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June 25, 2019
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Facebook still a great place to amplify pre-election junk news, EU study finds

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A study carried out by academics at Oxford University to investigate how junk news is being shared on social media in Europe ahead of regional elections this month has found individual stories shared on Facebook’s platform can still hugely outperform the most important and professionally produced news stories, drawing as much as 4x the volume of Facebook shares, likes, and comments.

The study, conducted for the Oxford Internet Institute’s (OII) Computational Propaganda Project, is intended to respond to widespread concern about the spread of online political disinformation on EU elections which take place later this month, by examining pre-election chatter on Facebook and Twitter in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and Swedish.

Junk news in this context refers to content produced by known sources of political misinformation — aka outlets that are systematically producing and spreading “ideologically extreme, misleading, and factually incorrect information” — with the researchers comparing interactions with junk stories from such outlets to news stories produced by the most popular professional news sources to get a snapshot of public engagement with sources of misinformation ahead of the EU vote.

As we reported last year, the Institute also launched a junk news aggregator ahead of the US midterms to help Internet users get a handle on manipulative politically-charged content that might be hitting their feeds.

In the EU the European Commission has responded to rising concern about the impact of online disinformation on democratic processes by stepping up pressure on platforms and the adtech industry — issuing monthly progress reports since January after the introduction of a voluntary code of practice last year intended to encourage action to squeeze the spread of manipulative fakes. Albeit, so far these ‘progress’ reports have mostly boiled down to calls for less foot-dragging and more action.

One tangible result last month was Twitter introducing a report option for misleading tweets related to voting ahead of the EU vote, though again you have to wonder what took it so long given that online election interference is hardly a new revelation. (The OII study is also just the latest piece of research to bolster the age old maxim that falsehoods fly and the truth comes limping after.)

The study also examined how junk news spread on Twitter during the pre-EU election period, with the researchers finding that less than 4% of sources circulating on Twitter’s platform were junk news (or “known Russian sources”) — with Twitter users sharing far more links to mainstream news outlets overall (34%) over the study period.

Although the Polish language sphere was an exception — with junk news making up a fifth (21%) of EU election-related Twitter traffic in that outlying case.

Returning to Facebook, while the researchers do note that many more users interact with mainstream content overall via its platform, noting that mainstream publishers have a higher following and so “wider access to drive activity around their content” and meaning their stories “tend to be seen, liked, and shared by far more users overall”, they also point out that junk news still packs a greater per story punch — likely owing to the use of tactics such as clickbait, emotive language, and outragemongering in headlines which continues to be shown to generate more clicks and engagement on social media.

It’s also of course much quicker and easier to make some shit up vs the slower pace of doing rigorous professional journalism — so junk news purveyors can get out ahead of news events also as an eyeball-grabbing strategy to further the spread of their cynical BS. (And indeed the researchers go on to say that most of the junk news sources being shared during the pre-election period “either sensationalized or spun political and social events covered by mainstream media sources to serve a political and ideological agenda”.)

“While junk news sites were less prolific publishers than professional news producers, their stories tend to be much more engaging,” they write in a data memo covering the study. “Indeed, in five out of the seven languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Swedish), individual stories from popular junk news outlets received on average between 1.2 to 4 times as many likes, comments, and shares than stories from professional media sources.

“In the German sphere, for instance, interactions with mainstream stories averaged only 315 (the lowest across this sub-sample) while nearing 1,973 for equivalent junk news stories.”

To conduct the research the academics gathered more than 584,000 tweets related to the European parliamentary elections from more than 187,000 unique users between April 5 and April 20 using election-related hashtags — from which they extracted more than 137,000 tweets containing a URL link, which pointed to a total of 5,774 unique media sources.

Sources that were shared 5x or more across the collection period were manually classified by a team of nine multi-lingual coders based on what they describe as “a rigorous grounded typology developed and refined through the project’s previous studies of eight elections in several countries around the world”.

Each media source was coded individually by two separate coders, via which technique they say was able to successfully label nearly 91% of all links shared during the study period. 

The five most popular junk news sources were extracted from each language sphere looked at — with the researchers then measuring the volume of Facebook interactions with these outlets between April 5 and May 5, using the NewsWhip Analytics dashboard.

They also conducted a thematic analysis of the 20 most engaging junk news stories on Facebook during the data collection period to gain a better understanding of the different political narratives favoured by junk news outlets ahead of an election.

On the latter front they say the most engaging junk narratives over the study period “tend to revolve around populist themes such as anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment, with few expressing Euroscepticism or directly mentioning European leaders or parties”.

Which suggests that EU-level political disinformation is a more issue-focused animal (and/or less developed) — vs the kind of personal attacks that have been normalized in US politics (and were richly and infamously exploited by Kremlin-backed anti-Clinton political disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election, for example).

This is likely also because of a lower level of political awareness attached to individuals involved in EU institutions and politics, and the multi-national state nature of the pan-EU project — which inevitably bakes in far greater diversity. (We can posit that just as it aids robustness in biological life, diversity appears to bolster democratic resilience vs political nonsense.)

The researchers also say they identified two noticeable patterns in the thematic content of junk stories that sought to cynically spin political or social news events for political gain over the pre-election study period.

