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June 16, 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…

Amazon leads $575M investment in Deliveroo

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Amazon is taking a slice of Europe’s food delivery market after the U.S. e-commerce giant led a $575 million investment in Deliveroo .

First reported by Sky yesterday, the Series G round was confirmed in an early UK morning announcement from Deliveroo, which confirmed that existing backers including T. Rowe Price, Fidelity Management and Research Company, and Greenoaks also took part. The deal takes Deliveroo to just over $1.5 billion raised to date. The company was valued at over $2 billion following its previous raise in late 2017, no updated valuation was provided today.

London-based Deliveroo operates in 14 countries, including the U.K, France, Germany and Spain, and — outside of Europe — Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and the UAE. Across those markets, it claims it works with 80,000 restaurants with a fleet of 60,000 delivery people and 2,500 permanent employees.

It isn’t immediately clear how Amazon plans to use its new strategic relationship with Deliveroo — it could, for example, integrate it with Prime membership — but this isn’t the firm’s first dalliance with food delivery. The U.S. firm closed its Amazon Restaurants UK takeout business last year after it struggled to compete with Deliveroo and Uber Eats. The service remains operational in the U.S, however.

“Amazon has been an inspiration to me personally and to the company, and we look forward to working with such a customer-obsessed organization,” said Deliveroo CEO and founder Will Shu in a statement.

Shu said the new money will go towards initiatives that include growing Deliveroo’s London-based engineering team, expanding its reach and focusing on new products, including cloud kitchens that can cook up delivery meals faster and more cost-efficiently.

[Center] Will Shu, Deliveroo CEO and co-founder, on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt London

Human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui is battling the US college financial aid system

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Tunisian human rights activist Amira Yahyaoui couldn’t go to college.

Not because she couldn’t afford it; where she comes from, college is virtually free. She lost the opportunity to pursue higher education, to finish high school, even, when she was exiled from Tunisia at age 17, under the repressive regime of the country’s former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

As part of the Tunisian human rights diaspora, she was inspired to build Al Bawsala, a globally renowned NGO that fights for government accountability, transparency and access to information. Now, Yahyaoui has traveled thousands of miles to San Francisco to fight another battle near and dear to her heart: civic education, or in Silicon Valley terms, edtech.

“I always knew that I wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else before solving the problem in my country and today, Tunisia is the only Arab democracy in the world,” Yahyaoui told TechCrunch.

With that in mind, her focus has shifted to Mos, a tech-enabled platform for students to apply for financial aid. With backing from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, his startup studio Expa, Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr, Base Ventures, Sweet Capital and others, Mos has closed a $4 million seed round and plans to take its recently-launched product to the next level.

The startup seeks to decrease American student debt, which totaled nearly $1.6 trillion in 2018, and digitize the antiquated government systems that deter students from applying for financial aid. For a one-time fee of $149 and about 20 minutes of their time, Mos helps students of all backgrounds maximize their aid awards.

“Our mission is to bridge the gap between citizens and government in a way that works with technology today,” Yahyaoui said.

Yahyaoui is applying what she’s learned building a government-fighting NGO to the startup world, and with the support of top-tier investors, she’s well on her way to proving an “uneducated” immigrant woman of color can write a Silicon Valley success story for the masses.

A face of the Arab Spring

Mos founder and chief executive officer Amira Yahyaoui.

After being forced out of her home country, Yahyaoui fled to France, where she lived as an illegal immigrant and continued to fight against Tunisia’s authoritarian leadership through her blog and an anti-censorship campaign she started online.

When social media sparked anti-government protests across the Middle East, Yahyaoui, still unable to reenter Tunisia, became a face of what was later called the Arab Spring. Her digital prowess, activist reputation and persistent efforts to highlight the Tunisian administration’s human rights abuses quickly made her a face of the movement.

On January 14, 2011, when the protests succeeded in making Tunisia a pioneer of Arab democracy and ended Ben Ali’s reign, Yahyaoi got her passport back and went home, immediately.

Back in Tunisia with newfound freedom, she had an agenda: To hold the governing agency charged with writing a new Tunisian constitution accountable.

Yahyaoui built Al Bawsala, translated as The Compass, an NGO focused on transparency and government accountability. Al Bawsala became one of the largest NGOs in the Middle East, a bona fide success that attracted numerous awards and cemented Yahyaoui’s status as a fearless advocate for human rights, a freedom fighter and one of the most influential Arab women in the world.

“I had to work probably 10 times harder to get to be the self-educated me I am today,” she said. “I saw way too many people getting their education refused and therefore their future ruined.”

Her global standing earned her a seat on the board of the United Nation’s High Commissioner For Refugees Advisory Group on Gender, Forced Displacement, and Protection, as well as the title of Young Global Leader at the World Economic Forum and co-chair of the Davos Conference in 2016, a title she shard with Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and GM’s Mary Barra .

Three years later, with a resume enviable to any dignitary, Yahyaoui is leveraging her unique experience to lure in venture capitalists and use their cash for good.

Repairing a broken financial aid system

The Mos dashboard.

