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April 23, 2019

Facebook has quietly removed three bogus far right networks in Spain ahead of Sunday’s elections

Facebook has quietly removed three far right networks that were engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior intended to spread politically divisive content in Spain ahead of a general election in the country which takes place on Sunday.

The networks had a total reach of almost 1.7M followers and had generated close to 7.4M interactions in the past three months alone, according to analysis by the independent group that identified the bogus activity on Facebook’s platform.

The fake far right activity was apparently not picked up by Facebook.

Instead activist not-for-profit Avaaz unearthed the inauthentic content, and presented its findings to the social networking giant earlier this month, on April 12. In a press release issued today the campaigning organization said Facebook has now removed the fakes — apparently vindicating its findings.

“Facebook did a great job in acting fast, but these networks are likely just the tip of the disinformation iceberg — and if Facebook doesn’t scale up, such operations could sink democracy across the continent,” said Christoph Schott, campaign director at Avaaz, in a statement.

“This is how hate goes viral. A bunch of extremists use fake and duplicate accounts to create entire networks to fake public support for their divisive agenda. It’s how voters were misled in the U.S., and it happened again in Spain,” he added.

We reached out to Facebook for comment but at the time of writing the company had not responded to the request or to several questions we also put to it.

Avaaz said the networks it found comprised around thirty pages and groups spreading far right propaganda — including anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT, anti-feminist and anti-Islam content.

Examples of the inauthentic content can be viewed in Avaaz’s executive summary of the report. They include fake data about foreigners committing the majority of rapes in Spain; fake news about Catalonia’s pro independence leader; and various posts targeting leftwing political party Podemos — including an image superimposing the head of its leader onto the body of Hitler performing a nazi salute.

One of the networks — which Avaaz calls Unidad ​Nacional Española (after the most popular page in the network) — was apparently created and co-ordinated by an individual called ​Javier Ramón Capdevila Grau, who had multiple personal Facebook accounts (also) in contravention of Facebook’s community standards. 

This network, which had a reach of more than 1.2M followers, comprised at least 10 pages that Avaaz identified as working in a coordinated fashion to spread “politically divisive content”.

Its report details how word-for-word identical posts were published across multiple Facebook pages and groups in the network just minutes apart, with nothing to indicate they weren’t original postings on each page. 

Here’s an example post it found copy-pasted across the Unidad ​Nacional Española network:

Translated the posted text reads: ‘In Spain, if a criminal enters your house without your permission the only thing you can do is hide, since if you touch a hair on his head or prevent him from being able to rob you you’ll spend more time in prison than him.’

Avaaz found another smaller network targeting leftwing views, called Todos Contra Podemos, which included seven pages and groups with around 114,000 followers — also apparently run by a single individual (in this case using the name Antonio Leal Felix Aguilar) who also operated multiple Facebook profiles

A third network, Lucha por España​, comprised 12 pages and groups with around 378,000 followers.

Avaaz said it was unable to identify the individual/s behind that network. 

While Facebook has not publicized the removals of these particular political disinformation networks, despite its now steady habit of issuing PR when it finds and removes ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior‘ (though of course there’s no way to be sure it’s disclosing everything it finds on its platform), test searches for the main pages identified by Avaaz returned either no results or what appear to be other unrelated Facebook pages using the same name.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election was (infamously) targeted by divisive Kremlin propaganda seeded and amplified via social media, Facebook has launched what it markets as “election security” initiatives in a handful of countries around the world — such as searchable ad archives and political ad authentication and/or disclosure requirements.

However these efforts continue to face criticism for being patchy, piecemeal and, even in countries where they have been applied to its platform, weak and trivially easy to workaround.

Its political ads transparency measures do not always apply to issue-based ads (and/or content), for instance, which punches a democracy-denting hole in the self-styled ‘guardrails’ by allowing divisive propaganda to continue to flow.

In Spain Facebook has not even launched a system of political ad transparency, let alone launched systems addressing issue-based political ads — despite the country’s looming general election on April 28; its third in four years. (Since 2015 elections in Spain have yielded heavily fragmented parliaments — making another imminent election not at all unlikely.)

In February, when we asked Facebook whether it would commit to launching ad transparency tools in Spain before the April 28 election, it offered no such commitment — saying instead that it sets up internal cross-functional teams for elections in every market to assess the biggest risks, and make contact with the relevant electoral commission and other key stakeholders.

