How Russia’s online influence campaign engaged with millions for years

Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics and sway public opinion were consistent and, as far as engaging with target audiences, largely successful, according to a report from Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project published today. Based on data provided to Congress by Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Twitter, the study paints a portrait of the years-long campaign that’s less than flattering to the companies.

The report, which you can read here, was published today but given to some outlets over the weekend, summarizes the work of the Internet Research Agency, Moscow’s online influence factory and troll farm. The data cover various periods for different companies, but 2016 and 2017 showed by far the most activity.

A clearer picture

If you’ve only checked into this narrative occasionally during the last couple years, the Comprop report is a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, with no “we take this very seriously” palaver interrupting the facts.

If you’ve been following the story closely, the value of the report is mostly in deriving specifics and some new statistics from the data, which Oxford researchers were provided some seven months ago for analysis. The numbers, predictably, all seem to be a bit higher or more damning than those provided by the companies themselves in their voluntary reports and carefully practiced testimony.

Previous estimates have focused on the rather nebulous metric of “encountering” or “seeing” IRA content put on these social metrics. This had the dual effect of increasing the affected number — to over a hundred million on Facebook alone — but “seeing” could easily be downplayed in importance; after all, how many things do you “see” on the internet every day?

The Oxford researchers better quantify the engagement, on Facebook first, with more specific and consequential numbers. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, nearly 30 million people on Facebook actually shared Russian propaganda content, with similar numbers of likes garnered, and millions of comments generated.

Note that these aren’t ads that Russian shell companies were paying to shove into your timeline — these were pages and groups with thousands of users on board who actively engaged with and spread posts, memes, and disinformation on captive news sites linked to by the propaganda accounts.

The content itself was, of course, carefully curated to touch on a number of divisive issues: immigration, gun control, race relations, and so on. Many different groups (i.e. black Americans, conservatives, Muslims, LGBT communities) were targeted all generated significant engagement, as this breakdown of the above stats shows:

Although the targeted communities were surprisingly diverse, the intent was highly focused: stoke partisan divisions, suppress left-leaning voters, and activate right-leaning ones.

Black voters in particular were a popular target across all platforms, and a great deal of content was posted both to keep racial tensions high and to interfere with their actual voting. Memes were posted suggesting followers withhold their votes, or deliberately incorrect instructions on how to vote. These efforts were among the most numerous and popular of the IRA’s campaign; it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness, but certainly they had reach.

Examples of posts targeting black Americans.

In a statement, Facebook said that it was cooperating with officials and that “Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency.” It also noted that it has “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”

Instagram on the rise

Based on the narrative thus far, one might expect that Facebook — being the focus for much of it — was the biggest platform for this propaganda, and that it would have peaked around the 2016 election, when the evident goal of helping Donald Trump get elected had been accomplished.

In fact Instagram was receiving as much or more content than Facebook, and it was being engaged with on a similar scale. Previous reports disclosed that around 120,000 IRA-related posts on Instagram had reached several million people in the run-up to the election. The Oxford researchers conclude, however, that 40 accounts received in total some 185 million likes and 4 million comments during the period covered by the data (2015-2017).

A partial explanation for these rather high numbers may be that, also counter to the most obvious narrative, IRA posting in fact increased following the election — for all platforms, but particularly on Instagram.

IRA-related Instagram posts jumped from an average of 2,611 per month in 2016 to 5,956 in 2017; note that the numbers don’t match the above table exactly because the time periods differ slightly.

Twitter posts, while extremely numerous, are quite steady at just under 60,000 per month, totaling around 73 million engagements over the period studied. To be perfectly frank this kind of voluminous bot and sock puppet activity is so commonplace on Twitter, and the company seems to have done so little to thwart it, that it hardly bears mentioning. But it was certainly there, and often reused existing bot nets that previously had chimed in on politics elsewhere and in other languages.

In a statement, Twitter said that it has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

Google too is somewhat hard to find in the report, though not necessarily because it has a handle on Russian influence on its platforms. Oxford’s researchers complain that Google and YouTube have been not just stingy, but appear to have actively attempted to stymie analysis.

