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Category Archives: Social

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Twitter tests new conversation features from twttr prototype, rollout planned for 2020

Category : Social

Twttr, the prototype app Twitter launched earlier this year, has been testing new ways to display conversations, including through the use of threaded replies and other visual cues. Now, those features have been spotted on Twitter.com, giving the service a message board-like feel where replies are connected to original tweeter and others in a thread by way of thin, gray lines.

As you may recall, the goal with twttr was to give Twitter a place outside of its main app to publicly experiment with more radical changes to the Twitter user interface, gain feedback, then iterate as needed, before the changes were rolled out to Twitter’s main user base. Since its arrival in March, the prototype twttr app has focused mainly on how threaded conversations would work, sometimes including different ways of labeling the posters in a thread, as well.

Currently, for example, twttr labels the original poster — meaning the person who started a conversation — with a little microphone icon, similar to Reddit. It’s also testing a way to view the tweet details in a card-style layout you can activate with a tap.

But its main focus continues to be on the display of the threads themselves.

Following its launch, the work on twttr slowed as did the excitement over its exclusive, invite-only Twitter experience. Instead of being a continual testbed of new ideas, twttr mostly rolled out small tweaks to threads. And it never branched out beyond conversation redesigns to test entirely new features, like Twitter’s recently launched Topics, for example.

In August, Sara Haider, who had been heading up the design of Conversations on Twitter — a role that included running twttr — announced she would be moving to a new team at the company. Meanwhile, Suzanne Xie, who had just joined Twitter by way of the Lightwell acquisition, stepped in to lead Conversations instead. She confirmed at the time that part of her role would be working with the twttr team to bring its best parts to the main Twitter app.

That work now appears to be underway.

Noted reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong spotted a conversation tree layout being developed on Twitter.com, identical to the one found on twttr.

Twitter Web App is testing reddit-like conversation tree

The concept first appeared on its experimental Twttr iOS app, and now it might come to the web app too! It helps keeping track of the flow of conversation pic.twitter.com/wlOvTR4IWP

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) November 8, 2019

And just this week, the feature was tweaked a bit more to include the ability to focus on a specific tweet, even from a permalink — also similar to twttr’s card-style layout, which highlights tweets you tap within a thread in the same way.

Twitter continues working on Conversation Tree

now with the ability to focus a specific tweet, even from a permalink pic.twitter.com/CVadSqbFDP

— Jane Manchun Wong (@wongmjane) November 26, 2019

Wong wasn’t opted into an A/B test on Twitter.com to view this feature but rather found it through her investigative techniques, we understand.

Twitter confirmed what she found is part of the company’s broader plan to bring twttr’s features to Twitter — a rollout that will take place next year, a spokesperson said.

In addition, the company is considering how to use the twttr app to experiment with other features going forward, it says.

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Twitter to add a way to ‘memorialize’ accounts for deceased users before removing inactive ones

Category : Social

Twitter has changed its tune regarding inactive accounts after receiving a lot of user feedback: It will now be developing a way to “memorialize” user accounts for those who have passed away, before proceeding with a plan it confirmed this week to deactivate accounts that are inactive in order to “present more accurate, credible information” on the service.

To the company’s credit, it reacted swiftly after receiving a significant amount of negative feedback on this move, and it seems like the case of deceased users simply wasn’t considered in the decision to proceed with terminating dormant accounts.

After Twitter confirmed the inactive account (those that haven’t tweeted in more than six months) cleanup on Tuesday, a number of users noted that this would also have the effect of erasing the content of accounts whose owners have passed away. TechCrunch alum Drew Olanoff wrote about this impact from a personal perspective, asking Twitter to reconsider their move in light of the human impact and potential emotional cost.

In a thread today detailing their new thinking around inactive accounts, Twitter explained that its current inactive account policy has actually always been in place, but that they haven’t been diligent about enforcing it. They’re going to begin doing so in the European Union partly in accordance with local privacy laws, citing GDPR specifically. But the company also says it will now not be removing any inactive accounts before first implementing a way for inactive accounts belonging to deceased users to be “memorialized,” which presumably means preserving their content.