Again, it’s not possible for outsiders to assess the efficacy of such internal efforts. But Avaaz’s findings suggest Facebook’s risk assessment of Spain’s general election has had a pretty hefty blindspot when it comes to proactively picking up malicious attempts to inflate far right propaganda.

Yet, at the same time, a regional election in Andalusia late last year returned a shock result and warning signs — with the tiny (and previously unelected) far right party, Vox, gaining around 10 per cent of the vote to take 12 seats.

Avaaz’s findings vis-a-vis the three bogus far right networks suggest that as well as seeking to slur leftwing/liberal political views and parties some of the inauthentic pages were involved in actively trying to amplify Vox — with one bogus page, Orgullo Nacional España, sharing a pro-Vox Facebook page 155 times in a three month period. 

Avaaz used the Facebook-owned social media monitoring tool Crowdtangle to get a read on how much impact the fake networks might have had.

It found that while the three inauthentic far right Facebook networks produced just 3.7% of the posts in its Spanish elections dataset, they garnered an impressive 12.6% of total engagement over the three month period it pulled data on (between January 5 and April 8) — despite consisting of just 27 Facebook pages and groups out of a total of 910 in the full dataset. 

Or, to put it another way, a handful of bad actors managed to generate enough divisive politically charged noise that more than one in ten of those engaging in Spanish election chatter on Facebook, per its dataset, at very least took note.

It’s a finding which neatly illustrates that divisive content being more clickable is not at all a crazy idea — whatever the founder of Facebook once said.

News Source = techcrunch.com

You can now take your Amazon returns to all Kohl’s stores

It’s one thing to be able to get everything delivered to your doorstep, it’s another to then have to actually have to leave your home, brace the elements and return those things that just didn’t work out (or work at all). Typically, that means a run to your local FedEx or UPS store. For the last two years, Amazon and department store chain Kohl’s had a limited partnership that allowed you to bring your return to 100 Kohl’s stores across the country. Today, the two companies announced that they’d expand this program to all 1,150 Kohl’s locations in the U.S.

Only last month, Kohl’s and Amazon also announced that the store would start carrying Amazon products in about 200 of its stores. In a few stores, Kohl’s also features a special “Amazon Smart Home Experience.” If Amazon ever bought Kohl’s, nobody would be all that surprised, I guess.

One nice feature of this program is that the returns are free and that nobody will ask you why you returned an item. These regretful Amazon purchases also don’t have to be packaged. Kohl’s employees will handle all that for you.

What’s in it for Kohl’s? As people walk into Kohl’s to return the Bluetooth speaker they finally decided they really didn’t need, they’ll not only become familiar with the brand but maybe pick up a shirt or an Amazon Echo, too. Since it started taking Amazon returns, foot traffic to the stores that participated in its test is up and revenue in those stores increased as well (and well beyond what the company experienced in other stores), so this concept seems to be working out alright for Kohl’s.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Digging into key takeaways from our 2019 Robotics+AI Sessions Event

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Brian Heater and Lucas Matney shared their key takeaways from our Robotics+AI Sessions event at UC Berkeley last week.

The event was filled with panels, demos and intimate discussions with key robotics and deep learning founders, executives and technologists. Brian and Lucas discuss which companies excited them most, as well as which verticals have the most exciting growth prospects in the robotics world.

“This is the second [robotics event] in a row that was done at Berkeley where people really know the events; they respect it, they trust it and we’re able to get really, I would say far and away the top names in robotics. It was honestly a room full of all-stars.

I think our Disrupt events are definitely skewed towards investors and entrepreneurs that may be fresh off getting some seed or Series A cash so they can drop some money on a big ticket item. But here it’s cool because there are so many students. robotics founders and a lot of wide-eyed people wandering from the student union grabbing a pass and coming in. So it’s a cool different level of energy that I think we’re used to.

And I’ll say that this is the key way in which we’ve been able to recruit some of the really big people like why we keep getting Boston Dynamics back to the event, who generally are very secretive.”

