AntiToxin sells safetytech to clean up poisoned platforms

The big social networks and video games have failed to prioritize user well-being over their own growth. As a result, society is losing the battle against bullying, predators, hate speech, misinformation and scammers. Typically when a whole class of tech companies have a dire problem they can’t cost-effectively solve themselves, a software-as-a-service emerges to fill the gap in web hosting, payment processing, etc. So along comes AntiToxin Technologies, a new Israeli startup that wants to help web giants fix their abuse troubles with its safety-as-a-service.

It all started on Minecraft. AntiToxin co-founder Ron Porat is cybersecurity expert who’d started popular ad blocker Shine. Yet right under his nose, one of his kids was being mercilessly bullied on the hit children’s game. If even those most internet-savvy parents were being surprised by online abuse, Porat realized the issue was bigger than could be addressed by victims trying to protect themselves. The platforms had to do more, research confirmed.

A recent Ofcom study found almost 80% of children had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year. Indeed, 23% said they’d been cyberbullied, and 28% of 12 to 15-year-olds said they’d received unwelcome friend or follow requests from strangers. A Ditch The Label study found of 12 to 20-year-olds who’d been bullied online, 42% were bullied on Instagram.

Unfortunately, the massive scale of the threat combined with a late start on policing by top apps makes progress tough without tremendous spending. Facebook tripled the headcount of its content moderation and security team, taking a noticeable hit to its profits, yet toxicity persists. Other mainstays like YouTube and Twitter have yet to make concrete commitments to safety spending or staffing, and the result is non-stop scandals of child exploitation and targeted harassment. Smaller companies like Snap or Fortnite-maker Epic Games may not have the money to develop sufficient safeguards in-house.

“The tech giants have proven time and time again we can’t rely on them. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. Parents need to realize this problem won’t be solved by these companies” says AntiToxin CEO Zohar Levkovitz, who previously sold his mobile ad company Amobee to Singtel for $321 million. “You need new players, new thinking, new technology. A company where ‘Safety’ is the product, not an after-thought. And that’s where we come-in.” The startup recently raised a multimillion-dollar seed round from Mangrove Capital Partners and is allegedly prepping for a double-digit millions Series A.

AntiToxin’s technology plugs into the backends of apps with social communities that either broadcast or message with each other and are thereby exposed to abuse. AntiToxin’s systems privately and securely crunch all the available signals regarding user behavior and policy violation reports, from text to videos to blocking. It then can flag a wide range of toxic actions and let the client decide whether to delete the activity, suspend the user responsible or how else to proceed based on their terms and local laws.

Through the use of artificial intelligence, including natural language processing, machine learning and computer vision, AntiToxin can identify the intent of behavior to determine if it’s malicious. For example, the company tells me it can distinguish between a married couple consensually exchanging nude photos on a messaging app versus an adult sending inappropriate imagery to a child. It also can determine if two teens are swearing at each other playfully as they compete in a video game or if one is verbally harassing the other. The company says that beats using static dictionary blacklists of forbidden words.

AntiToxin is under NDA, so it can’t reveal its client list, but claims recent media attention and looming regulation regarding online abuse has ramped up inbound interest. Eventually the company hopes to build better predictive software to identify users who’ve shown signs of increasingly worrisome behavior so their activity can be more closely moderated before they lash out. And it’s trying to build a “safety graph” that will help it identify bad actors across services so they can be broadly deplatformed similar to the way Facebook uses data on Instagram abuse to police connected WhatsApp accounts.

“We’re approaching this very human problem like a cybersecurity company, that is, everything is a Zero-Day for us” says Levkowitz, discussing how AntiToxin indexes new patterns of abuse it can then search for across its clients. “We’ve got intelligence unit alums, PhDs and data scientists creating anti-toxicity detection algorithms that the world is yearning for.” AntiToxin is already having an impact. TechCrunch commissioned it to investigate a tip about child sexual imagery on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. We discovered Bing was actually recommending child abuse image results to people who’d conducted innocent searches, leading Bing to make changes to clean up its act.

AntiToxin identified publicly listed WhatsApp Groups where child sexual abuse imagery was exchanged

One major threat to AntiToxin’s business is what’s often seen as boosting online safety: end-to-end encryption. AntiToxin claims that when companies like Facebook expand encryption, they’re purposefully hiding problematic content from themselves so they don’t have to police it.