Twitter went on to say that it might expand or refine its inactive account policy to ensure it works with global privacy regulations, but will be sure to communicate these changes broadly before they go into effect.

It’s not yet clear what Twitter will do to offer this ‘memorialization’ of accounts, but there is some precedent they can look to for cues: Facebook has a ‘memorialized accounts’ feature that it introduced for similar reasons.


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Brexit ad blitz data firm paid by Vote Leave broke privacy laws, watchdogs find

Category : Social

A joint investigation by watchdogs in Canada and British Columbia has found that Cambridge Analytica-linked data firm, Aggregate IQ, broke privacy laws in Facebook ad-targeting work it undertook for the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

A quick reminder: Vote Leave was the official leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. While Cambridge Analytica is the (now defunct) firm at the center of a massive Facebook data misuse scandal which has dented the company’s fortunes and continues to tarnish its reputation.

Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings — now a special advisor to the UK prime minister — wrote in 2017 that the winning recipe for the leave campaign was data science. And, more specifically, spending 98% of its marketing budget on “nearly a billion targeted digital adverts”.

Targeted at Facebook users.

The problem is, per the Canadian watchdogs’ conclusions, AIQ did not have proper legal consents from UK voters for disclosing their personal information to Facebook for the Brexit ad blitz which Cummings ordered.

Either for “the purpose of advertising to those individuals (via ‘custom audiences’) or for the purpose of analyzing their traits and characteristics in order to locate and target others like them (via ‘lookalike audiences’)”.

Oops.

Here’s Dominic Cummings describing how he & Vote Leave used AIQ & Facebook to target carefully tailored disinformation on millions of British voters in 2016. It’s beyond grim that this man is now Boris Johnson’s senior adviser. pic.twitter.com/eGggKHoLU0

— Tom Scott (@Tom___Scott) July 24, 2019

Last year the UK’s Electoral Commission also concluded that Vote Leave breached election campaign spending limits by channeling money to AIQ to run the targeting political ads on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with another Brexit campaign, BeLeave. So there’s a full sandwich of legal wrongdoings stuck to the brexit mess that UK society remains mired in, more than three years later.

Meanwhile, the current UK General Election is now a digital petri dish for data scientists and democracy hackers to run wild experiments in microtargeted manipulation — given election laws haven’t been updated to take account of the outgrowth of the adtech industry’s tracking and targeting infrastructure, despite multiple warnings from watchdogs and parliamentarians.

Data really is helluva a drug.

The Canadian investigation cleared AIQ of any wrongdoing in its use of phone numbers to send SMS messages for another pro-Brexit campaign, BeLeave; a purpose the watchdogs found had been authorized by the consent provided by individuals who gave their information to that youth-focused campaign.

But they did find consent problems with work AIQ undertook for various US campaigns on behalf of Cambridge Analytica affiliate, SCL Elections — including for a political action committee, a presidential primary campaign and various campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections.

And, again — as we know — Facebook is squarely in the frame here too.

“The investigation finds that the personal information provided to and used by AIQ comes from disparate sources. This includes psychographic profiles derived from personal information Facebook disclosed to Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, and onward to Cambridge Analytica,” the watchdogs write.

“In the case of their work for US campaigns… AIQ did not attempt to determine whether there was consent it could rely on for its use and disclosure of personal information.”

The investigation also looked at AIQ’s work for multiple Canadian campaigns — finding fewer issues related to consent. Though the report states that in: “certain cases, the purposes for which individuals are informed, or could reasonably assume their personal information is being collected, do not extend to social media advertising and analytics”.

AIQ also gets told off for failing to properly secure the data it misused.

This element of the probe resulted from a data breach reported by UpGuard after it found AIQ running an unsecured GitLab repository — holding what the report dubs “substantial personal information”, as well as encryption keys and login credentials which it says put the personal information of 35 million+ people at risk.