Brian and Lucas dive deeper into how several of the major robotics companies and technologies have evolved over time, and also dig into the key patterns and best practices seen in successful robotics startups.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

Oracle turns to innovation hubs to drive cultural and business shift to cloud

Oracle was founded in 1977. While it’s not exactly IBM or GE, both of which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries respectively, it is old enough to be experiencing a fair bit of disruption in its own right. For a good part of its existence, it sold databases to some of the biggest companies in the world, but today as the market changes and shifts from on-prem data centers to the cloud, how does a company like Oracle make that transition?

Of course, Oracle has been making the shift to the cloud for the last several years, but it would be fair to say that it came late. Plus, it takes more than building some data centers and pushing out some products to change a company the size of Oracle. The company leadership recognizes this, and has been thinking at the highest levels of the organization about how to successfully transform into a cloud company from a cultural and business perspective.

To that end, Oracle has opened 5 innovation hubs over the last several years with locations in Austin, Texas; Reston, Virginia; Burlington, Massachusetts; Bangalore, India and Santa Monica, California. What are these centers hoping to achieve, and how will it extend the lessons learned to the rest of the company? Those are big questions Oracle must answer to make some headway in the cloud market.

Understanding the problem

Oracle seems to understand it has to do something different to change market perception and its flagging market position. Synergy Research, a firm that tracks cloud marketshare reports that the company is struggling

“For cloud infrastructure services (IaaS, PaaS, hosted private cloud services) — Oracle has a 2 percent share,” John Dinsdale, chief analyst and managing director at Synergy told TechCrunch. He added, “It is a top ten player but it is nowhere near the scale of the leading cloud providers; and its market share has been steadily eroding.”

The news is a bit better when it comes SaaS. “Along with SAP, Oracle is one of the leaders in the ERP segment. But enterprise SaaS is much broader than ERP and across all of enterprise SaaS it is the number 4 ranked provider behind Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe. Oracle worldwide market share in Q4 was 6 percent,” Dinsdale said.

The company knows that it will take a vast shift to change from an organization that mostly sold software licenses and maintenance agreements. It pushed those hard, sometimes so hard that it left IT pros with a sour taste in their mouths. Today, with the cloud, the selling landscape has changed dramatically to a partnership model. The company knows that it must change too. The question is, how?

That will take an entirely new approach to product development, sales and marketing; and the innovation hubs have become a kind of laboratory where engineers can experiment with more focussed projects, and learn to present their ideas with goal of showing instead of telling customers what they can do.

And the young shall lead

One way to change the culture is to infuse it with fresh-thinking, smart young people and that’s what Oracle is attempting to do with these centers, where they are hiring youthful engineers, many right out of college, to lead the change with the help of more seasoned Oracle executives.

They are looking for ways to rethink Oracle’s cloud products, to pull the services together into packages of useful tools that helped solve a specific business problems from prescription opioid abuse to predicting avocado yields. The idea isn’t just to have a some section of the company where people work on dream projects. They want them to relate to real business problems that results eventually in actual sales and measurable results.

Hamza Jahangir, group vice president for the cloud solution hubs at Oracle says they look for people who want to dig into new solutions, but they want a practical streak in their innovation hub hires. “We don’t want just tinkerers. If the only problem you’re solving is that of your own boredom, that’s not the type of person we are looking for,” he said.

Executive buy-in

The idea of the innovation center actually began with co-CEO Mark Hurd, according to Jahangir. He had been working for several years to change the nature of the sales force, the one that had a reputation of strong-arming IT pros, with a new generation by hiring people right out of college with a fresh approach.

Hurd didn’t want to stop with sales though. He began looking at taking that same idea of hiring younger employees to drive that cultural shift in engineering too. “About two years ago, Mark challenged us to think about how can we change the customer-facing tech workforce as the business model was moving to the cloud,” Jahangir said.

Hurd gave him some budget to open the first two centers in Austin and Reston and he began experimenting, trying to find the right kinds of employees and projects to work on. The funding came without of a lot of strings or conditions associated with it. Hurd wanted to see what could happen if they unleashed a new generation of workers and gave them a certain amount of freedom to work differently than the traditional way of working at Oracle.

Changing expectations

Jahangir was very frank when it came to assessing customer’s expectations around Oracle moving to the cloud. There has been a lot of skepticism and part of the reason for the innovation centers was to find practical solutions that could show customers that they actually had modern approaches to computing, given a chance.