Google chose to supply the Senate committee with data in a non-machine-readable format. The evidence that the IRA had bought ads on Google was provided as images of ad text and in PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets. This means that Google could have provided the useable ad text and spreadsheets—in a standard machine- readable file format, such as CSV or JSON, that would be useful to data scientists—but chose to turn them into images and PDFs as if the material would all be printed out on paper.

This forced the researchers to collect their own data via citations and mentions of YouTube content. As a consequence their conclusions are limited. Generally speaking when a tech company does this, it means that the data they could provide would tell a story they don’t want heard.

For instance, one interesting point brought up by a second report published today, by New Knowledge, concerns the 1,108 videos uploaded by IRA-linked accounts on YouTube. These videos, a Google statement explained, “were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.”

In fact, all but a few dozen of these videos concerned police brutality and Black Lives Matter, which as you’ll recall were among the most popular topics on the other platforms. Seems reasonable to expect that this extremely narrow targeting would have been mentioned by YouTube in some way. Unfortunately it was left to be discovered by a third party and gives one an idea of just how far a statement from the company can be trusted.

Desperately seeking transparency

In its conclusion, the Oxford researchers — Philip N. Howard, Bharath Ganesh, and Dimitra Liotsiou — point out that although the Russian propaganda efforts were (and remain) disturbingly effective and well organized, the country is not alone in this.

“During 2016 and 2017 we saw significant efforts made by Russia to disrupt elections around the world, but also political parties in these countries spreading disinformation domestically,” they write. “In many democracies it is not even clear that spreading computational propaganda contravenes election laws.”

“It is, however, quite clear that the strategies and techniques used by government cyber troops have an impact,” the report continues, “and that their activities violate the norms of democratic practice… Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”

Predictably, even social networks’ moderation policies became targets for propagandizing.

Waiting on politicians is, as usual, something of a long shot, and the onus is squarely on the providers of social media and internet services to create an environment in which malicious actors are less likely to thrive.

Specifically, this means that these companies need to embrace researchers and watchdogs in good faith instead of freezing them out in order to protect some internal process or embarrassing misstep.

“Twitter used to provide researchers at major universities with access to several APIs, but has withdrawn this and provides so little information on the sampling of existing APIs that researchers increasingly question its utility for even basic social science,” the researchers point out. “Facebook provides an extremely limited API for the analysis of public pages, but no API for Instagram.” (And we’ve already heard what they think of Google’s submissions.)

If the companies exposed in this report truly take these issues seriously, as they tell us time and again, perhaps they should implement some of these suggestions.

They scaled YouTube. Now they’ll shard everyone with PlanetScale

When the former CTOs of YouTube, Facebook, and Dropbox seed fund a database startup, you know there’s something special going on under the hood. Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane saved YouTube from a scalability nightmare by inventing and open sourcing Vitess, a brilliant relational data storage system. But in the decade since working there, the pair have been inundated with requests from tech companies desperate for help building the operational scaffolding needed to actually integrate Vitess.

So today the pair are revealing their new startup PlanetScale that makes it easy to build multi-cloud databases that handle enormous amounts of information without locking customers into Amazon, Google, or Microsoft’s infrastructure. Battletested at YouTube, the technology could allow startups to fret less about their backend and focus more on their unique value proposition. “Now they don’t have to reinvent the wheel” Vaidya tells me. “A lot of companies facing this scaling problem end up solving it badly in-house and now there’s a way to solve that problem by using us to help.”

PlanetScale has quietly raised a $3 million seed round in April led by SignalFire and joined by a who’s who of engineering luminaries. They include YouTube co-founder and CTO Steve Chen, Quora CEO and former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo, former Dropbox CTO Aditya Agarwal, PayPal and Affirm co-founder Max Levchin, MuleSoft co-founder and CTO Ross Mason, Google director of engineering Parisa Tabriz, and Facebook’s first female engineer and South Park Commons Founder Ruchi Sanghvi. If anyone could foresee the need for Vitess implementation services, it’s these leaders who’ve dealt with scaling headaches at tech’s top companies.