Double oops.

“The investigation determined that AIQ failed to take reasonable security measures to ensure that personal information under its control was secure from unauthorized access or disclosure,” is the inexorable conclusion.

Turns out if an entity doesn’t have a proper legal right to people’s information in the first place it may not be majorly concerned about where else the data might end up.

The report flows from an investigation into allegations of unauthorized access and use of Facebook user profiles which was started by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC in late 2017. A separate probe was opened by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last year. The two watchdogs subsequently combined their efforts.

The upshot for AIQ from the joint investigation’s finding of multiple privacy and security violations is a series of, er, “recommendations”.

On the data use front it is suggested the company take “reasonable measures” to ensure any third-party consent it relies on for collection, use or disclosure of personal information on behalf of clients is “adequate” under the relevant Canadian and BC privacy laws.

“These measures should include both contractual measures and other measures, such as reviewing the consent language used by the client,” the watchdogs suggest. “Where the information is sensitive, as with political opinions, AIQ should ensure there is express consent, rather than implied.”

On security, the recommendations are similarly for it to “adopt and maintain reasonable security measures to protect personal information, and that it delete personal information that is no longer necessary for business or legal purposes”.

“During the investigation, AIQ took steps to remedy its security breach. AIQ has agreed to implement the Offices’ recommendations,” the report adds.

The upshot of political ‘data science’ for Western democracies? That’s still tbc. Buckle up.


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Inside the Instagram AI that fills Explore with fresh, juicy content

Category : Social

Instagram has posted an article describing the behind-the-scenes machinery that fills the Explore tab in Instagram with new, interesting stuff every time you open it. It’s a bit technical, so here are five takeaways.

Even Instagram and Facebook have limited resources

Unlike the feed, which some still would prefer was simply chronological, the Explore tab needs to be algorithmically driven. But understanding what’s happening on an image-based social network and recommending new content to people is a problem that’s exactly as hard as you make it.

If these companies had infinite processing power and time, they’d probably come at the question of Explore a bit differently. But as it is they need to serve hundreds of millions of people on short notice and with merely enormous computing resources. I think they put this at the top of the post so people don’t wonder why they’re cutting corners.

It’s also easier to experiment and iterate when you can change stuff and see results quickly, they point out.

It’s all about the account, not the post

So much is posted to Instagram that it would be pretty much impossible to keep track of every photo individually, for recommendation purposes anyway. It’s simpler and more efficient to track accounts, since accounts tend to have themes or topics, from a broader one like “travel” to something highly specific, like especially round seals.

While liking one post from an account doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like everything else from that account, it is a good indicator that you’re at least interested in the theme of that account. Even if it was this particular post of this particular cat that you wanted to heart because it reminds you of old Mittens, if you’re liking pictures from an account that mostly posts cats, that’s valuable information.

Complex habits inform the algorithm

Notably it isn’t just image features that Instagram uses to figure out what accounts are topically linked, though of course that kind of thing can be detected too. They also use your behavior.

For instance, when you like several posts in a row, they’re more likely to be linked in some way even if Instagram’s algorithms can’t quite see it:

If an individual interacts with a sequence of accounts in the same session, it’s more likely to be topically coherent compared with a random sequence of accounts from the diverse range of Instagram accounts. This helps us identify topically similar accounts.

People just tend to look into stuff that way, going from one travel-focused account to the next, or focusing on animals because they need a pick-me up. All that information gets sucked up by the algorithm and inspected for relevance. Of course deliberate actions like “see fewer posts like this” and blocking accounts has a lot of weight as well.

From “seed accounts” to a top 25

The process of getting from a couple billion posts to just two dozen can be pretty difficult, but you can cut the problem down to manageable size by limiting the Explore tab to accounts linked in some way to accounts the user has already liked or saved posts from. These are called “seed accounts” because everything else in the process really grows out of them.

