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July 16, 2018
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Facebook would make a martyr by banning Infowars

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Alex Jones’ Infowars is a fake news-peddler. But Facebook deleting its Page could ignite a fire that consumes the network. Still, some critics are asking why it hasn’t done so already.

This week Facebook held an event with journalists to discuss how it combats fake news. The company’s recently appointed head of News Feed John Hegeman explained that, “I guess just for being false, that doesn’t violate the community standards. I think part of the fundamental thing here is that we created Facebook to be a place where different people can have a voice.”

In response, CNN’s Oliver Darcy tweeted: “I asked them why InfoWars is still allowed on the platform. I didn’t get a good answer.” BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel meanwhile wrote that allowing the Infowars Page to exist shows that “Facebook simply isn’t willing to make the hard choices necessary to tackle fake news.”

Facebook’s own Twitter account tried to rebuke Darcy by tweeting, “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news. We believe banning these Pages would be contrary to the basic principles of free speech.” But harm can be minimized without full-on censorship.

There is no doubt that Facebook hides behind political neutrality. It fears driving away conservative users for both business and stated mission reasons. That strategy is exploited by those like Jones who know that no matter how extreme and damaging their actions, they’ll benefit from equivocation that implies ‘both sides are guilty,’ with no regard for degree.

Instead of being banned from Facebook, Infowars and sites like it that constantly and purposely share dangerous hoaxes and conspiracy theories should be heavily down-ranked in the News Feed.

Effectively, they should be quarantined, so that when they or their followers share their links, no one else sees them.

“We don’t have a policy that stipulates that everything posted on Facebook must be true — you can imagine how hard that would be to enforce,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “But there’s a very real tension here. We work hard to find the right balance between encouraging free expression and promoting a safe and authentic community, and we believe that down-ranking inauthentic content strikes that balance. In other words, we allow people to post it as a form of expression, but we’re not going to show it at the top of News Feed.”

Facebook already reduces the future views of posts by roughly 80 percent when they’re established as false by its third-party fact checkers like Politifact and the Associated Press. For repeat offenders, I think that reduction in visibility should be closer to 100 percent of News Feed views. What Facebook does do to those whose posts are frequently labeled as false by its checkers is “remove their monetization and advertising privileges to cut off financial incentives, and dramatically reduce the distribution of all of their Page-level or domain-level content on Facebook.”

The company wouldn’t comment directly about whether Infowars has already been hit with that penalty, noting “We can’t disclose whether specific Pages or domains are receiving such a demotion (it becomes a privacy issue).” For any story fact checked as false, it shows related articles from legitimate publications to provide other perspectives on the topic, and notifies people who have shared it or are about to.

But that doesn’t solve for the initial surge of traffic. Unfortunately, Facebook’s limited array of fact checking partners are strapped with so much work, they can only get to so many BS stories quickly. That’s a strong endorsement for more funding to be dedicated to these organizations like Snopes, preferably by even keeled non-profits, though the risks of governments or Facebook chipping in might be worth it.

Given that fact-checking will likely never scale to be instantly responsive to all fake news in all languages, Facebook needs a more drastic option to curtail the spread of this democracy-harming content on its platform. That might mean a full loss of News Feed posting privileges for a certain period of time. That might mean that links re-shared by the supporters or agents of these pages get zero distribution in the feed.

But it shouldn’t mean their posts or Pages are deleted, or that their links can’t be opened unless they clearly violate Facebook’s core content policies.

Why downranking and quarantine? Because banning would only stoke conspiratorial curiosity about these inaccurate outlets. Trolls will use the bans as a badge of honor, saying, “Facebook deleted us because it knows what we say is true.”

They’ll claim they’ve been unfairly removed from the proxy for public discourse that exists because of the size of Facebook’s private platform.

What we’ll have on our hands is “but her emails!” 2.0

People who swallowed the propaganda of “her emails”, much of which was pushed by Alex Jones himself, assumed that Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails must have contained evidence of some unspeakable wrongdoing — something so bad it outweighed anything done by her opponent, even when the accusations against him had evidence and witnesses aplenty.