“Out of the twenty stories we analysed, 9 featured explicit mentions of ‘Muslims’ and the Islamic faith in general, while seven mentioned ‘migrants’, ‘immigration’, or ‘refugees’… In seven instances, mentions of Muslims and immigrants were coupled with reporting on terrorism or violent crime, including sexual assault and honour killings,” they write.

“Several stories also mentioned the Notre Dame fire, some propagating the idea that the arson had been deliberately plotted by Islamist terrorists, for example, or suggesting that the French government’s reconstruction plans for the cathedral would include a minaret. In contrast, only 4 stories featured Euroscepticism or direct mention of European Union leaders and parties.

“The ones that did either turned a specific political figure into one of derision – such as Arnoud van Doorn, former member of PVV, the Dutch nationalist and far-right party of Geert Wilders, who converted to Islam in 2012 – or revolved around domestic politics. One such story relayed allegations that Emmanuel Macron had been using public taxes to finance ISIS jihadists in Syrian camps, while another highlighted an offer by Vladimir Putin to provide financial assistance to rebuild Notre Dame.”

Taken together, the researchers conclude that “individuals discussing politics on social media ahead of the European parliamentary elections shared links to high-quality news content, including high volumes of content produced by independent citizen, civic groups and civil society organizations, compared to other elections we monitored in France, Sweden, and Germany”.

Which suggests that attempts to manipulate the pan-EU election are either less prolific or, well, less successful than those which have targeted some recent national elections in EU Member States. And logic would suggest that co-ordinating election interference across a 28-Member State bloc does require greater co-ordination and resource vs trying to meddle in a single national election — on account of the multiple countries, cultures, languages and issues involved.

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment on the study’s findings.

The company has put a heavy focus on publicizing its self-styled ‘election security’ efforts ahead of the EU election. Though it has mostly focused on setting up systems to control political ads — whereas junk news purveyors are simply uploading regular Facebook ‘content’ at the same time as wrapping it in bogus claims of ‘journalism’ — none of which Facebook objects to. All of which allows would-be election manipulators to pass off junk views as online news, leveraging the reach of Facebook’s platform and its attention-hogging algorithms to amplify hateful nonsense. While any increase in engagement is a win for Facebook’s ad business, so er…

When it comes to elections, Facebook moves slow, may still break things

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This week, Facebook invited a small group of journalists — which didn’t include TechCrunch — to look at the “war room” it has set up in Dublin, Ireland, to help monitor its products for election-related content that violates its policies. (“Time and space constraints” limited the numbers, a spokesperson told us when he asked why we weren’t invited.)

Facebook announced it would be setting up this Dublin hub — which will bring together data scientists, researchers, legal and community team members, and others in the organization to tackle issues like fake news, hate speech and voter suppression — back in January. The company has said it has nearly 40 teams working on elections across its family of apps, without breaking out the number of staff it has dedicated to countering political disinformation. 

We have been told that there would be “no news items” during the closed tour — which, despite that, is “under embargo” until Sunday — beyond what Facebook and its executives discussed last Friday in a press conference about its European election preparations.

The tour looks to be a direct copy-paste of the one Facebook held to show off its US election “war room” last year, which it did invite us on. (In that case it was forced to claim it had not disbanded the room soon after heavily PR’ing its existence — saying the monitoring hub would be used again for future elections.)

We understand — via a non-Facebook source — that several broadcast journalists were among the invites to its Dublin “war room”. So expect to see a few gauzy inside views at the end of the weekend, as Facebook’s PR machine spins up a gear ahead of the vote to elect the next European Parliament later this month.

It’s clearly hoping shots of serious-looking Facebook employees crowded around banks of monitors will play well on camera and help influence public opinion that it’s delivering an even social media playing field for the EU parliament election. The European Commission is also keeping a close watch on how platforms handle political disinformation before a key vote.

But with the pan-EU elections set to start May 23, and a general election already held in Spain last month, we believe the lack of new developments to secure EU elections is very much to the company’s discredit.

The EU parliament elections are now a mere three weeks away, and there are a lot of unresolved questions and issues Facebook has yet to address. Yet we’re told the attending journalists were once again not allowed to put any questions to the fresh-faced Facebook employees staffing the “war room”.

Ahead of the looming batch of Sunday evening ‘war room tour’ news reports, which Facebook will be hoping contain its “five pillars of countering disinformation” talking points, we’ve compiled a run down of some key concerns and complications flowing from the company’s still highly centralized oversight of political campaigning on its platform — even as it seeks to gloss over how much dubious stuff keeps falling through the cracks.

Worthwhile counterpoints to another highly managed Facebook “election security” PR tour.

No overview of political ads in most EU markets

Since political disinformation created an existential nightmare for Facebook’s ad business with the revelations of Kremlin-backed propaganda targeting the 2016 US presidential election, the company has vowed to deliver transparency — via the launch of a searchable political ad archive for ads running across its products.

The Facebook Ad Library now shines a narrow beam of light into the murky world of political advertising. Before this, each Facebook user could only see the propaganda targeted specifically at them. Now, such ads stick around in its searchable repository for seven years. This is a major step up on total obscurity. (Obscurity that Facebook isn’t wholly keen to lift the lid on, we should add; Its political data releases to researchers so far haven’t gone back before 2017.)