Mos is like if Turbo Tax married Typeform and had a baby, Yahyaoui explained. Not dissimilar to Common App, Mos lets students apply to more than 500 federal and state-based aid programs in minutes using a survey that matches them to every grant and scholarship program they qualify for, while simultaneously completing the FAFSA and state aid applications. To ensure every family is getting the most financial support possible, a Mos financial aid advisor reviews each case and negotiates with colleges for higher awards.

“Today, the biggest problem is people think they are not eligible for financial aid just because of how the thing is designed,” Yahyaoui said. “You’re supposed to just go ahead and fill a form that has 200 questions and then send it like a bottle in the sea and wait for months.”

Mos will complete a full-scale launch this summer and eventually tackle other nation’s college financial aid systems thanks to the new infusion of capital and the high-profile relationships Yahyaoui has forged in just one year living in the Bay Area.

Ultimately, it was Yahyaoui’s activism that granted her a ticket into the opaque world of Silicon Valley VC. As it turns out, angel investor Khaled Helioui, a fellow Tunisian immigrant in tech, was familiar with Yahyaoui’s work and when he heard she had relocated to the Bay Area to launch a technology startup, he wanted to know exactly what she was building. Today, he’s a Mos investor and board member and it was his introductions that helped Yahyaoui quickly and skillfully close her seed round.

An early angel investor in Uber, Helioui connected Yahyaoui with his friend Garrett Camp, the very wealthy co-founder and chairman of the ride-hailing giant, who was sold on Mos’s mission right off the bat.

“I think because Garrett is an immigrant, he knows what it is to suffer with bureaucracy,” Yahyaoui said. “He was a huge believer. He actually made it so easy for me because he said, okay, here’s an office, just stay and work.”

She was then introduced to John Doerr, the chairman of the esteemed VC firm Kleiner Perkins, known for his successful bets on companies like Google and Amazon. With Camp and Doerr on board, Mos didn’t struggle to raise additional capital; in fact, Yahyaoui was in an unusual position of being able to reject investors whose values and vision for Mos clearly didn’t align with hers.

Tearing down barriers

Yahyaoui, center, with the Mos team in San Francisco.

Yahyaoui isn’t in the startup business to get rich off students trying to navigate their way through the absorbently expensive process of applying to and attending college. She’s part of a growing class of founders out to prove that you can pair profits with good morals and lead venture-backed values-based businesses.

“I know if I created the same thing as an NGO, I could have already raised $100 million, but I like the accountability of business,” she said. “We can create businesses that are good for people.”

Yahyaoui’s story, from being exiled from her home country at a young age to fighting an authoritarian regime is not one that’s ever been told before in Silicon Valley.

In addition to being a trailblazing human rights advocate, she’s a woman, an immigrant, “uneducated” by Silicon Valley standards and a first-time tech founder that was able to walk into a meeting with John Doerr and walk out with a term sheet.

If she’s successful in building a global edtech business, she’ll be emblematic of the meritocratic culture The Valley has falsely claimed to uphold. Even if she’s not successful, she’ll have torn down barriers for other underrepresented founders and written a success story fitting for this new era of accountability in tech.

Roblox hits milestone of 90M monthly active users

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Kids gaming platform Roblox, most recently valued at over $2.5 billion, has reached a new milestone of 90 million monthly active users, the company said on Sunday. That’s up from the 70 million monthly actives it claimed at its last funding round – a $150 million Series F, announced last fall. The sizable increase in users is credited to Roblox’s international expansion efforts, and particularly its more recent support for the French and German languages.

The top 150 games that run on the Roblox platform are now available in both languages, along with community moderation, customer support, and parental resources.

The gaming company has also been steadily growing as more kids join after hearing about it from friends or seeing its games played on YouTube, for example. Like Fortnite, it has become a place that kids go to “hang out” online even when not actively playing.

The games themselves are built by third-party creators, while Roblox gets a share of the revenue the games generate from the sale of virtual goods. In 2017, Roblox paid out $30 million to its creator community, and later said that number would more than double in 2018. It says that players and creators now spend over a billion hours per month on its platform.

Roblox’s growth has not been without its challenges, however. Bad actors last year subverted the game’s protections to assault a child’s in-game avatar – a serious problem for a game aimed at kids, and a PR crisis, as well. But the company addressed the problem by quickly securing its platform to prevent future hacks of this kind, apologized to parents, banned the hackers, and soon after launched a “digital civility initiative” as part of its broader push for online safety.

Months later, Roblox was still surging.

International expansion was part of the plan when Roblox chose to raise additional funding, despite already being cash-flow positive.

As CEO David Baszucki explained last fall, the idea was to create “a war chest, to have a buffer, to have the opportunity to do acquisitions,” and “to have a strong balance sheet as we grow internationally.”

The company soon made good on its to-do list, making its first acquisition in October 2018 when it picked up the app performance startup, PacketZoom. It also followed Minecraft’s footsteps into the education market, and has since been working to make its service available to a global base of users.