If Facebook deleted the Pages of Infowars and their ilk, it would be used as a rallying cry that Jones’ claims were actually clairvoyance. That he must have had even worse truths to tell about his enemies and so he had to be cut down. It would turn him into a martyr.

Those who benefit from Infowars’ bluster would use Facebook’s removal of its Page as evidence that it’s massively biased against conservatives. They’d push their political allies to vindictively regulate Facebook beyond what’s actually necessary. They’d call for people to delete their Facebook accounts and decamp to some other network that’s much more of a filter bubble than what some consider Facebook to already be. That would further divide the country and the world.

When someone has a terrible, contagious disease, we don’t execute them. We quarantine them. That’s what should happen here. The exception should be for posts that cause physical harm offline. That will require tough judgement calls, but knowing inciting mob violence for example should not be tolerated. Some of Infowars posts, such as those about Pizzagate that led to a shooting, might qualify for deletion by that standard.

Facebook is already trying to grapple with this after rumors and fake news spread through forwarded WhatsApp messages have led to crowds lynching people in India and attacks in Myanmar. Peer-to-peer chat lacks the same centralized actors to ban, though WhatsApp is now at least marking messages as forwarded, and it will need to do more. But for less threatening yet still blatantly false news, quarantining may be sufficient. This also leaves room for counterspeech, where disagreeing commenters can refute posts or share their own rebuttals.

Few people regularly visit the Facebook Pages they follow. They wait for the content to come to them through the News Feed posts of the Page, and their friends. Eliminating that virality vector would severely limit this fake news’ ability to spread without requiring the posts or Pages to be deleted, or the links to be rendered unopenable.

If Facebook wants to uphold a base level of free speech, it may be prudent to let the liars have their voice. However, Facebook is under no obligation to amplify that speech, and the fakers have no entitlement for their speech to be amplified.

Image Credit: Getty – Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, Flickr Sean P. Anderson CC

News Source = techcrunch.com

Facebook paid $88 million this year to build out its Seattle area Oculus hub

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Facebook continues to expand its VR ambitions in the Pacific Northwest. The company has been quietly growing its footprint 16 miles East of Seattle, in Microsoft’s backyard.

A new analysis by real estate resource BuildZoom sheds additional light on the Menlo Park-based company’s efforts to build a satellite virtual reality HQ in and around Seattle. Over the last three years, Facebook has spent $106 million on construction and development permits for Oculus offices in Redmond.

In 2018 alone, Facebook spent $88.3 million on Oculus -related permits for as many as eight new offices in the area. BuildZoom’s analysis identifies five properties in particular, all on Willow Road in Redmond, that span more than 90,000 square feet of lab and office space. Those locations are 10545 Willows Rd., 10785 Willows Rd., 9805 Willows Rd., 9845 Willows Rd. and 9461 Willow Road.

Last November, Seattle-based news site GeekWire reported that Facebook was on the hunt for 200,000 square feet worth of R&D space in Redmond, to expand its existing Oculus research efforts there. At the time, Oculus listed more than 60 job positions in Redmond in additional to a smaller amount of hiring for its Oculus operations in Seattle proper. Oculus is currently hiring for 121 positions in Redmond, with 42 of them in research.

9805 Willows Rd, via Google Maps

TechCrunch reached out to Facebook about its plans for the new Oculus offices but the company declined to comment. Late last year, an Oculus spokesperson told TechCrunch that the company is growing its Seattle team to achieve its goal to “get 1 billion people into VR.” This May, Oculus announced that its Oculus Research division would be rebranded as Facebook Reality Labs.

The growing Oculus offices join nearby Valve, Microsoft’s HoloLens and other VR operations nearby to cement Seattle as one of tech’s major VR hubs beyond Silicon Valley.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Facebook’s AI researchers task ‘tourist bots’ with finding their way in NYC

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Facebook is getting guide bots to help tourist bots explore Hell’s Kitchen in a virtual New York City. It’s not just for kicks either, a new research paper published today by FAIR is looking to examine how AI systems can orient themselves and communicate observed data better than humans can.