However, in its current form, in the vast majority of markets, the Ad Library makes the user do all the leg work — running searches manually to try to understand and quantify how Facebook’s platform is being used to spread political messages intended to influence voters.

Facebook does also offer an Ad Library Report — a downloadable weekly summary of ads viewed and highest spending advertisers. But it only offers this in four countries globally right now: the US, India, Israel and the UK.

It has said it intends to ship an update to the reports in mid-May. But it’s not clear whether that will make them available in every EU country. (Mid-May would also be pretty late for elections that start May 23.)

So while the UK report makes clear that the new ‘Brexit Party’ is now a leading spender ahead of the EU election, what about the other 27 members of the bloc? Don’t they deserve an overview too?

A spokesperson we talked to about this week’s closed briefing said Facebook had no updates on expanding Ad Library Reports to more countries, in Europe or otherwise.

So, as it stands, the vast majority of EU citizens are missing out on meaningful reports that could help them understand which political advertisers are trying to reach them and how much they’re spending.

Which brings us to…

Facebook’s Ad Archive API is far too limited

In another positive step Facebook has launched an API for the ad archive that developers and researchers can use to query the data. However, as we reported earlier this week, many respected researchers have voiced disappointed with what it’s offering so far — saying the rate-limited API is not nearly open or accessible enough to get a complete picture of all ads running on its platform.

Following this criticism, Facebook’s director of product, Rob Leathern, tweeted a response, saying the API would improve. “With a new undertaking, we’re committed to feedback & want to improve in a privacy-safe way,” he wrote.

The question is when will researchers have a fit-for-purpose tool to understand how political propaganda is flowing over Facebook’s platform? Apparently not in time for the EU elections, either: We asked about this on Thursday and were pointed to Leathern’s tweets as the only update.

This issue is compounded by Facebook also restricting the ability of political transparency campaigners — such as the UK group WhoTargetsMe and US investigative journalism site ProPublica — to monitor ads via browser plug-ins, as the Guardian reported in January.

The net effect is that Facebook is making life hard for civil society groups and public interest researchers to study the flow of political messaging on its platform to try to quantify democratic impacts, and offering only a highly managed level of access to ad data that falls far short of the “political ads transparency” Facebook’s PR has been loudly trumpeting since 2017.

Ad loopholes remain ripe for exploiting

Facebook’s Ad Library includes data on political ads that were active on its platform but subsequently got pulled (made “inactive” in its parlance) because they broke its disclosure rules.

There are multiple examples of inactive ads for the Spanish far right party Vox visible in Facebook’s Ad Library that were pulled for running without the required disclaimer label, for example.

“After the ad started running, we determined that the ad was related to politics and issues of national importance and required the label. The ad was taken down,” runs the standard explainer Facebook offers if you click on the little ‘i’ next to an observation that “this ad ran without a disclaimer”.

What is not at all clear is how quickly Facebook acted to removed rule-breaking political ads.

It is possible to click on each individual ad to get some additional details. Here Facebook provides a per ad breakdown of impressions; genders, ages, and regional locations of the people who saw the ad; and how much was spent on it.

But all those clicks don’t scale. So it’s not possible to get an overview of how effectively Facebook is handling political ad rule breakers. Unless, well, you literally go in clicking and counting on each and every ad…

There is then also the wider question of whether a political advertiser that is found to be systematically breaking Facebook rules should be allowed to keep running ads on its platform.

Because if Facebook does allow that to happen there’s a pretty obvious (and massive) workaround for its disclosure rules: Bad faith political advertisers could simply keep submitting fresh ads after the last batch got taken down.

We were, for instance, able to find inactive Vox ads taken down for lacking a disclaimer that had still been able to rack up thousands — and even tens of thousands — of impressions in the time they were still active.

Facebook needs to be much clearer about how it handles systematic rule breakers.

Definition of political issue ads is still opaque

Facebook currently requires that all political advertisers in the EU go through its authorization process in the country where ads are being delivered if they relate to the European Parliamentary elections, as a step to try and prevent foreign interference.

This means it asks political advertisers to submit documents and runs technical checks to confirm their identity and location. Though it noted, on last week’s call, that it cannot guarantee this ID system cannot be circumvented. (As it was last year when UK journalists were able to successfully place ads paid for by ‘Cambridge Analytica’.)

One other big potential workaround is the question of what is a political ad? And what is an issue ad?

Facebook says these types of ads on Facebook and Instagram in the EU “must now be clearly labeled, including a paid-for-by disclosure from the advertiser at the top of the ad” — so users can see who is paying for the ads and, if there’s a business or organization behind it, their contact details, plus some disclosure about who, if anyone, saw the ads.

But the big question is how is Facebook defining political and issue ads across Europe?

While political ads might seem fairly easy to categorize — assuming they’re attached to registered political parties and candidates, issues are a whole lot more subjective.

Currently Facebook defines issue ads as those relating to “any national legislative issue of public importance in any place where the ad is being run.” It says it worked with EU barometer, YouGov and other third parties to develop an initial list of key issues — examples for Europe include immigration, civil and social rights, political values, security and foreign policy, the economy and environmental politics — that it will “refine… over time.”