The general customer stance has been, “We don’t believe you have anything real, and we need to see true value realized by us before we pay you any money,” he said. That took a fundamental shift to focussing on actual solutions. It started with the premise that the customers shouldn’t believe any of the marketing stuff. Instead it would show them.

“Don’t bother watching a Powerpoint presentation. Ask us to show you real solutions and use cases where we have solved real material problems — and then we can have a discussion.”

Even Chairman and company founder Larry Ellison recognizes the relationship and selling model needed to change as the company moves to the cloud. Jahangir relayed something he said in a recent internal meeting, “In the cloud we are now no longer selling giant monolithic software. Instead we are selling small bites of the apple. The relationship between the vendor and the buyer is becoming more like a consumer model.” That in turn requires a new way of selling and delivering solutions, precisely what they are trying to figure out at the innovation hubs.

Putting the idea to work

Once you have a new way of thinking, you have to put it to work, and as the company has created these various hubs, that has been the approach. As an example, one that isn’t necessarily original, but that puts Oracle features together in a practical way, is the connected patient. The patient wears a Fitbit-like monitor, uses a smart blood pressure cuff and a smart pill box.

The patient can then monitor his or her own health with these tools in a consolidated mobile application that pulls this data together for them using the Internet of Things cloud service, Oracle Mobile Cloud and Oracle Integration Cloud. What’s more, that information gets shared with the patient’s pharmacy and doctor, who can monitor the patient’s health and get warnings when there is a serious issue, such as dangerously high blood pressure.

Another project involved a partnership with Waypoint Robotics, where they demonstrated a robot that worked alongside human workers. The humans interacted with the robots, but the robot moved the goods from workstation to workstation acting as a quality control agent along the way. If it found defects or problems, it communicated that to the worker via a screen on the side of the unit, and to the cloud. Every interaction between the humans, goods and robot was updated in the Oracle cloud.

Waypoint Robotics Robot inspecting iPhones. Information on the display shows it communicating with the Oracle cloud. Photo: Ron Miller

One other project worked with farmers and distributors to help stores stay stocked with avocados, surely as good a Gen Z project as you are likely to find. The tool looks at weather data, historical sales and information coming from sensors at the farm, and it combines all of that data to make predictions about avocado yields, making use of Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse, Oracle Analytics Cloud and other services from Oracle cloud stack.

Moving beyond the hubs

This type of innovation hub has become popular in recent years as a way to help stave off disruption, and Oracle’s approach is actually in line with this trend. While companies sometimes isolate them to protect them from negativity and naysayers in an organization, leaving them isolated often prevents the lessons learned from being applied to the broader organization at large, essentially defeating the very purpose of creating them in the first place.

Jahangir says that they are attempting to avoid that problem by meeting with others in the company and sharing their learnings and the kinds of metrics that they use in the innovation center to measure success, which might be different from the rest of the company.

He says to put Oracle on the customer agenda, they have to move the conversation from from religious battles, as he calls how people support or condemn tech from certain companies. “We have to overcome religious battles and perceptions. I don’t like to fight religion with more religion. We need to step out of that conversation. The best way we have seen for engaging developer community is to show them how to build really cool things, then we can hire developers to do that, and showcase that to the community to show that it’s not just lip service.”

The trick will be doing that, and perhaps the innovation centers will help. As of today, the company is not sharing its cloud revenue, so it’s hard to measure just how well this is helping contribute to the overall success of the company, but Oracle clearly has a lot of work to do to change the perception of the enterprise buyer about its cloud products and services, and to increase its share of the growing cloud pie. It hopes these innovations hubs will lead the way to doing that.

Jahangir recognizes that he has to constantly keep adjusting the approach. “The Hub model is still maturing. We are finding and solving new problems where we need new tooling and engagement models in the organization. We are still learning and evolving,” he said.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Voiceflow, which allows anyone to make voice apps without coding, raises $3.5 million

Apps/Delhi/India/Politics by

The market for voice apps has opened up — Amazon Alexa’s platform alone has over 80,000 skills as of earlier this year — and there’s little sign of that growth slowing now that smart speakers have hit critical mass in the U.S. To capitalize on this trend, Voiceflow, a startup making it easier for product teams to build voice applications for Alexa and Google Assistant, has raised $3 million in seed funding.

