third quarter, and especially now in the fourth quarter, is now that the shock of COVID is behind us, the macro trends that were catalyzed by COVID are now moving into the forefront.

The story of media is no longer about the shock of COVID. The story of media is now about all of the changes to our world, and changes to our industry that were brought about as a consequence of COVID.

The good news for our company, and the good news for other digital media companies, is it looks like the future is being accelerated. It looks like people are watching less television, and so advertisers are moving their budgets into digital faster than they would have had it not been for COVID. Even things like live sports, [their] TV ratings are way down. And a lot of advertisers are saying, “Is there efficacy anymore in cable television or broadcast television?” And the magazine industry was heavily impaired, simply because magazines are a physical medium, and people didn’t want to pass around magazines or read magazines at the dentist’s office, so we probably saw some print budget move into digital as well.

Industry analysts now are going to take up their estimates of what digital revenue is going to look like in 2021, 2022 and beyond. I also think we’ve seen a world in which a lot of brand advertisers are starting to think about what happens when they start to spend beyond Facebook and Google. For most of the last three years, there’s been so much talk about the duopoly, the idea that Facebook and Google are going to eat almost every last dollar of advertising. What we’ve seen in the last three months is advertisers saying that this needs to be the moment in which they learn how to deploy advertising spend digitally beyond Facebook or Google.

No, it doesn’t mean they’re all pulling out of Facebook — Facebook and Google are doing just fine. But there are still tens of billions of dollars that need to be deployed outside of Facebook and Google. And you’re seeing winners such as Snapchat, Pinterest. Both had incredibly strong earnings. They’re benefiting from the same thing that benefits Bustle Digital Group and a lot of other digital media players who aren’t Facebook and Google, which is you’re seeing big ad spenders finally deciding that now’s the time to find other ways to deploy advertising spend.

I think those are the two big trends: Dollars moving to digital out of TV faster than we thought, and major advertisers using now as a time to find other channels beyond Facebook and Google.

So when you look at how that is impacting Bustle’s business, has it returned to pre-COVID levels?

For us, when we reflect upon the year 2020, we see that we had a great first quarter, we see that we’re having an incredible fourth quarter, and we have a big, epic crater in the second and third quarters. So when we look at the year, we basically have to say to ourselves, if it were not for that crater in the second and third quarters, what would this year have looked like? We would have had revenue well in excess of $100 million. Now, we’re gonna have revenue a little bit under $100 million.

But when we think about how we prepare for 2021 and set goals for 2021, we have to set goals for 2021 as though COVID had never happened, we have to set goals for 2021 without using Q2 and Q3 as a sort of excuse for lowering expectations. Because the fourth quarter, the quarter we’re currently in, has exceeded our wildest expectations.

People sort of sat up and took notice of the company because you had a pretty aggressive acquisition strategy. I imagine that strategy had to change a little bit in 2020. To what extent do you feel that ambition is something that you can pick up again?

So to be clear, not only do we feel great about our strategy, our strategy was critical in helping our company survive and ultimately thrive in the wake of the virus. You know, we made two acquisitions [in 2019] — in the science and technology category, we bought Inverse, which is a science and technology publication, and then Josh Topolsky launched a tech-and-gadget publication for us called Input Magazine that’s growing very quickly.

It’s critical that we had that strategy, because no single advertiser category has performed better for us in 2020 than tech — we more than tripled our revenue from technology clients this year, because technology has thrived through COVID. Had we not had an acquisition strategy, had we not diversified into tech media publishing, we certainly would not have had the outcome we had in 2020. That’s just the reality.

Categories like beauty, fashion, retail were very hard hit. Those have traditionally been our bread and butter, and they’re going to be great again, in 2021. But this spring, beauty companies weren’t doing so well, because people weren’t leaving the house. So the strategy worked, in part, because we diversified the categories in which we created content, which allowed us to diversify the advertiser base. And we’re gonna continue full speed ahead in 2021.

Now, you know, we did six acquisitions in 2019. I don’t know if we’ll do six acquisitions in 2021. But I want to do a lot more than one acquisition in 2021.

Tencent-backed Hike, once India’s answer to WhatsApp, has given up on messaging

India’s answer to WhatsApp has completely moved on from messaging.

Hike Messenger, backed by Tencent, Tiger Global and SoftBank and valued at $1.4 billion in 2016, earlier this month announced that it was shutting down Sticker Chat, its messaging app.

The startup, founded by Kavin Bharti Mittal, this month pivoted to two virtual social apps called Vibe and Rush, said Mittal, who is the son of telecom giant Airtel’s chairman Sunil Bharti Mittal.

In a series of tweets earlier this month, Kavin said that India will never have a homegrown messenger that makes inroads in the world’s second largest market unless it chooses to ban Western companies from operating in the nation. “Global network effects are too strong,” he said. WhatsApp has amassed over 450 million users in India, its biggest market by users.