But how can a scrappy startup challenge the tech juggernauts for cloud supremacy? First, by actually working with them. The PlanetScale beta that’s now launching lets companies spin up Vitess clusters on its database-as-a-service, their own through a licensing deal, or on AWS with Google Cloud and Microsoft Azure coming shortly. Once these integrations with the tech giants are established, PlanetScale clients can use it as an interface for a multi-cloud setup where they could keep their data master copies on AWS US-West with replicas on Google Cloud in Ireland and elsewhere. That protects companies from becoming dependent on one provider and then getting stuck with price hikes or service problems.

PlanetScale also promises to uphold the principles that undergirded Vitess. “It’s our value that we will keep everything in the query pack completely open source so none of our customers ever have to worry about lock-in” Vaidya says.

PlanetScale co-founders (from left): Jiten Vaidya and Sugu Sougoumarane

Battletested, YouTube Approved

He and Sougoumarane met 25 years ago while at Indian Institute Of Technology Bombay. Back in 1993 they worked at pioneering database company Informix together before it flamed out. Sougoumarane was eventually hired by Elon Musk as an early engineer for X.com before it got acquired by PayPal, and then left for YouTube. Vaidya was working at Google and the pair were reunited when it bought YouTube and Sougoumarane pulled him on to the team.

“YouTube was growing really quickly and the relationship database they were using with MySQL was sort of falling apart at the seams” Vaidya recalls. Adding more CPU and memory to the database infra wasn’t cutting it, so the team created Vitess. The horizontal scaling sharding middleware for MySQL let users segment their database to reduce memory usage while still being able to rapidly run operations. YouTube has smoothly ridden that infrastructure to 1.8 billion users ever since.

“Sugu and Mike Solomon invented and made Vitess open source right from the beginning since 2010 because they knew the scaling problem wasn’t just for YouTube, and they’ll be at other companies 5 or 10 years later trying to solve the same problem” Vaidya explains. That proved true, and now top apps like Square and HubSpot run entirely on Vitess, with Slack now 30 percent onboard.

Vaidya left YouTube in 2012 and became the lead engineer at Endorse, which got acquired by Dropbox where he worked for four years. But in the meantime, the engineering community strayed towards MongoDB-style key-value store databases, which Vaidya considers inferior. He sees indexing issues and says that if the system hiccups during an operation, data can become inconsistent — a big problem for banking and commerce apps. “We think horizontally-scaled relationship databases are more elegant and are something enterprises really need.

Database Legends Reunite

Fed up with the engineering heresy, a year ago Vaidya committed to creating PlanetScale. It’s composed of four core offerings: professional training in Vitess, on-demand support for open source Vitess users, Vitess database-as-a-service on Planetscale’s servers, and software licensing for clients that want to run Vitess on premises or through other cloud providers. It lets companies re-shard their databases on the fly to relocate user data to comply with regulations like GDPR, safely migrate from other systems without major codebase changes, make on-demand changes, and run on Kubernetes.

The PlanetScale team

PlanetScale’s customers now include Indonesian ecommerce giant Bukalapak, and it’s helping Booking.com, GitHub, and New Relic migrate to open source Vitess. Growth is suddenly ramping up due to inbound inquiries. Last month around when Square Cash became the number one app, its engineering team published a blog post extolling the virtues of Vitess. Now everyone’s seeking help with Vitess sharding, and PlanetScale is waiting with open arms. “Jiten and Sugu are legends and know firsthand what companies require to be successful in this booming data landscape” says Ilya Kirnos, founding partner and CTO of SignalFire.

The big cloud providers are trying to adapt to the relational database trend, with Google’s Cloud Spanner and Cloud SQL, and Amazon’s AWS SQL and AWS Aurora. Their huge networks and marketing war chests could pose a threat. But Vaidya insists that while it might be easy to get data into these systems, it can be a pain to get it out. PlanetScale is designed to give them freedom of optionality through its multi-cloud functionality so their eggs aren’t all in one basket.

Finding product market fit is tough enough. Trying to suddenly scale a popular app while also dealing with all the other challenges of growing a company can drive founders crazy. But if it’s good enough for YouTube, startups can trust PlanetScale to make databases one less thing they have to worry about.