Again specifics on when and how that will be refined are not clear. Yet ads that Facebook does not deem political/issue ads will slip right under its radar. They won’t be included in the Ad Library; they won’t be searchable; but they will be able to influence Facebook users under the perfect cover of its commercial ad platform — as before.

So if any maliciously minded propaganda slips through Facebook’s net, because the company decides it’s a non-political issue, it will once again leave no auditable trace.

In recent years the company has also had a habit of announcing major takedowns of what it badges “fake accounts” ahead of major votes. But again voters have to take it on trust that Facebook is getting those judgement calls right.

Facebook continues to bar pan-EU campaigns

On the flip side of weeding out non-transparent political propaganda and/or political disinformation, Facebook is currently blocking the free flow of legal pan-EU political campaigning on its platform.

This issue first came to light several weeks ago, when it emerged that European officials had written to Nick Clegg (Facebook’s vice president of global affairs) to point out that its current rules — i.e. that require those campaigning via Facebook ads to have a registered office in the country where the ad is running — run counter to the pan-European nature of this particular election.

It means EU institutions are in the strange position of not being able to run Facebook ads for their own pan-EU election everywhere across the region. “This runs counter to the nature of EU institutions. By definition, our constituency is multinational and our target audience are in all EU countries and beyond,” the EU’s most senior civil servants pointed out in a letter to the company last month.

This issue impacts not just EU institutions and organizations advocating for particular policies and candidates across EU borders, but even NGOs wanting to run vanilla “get out the vote” campaigns Europe-wide — leading to a number to accuse Facebook of breaching their electoral rights and freedoms.

Facebook claimed last week that the ball is effectively in the regulators’ court on this issue — saying it’s open to making the changes but has to get their agreement to do so. A spokesperson confirmed to us that there is no update to that situation, either.

Of course the company may be trying to err on the side of caution, to prevent bad actors being able to interfere with the vote across Europe. But at what cost to democratic freedoms?

What about fake news spreading on WhatsApp?

Facebook’s ‘election security’ initiatives have focused on political and/or politically charged ads running across its products. But there’s no shortage of political disinformation flowing unchecked across its platforms as user uploaded ‘content’.

On the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp, which is hugely popular in some European markets, the presence of end-to-end encryption further complicates this issue by providing a cloak for the spread of political propaganda that’s not being regulated by Facebook.

In a recent study of political messages spread via WhatsApp ahead of last month’s general election in Spain, the campaign group Avaaz dubbed it “social media’s dark web” — claiming the app had been “flooded with lies and hate”.

Posts range from fake news about Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez signing a secret deal for Catalan independence to conspiracy theories about migrants receiving big cash payouts, propaganda against gay people and an endless flood of hateful, sexist, racist memes and outright lies,” it wrote. 

Avaaz compiled this snapshot of politically charged messages and memes being shared on Spanish WhatsApp by co-opting 5,833 local members to forward election-related content that they deemed false, misleading or hateful.

It says it received a total of 2,461 submissions — which is of course just a tiny, tiny fraction of the stuff being shared in WhatsApp groups and chats. Which makes this app the elephant in Facebook’s election ‘war room’.

What exactly is a war room anyway?

Facebook has said its Dublin Elections Operation Center — to give it its official title — is “focused on the EU elections”, while also suggesting it will plug into a network of global teams “to better coordinate in real time across regions and with our headquarters in California [and] accelerate our rapid response times to fight bad actors and bad content”.

But we’re concerned Facebook is sending out mixed — and potentially misleading — messages about how its election-focused resources are being allocated.

Our (non-Facebook) source told us the 40-odd staffers in the Dublin hub during the press tour were simultaneously looking at the Indian elections. If that’s the case, it does not sound entirely “focused” on either the EU or India’s elections. 

Facebook’s eponymous platform has 2.375 billion monthly active users globally, with some 384 million MAUs in Europe. That’s more users than in the US (243M MAUs). Though Europe is Facebook’s second-biggest market in terms of revenues after the US. Last quarter, it pulled in $3.65BN in sales for Facebook (versus $7.3BN for the US) out of $15BN overall.

Apart from any kind of moral or legal pressure that Facebook might have for running a more responsible platform when it comes to supporting democratic processes, these numbers underscore the business imperative that it has to get this sorted out in Europe in a better way.

Having a “war room” may sound like a start, but unfortunately Facebook is presenting it as an end in itself. And its foot-dragging on all of the bigger issues that need tackling, in effect, means the war will continue to drag on.

Twitter to offer report option for misleading election tweets

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Twitter is adding a dedicated report option that enables users to tell it about misleading tweets related to voting — starting with elections taking place in India and the European Union .

From tomorrow users in India can report tweets they believe are trying to mislead voters — such as disinformation related to the date or location of polling stations; or fake claims about identity requirements for being able to vote — by tapping on the arrow menu of the suspicious tweet and selecting the ‘report tweet’ option and then choosing: ‘It’s misleading about voting’.

Twitter says the tool will go live for the Indian Lok Sabha elections from tomorrow, and will launch in all European Union member states on April 29 — ahead of elections for the EU parliament next month.