On that front, Roblox says Europe has played a key role, with millions of users and hundreds of thousands of game creators – like those behind the Roblox games “Ski Resort” (Germany), “Crash Course” (France), and “Heists 2 (U.K.).

In addition to French and German, Roblox is also available in English, Portuguese and Spanish, and plans to support more languages in the coming months, it says.

But the company doesn’t want to face another incident or PR crisis as it moves into new countries.

On that front, Roblox is working with digital safety leaders in both France and Germany, as part of its Digital Civility Initiative. In France, it’s working with e-Enfance; and in Germany, it’s working with Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). Roblox also added USK’s Managing Director, Elisabeth Secker, to the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board.

“We are excited to welcome Roblox as a new member to the USK and I’m honored to join the company’s Trust & Safety Advisory Board,” said Elisabeth Secker, Managing Director of the Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK), in a statement. “We are happy to support Roblox in their efforts to make their platform not only safe, but also to empower kids, teens, and parents with the skills they need to create positive online experiences.”

The responsibility for a sustainable digital future

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On March 12, 2019, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the “World Wide Web”, Tim Berners-Lee’s ground-breaking invention.

In just thirty years, this flagship application of the Internet has forever changed our lives, our habits, our way of thinking and seeing the world. Yet, this anniversary leaves a bittersweet taste in our mouth: the initial decentralized and open version of the Web, which was meant to allow users to connect with each other, has gradually evolved to a very different version, centralized in the hands of giants who capture our data and impose their standards.

We have poured our work, our hearts and a lot of our lives out on the internet. For better or for worse. Beyond business uses for Big Tech, our data has become an incredible resource for malicious actors, who use this windfall to hack, steal and threaten. Citizens, small and large companies, governments: online predators spare no one. This initial mine of information and knowledge has provided fertile ground for dangerous abuse: hate speech, cyber-bullying, manipulation of information or apology for terrorism – all of them amplified, relayed and disseminated across borders.

Laissez-faire or control: between Scylla and Charybdis

Faced with these excesses, some countries have decided to regain control over the Web and the Internet in general: by filtering information and communications, controlling the flow of data, using digital instruments for the sake of sovereignty and security. The outcome of this approach is widespread censorship and surveillance. A major threat to our values ​​and our vision of society, this project of “cyber-sovereignty” is also the antithesis of the initial purpose of the Web, which was built in a spirit of openness and emancipation. Imposing cyber-borders and permanent supervision would be fatal to the Web.

To avoid such an outcome, many democracies have favored laissez-faire and minimal intervention, preserving the virtuous circle of profit and innovation. Negative externalities remain, with self-regulation as the only barrier. But laissez-faire is no longer the best option to foster innovation: ​​data is monopolized by giants that have become systemic, users’ freedom of choice is limited by vertical integration and lack of interoperability. Ineffective competition threatens our economies’ ability to innovate.

In addition, laissez-faire means being vulnerable to those who have chosen a more interventionist or hostile stance. This question is particularly acute today for infrastructures: should we continue to remain agnostic, open and to choose a solution only based on its economic competitiveness? Or should we affirm the need to preserve our technological sovereignty and our security?

Internet of Things connecting in cloud over city scape.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/chombosan

Paving a third way

To avoid these pitfalls, France, Europe and all democratic countries must take control of their digital future. This age of digital maturity involves both smart digital regulation and enhanced technological sovereignty.

Holding large actors accountable is a legitimate and necessary first step: “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Platforms that relay and amplify the audience of dangerous content must assume a stronger role in information and prevention. The same goes for e-commerce, when consumers’ health and safety is undermined by dangerous or counterfeit products, made available to them with one click. We should apply the same focus on systemic players in the field of competition: vertical integration should not hinder users’ choice of goods, services or content.

But for our action to be effective and leave room for innovation, we must design a “smart regulation”. Of course, our goal is not to impose on all digital actors an indiscriminate and disproportionate normative burden.

Rather, “smart regulation” relies on transparency, auditability and accountability of the largest players, in the framework of a close dialogue with public authorities. With this is mind, France has launched a six-month experiment with Facebook on the subject of hate content, the results of which will contribute to current and upcoming legislative work on this topic.

In the meantime, in order to maintain our influence and promote this vision, we will need to strengthen our technological sovereignty. In Europe, this sovereignty is already undermined by the prevalence of American and Asian actors. As our economies and societies become increasingly connected, the question becomes more urgent.

Investments in the most strategic disruptive technologies, construction of an innovative normative framework for the sharing of data of general interest: we have leverage to encourage the emergence of reliable and effective solutions. But we will not be able to avoid protective measures when the security of our infrastructure is likely to be endangered.

To build this sustainable digital future together, I invite my G7 counterparts to join me in Paris on May 16th. On the agenda, three priorities: the fight against online hate, a human-centric artificial intelligence, and ensuring trust in our digital economy, with the specific topics of 5G and data sharing.

Our goal? To take responsibility. Gone are the days when we could afford to wait and see.

Our leverage? If we join our wills and forces, our values can prevail.

We all have the responsibility to design a World Wide Web of Trust. It is still within our reach but the time has come to act.

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