Facebook claims it still can use metadata about connections on its already encrypted WhatApp network to suspend those who violate its policy. But AntiToxin provided research to TechCrunch for an investigation that found child sexual abuse imagery sharing groups were openly accessible and discoverable on WhatsApp — in part because encryption made them hard to hunt down for WhatsApp’s automated systems.

AntiToxin believes abuse would proliferate if encryption becomes a wider trend, and it claims the harm that it  causes outweighs fears about companies or governments surveiling unencrypted transmissions. It’s a tough call. Political dissidents, whistleblowers and perhaps the whole concept of civil liberty rely on encryption. But parents may see sex offenders and bullies as a more dire concern that’s reinforced by platforms having no idea what people are saying inside chat threads.

What seems clear is that the status quo has got to go. Shaming, exclusion, sexism, grooming, impersonation and threats of violence have started to feel commonplace. A culture of cruelty breeds more cruelty. Tech’s success stories are being marred by horror stories from their users. Paying to pick up new weapons in the fight against toxicity seems like a reasonable investment to demand.

House Democrats release more than 3,500 Russian Facebook ads

Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee have released thousands of ads that were run on Facebook by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency.

The Democrats said they’ve released a total of 3,519 ads today from 2015, 2016 and 2017. This doesn’t include 80,000 pieces of organic content shared on Facebook by the IRA, which the Democrats plan to release later.

What remains unclear is the impact that these ads actually had on public opinion, but the Democrats note that they were seen by more than 11.4 million Americans.

You can find all the ads here, though it’ll take some time just to download them. As has been noted about earlier (smaller) releases of IRA ads, they aren’t all nakedly pro-Trump, but instead express a dizzying array of opinions and arguments, targeted at a wide range of users.

“Russia sought to weaponize social media to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election,” tweeted Adam Schiff, who is the Democrats’ ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. “They created fake accounts, pages and communities to push divisive online content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans,”

Russia sought to divide us by our race, our country of origin, our religion, and our politics. They attempted to hijack legitimate events meant to do good – teaching self-defense, providing legal aid – as well as those events meant to widen a rift.

Here’s just some examples: pic.twitter.com/YMX2FTgPGU

— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 10, 2018

He added, “By exposing these Russian-created Facebook advertisements, we hope to better protect legitimate political expression and safeguard Americans from having the information they seek polluted by foreign adversaries. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

In conjunction with this release, Facebook published a post acknowledging that it was “too slow to spot this type of information operations interference” in the 2016 election, and outlining the steps (like creating a public database of political ads) that it’s taking to prevent this in the future.

“This will never be a solved problem because we’re up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries,” Facebook said. “But we are making steady progress.”

On Fridays, HQ Trivia will let you see your friends’ answers during the game

HQ, the live trivia game that is now seeing up to 2 million players per game, is introducing some new social features, including answer sharing with friends.

The company has been testing this feature across a small group of users already, but on Friday the feature will roll out to all HQ users.

Here’s how it works: Users can connect their address book to HQ and add their friends. Once they have added friends, they can see which of their friends are playing the game alongside them. Users can put their own avatar on the answer to a question to share their choice, which is viewable by friends.

The idea is that answer sharing mimics what many people do while playing HQ IRL, yelling out answers to their coworkers in the office or sharing with their friends and family in a bar or at home.

“We understand the power of the crowd and playing together,” said HQ product manager James Ruben. “That doesn’t necessarily exist everywhere. Our goal is to spread that power to people who maybe aren’t playing in the office together.”

This comes on the heels of HQ’s introduction of “Friends on HQ” from April, which let users see friends playing in the same quiz and see their progress through the game. Answer sharing simply takes that a step further.

Interestingly, answer sharing won’t be available on each HQ Trivia quiz. Instead, the feature will debut on Friday of this week, and continue to be available on Friday games.

“We understand that it’s a change to the game play,” said Ruben. “Friday is an interesting time to experiment and try out answer sharing because Fridays tend to be a bit more social than other days.”

Alongside answer sharing, HQ is also adding yet another social layer to the game with Nearby Friends. The feature will allow HQ players to see other people (not in their address book) who are in the same quiz as them and physically nearby, perhaps in the same office building or in the same bar or restaurant.