Because of how the machine learning system represents accounts and their topics inside itself, it’s super easy for it to find a couple hundred similar accounts.

Imagine if you know someone likes a particular reddish-orange marble and you need to find some more like it. If you just dip your hand into a sack of marbles you’re unlikely to find one quickly. Even if you pour them out on the floor you’ll still have to hunt around for a bit. But if you’ve already organized them by color, all you have to do is reach into the general vicinity of the marble they like and you’re almost guaranteed to pick a winner.

The machine learning model does that by giving all these accounts a sort of location in a virtual space, and the closer two are in that space, the closer they are topically.

So the really hard part of paring down a set of billions to a set of hundreds is basically already accomplished by the way the accounts are classified.

From there Instagram does three passes with neural networks of increasing complexity.

First, slightly confusingly, is a simpler, combined version of the next two processes, which takes it from 500 to 150 accounts. This is a little weird, but think about it this way: This neural network has seen steps 2 and 3 happen many times and has a pretty good idea of what they do. Sort of like if you’d seen cookies get made enough times that you could guess at a recipe. You’d probably get close, but you also wouldn’t want to publish it to like a hundred million people. So this step just gets the obvious stuff right.

Second is a computationally cheap neural network that uses way more signals than the simple topical similarity mentioned above. Here’s where your individual likes come into play, as well as the deeper data about accounts. You like travel, sure, but in particular you like couples traveling — both things the marble-sorting algorithm above can help with. Other parameters, like a post’s general popularity, or actually its being different from the other posts in the mix, figure in as well. That skims another 100 off the top, leaving 50.

Third is a computationally expensive version of the above, which does another pass on those 50 and cuts them in half, basically by looking closer and taking the time to include, perhaps, a thousand data points each rather than a hundred.

I guess that was kind of long for a “takeaway.” Don’t worry, the next one is quick.

And of course, no 🍑

“We want to make sure the content we recommend is both safe and appropriate for a global community of many ages on Explore,” they write. “Using a variety of signals, we filter out content we can identify as not being eligible to be recommended.”

So now you know why you don’t get any of that in Explore.


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Hulu is down, appears to be a major outage

Category : Social

Hulu is currently down.

We’re not sure why, and neither does Hulu. A stream of tweets complaining about the outage surfaced Sunday morning on the U.S. east coast, but it seems like a global outage. In response, Hulu’s Twitter support didn’t seem to know either, instead telling frustrated users that it’s looking into it.

Fantastic.

For what it’s worth and in my many experiences covering cybersecurity, the chance that this is anything other than someone tripping over a cable or accidentally pushing out production code to the wrong pipe is extremely slim. Hulu will be back. When? No idea, but these things never take too long.

We’ve reached out for comment but we haven’t heard back yet. Stay tuned for more. (Or listen to our Original Content podcast instead.)


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Watch Sacha Baron Cohen skewer Zuckerberg’s ‘twisted logic’ on hate speech and fakes

Category : Social

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate about social media regulation.

In an award-acceptance speech to the Anti-Defamation League yesterday, the creator of Ali G and Borat delivered a precision take-down of what he called Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “bullshit” arguments against regulating his platform.

The speech is well worth watching in full as Cohen articulates, with a comic’s truth-telling clarity, the problem with “the greatest propaganda machine in history” (aka social media platform giants) and how to fix it: Broadcast-style regulation that sets basic standards and practices of what content isn’t acceptable for them to amplify to billions.

“There is such a thing as objective truth,” said Cohen. “Facts do exist. And if these internet companies really want to make a difference, they should hire enough monitors to actually monitor, work closely with groups like the ADL and the NAACP, insist on facts and purge these lies and conspiracies from their platforms.”

Attacking social media platforms for promulgating “a sewer of bigotry and vile conspiracy theories that threaten our democracy and to some degree our planet,” he pointed out that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach.

“This can’t possibly be what the creators of the internet had in mind,” he said. “I believe that’s it’s time for a fundamental rethink of social media and how it spreads hate, conspiracies and lies.”