YouTube rolls out autoplaying (but silent) videos on its mobile app’s homepage

YouTube on Monday announced a significant change to its mobile app – it will now autoplay videos by default when users are browsing the app’s home page, aka the “Home” tab. Fortunately, the videos will not autoplay with the sound enabled, the company says. Instead, the feature is meant to give users a preview of the video while scrolling through the Home section, so they can better decide if it’s something they want to watch.

The feature, which YouTube calls “Autoplay on Home,” is enabled by default. However, the app will introduce settings that will allow users to control their experience. Users can opt to turn the feature off entirely, if they choose, or they can opt to have autoplay only enabled when they’re connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Autoplay for Home is not an entirely new feature. It’s actually been up-and-running for over half a year for YouTube Premium members on Android. Premium is YouTube’s subscription offering, which removes the ads from YouTube while also offering other perks like downloads for offline access to videos, background play, and access to YouTube Music and YouTube Originals.

Starting this week, Autoplay on Home is rolling out beyond Premium subscribers to all those who use the YouTube app on iOS and Android. As with most launches across YouTube, it’s a staged rollout – meaning you may not see autoplay immediately. YouTube says it will take a few weeks for the rollout to complete.

The company notes it made the decision to expand autoplay because it increases users’ engagement time with videos.

As YouTube explains in an announcement on its product forum (spotted first by Tubefilter): “previewing videos helps you make more informed decisions about whether you want to watch a video, leading to longer engagement with videos you choose to watch.”

The company also detailed its decision further in a YouTube Help video (embedded below) where it noted that autoplay’s launch doesn’t mean thumbnails are going away. Instead, YouTube will display the thumbnail first during a brief pause, before the video begins to autoplay.

With the launch of autoplay, YouTube also noted that captions would become more important.

Today, the number of videos with captions enabled tops 2 billion, it said. The site offers a variety of options for captions, including automated captions (which aren’t always perfect), creator-uploaded captions, and crowdsourced community captions.

It’s not surprising to see YouTube adopt autoplay, given that rivals including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others already do the same, as do some streaming services, like Netflix.

User reaction, following YouTube’s announcement on Twitter, has been mixed. Some people said they were looking forward to the feature, while others lamented that it’s now just another setting they have to turn off.

YouTube rolls out Stories to creators with over 10K subscribers

A year ago, YouTube launched its own take on Stories, with the addition of a new short-form video format called Reels. The feature, which was rebranded as “YouTube Stories” at last year’s VidCon, was initially available only to select YouTube creators. But in June, YouTube said it would expand Stories to all creators with over 10,000 subscribers later in the year. Today, it has done just that.

Now, YouTube is beginning to roll out Stories to a wider set of creators, giving them access to the new creation tools that include the ability to decorate the videos with text, stickers, filters, and more.

The feature is very much inspired by rival social apps like Snapchat and Instagram – except that,  in YouTube’s case, Stories disappear after 7 days, not 24 hours.

The idea behind YouTube Stories is to give creators any easy way to engage with their fans in between their more polished and produced videos. Today’s creators are no longer simply turning a camera on and vlogging – they’re creating professional content that requires editing and a lot of work before publication, for the most part.

Stories let YouTube’s creators engage with fans in between videos or while on the go, offering behind-the-scenes access to their creation process, updates, sneak peeks at upcoming videos, and more.

Some early adopters of the format include FashionByAllyColin and SamirDR Oficial, ChannelFrederator, and Cassandra Bankson. The test group before today was small, and only included creators with over 70,000 subscribers, we understand.

Once enabled, YouTube creators can film a new Story by opening the YouTube app, tapping on the video camera icon, then selecting “Create Story.”

Also new today is the ability for fans to comment on the Stories.

Viewers can thumbs up and thumbs down comments and heart comments, as well. The same comment moderation tools that are available on YouTube’s video uploads are also available on Stories, the company says. Plus, creators can choose to respond directly to fans comments with photos or videos that the whole community can see.

During the week they’re live, YouTube Stories will show up to subscribers on the Subscriptions tab and non-subscribers on Home and in the Up Next list below videos.