The ‘misleading about voting’ option will persist in the list of available choices for reporting tweets for seven days after each election ends, Twitter said in a blog post announcing the feature.

It also said it intends to the vote-focused feature to be rolled out to “other elections globally throughout the rest of the year”, without providing further detail on which elections and markets it will prioritize for getting the tool.

“Our teams have been trained and we recently enhanced our appeals process in the event that we make the wrong call,” Twitter added.

In recent months the European Commission has been ramping up pressure on tech platforms to scrub disinformation ahead of elections to the EU parliament — issuing monthly reports on progress, or, well, the lack of it.

This follows a Commission initiative last year which saw major tech and ad platforms — including Facebook, Google and Twitter — sign up to a voluntary Code of Practice on disinformation, committing themselves to take some non-prescribed actions to disrupt the ad revenues of disinformation agents and make political ads more transparent on their platforms.

Another strand of the Code looks to have directly contributed to the development of Twitter’s new ‘misleading about voting’ report option — with signatories committing to:

  • Empower consumers to report disinformation and access different news sources, while improving the visibility and findability of authoritative content;

In the latest progress report on the Code, which was published by the Commission yesterday but covers steps taken by the platforms in March 2019, it noted some progress made — but said it’s still not enough.

“Further technical improvements as well as sharing of methodology and data sets for fake accounts are necessary to allow third-party experts, fact-checkers and researchers to carry out independent evaluation,” EC commissioners warned in a joint statement.

In the case of Twitter the company was commended for having made political ad libraries publicly accessible but criticized (along with Google) for not doing more to improve transparency around issue-based advertising.

“It is regrettable that Google and Twitter have not yet reported further progress regarding transparency of issue-based advertising, meaning issues that are sources of important debate during elections,” the Commission said. 

It also reported that Twitter had provided figures on actions undertaken against spam and fake accounts but had failed to explain how these actions relate to activity in the EU.

“Twitter did not report on any actions to improve the scrutiny of ad placements or provide any metrics with respect to its commitments in this area,” it also noted.

The EC says it will assess the Code’s initial 12-month period by the end of 2019 — and take a view on whether it needs to step in and propose regulation to control online disinformation. (Something which some individual EU Member States are already doing, albeit with a focus on hate speech and/or online safety.)

5G phones are here but there’s no rush to upgrade

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This year’s Mobile World Congress — the CES for Android device makers — was awash with 5G handsets.

The world’s No.1 smartphone seller by marketshare, Samsung, got out ahead with a standalone launch event in San Francisco, showing off two 5G devices, just before fast-following Android rivals popped out their own 5G phones at launch events across Barcelona this week.

We’ve rounded up all these 5G handset launches here. Prices range from an eye-popping $2,600 for Huawei’s foldable phabet-to-tablet Mate X — and an equally eye-watering $1,980 for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold; another 5G handset that bends — to a rather more reasonable $680 for Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 5G, albeit the device is otherwise mid-tier. Other prices for 5G phones announced this week remain tbc.

Android OEMs are clearly hoping the hype around next-gen mobile networks can work a little marketing magic and kick-start stalled smartphone growth. Especially with reports suggesting Apple won’t launch a 5G iPhone until at least next year. So 5G is a space Android OEMs alone get to own for a while.

Chipmaker Qualcomm, which is embroiled in a bitter patent battle with Apple, was also on stage in Barcelona to support Xiaomi’s 5G phone launch — loudly claiming the next-gen tech is coming fast and will enhance “everything”.

“We like to work with companies like Xiaomi to take risks,” lavished Qualcomm’s president Cristiano Amon upon his hosts, using 5G uptake to jibe at Apple by implication. “When we look at the opportunity ahead of us for 5G we see an opportunity to create winners.”

Despite the heavy hype, Xiaomi’s on stage demo — which it claimed was the first live 5G video call outside China — seemed oddly staged and was not exactly lacking in latency.

“Real 5G — not fake 5G!” finished Donovan Sung, the Chinese OEM’s director of product management. As a 5G sales pitch it was all very underwhelming. Much more ‘so what’ than ‘must have’.

Whether 5G marketing hype alone will convince consumers it’s past time to upgrade seems highly unlikely.

Phones sell on features rather than connectivity per se, and — whatever Qualcomm claims — 5G is being soft-launched into the market by cash-constrained carriers whose boom times lie behind them, i.e. before over-the-top players had gobbled their messaging revenues and monopolized consumer eyeballs.

All of which makes 5G an incremental consumer upgrade proposition in the near to medium term.

Use-cases for the next-gen network tech, which is touted as able to support speeds up to 100x faster than LTE and deliver latency of just a few milliseconds (as well as connecting many more devices per cell site), are also still being formulated, let alone apps and services created to leverage 5G.

But selling a network upgrade to consumers by claiming the killer apps are going to be amazing but you just can’t show them any yet is as tough as trying to make theatre out of a marginally less janky video call.

“5G could potentially help [spark smartphone growth] in a couple of years as price points lower, and availability expands, but even that might not see growth rates similar to the transition to 3G and 4G,” suggests Carolina Milanesi, principal analyst at Creative Strategies, writing in a blog post discussing Samsung’s strategy with its latest device launches.