Mittal described opportunities in building virtual worlds as a “much better approach for today’s world that is unconstrained by cheap, fast data and powerful smartphones.”

The end of Hike’s messenger service comes at a time when Signal and Telegram have added tens of millions of users in recent weeks. A planned update to WhatsApp’s data-sharing policy has prompted many of its loyal fans to explore alternatives this month. “Both [Telegram and Signal] are very good. As entities they have the right incentives (more aligned with consumers) unlike Facebook products, tweeted Mittal earlier this month.

In recent years, Hike made bets on stickers and emojis to cater to the younger population in India. In a meeting with TechCrunch in late 2019, Mittal said that the startup was overwhelmed with the engagement stickers on its platform and was working to automate development of personalized stickers.

In a different meeting last year, Mittal showcased emojis that replicated human expressions and a virtual hangout place called HikeLand. Vibe is the rebranded version of HikeLand and the emojis Hike developed will continue to be available to users on both the newer apps, Mittal said earlier this month.

Hike, which has raised more than $260 million to date, had enough runway last year, Mittal said, who hinted that the startup may raise more capital a year later.

Hike also attempted to build its own operating system through acquisition of a startup called Creo. In 2018, Hike launched Total OS that aimed to cater to users with low-cost Android smartphones and slow internet data.

The startup later shut down the project. Mittal told TechCrunch that the arrival of Reliance Jio, which prompted Airtel and Vodafone to lower mobile data tariff on their networks, solved the data issues in the country and Total OS was no longer needed in the market.

Twitter is bringing Moments to Indian social app Dailyhunt

Five years after its launch, Twitter Moments is growing beyond the American social networking platform.

On Monday, Twitter said it had partnered with Dailyhunt to bring Moments to the Indian social app. Dailyhunt app now has a dedicated tab called ‘Twitter Moments India’ to showcase curated tweets pertaining to news and other events in the world’s second largest internet market.

The partnership will allow Twitter to extend its reach in India, where according to mobile insight firm App Annie (data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch), it had fewer than 75 million monthly active users last month. Dailyhunt, which last month raised $100 million from Google, Microsoft and AlphaWave among others, in comparison, claims to reach over 285 million users each day.

Unlike Twitter, Dailyhunt is also popular in smaller Indian cities and towns. The Indian social app, which serves users in 14 local languages, termed its partnership with Twitter as its “biggest collaboration” to date. The companies did not disclose financial terms of the deal.

“At Twitter, we are committed to doing what we can to ensure people can keep up with what the world is talking about at any given time. Moments — a curated set of Tweets about a particular topic — are a powerful way to do so. With this partnership with Dailyhunt, a platform that caters to diverse languages and readers from all parts of India, we are thrilled to extend Twitter Moments to the Dailyhunt app,” said Manish Maheshwari, Managing Director of Twitter India, in a statement. (Twitter is also an investor in Indian social app ShareChat, which in some ways, competes with Dailyhunt.)

Umang Bedi, co-founder of Dailyhunt and former head of Facebook India, said, “the past year has shown us the power of public opinion and awareness and it is incumbent upon us to mobilize this discourse by making information more accessible, more reliable, and more engaging. When a trusted partner with our shared vision of enabling consumers to create and share information without barriers validates our platform with their presence, we know we are on the right path.”

Threat of inauguration violence casts a long shadow over social media

As the U.S. heads into one of the most perilous phases of American democracy since the Civil War, social media companies are scrambling to shore up their patchwork defenses for a moment they appear to have believed would never come.

Most major platforms pulled the emergency break last week, deplatforming the president of the United States and enforcing suddenly robust rules against conspiracies, violent threats and undercurrents of armed insurrection, all of which proliferated on those services for years. But within a week’s time, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google had all made historic decisions in the name of national stability — and appearances. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit and even Pinterest took their own actions to prevent a terror plot from being hatched on their platforms.

Now, we’re in the waiting phase. More than a week after a deadly pro-Trump riot invaded the iconic seat of the U.S. legislature, the internet still feels like it’s holding its breath, a now heavily-fortified inauguration ceremony looming ahead.

(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s still out there

On the largest social network of all, images hyping follow-up events continued to circulate mid this week. One digital Facebook flyer promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state Capitols,” pushing the dangerous and false conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Facebook says that it’s working to identify flyers calling for “Stop the Steal” adjacent events using digital fingerprinting, the same process it uses to remove terrorist content from ISIS and Al Qaeda. The company noted that it has seen flyers calling for events on January 17 across the country, January 18 in Virginia and inauguration day in D.C.

At least some of Facebook’s new efforts are working: one popular flyer TechCrunch observed on the platform was removed from some users’ feeds this week. A number of “Stop the Steal” groups we’d observed over the last month also unceremoniously blinked offline early this week following more forceful action from the company. Still, given the writing on the wall, many groups had plenty of time to tweak their names by a few words or point followers elsewhere to organize.