The setup for Facebook’s “Walk the Talk” research experiment involves throwing a “tourist” bot onto a random street corner of NYC and getting a “guide” bot to direct them to a spot on a 2D map. This involved Facebook capturing 360 photos of a bunch of different street corners in random spots in NY and feeding them to the AI tourist bot who then had to peer around at the behest of the guide agent who would gain a sense of where the tourist was based and try to direct them through a text conversation.

It’s indeed quite the novel experiment, which plays out like this in practice.

Guide:    Hello, what are you near?
Tourist:  Hello, in front of me is a Brooks Brothers
Guide:    Is that a shop or restaurant?
Tourist:  It is a clothing shop.
Guide:    You need to go to the intersection in the northwest corner of the map
Tourist:  There appears to be a bank behind me.
Guide:    Ok, turn left then go straight up that road
...

Facebook isn’t doing all of this to give you a virtual guide in some unannounced mapping product, this is Facebook AI Research as opposed to their applied machine learning arm so this stuff really resides in the long-term, less product centric sphere. What this experiment is helping Facebook’s AI researchers approach is a concept called “Embodied AI.”

Embodied AI basically entails giving AI models the ability to learn while on-the-go gathering data that is present around them that can help them make sense of what they already do know. In “Talk the Walk,” the guide AI bot had all of this 2D map data and the tourist bot had all of this rich 360 visual data but it was only through communication with each other that they were able to carry out their directives.

The real goal was to work on the two agents gathering information through natural language, but the researchers found that the bots did a better job of completing the task when they used “synthetic language” which relied more on them using more simplistic symbols to convey information and location. This less natural way of communicating data not only outperformed a more human-like chat, it also enable the bots to find their way more concisely than humans would in a natural language chat.

What made this environment particularly difficult was the fact that it was the real world. The 360 snapshots were, of course, much more cluttered than what would appear in the simulated models that a lot of these experiments would typically run in. Putting this into words is hard enough when two humans are already vaguely familiar with a location, for two bots that have access to different data, this can be awfully difficult to communicate efficiently.

To tackle this, Facebook built a mechanism called MASC (Masked Attention for Spatial Convolution) that basically enables these language models the agents are running to quickly parse what the keywords are in responses that are probably the most critical to this experiment for getting a sense of what’s being conveyed. Facebook said that utilizing the process doubled the accuracy of results that were being tested.

For Facebook’s part, this is foundational research in that it seems to raise far more questions than it seeks to answer about best practices, but even grasping at those is an important milestone and a good direction to point the broader community in taking on hard problems that need to be tackled the company’s researchers say.

“If you really want to solve all of AI, then you probably want to have these different modules or components that solve different subproblems,” Facebook AI research scientist Douwe Kiela told me. “In that sense this is really a challenge to the community asking people how they would solve this and inviting them to work with us in this exciting new research direction.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Facebook was never ephemeral, and now its Stories won’t have to be

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Before Snapchat made social media about just today, Facebook made it about forever. The 2011 “Timeline” redesign of the profile and keyword search unlocked your past, encouraging you to curate colorful posts about your life’s top moments. That was actually an inspiration for Snapchat, as its CEO Evan Spiegel wrote in its IPO announcement that “We learned that creativity can be suppressed by the fear of permanence.”

Now Facebook is finding a middle ground by optionally unlocking the history of your Stories that otherwise disappear after 24 hours. Facebook will soon begin testing Stories Highlights, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. Similar to Instagram Stories Highlights, it will let you pick your favorite expired photos and videos, compile them into themed collections with titles and cover images and display them on your profile.

The change further differentiates Facebook Stories from the Snapchat Stories feature it copied. It’s smart for Facebook, because highly compelling content was disintegrating each day, dragging potential ad views to the grave with it. And for its 150 million daily users, it could make the time we spend obsessing over social media Stories a wiser investment. If you’re going to interrupt special moments to capture them with your phone, the best ones should still pay dividends of self-expression and community connection beyond a day later.

Facebook Stories Highlights was first spotted by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong, who specializes in generating screenshots of unreleased features out of the APK files of Android apps. TechCrunch inquired about the feature, and a Facebook spokesperson provided this statement: “People have told us they want a way to highlight and save the Stories that matter most to them. We’ll soon start testing highlights on Facebook – a way to choose Stories to stay on your profile, making it easier to express who you are through memories.”