The round was led by True Ventures, and includes participation from ProductHunt founder Ryan Hoover, Eventbrite founder Kevin Hartz, and InVision founder Clark Valberg. The company has previously raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding.

Explains Voiceflow CEO and co-founder Braden Ream, the idea for a collaborative platform for building voice apps came from direct experience as a voice app developer.

The team — which also includes Tyler Han, Michael Hood, and Andrew Lawrence — had decided to build a voice application offering interactive children’s stories for Alexa, called Storyflow.

But as the team began to build out its library of these choose-your-own-adventure stories, they realized the process wasn’t scaling fast enough to serve their user base — they simply couldn’t build the storyboards with all their branches fast enough.

“At some point, we had the idea to just do a drag-and-drop,” says Ream. “I wished I could build the flow chart, the scripting and the actual coding — I wished this was all one step. That led us to build a really early iteration of what is now Voiceflow. It was sort of an internal tool,” he continues. “And being the nerds that we are, we kept making the platform better by adding logic, variables, and modularity.”

The original plan was to make Storyflow’s platform a “YouTube of voice” so anyone could build their stories easily.

But when the Storyflow community got ahold of what the team had built, they very quickly wanted to use it to build their own voice apps — not just interactive stories.

“That’s when the lightbulb went off for us,” notes Ream. “This could easily be the central platform for building voice apps, and not necessarily interactive children’s stories. The pivot was very easy,” he says. “All we had to do was change our name from Storyflow to Voiceflow.”

The platform, officially launched in November, and today has over 7,500 customers who have published some 250 voice apps using its tools.

Voiceflow is designed to be non-technical for those who don’t know how to code. For example, its two basic block types are “speak” and “choice.” Its blocks are organized on the screen through drag-and-drop, as users design the flow of their app. For more technical users, an advanced section allows you to add logic and variables — but it’s still entirely visual.

For enterprise customers, there’s also an API block in Voiceflow that allows the customer to integrate the business’s own API into their voice app.

What’s also interesting about the product is its collaborative features. While Voiceflow is free for individuals, its business model is focused on allowing teams to work together to build voice apps. Priced at $29 per month in its paid workspaces, voice agencies that have a larger staff — including linguists, voice user interface designers, and developers, for example —  can all work together on one board, share projects, and hand of assets more easily.

With the seed funding, Voiceflow plans to grow the team by hiring more engineers, and continue to develop the platform.

Longer-term, the company wants to help people design better, more human-sounding voice apps through its platform.

“The problem right now is you have documentation and best practices by Google. Then you have the exact same on the Alexa side, but there’s no coherent industry standard. And there’s certainly no tangible base of examples, or easy way to put these into practice,” Bream explains. “If we can help spawn another 10,000 voice user interface designers — we can help train them and give them a platform that’s accessible, where they can collaborate with each other — I think you’re going to see a tremendous uplift in the quality of conversations.”

On this front, Voiceflow has started a program called Voiceflow University, which today includes video tutorials but will later become a more standardized training course.

In addition to the videos, Voiceflow networks with its community directly on Facebook, where over 2,500 developers, linguists, educators, designers, and entrepreneurs actively discuss the voice app design and development process.

This interaction between Voiceflow and its user base was one of the key selling points for True Ventures’ Tony Conrad.

“After I left the [pitch] meeting and I started digging around a little bit, the thing that blew me away was the engagement of the community of developers. That’s unlike anybody else. The single biggest differentiator of this platform is actually Braden and the team’s engagement with the community,” Conrad says. “It reminds me of early WordPress.”

Voiceflow also recently worked with another visual design tool Invocable, which has shut down, to allow its users to transition to Voiceflow’s platform.

There is, perhaps, a cautionary tale in there — Invocable, in its farewell blog post, points out that people continue to use smart speakers mainly for things like music, news, reminders and simple commands. It also says that Natural Language Processing and Natural Language Understanding haven’t developed to the point where they can support higher-quality voice apps. That day will likely come to pass, but there’s a bit of a timing issue when it comes to betting on the right platform to support the voice app development market in the meantime, ahead of widespread consumer adoption.

Toronto-based Voiceflow is a team of twelve today and looking to grow.

 

 

 

News Source = techcrunch.com

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