Finally, HQ is making it easier to upload the address book and connect with friends on the app.

HQ is an interesting business in that it’s taking an almost old-school approach to advertising/sponsorship. As opposed to social networks like Facebook, which collect as much data as possible about users to sell advertisements against that data, HQ is focused more on getting as many engaged eyeballs in the same place as possible, a bit like television advertising.

HQ doesn’t have that much information on users beyond their phone number, device type, username, and other basic information commonly gleaned by app developers. With the introduction of Friends on HQ, the company gets a bit more insight into users. But that’s not necessarily the reason for the update.

Instead, HQ wants to make these games as engaging as possible, and what’s more engaging than competing with or cheering along your friends and family.

The company is also taking a measured approach to advertising and sponsorship, working with partners that make sense for the HQ community and making those sponsorships as native as possible.

For example, HQ recently ran a $250,000 game with Warner Brothers as a sponsor, plugging the film Ready Player One within the graphics and even in some of the questions. The company also had Duane “The Rock” Johnson host a $300,000 game as part of the actor’s promotion of his upcoming movie Rampage.

Answer sharing will be available to everyone on Friday, but easier address book upload and Nearby Friends are soon to come for Android users.

Snapchat hosts first Creators Summit after years of neglect

Social media stars have always been treated like nobodies instead of VIPs on Snapchat. Despite pioneering the Stories and creative tools they love, the lack of support saw many drift to YouTube’s ad dollars and Instagram’s bigger audience. Now Snap CEO Evan Spiegel is finally stepping up to win back their favor and their content.

Last night, Spiegel joined 13 top Snapchat stars, ranging from the U.S. to as far as Lebanon, for dinner at the company’s first Creators Summit in LA. Flanked by a dozen Snap execs and product managers, Spiegel tried to impress upon the assembled artists, comedians and storytellers that the company is turning over a new leaf in how it will treat them. Today the creators sat with Snap VP of Content Nick Bell to give the company an unfiltered understanding of the tools they need and give input on Snapchat’s product roadmap.

“The goal of our first creator summit was to listen and learn from them about how we can continue to strengthen opportunities for them on Snapchat — and continue to empower our community to express themselves and have fun together,” Bell told TechCrunch. “We are grateful to each of them for coming to the table with candid feedback and are excited about the possibilities ahead.” Snapchat confirms to TechCrunch it plans to hold more of these Creator Summits.

Mike Metzler, one of the popular Snappers in attendance, told us, “It’s been refreshing. Snap seems very genuinely interested in listening to what we have to say, and committed to making this an important initiative.” But another questioned whether Snapchat was actually going to make changes or was just playing nice.

Creators cast aside

A week after Snapchat launched Stories in 2013, I asked “Who will be the first Snapchat Stories celebrity?” Apparently the young company hadn’t thought that through. It had concentrated entirely on the average American teen, to the detriment of power users and the international market.

Snapchat’s jankily engineered app crashed constantly for stars with too many followers. There were no advanced analytics about who was watching them or easy ways to prove their audience to brand sponsors. There was no support from Snapchat if they got hacked or locked out of their account. There was no ad revenue share. There was no promotion to help people discover their accounts.

Without a direct alternative, creators gritted their teeth and dealt with it. But when Instagram Stories came along, with its massive audience, Explore page and experienced outreach team for dealing with high-profile accounts, some jumped ship. Others focused their attention on Instagram, or YouTube, where they could at least get a cut of the ad money they generated. Users drifted too, leading many stars to see their view counts drop.

The situation came to a head on Snap’s November 2017 Q3 earnings call. With user growth slumping to a new low, Spiegel announced a change of course. “We have historically neglected the creator community on Snapchat that creates and distributes public Stories for the broader Snapchat audience. In 2018, we are going to build more distribution and monetization opportunities for these creators,” Spiegel admitted.

Snap began rolling out its verification badge, an emoji next to the user name, to social media stars instead of just traditional celebrities. With its recent redesign, it began promoting creators for the first time if they made something engaging enough to become a”Popular Story.” And in February it finally launched analytics for creators, which would help them secure sponsorship deals.

Still, Snap hadn’t done much soft diplomacy. While top creators frequent the offices of YouTube and Instagram, few had been to Snapchat HQ. They needed a face to connect the efforts to.