“This is not because 5G is not important, but because it is incremental when it comes to phones and it will be other devices that will deliver on experiences, we did not even think were possible. Consumers might end up, therefore, sharing their budget more than they did during the rise of smartphones.”

The ‘problem’ for 5G — if we can call it that — is that 4G/LTE networks are capably delivering all the stuff consumers love right now: Games, apps and video. Which means that for the vast majority of consumers there’s simply no reason to rush to shell out for a ‘5G-ready’ handset. Not if 5G is all the innovation it’s got going for it.

LG V50 ThinQ 5G with a dual screen accessory for gaming

Use cases such as better AR/VR are also a tough sell given how weak consumer demand has generally been on those fronts (with the odd branded exception).

The barebones reality is that commercial 5G networks are as rare as hen’s teeth right now, outside a few limited geographical locations in the U.S. and Asia. And 5G will remain a very patchy patchwork for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it may take a very long time indeed to achieve nationwide coverage in many countries, if 5G even ends up stretching right to all those edges. (Alternative technologies do also exist which could help fill in gaps where the ROI just isn’t there for 5G.)

So again consumers buying phones with the puffed up idea of being able to tap into 5G right here, right now (Qualcomm claimed 2019 is going to be “the year of 5G!”) will find themselves limited to just a handful of urban locations around the world.

Analysts are clear that 5G rollouts, while coming, are going to be measured and targeted as carriers approach what’s touted as a multi-industry-transforming wireless technology cautiously, with an eye on their capex and while simultaneously trying to figure out how best to restructure their businesses to engage with all the partners they’ll need to forge business relations with, across industries, in order to successfully sell 5G’s transformative potential to all sorts of enterprises — and lock onto “the sweep spot where 5G makes sense”.

Enterprise rollouts therefore look likely to be prioritized over consumer 5G — as was the case for 5G launches in South Korea at the back end of last year.

“4G was a lot more driven by the consumer side and there was an understanding that you were going for national coverage that was never really a question and you were delivering on the data promise that 3G never really delivered… so there was a gap of technology that needed to be filled. With 5G it’s much less clear,” says Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre, discussing the tech’s hype and the reality with TechCrunch ahead of MWC.

“4G’s very good, you have multiple networks that are Gbps or more and that’s continuing to increase on the downlink with multiple carrier aggregation… and other densification schemes. So 5G doesn’t… have as gap as big to fill. It’s great but again it’s applicability of where it’s uniquely positioned is kind of like a very narrow niche at the moment.”

“It’s such a step change that the real power of 5G is actually in creating new business models using network slicing — allocation of particular aspects of the network to a particular use-case,” Forrester analyst Dan Bieler also tells us. “All of this requires some rethinking of what connectivity means for an enterprise customer or for the consumer.

“And telco sales people, the telco go-to-market approach is not based on selling use-cases, mostly — it’s selling technologies. So this is a significant shift for the average telco distribution channel to go through. And I would believe this will hold back a lot of the 5G ambitions for the medium term.”

To be clear, carriers are now actively kicking the tyres of 5G, after years of lead-in hype, and grappling with technical challenges around how best to upgrade their existing networks to add in and build out 5G.

Many are running pilots and testing what works and what doesn’t, such as where to place antennas to get the most reliable signal and so on. And a few have put a toe in the water with commercial launches (globally there are 23 networks with “some form of live 5G in their commercial networks” at this point, according to Fabre.)

But at the same time 5G network standards are yet to be fully finalized so the core technology is not 100% fully baked. And with it being early days “there’s still a long way to go before we have a real significant impact of 5G type of services”, as Bieler puts it. 

There’s also spectrum availability to factor in and the cost of acquiring the necessary spectrum. As well as the time required to clear and prepare it for commercial use. (On spectrum, government policy is critical to making things happen quickly (or not). So that’s yet another factor moderating how quickly 5G networks can be built out.)

And despite some wishful thinking industry noises at MWC this week — calling for governments to ‘support digitization at scale’ by handing out spectrum for free (uhhhh, yeah right) — that’s really just whistling into the wind.

Rolling out 5G networks is undoubtedly going to be very expensive, at a time when carriers’ businesses are already faced with rising costs (from increasing data consumption) and subdued revenue growth forecasts.

“The world now works on data” and telcos are “at core of this change”, as one carrier CEO — Singtel’s Chua Sock Koong — put it in an MWC keynote in which she delved into the opportunities and challenges for operators “as we go from traditional connectivity to a new age of intelligent connectivity”.

Chua argued it will be difficult for carriers to compete “on the basis of connectivity alone” — suggesting operators will have to pivot their businesses to build out standalone business offerings selling all sorts of b2b services to support the digital transformations of other industries as part of the 5G promise — and that’s clearly going to suck up a lot of their time and mind for the foreseeable future.

In Europe alone estimates for the cost of rolling out 5G range between €300BN and €500BN (~$340BN-$570BN), according to Bieler. Figures that underline why 5G is going to grow slowly, and networks be built out thoughtfully; in the b2b space this means essentially on a case-by-case basis.

Simply put carriers must make the economics stack up. Which means no “huge enormous gambles with 5G”. And omnipresent ROI pressure pushing them to try to eke out a premium.