With only days until the presidential transition, acronym-heavy screeds promoting QAnon, an increasingly mainstream collection of outrageous pro-Trump government conspiracy theories, also remain easy to find. On one page with 2,500 followers, a QAnon believer pushed the debunked claim that anti-fascists executed the attack on the Capitol, claiming “January 6 was a trap.”

QAnon sign

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On a different QAnon group, an ominous post from an admin issued Congress a warning: “We have found a way to end this travesty! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” The elaborate conspiracy’s followers were well represented at the deadly riot at the Capitol, as the many giant “Q” signs and esoteric t-shirt slogans made clear.

In a statement to TechCrunch about the state of extremism on the platform, Facebook says it is coordinating with terrorism experts as well as law enforcement “to prevent direct threats to public safety.” The company also noted that it works with partners to stay aware of violent content taking root on other platforms.

Facebook’s efforts are and late and uneven, but they’re also more than the company has done to date. Measures from big social networks coupled with the absence of far-right social networks like Parler and Gab have left Trump’s most ardent supporters once again swearing off Silicon Valley and fanning out for an alternative.

Social media migration

Private messaging apps Telegram and Signal are both seeing an influx of users this week, but they offer something quite different from a Facebook or Twitter-like experience. Some expert social network observers see the recent migration as seasonal rather than permanent.

“The spike in usage of messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal will be temporary,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan told TechCrunch. “Most users will either settle on platforms with a social experience, like Gab, MeWe, or Parler, if it returns, or will migrate back to Twitter and Facebook.”

That company uses AI to track how social groups connect online and what they talk about — violent conspiracies included. Morgan believes that propaganda-spreading “performative internet warriors” make a lot of noise online, but a performance doesn’t work without an audience. Others may quietly pose a more serious threat.

“The different types of engagement we saw during the assault on the Capitol mirror how these groups have fragmented online,” Morgan said. “We saw a large mob who was there to cheer on the extremists but didn’t enter the Capitol, performative internet warriors taking selfies, and paramilitaries carrying flex cuffs (mislabeled as “zip ties” in a lot of social conversation), presumably ready to take hostages.

“Most users (the mob) will be back on Parler if it returns, and in the meantime, they are moving to other apps that mimic the social experience of Twitter and Facebook, like MeWe.”

Still, Morgan says that research shows “deplatforming” extremists and conspiracy-spreaders is an effective strategy and efforts by “tech companies from Airbnb to AWS” will reduce the chances of violence in the coming days.

Cleaning up platforms can help turn the masses away from dangerous views, he explained, but the same efforts might further galvanize people with an existing intense commitment to those beliefs. With the winds shifting, already heterogeneous groups will be scattered too, making their efforts desperate and less predictable.

Deplatforming works, with risks

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told TechCrunch that social media companies still need to do much more to prepare for inauguration week. “We saw platforms fall short in their response to the Capitol insurrection,” Greenblatt said.

He cautioned that while many changes are necessary, we should be ready for online extremism to evolve into a more fractured ecosystem. Echo chambers may become smaller and louder, even as the threat of “large scale” coordinated action diminishes.

“The fracturing has also likely pushed people to start communicating with each other via encrypted apps and other private means, strengthening the connections between those in the chat and providing a space where people feel safe openly expressing violent thoughts, organizing future events, and potentially plotting future violence,” Greenblatt said.

By their own standards, social media companies have taken extraordinary measures in the U.S. in the last two weeks. But social networks have a long history of facilitating violence abroad, even as attention turns to political violence in America.

Greenblatt repeated calls for companies to hire more human moderators, a suggestion often made by experts focused on extremism. He believes social media could still take other precautions for inauguration week, like introducing a delay into livestreams or disabling them altogether, bolstering rapid response teams and suspending more accounts temporarily rather than focusing on content takedowns and handing out “strikes.”

“Platforms have provided little-to-nothing in the way of transparency about learnings from last week’s violent attack in the Capitol,” Greenblatt said.

“We know the bare minimum of what they ought to be doing and what they are capable of doing. If these platforms actually provided transparency and insights, we could offer additional—and potentially significantly stronger—suggestions.”

Facebook blocks new events around DC and state capitols

As a precaution against coordinated violence as the U.S. approaches President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, Facebook announced a few new measures it’s putting in place.

In a blog post and tweets from Facebook Policy Communications Director Andy Stone, the company explained that it would block any events slated to happen near the White House, the U.S. Capitol or any state capitol building through Wednesday.

The company says it will also do “secondary” sweeps through any inauguration-related events to look for violations of its policies. At this point, that includes any content connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement perpetuating the rampant lie that Biden’s victory is illegitimate. Those groups continued to thrive on Facebook until measures the company took at the beginning of this week.

Facebook will apparently also be putting new restrictions in place for U.S. users who repeatedly break the company’s rules, including barring those accounts from livestreaming videos, events and group pages.

Those precautions fall short of what some of Facebook’s critics have called for, but they’re still notable measures for a company that only began taking dangerous conspiracies and armed groups seriously in the last year.