“Voltaire was right. Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities — and social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people,” he added.

Cohen also rubbished Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown University in which the Facebook founder sought to appropriate the mantle of “free speech” to argue against social media regulation.

“This is not about limiting anyone’s free speech. This is about giving people — including some of the most reprehensible people in history — the biggest platform in history to reach a third of the planet.”

“We are not asking these companies to determine the boundaries of free speech across society, we just want them to be responsible on their platforms,” Cohen added.

On Facebook’s decision to stick by its morally bankrupt position of allowing politicians to pay it to spread lying, hatefully propaganda, Cohen also had this to say: “Under this twisted logic if Facebook were around in the 1930s it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his solution to the ‘Jewish problem.’ ”

Ouch.

YouTube also came in for criticism during the speech, including for its engagement-driven algorithmic recommendation engine which Cohen pointed out had single-handedly recommended videos by conspiracist Alex Jones “billions of times.”

Just six people decide what information “so much of the world sees,” he noted, name-checking the “silicon six” — as he called Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Alphabet’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, YouTube’s Susan Wojcicki and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

“All billionaires, all Americans, who care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism,” he went on. “Six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of law.

“It’s like we’re living in the Roman Empire and Mark Zuckerberg is Caesar. At least that would explain his haircut.”

Cohen ended the speech with an appeal for societies to “prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference, and experts over ignoramuses” and thereby save democracy from the greed of “high tech robber barons.”


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Twitter will finally let you turn on two-factor authentication without giving it a phone number

Category : Social

Two-factor authentication is good! SMS-based two-factor authentication? Not the best option. After countless tales of people having their phone numbers and inbound SMS hijacked by way of SIM swapping, it’s clear that SMS just isn’t the right solution for sending people secondary login codes.

And yet, for many years, it’s been the mandatory go-to on Twitter . You could switch to another option later (like Google Authenticator, or a physical Yubikey) — but to turn it on in the first place, you were locked into giving Twitter a phone number and using SMS.

Twitter is getting around to fixing this, at long last. The Twitter Safety team announced that you’ll be able to enable two-factor authentication without the need for a phone number, starting sometime today.

This news comes just a few months after Jack Dorsey’s own Twitter account was hacked (seemingly by way of a SIM swap) and a few weeks after Twitter had to admit it was using phone numbers provided during the two-factor setup process for serving targeted ads.

We’re also making it easier to secure your account with Two-Factor Authentication. Starting today, you can enroll in 2FA without a phone number. https://t.co/AxVB4QWFA1

— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) November 21, 2019

Some users are reporting that the setup process still requests a phone number, so it seems like this change is being rolled out rather than launching for everyone immediately.


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Facebook Dating now integrates with Instagram and Facebook Stories

Category : Social

Facebook Dating, an opt-in feature of the main Facebook app, will begin to tap into the content users are already creating across both Facebook and Instagram to enhance its service. Today, Facebook Dating users will be able to add their Facebook or Instagram Stories to Facebook Dating in order to share their everyday moments with daters.

As opposed to more polished profile photos, Stories can give someone better insight into what a person is like by showcasing what activities they like to engage in, their hobbies, their interests, their personality and their humor, among other things. And if the daters themselves appear in a Story, it lets others see what they really look like, even if their online photos are out-of-date.

The way the feature is being implemented on Facebook Dating puts the user in control of what’s being shared. That is, your Facebook or Instagram Stories are not automatically copied over to Facebook Dating by default. Instead, users can select which of their Stories are shared and which are not.

In addition, people daters have blocked or passed on Facebook Dating won’t be able to see them.

If a Story is inappropriate, you can also block the user and report it, like you can with other content elsewhere on Facebook.

One thing to be aware of is that this feature is a way to share a Story to Facebook Dating, but the Story isn’t exclusively designed for Facebook Dating. That means, if you decide to use the Story feature as some sort of video dating intro, your Facebook and Instagram friends could see this, as well.