Many YouTube creators point their fans to their Instagram for their short-form content and behind-the-scenes action – something that YouTube likely hopes to stem with its launch of Stories.

Today’s expansion brings Stories to a much wider group of creators than before, but YouTube hasn’t said if or when the feature will roll out to its entire user base.

As Taiwan prepares to vote on LGBTQ issues, a homophobic group is running ads before kids videos on YouTube

This Saturday, several issues related to LGBTQ equality, including marriage, are up for referendum in Taiwan’s mid-term elections. A little more than a year after the country’s top court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, the LGBTQ community is once again fighting for their rights due to efforts by anti-gay groups. The battle has reached social media platforms including YouTube, where a group called 3 Yes is running an ad, often appearing before popular children’s videos, that claims teaching about LGBTQ issues in schools will confuse young children about their gender identity.

3 Yes’ name refers to three referendum items (proposals 10, 11, and 12) that anti-gay groups want voters to approve during Saturday’s election. The questions ask voters “Do you agree that marriage should be restricted to being between one man and one woman under the Civil Code?”; “Do you agree that the Ministry of Education and schools at the elementary and junior high level should not teach about homosexuality as detailed in the Gender Equity Education Act?” [passed in 2004 to promote gender equality and prevent discrimination]; and “Do you agree to unions outside of the ones defined as marriage by the Civil Code to protect the right of same-sex couples to live together permanently?”

In an attempt to counteract those proposals, LGBTQ advocacy groups introduced two additional referendums (14 and 15) that ask “Do you agree that the rights of same-sex couples to get married should be guaranteed by the Civil Code’s marriage regulations?” and “Do you agree that gender equity education as defined under the Gender Equity Education Act should be taught at all stages of the national curriculum and include education about emotions, sex, and homosexuality?”

Even though Taiwan’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2017, the fact that the issue and others made it to referendum this year underscores the power of anti-gay groups led by religious conservatives, including the Bread of Life Christian Church, the Happiness of the Next Generation Alliance, and the Alliance of Taiwan Religious Groups for the Protection of the Family. In addition to YouTube videos, groups such as these have also spread homophobic propaganda and misinformation through demonstrations, flyers, banners, and other online platforms including YouTube, Facebook, and Line, one of the most popular messaging apps in Taiwan.

An example of a flyer denouncing education about LGBTQ issues.

3 Yes’ YouTube channel has three videos. Two appear to show same-sex couples before they suddenly veer into messaging that marriage is between one man and one woman. The third, which was uploaded to 3 Yes’ channel a week ago and is currently running as an ad, is even more pernicious.

It opens at a school, with young students looking at a textbook. A girl says “He must be 80% like a girl,” referring to a boy, who gets upset and runs home. Upset, he asks his parents “My classmates are laughing at me for being 80% like a girl. Do you think I’m a boy or girl?” as they look in shock at the textbook. His older sister then turns to their father and says “Dad, you must be 100% girl” as both parents gape at her in horror. The ad cuts to the slogan “Support ACCURATE, AGE-APPROPRIATE gender equity education.”

(It is worth pointing out, considering the video’s misogyny, that Taiwan’s government had to issue guidelines against sex-selective abortions because the preference for boys has skewed the country’s sex ratio).

I am the parent of a toddler and began noticing the ad popping up this week when we watched popular kids’ channels on YouTube. The example embedded was taken before a video by Super Simple Songs, a channel with over 12 million subscribers that features nursery rhymes and other content for very young kids. While I’ve seen it at other times, the frequency it appears in the afternoon and early evening suggests that 3 Yes scheduled their ad to run during those time slots, when many kids are home from school, in front of content targeted to them.

(It is important to note that while YouTube content creators can filter out certain advertisers from running before their videos, many may be unaware of ads like the one by 3 Yes because they aren’t located in the same market. Super Simple Songs, 3 Yes, and Google have all been contacted for comment. When reached through their Facebook page, someone from 3 Yes said they don’t run TV ads. I clarified that I mean YouTube ads and am awaiting a response.)