“A lot of the network equipment vendors have turned down the hype quite a bit,” Bieler continues. “If you compare this to the hype around 3G many years ago or 4G a couple of years ago 5G definitely comes across as a soft launch. Sort of an evolutionary type of technology. I have not come across a network equipment vendors these days who will say there will be a complete change in everything by 2020.”

On the consumer pricing front, carriers have also only just started to grapple with 5G business models. One early example is TC parent Verizon’s 5G home service — which positions the next-gen wireless tech as an alternative to fixed line broadband with discounts if you opt for a wireless smartphone data plan as well as 5G broadband.

From the consumer point of view, the carrier 5G business model conundrum boils down to: What is my carrier going to charge me for 5G? And early adopters of any technology tend to get stung on that front.

Although, in mobile, price premiums rarely stick around for long as carriers inexorably find they must ditch premiums to unlock scale — via consumer-friendly ‘all you can eat’ price plans.

Still, in the short term, carriers look likely to experiment with 5G pricing and bundles — basically seeing what they can make early adopters pay. But it’s still far from clear that people will pay a premium for better connectivity alone. And that again necessitates caution. 

5G bundled with exclusive content might be one way carriers try to extract a premium from consumers. But without huge and/or compelling branded content inventory that risks being a too niche proposition too. And the more carriers split their 5G offers the more consumers might feel they don’t need to bother, and end up sticking with 4G for longer.

It’ll also clearly take time for a 5G ‘killer app’ to emerge in the consumer space. And such an app would likely need to still be able to fallback on 4G, again to ensure scale. So the 5G experience will really need to be compellingly different in order for the tech to sell itself.

On the handset side, 5G chipset hardware is also still in its first wave. At MWC this week Qualcomm announced a next-gen 5G modem, stepping up from last year’s Snapdragon 855 chipset — which it heavily touted as architected for 5G (though it doesn’t natively support 5G).

If you’re intending to buy and hold on to a 5G handset for a few years there’s thus a risk of early adopter burn at the chipset level — i.e. if you end up with a device with a suckier battery life vs later iterations of 5G hardware where more performance kinks have been ironed out.

Intel has warned its 5G modems won’t be in phones until next year — so, again, that suggests no 5G iPhones before 2020. And Apple is of course a great bellwether for mainstream consumer tech; the company only jumps in when it believes a technology is ready for prime time, rarely sooner. And if Cupertino feels 5G can wait, that’s going to be equally true for most consumers.

Zooming out, the specter of network security (and potential regulation) now looms very large indeed where 5G is concerned, thanks to East-West trade tensions injecting a strange new world of geopolitical uncertainty into an industry that’s never really had to grapple with this kind of business risk before.

Chinese kit maker Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, used the opportunity of an MWC keynote to defend the company and its 5G solutions against U.S. claims its network tech could be repurposed by the Chinese state as a high tech conduit to spy on the West — literally telling delegates: “We don’t do bad things” and appealing to them to plainly to: “Please choose Huawei!”

Huawei rotating resident, Guo Ping, defends the security of its network kit on stage at MWC 2019

When established technology vendors are having to use a high profile industry conference to plead for trust it’s strange and uncertain times indeed.

In Europe it’s possible carriers’ 5G network kit choices could soon be regulated as a result of security concerns attached to Chinese suppliers. The European Commission suggested as much this week, saying in another MWC keynote that it’s preparing to step in try to prevent security concerns at the EU Member State level from fragmenting 5G rollouts across the bloc.

In an on stage Q&A Orange’s chairman and CEO, Stéphane Richard, couched the risk of destabilization of the 5G global supply chain as a “big concern”, adding: “It’s the first time we have such an important risk in our industry.”

Geopolitical security is thus another issue carriers are having to factor in as they make decisions about how quickly to make the leap to 5G. And holding off on upgrades, while regulators and other standards bodies try to figure out a trusted way forward, might seem the more sensible thing to do — potentially stalling 5G upgrades in the meanwhile.

Given all the uncertainties there’s certainly no reason for consumers to rush in.

Smartphone upgrade cycles have slowed globally for a reason. Mobile hardware is mature because it’s serving consumers very well. Handsets are both powerful and capable enough to last for years.

And while there’s no doubt 5G will change things radically in future, including for consumers — enabling many more devices to be connected and feeding back data, with the potential to deliver on the (much hyped but also still pretty nascent) ‘smart home’ concept — the early 5G sales pitch for consumers essentially boils down to more of the same.

“Over the next ten years 4G will phase out. The question is how fast that happens in the meantime and again I think that will happen slower than in early times because [with 5G] you don’t come into a vacuum, you don’t fill a big gap,” suggests Gartner’s Fabre. “4G’s great, it’s getting better, wi’fi’s getting better… The story of let’s build a big national network to do 5G at scale [for all] that’s just not happening.”

“I think we’ll start very, very simple,” he adds of the 5G consumer proposition. “Things like caching data or simply doing more broadband faster. So more of the same.

“It’ll be great though. But you’ll still be watching Netflix and maybe there’ll be a couple of apps that come up… Maybe some more interactive collaboration or what have you. But we know these things are being used today by enterprises and consumers and they’ll continue to be used.”