When browsing Facebook Dating, you’ll be able to view other people’s Stories along with their profiles. And if you match with someone, you can continue to view their Stories and then even use that to spark a conversation, which takes place in the app. This is similar to how you can respond to someone’s Facebook or Instagram Story today, which then appears in Messenger or Instagram’s Messages section, respectively.

The new Stories feature could be a potential competitive advantage for Facebook Dating, because it allows users a new way to express themselves without requiring them to create new content just for the dating service itself. Even if a rival dating app like Tinder or Bumble introduced their own version of Stories, many wouldn’t think to launch a dating app to capture their everyday moments.

Stories integration is rolling out starting today to Facebook Dating.

Dating, as a Facebook feature, is currently available in 20 countries, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Singapore, Suriname, Thailand, United States, Uruguay and Vietnam. It will be in Europe by early 2020, Facebook says.

The company has not disclosed how many people are using Facebook Dating at this time.


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Twitter rolls out its ‘Hide Replies’ feature to all users worldwide

Category : Social

Twitter’s radical “Hide Replies” feature, one of the biggest changes to how Twitter works since the invention of the Retweet, is now available to Twitter’s global user base. The company says the feature will roll out to all Twitter users across platforms by today, with only one slight tweak since earlier tests.

Designed to balance the conversation on Twitter by putting the original poster back in control of which replies to their tweets remain visible, Hide Replies has been one of Twitter’s more controversial features to date. While no replies are actually deleted from Twitter when a user chooses to hide them, they are placed behind an extra click. That means the trolling, irrelevant, insulting or otherwise disagreeable comments don’t get to dominate the conversation.

Twitter’s thinking is that if people know that hateful remarks and inappropriate behavior could be hidden from view, it will encourage more online civility.

However, the flip side is that people could use the “Hide Replies” feature to silence their critics or stifle dissent, even when warranted — like someone offering a fact check, for example.

The feature was first tested in Canada in July, then in the U.S. and Japan this September, across both web and mobile platforms.

Since its launch, Twitter found that most people hide the replies they find irrelevant, off-topic or annoying. It also found people were using this instead of harsher noise reduction controls, like block or mute. In Canada, 27% of surveyed users who had their tweets hidden said they would reconsider how they interacted with others in the future, which is a somewhat promising metric.

The feature is, however, getting a slight change with its global debut. Twitter says some people wanted to take further action after hiding a reply, so now it will check to see if they want to block the replier, too. It also heard from some users that they were afraid of retaliation because the icon remains visible. It’s not making a change on that front at this time, but is still considering how to address this.

Another concern that was often mentioned on Twitter as the new feature first rolled out was the large pop-up notification that appears when users encountered a tweet with hidden replies.

Some people found the notification was so large and disruptive that it actually encouraged people to pay more attention to the hidden replies than they would otherwise.

What is the point of people hiding unwanted tweet replies if twitter fills the screen with a giant pop-up calling attention to the fact that there are replies they have hidden, which can still be clicked through to view anyway? pic.twitter.com/YBy47jdZcN

— J. Scott Holland (@Telecrylic) October 13, 2019

I wonder if this pop up makes people more likely to pay attention to hidden replies than if they were never hidden in the first place https://t.co/FCECR6Fi0C

— Alex Kantrowitz (@Kantrowitz) November 18, 2019

I like the idea of @Twitter‘s new hidden replies feature, but this pop up actually draws way more attention to the messages an author has chosen to hide. pic.twitter.com/xOAkV9OtJU

— •–|C|–• (@CamCron) September 26, 2019

Twitter says this screen only displays the first time a Twitter user encounters a tweet with hidden replies, however. Afterward, an icon will show people replies are hidden — and those are hidden on another page, not below the tweet.

But even though that’s a one-time notification, the attention it demands from the user outweighs the information it’s trying to convey — essentially, that Twitter has launched a new feature and here’s where to find it. And if someone is engaged in trolling, being told that this particular Twitter user is hiding replies could enrage them even more.