The ad is especially concerning because it helps the spread of misinformation about sexuality and gender by anti-gay groups in Taiwan. Debates are required for referendums and during one of them, the executive director of the National Alliance of Presidents of Parents Associations, Yang Chun-tzu, stated that children should not learn about homosexual issues during elementary and junior high school because it could influence their sexual orientation. That notion has been debunked by growing mounds of evidence that sexual orientation is mainly determined by genetic factors.

Indeed, statements like the those made by Yang and 3 Yes support the case for more education about LGBTQ issues in Taiwan’s schools, not less. 3 Yes’ video also appears to contravene Google’s new initiative against misinformation, though it’s less clear if it violates its policy against hate speech.

But even if it doesn’t incite physical violence, it promotes harmful stereotypes about LGBTQ people and is a sad echo of other instances when anti-gay ads have run on YouTube, sometimes appearing before videos by LGBTQ YouTubers. It is also a reminder that YouTube’s attempts to make its platform safer for children, including “safeguarding the emotional and physical well-being of minors,” is difficult to enforce.

Imagine being a LGBTQ child in Taiwan and seeing an ad like that pop up while you are watching your favorite channels, at a time when adults are about to vote on the basic rights of LGBTQ people, and you are already confronted every day by banners and flyers that declare you are in a lesser category of human. This is a stark reminder that social media platforms and content creators must pay more attention in different markets to the kind of ads and content that are allowed to be targeted to kids, especially during elections and other politically-charged times.

Google’s News Initiative heads to APAC with grants of up to $300K for media orgs

Google is expanding its efforts to support media to Asia Pacific after the search giant brought its Google News Initiative to the region.

Known as GNI, the program is designed to “help quality journalism thrive in the digital age” by providing grants (i.e. cash without equity) to media organizations that are judged to have potential. The initiative started life in Europe in 2015 with a $170 million funda $300 million U.S-based incarnation went live earlier this year. It has also extended to YouTube after GNI set aside $25 million and pledged to work with media figures to combat fake news and develop new features.

For Asia Pacific, Google isn’t saying precisely how large the kitty is, but it is promising grants of “up to” $300,000 for publishers developing new and innovative business models and revenue streams.

“We are inviting proposals for projects aimed at increasing revenue from readers, including subscriptions, membership programs, contributions and/or new digital products and services. A panel of Googlers and other tech industry executives will review the submissions and fund selected projects up to $300,000 and finance up to 70 percent of the total project cost,” Kate Beddoe, Google’s head of news and publishing partnerships, wrote in a blog post.

A company spokesperson told TechCrunch that the grants will be staggered. Success applicants will be provided with their grant in tranches in exchange for sharing their experiences with the wider community, for example, as materials published online or at events. That information exchange is aimed at helping media within Asia Pacific to learn from each another and more generally share sustainability ideas and war stories.

The fund was announced today but it won’t kick off until 2019.

Those wanting to submit applications can do so at the dedicated website (here) from November 28 until January 9. Google said it’ll provide additional details on December 11 when it will host an “APAC town hall at its Singapore office — the live stream for that is here.

Google isn’t the only one backing media across APAC through grants. Blockchain media startup Civil recently announced a $1 million fund for Asia, although it remains to be seen if that will go ahead since the company canceled its ICO after failing to hit its $8 million minimum target.

YouTube quietly added free, ad-supported movies to its site

YouTube quietly added around 100 ad-supported Hollywood movies to its site, beginning last month, according to a new report from AdAge. The titles include a mix of classics like “Rocky” and “The Terminator,” as well as other family fare like “Zookeeper,” “Agent Cody Banks,” and “Legally Blonde,” among others.

Before, YouTube had only offered consumers the ability to purchase movies and TV shows, similar to how you can rent or buy content from Apple’s iTunes or Amazon Video.

Currently, YouTube is serving ads on these free movies, but the report said the company is open to working out other deals with advertisers – like sponsorships or exclusive screenings.

YouTube’s advantage in this space, compared with some others, is its sizable user base of 1.9 million monthly active users and its ability to target ads using data from Google .

The addition of a an ad-supported movies marketplace on YouTube follows Roku’s entry into this market, which began last year with the launch of its free collection of movies, called The Roku Channel.