These Highlights will appear on a horizontal scroll bar on your profile, and you’ll be able to see how many people viewed them just like with your Stories. They’ll default to being viewable by all your friends, but you can also restrict Highlights to certain people or make them public. The latter could be useful for public figures trying to build an audience, or anyone who thinks their identity is better revealed through their commentary on the world that Stories’ creative tools offer, opposed to some canned selfies and profile pics.

Facebook paved the way for Highlights by launching the Stories Archive in May. This automatically backs up your Stories privately to your profile so you don’t have to keep the saved versions on your phone, wasting storage space. That Archive is the basis for being able to choose dead Stories to show off in your Highlights. Together, they’ll encourage users to shoot silly, off-the-cuff content without that “fear of permanence,” but instead with the opportunity. If you want to spend a half hour decorating a Facebook Story with stickers and drawing and captions and augmented reality, you know it won’t be in vain.

Facebook Stories constantly adds new features, like this Blur effect I spotted today

While many relentlessly criticize Facebook for stealing the Stories from Snapchat, its rapid iteration and innovation on the format means the two companies’ versions are sharply diverging. Snapchat still lacks a Highlights-esque feature despite launching its Archive-style Memories back in July 2016. Instead of enhancing the core Stories product that made the app a teen phenomenon, it’s concentrated on Maps, gaming, Search, professional Discover content, and a disastrously needless redesign.

Facebook’s family of apps seized on the stagnation of Snapchat Stories and its neglect of the international market. It copied whatever was working while developing new features like Instagram’s Superzoom and Focus portrait mode, the ability to reshare public feed posts as quote tweet-style Stories and the addition of licensed music soundtracks. While writing this article, I even discovered a new Facebook Stories option called Blur that lets you shroud a moving subject with a dream-like haze, as demonstrated with my dumb face here.

The relentless drive to add new options and smooth out performance has paid off. Now Instagram has 400 million daily Stories users, WhatsApp has 450 million and Facebook has 150 million, while Snapchat’s whole app has just 191 million. As Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom admitted about Snapchat, “They deserve all the credit.” Still, it hasn’t had a megahit since Stories and AR puppy masks. The company’s zeal for inventing new ways to socialize is admirable, though not always a sound business strategy.

At first, the Stories war was a race, to copy functionality and invade new markets. Instagram and now Facebook making ephemerality optional for their Stories signals a second phase of the war. The core idea of broadcasting content that disappears after a day has become commoditized and institutionalized. Now the winner will be declared not as who invented Stories, but who perfected them.

News Source = techcrunch.com

One of Facebook’s most senior engineers just became Director of Engineering, Blockchain

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It was already known that Facebook had set up a group within the company to “explore” blockchain tech, headed up by long time Messenger chief David Marcus. However, the latest executive reshuffle appears to point to the social networking behemoth getting more serious about developing on top of blockchain technology.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Evan Cheng, a director of engineering at Facebook, has moved to the position of Director of Engineering, Blockchain. A well-respected “low level” computer engineer, he was previously responsible for heading up Programming Languages & Runtimes at the company, a position he held for nearly three years.

Prior to that, Cheng spent nearly ten years working at Apple, most recently holding the position of Senior Manager, Low Level Tools. He also worked on compilation technology and other back end engineering.

He also tweets about blockchain and is reportedly an advisor to a number of blockchain startups/projects, including Zilliqa and ChainLink.

“It means it’s not just an exploratory project,” is how one source who tracks the blockchain space speculatively framed Cheng’s move to Facebook’s blockchain team. His reasoning was that in recruiting Cheng (who knows more than a thing or two about performance and scalability) to the blockchain group, it signals the importance of the project.

Meanwhile, Marcus and Cheng aren’t the only Facebook execs to be have been tasked with building out the social network’s burgeoning blockchain work. In a recent executive reshuffle, we reported that Instagram’s former VP of Product Kevin Weil has taken up the position of VP of Product, Blockchain at Facebook. See TechCrunch’s in-depth analysis of those moves and how Facebook could utilise blockchain.

I’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and will update this post if and when I hear back.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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