In addition to the global rollout, Twitter says it will soon be launching a new hide replies endpoint in its API so developers can build additional conversation management tools.

And Twitter notes it will be testing other changes to conversations, including more options around who can reply or even see specific conversations, as well as engagement changes designed to encourage healthier conversations.

“Everyone should feel safe and comfortable while talking on Twitter,” writes Suzanne Xie, Twitter’s director of Product Management, who recently joined by way of an acquisition. “To make this happen, we need to change how conversations work on our service,” she says.

Twitter’s development in this area is interesting because it’s actively experimenting with ways to encourage civility on a platform that’s known for hot takes, sarcasm, snark and outrage. It’s willing to change and evolve its features over time as it learns what works and scrap changes that don’t. It has even been running a beta product (twttr) in parallel with Twitter, to try new ideas. If Twitter is ever able to turn things around by way of its feature set, it would be a marvel of product management.

The option to hide replies is rolling out globally on iOS, Android, Twitter Lite and twitter.com, starting today.


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Amnesty International latest to slam surveillance giants Facebook and Google as ‘incompatible’ with human rights

Category : Social

Human rights charity Amnesty International is the latest to call for reform of surveillance capitalism — blasting the business models of “surveillance giants” Facebook and Google in a new report which warns the pair’s market dominating platforms are “enabling human rights harm at a population scale”.

“[D]espite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost,” Amnesty warns. “The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.”

“This isn’t the internet people signed up for,” it adds.

What’s most striking about the report is the familiarly of the arguments. There is now a huge weight of consensus criticism around surveillance-based decision-making — from Apple’s own Tim Cook through scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff and Zeynep Tufekci to the United Nations — that’s itself been fed by a steady stream of reportage of the individual and societal harms flowing from platforms’ pervasive and consentless capturing and hijacking of people’s information for ad-based manipulation and profit.

This core power asymmetry is maintained and topped off by self-serving policy positions which at best fiddle around the edges of an inherently anti-humanitarian system. While platforms have become practiced in dark arts PR — offering, at best, a pantomime ear to the latest data-enabled outrage that’s making headlines, without ever actually changing the underlying system. That surveillance capitalism’s abusive modus operandi is now inspiring governments to follow suit — aping the approach by developing their own data-driven control systems to straitjacket citizens — is exceptionally chilling.

But while the arguments against digital surveillance are now very familiar what’s still sorely lacking is an effective regulatory response to force reform of what is at base a moral failure — and one that’s been allowed to scale so big it’s attacking the democratic underpinnings of Western society.

“Google and Facebook have established policies and processes to address their impacts on privacy and freedom of expression – but evidently, given that their surveillance-based business model undermines the very essence of the right to privacy and poses a serious risk to a range of other rights, the companies are not taking a holistic approach, nor are they questioning whether their current business models themselves can be compliant with their responsibility to respect human rights,” Amnesty writes.

“The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google’s surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals. Despite the companies’ assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations.”

Needless to say Facebook and Google do not agree with Amnesty’s assessment. But, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

Amnesty’s report notes there is now a whole surveillance industry feeding this beast — from adtech players to data brokers — while pointing out that the dominance of Facebook and Google, aka the adtech duopoly, over “the primary channels that most of the world relies on to engage with the internet” is itself another harm, as it lends the pair of surveillance giants “unparalleled power over people’s lives online”.

“The power of Google and Facebook over the core platforms of the internet poses unique risks for human rights,” it warns. “For most people it is simply not feasible to use the internet while avoiding all Google and Facebook services. The dominant internet platforms are no longer ‘optional’ in many societies, and using them is a necessary part of participating in modern life.”

Amnesty concludes that it is “now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end” — saying further state-based regulation will be necessary. Its call there is for legislators to follow a human rights-based approach to rein in surveillance giants.

You can read the report in full here (PDF).