This year, Roku has been expanding the type of content on that channel to also include things like live news from ABC News, Cheddar, Newsmax, Newsy, People TV, Yahoo and The Young Turks, and – more recently – entertainment and live sports. 

Walmart also offers its own free movies collection through Vudu, and recently teamed up with MGM on original content for the service. Tubi operates a streaming service with free, ad-supported content, too. And Amazon is rumored to be working on something similar.

 

 

YouTube VR finally lands on the Oculus Go

Today, Google’s YouTube VR app arrives on the $199 Oculus Go, bringing the largest library of VR content on the web to Facebook’s entry-level VR device.

YouTube brings plenty of content in conventional and more immersive video types. It’s undoubtedly the biggest single hub of 360 content and native formats like VR180, though offering access to the library at large is probably far more important to the Oculus platform.

One of the interesting things about Oculus’s strategy with the Go headset is that gaming turned out to be the minority use case following media consumption. If you find it hard to believe that so many people are out there binging on 360 videos it’s because they probably aren’t. Users have kind of co-opted the device’s capabilities to make it a conventional movie and TV viewing device, there are apps from Netflix and Hulu while Facebook has also built Oculus TV, a feature that’s still in its infancy but basically offers an Apple TV-like environment for watching a lot of 2D content in a social environment.

At the company’s Oculus Connect conference this past year CTO John Carmack remarked how about 70 percent of time spent by users on the Go has been watching videos with about 30 percent of user time has gone to gaming. Oculus has positioned itself as a gaming company in a lot of ways via its investments so it will be interesting to see how it grows its mobile platform to make the video aspect of its VR business more attractive.

With YouTube, the company has pretty easy access to effortlessly bringing a bunch of content onboard, this would have been a great partner for Oculus TV, but a dedicated app brings a lot to users. It wasn’t super clear whether Google was going to play hardball with the YouTube app and keep standalone access confined to its Daydream platform, as the company’s homegrown VR ambitions seem to have grown more subdued, it looks like they’ve had some time to focus on external platforms.

You can download the YouTube VR app here.

Facebook Portal needs more. At least it just added YouTube

To offset the creepiness of having Facebook’s camera and microphone in your house, its new Portal video chat gadget needs best-in-class software.  Its hardware is remarkably well done, plus Messenger and the photo frame feature work great. But its third-party app platform was pretty skimpy when the device launched this week.

Facebook is increasingly relying on its smart display competitors to boost Portal’s capabilities. It already comes with Amazon Alexa inside. And now, Google’s YouTube is part of the Portal app platform. “Yes, YouTube.com is available through an optional install in the ‘Portal Apps’ catalog” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. You can open it with a “Hey Portal” command, but there currently seems to be no way to queue up specific videos or control playback via voice.

The addition gives Portal much greater flexibility when it comes to video. Previously it could only play videos from Facebook Watch, Food Network, or Newsy. It also brings the device to closer parity with Google’s Home Hub screen, the Google Assistant-powered smart displays from JBL and Lenovo, and the Amazon Echo Show 2 which Google blocked from using YouTube before Amazon added a web browser to the device to reopen YouTube access.

Read our comparison of the top smart display gadgets

YouTube makes the most of the $349 Portal+’s 15.6-inch 1080p screen, the biggest and sharpest of the smart display crop. Whether for watching shows or recipe videos while making dinner, instructional clips while putting together furniture, or Baby Shark to keep the kids busy, Portal becomes a lot more useful with YouTube.

But we’re still waiting for the most exciting thing Facebook has planned for Portal: Google Assistant. A month ago Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo told me We definitely have been talking to Google as well. We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.” Now a Facebook spokesperson tells me that they “Don’t have an update on Google Assistant today but we’re working on adding new experiences to Portal.”

The potential to put both Google and Amazon’s voice assistants on one device could make Portal’s software stronger than either competitor’s devices. Many critics have asked if Facebook was naive or calloused to launch Portal in the wak of privacy issues like the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its recent data breach. But as I found when testing the Portal with my 72-year-old mother, not everyone is concerned with Facebook’s privacy problems and instead see Portal as a way for the social network to truly bring them closer to their loved ones. With Amazon and Google racing to win the smart display market, Facebook may see it worth the tech insider backlash to have a shot at mainstream success before its boxed out.