So — in sum — the 5G mantra for the sensible consumer is really ‘wait and see’.

Huawei: “The US security accusation of our 5G has no evidence. Nothing.”

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Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping kicked off a keynote speech this morning at the world’s biggest mobile industry tradeshow with a wry joke. “There has never been more interest in Huawei,” he told delegates at Mobile World Congress. “We must be doing something right!”

The Chinese company is seeking to dispel suspicion around the security of its 5G network equipment which has been accelerated by U.S. president Trump who has been urging U.S. allies not to buy kit or services from Huawei. (And some, including Australia, have banned carriers from using Huawei kit.)

Last week Trump also tweet-shamed U.S. companies — saying they needed to step up their efforts to rollout 5G networks or “get left behind”.

In an MWC keynote speech yesterday the European Commission’s digital commissioner Mariya Gabriel signalled the executive is prepared to step in and regulate to ensure a “common approach” on the issue of network security — to avoid the risk of EU member states taking individual actions that could delay 5G rollouts across Europe.

Huawei appeared to welcome the prospect today.

“Government and the mobile operators should work together to agree what this assurance testing and certification rating for Europe will be,” said Guo, suggesting that’s Huawei’s hope for any Commission action on 5G security.

“Let experts decide whether networks are safe or not,” he added, implying Trump is the opposite of an expert. “Huawei has a strong track record in security for three decades. Serving three billion people around the world. The U.S. security accusation of our 5G has no evidence. Nothing.”

Geopolitical tensions about network security have translated into the biggest headache for Huawei which has positioned itself as a key vendor for 5G kit right as carriers are preparing to upgrade their existing cellular networks to the next-gen flavor.

Guo claimed today that Huawei is “the first company who can deploy 5G networks at scale”, giving a pitch for what he described as “powerful, simple and intelligent” next-gen network kit, while clearly enjoying the opportunity of being able to agree with U.S. president Trump in public — that “the U.S. needs powerful, faster and smarter 5G”. 🔥

But any competitive lead in next-gen network tech also puts the company in prime position for political blowback linked to espionage concerns related to the Chinese state’s access to data held or accessed by commercial companies.

Huawei’s strategy to counter this threat has been to come out fighting for its commercial business — and it had plenty more of that spirit on show this morning. As well as a bunch of in-jokes. Most notably a reference to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden which drew a knowing ripple of laughter from the audience.

“We understand innovation is nothing without security,” said Guo, segwaying from making a sales pitch for Huawei’s 5G network solutions straight into the giant geopolitical security question looming over the conference.

“Prism, prism on the wall who is the most trustworthy of them all?” he said, throwing up a colorful slide to illustrate the joke. “It’s a very important question. And if you don’t ask them that you can go ask Edward Snowden.”

You can’t use “a crystal ball to manage cybersecurity”, Guo went on, dubbing it “a challenge we all share” and arguing that every player in the mobile industry has responsibility to defuse the network security issue — from kit vendors to carriers and standards bodies, as well as regulators.

“With 5G we have made a lot of progress over 4G and we can proudly say that 5G is safer than 4G. As a vendor we don’t operate carriers network, and we don’t all carry data. Our responsibility — what we promise — is that we don’t do anything bad,” he said. “We don’t do bad things.”

“Let me says this as clear as possible,” he went on, putting up another slide that literally underlined the point. “Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors. And we will never allow anyone to do so in our equipment.

“We take this responsibility very seriously.”

Guo’s pitch on network trust and security was to argue that where 5G networks are concerned security is a collective industry responsibility — which in turn means every player in the chain plays a monitoring role that allows for networks to be collectively trusted.

“Carriers are responsible for secure operations of their own networks. 5G networks are private networks. The boundary between different networks are clear. Carriers can prevent outside attacks with firewalls and security gateways. For internal threats carriers can manage, monitor and audit all vendors and partners to make sure their network elements are secure,” he said, going on to urge the industry to work together on standards which he described as “our shared responsibility”.

“To build safer networks we need to standardize cybersecurity requirements and these standards must be verifiable for all vendors and all carriers,” he said, adding that Huawei “fully supports” the work of industry standards and certification bodies the GSMA and 3GPP who he also claimed have “strong capabilities to verify 5G’s security”.

Huawei’s strategy to defuse geopolitical risk by appealing to the industry as a whole to get behind tackling the network trust issue is a smart one given the uncertainty generated by Trump’s attacks is hardly being welcomed by anyone in the mobile business.

Huawei’s headache might lead to the industry as a whole catching a cold — and no one at MWC wants that.

Later in the keynote Guo also pointed to the awkward “irony” of the U.S Cloud Act — given the legislation allows U.S. entities to “access data across borders”.

U.S. overreach on accessing the personal data of foreign citizens continues to cause major legal headaches in Europe as a result of the clash between its national security interest and EU citizens fundamental privacy rights. So Guo’s point there won’t have been lost on an MWC audience packed with European delegates attending the annual tradeshow.

“So for best technology and greater security choose Huawei. Please choose Huawei!” Guo finished, ending his keynote with a line that could very well make it as an upbeat marketing slogan writ large on one of the myriad tech-packed booths here at Fira Gran Via, Barcelona.

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