20 startups take center stage at Berkeley SkyDeck’s demo day

The largest-ever Berkeley SkyDeck demo day kicked off with a high-energy performance from the Cal marching band, setting the tone for an afternoon of presentations from none other than Berkeley faculty and students-turned-entrepreneurs.

Launched in 2012 as a modest accelerator for student-run businesses, SkyDeck has flourished since its inception. To date, the program has mentored 300 startups, which have gone on to raise $800 million via 27 funding rounds and 10 acquisition deals. Earlier this year, it raised a $24 million venture fund so it could finally seed participating startups with $100,000 in exchange for 5 percent equity. Today’s cohort is only the second to receive an investment from SkyDeck as part of the accelerator.

To participate in SkyDeck’s accelerator program, startups must have at least one founding member attending any of the University of California campuses as an undergraduate or graduate student. Faculty members are also able to apply. Executive director Caroline Winnet said they plan to invest half that fund’s profits back into the university.

Lime, the bike- and scooter-sharing startup, is the biggest success story to emerge from SkyDeck. The company was created by Cal grads Toby Sun and Brad Bao, who were part of a 2017 SkyDeck cohort. Kiwi Campus, a robotics startup focused on last-mile delivery, and TDK-acquired Chirp Microsystems, are also SkyDeck graduates, as is the mental health startup Aura, which announced a $2.5 million financing just last week.

SkyDeck works with two cohorts of companies per year for six months each.

Here’s a look at the 20 startups that demoed for investors on Berkeley’s campus today:

PredictEV: Focused on the sports and esports market, PredictEV is a blockchain-powered social network for fans to bet on sports with cryptocurrency.

Researchably: Targeting medical research, pharma sales and outreach teams, the startup provides a research-based medical advice system.

Triton: A software platform that helps media companies tailor content to each individual reader or viewer. Triton is currently running pilots with Vanity Fair and The CW.

Predictim: An AI-powered platform that accesses a person’s trust and reliability. The purpose is to eliminate risk for members of the sharing economy. Basically, it will help you figure out if your dog-walker is a murderer.

Seamless Microsystems: Designs and manufactures semiconductor chips for consumer medical imaging, 5G networking LIDAR in autonomous driving and more.

SoftRides: Using AI and a smartphone’s image sensor to detect distracted driving behavior and alert you in real time.

Eye Level.AI: Founded by a group of former IBM Watson employees, Eye Level.AI provides an analytics-driven platform to assist chatbot owners to monetize current users and attract new ones.

Eye Level.AI

Perfect Dashboard: An AI-powered online marketplace for connecting SaaS products to small businesses.

The SMBX: A provider of a mobile marketplace that connects small businesses with people interested in investing in them.

Chameleon Biosciences: A startup focused on revolutionizing gene therapy to treat rare diseases.

ThinkCyte: The company has invented new imaging technology combined with machine learning, called Ghost Cytometry, to analyze and isolate cells for drug discovery, cell therapy and clinical diagnostics.

Snipfeed: With 44,000 weekly active users, Snipfeed helps Generation Z mobile users avoid misinformation online with its AI-powered news and information recommendation engine.

DropEx: A business networking app and relationship management system.

Peanut Robotics: The startup’s consumer-facing robot can grip household items to assist with cleaning at hotels, offices and airports.

Empire Biotechnologies: The company is developing therapies for gastrointestinal issues, specifically short bowel syndrome. Empire’s drug is used to control the absorption of nutrients through the digestive system.

Humm: A developer of wearable cognitive performance enhancement hardware created by a group of researchers at the University of Western Australia.

CoolJamm: An automated music producer and recommendation engine that uploads directly to YouTube.

Bungee: Led by three former Amazon employees, Bungee helps e-commerce businesses mine geo-specific data to create a recommendation engine for price, promotions and inventory.

SimpleDataLabs: The creator of Prophecy, a predictive analytics platform focused on business analysts and executives.

Skyloom: The company wants to improve space-to-Earth communications and unlock “the true economic potential of low Earth orbit” with its spaceborne infrastructure.