Spiegel and the stars

“[Spiegel] stopped by last night and was so happy to meet us, get to know us, take a selfie,” says CyreneQ, a prolific Snapper and master of its illustration tools. While he didn’t make any grand remarks, apologies, or proclamations, his presence signaled that the push to help creators was more than just talk. When asked how the Summit went, musician/comedian Shonduras told me, “we collaborated on a lot of ideas and it feels solid.”

Snapchat’s redesign moved creators into the Discover section

The biggest concern amongst the creators was growing their view counts. The recent redesign moved stars, brands and other popular people who don’t follow you back out of the friends Stories list and into the Discover section alongside professionally produced editorial content. One creator said that helped them find more fans, but another who asked not to be named said “It hasn’t been kind to my views.”

Bell and Snapchat listened, and informed the group that it’s going to develop a range of “tools and programs to help the creator community,” CyreneQ told me. Pressed for more details, she demurred, “I wish I could tell you but they’ll send ninjas after me.”

Monetization options should be high on Snapchat’s list. As long as creators are essentially producing content for free, they’ll be susceptible to the pull of other products. And if Snap can’t speed up its total user growth, it must find ways to get teens addicted to stars that boost the time they spend in its app.

Snap can’t afford to screw this up. With its user count actually shrinking in March, it needs their dynamic, personal, niche content to keep teens loyal to Snapchat. The whole point of Snapchat was to create a more personal form of social media. It’s tough for movie actors and rock stars to come off feeling vulnerable and approachable. But creators, who were just normal people a few years ago, could help Snapchat bridge the divide between raw intimacy and polished entertainment.

Facebook united

Facebook was a mess. The independence it dangled to close acquisition deals with Instagram and WhatsApp turned the company into a tangle of overlapping products. Every app had its own messaging and Stories options. Economies of scale were squandered. Top innovators led mature products already bursting at the seams with features while new opportunities went unseized.

Facebook was effectively drowning in its own success because the different arms couldn’t coordinate to paddle in the same direction.

But today Facebook announced its biggest reorganization ever, which could cut the redundancy, apply talent to fresh problems and unite the company under a common banner.

Putting the family first

Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, will fly that flag. He now oversees the “Facebook Family of Apps,” including Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp. Messenger’s VP of Product Stan Chudnovsky will take over as head of Messenger, replacing David Marcus, who’s moving to lead a new blockchain group at Facebook (more on that later).

Facebook’s head of News Feed Adam Mosseri is taking the Instagram VP of Product role, taking over for Kevin Weil, who’s going to Marcus’ project. Mosseri is replaced by Facebook VP of Product Management John Hegeman. Meanwhile, Facebook’s head of Internet.org Chris Daniels will take the lead role at WhatsApp, recently vacated by Jan Koum as he departed the corporation altogether.

Image via Recode

These changes could reduce the autonomy of Instagram and WhatsApp, at least in philosophy if not in formal hierarchy. That might make them less appealing places to work, after WhatsApp veterans like Nikesh Arora were passed over in favor of an installed Facebook exec. It could spook future acquisition candidates, who might see the reorganization as Facebook reneging on its promise of independence. And it could hinder the apps’ role as hedges against harm to Facebook’s core brand. Many users don’t realize they’re owned by Facebook, and therefore didn’t extend to them the backlash about recent privacy scandals.

But Facebook will gain the ability to execute a more coherent strategy. Mosseri, a long-time member of Mark Zuckerberg’s inner circle, will bring to Instagram his experience turning News Feed into one of the world’s most popular inventions as Instagram is hoping to ramp up monetization now that it’s achieved utter dominance over Snapchat in photo sharing. Few know the Facebook playbook better than Mosseri, who could help Instagram get out ahead of problems he’d been in the thick of, like fake news and declines in original sharing.

Daniels’ days connecting the developing world fits well at WhatsApp, whose users across the globe often deal with slow mobile networks. This also leaves room for new blood at Internet.org. It’s now connected 200 million people to some form of the internet, but its Free Basics app has been banned in several countries over net neutrality concerns and partners have pulled out over sustainability concerns. WhatsApp, too, is ready to monetize, having recently launched its WhatsApp for Business product, and Daniels’ background in biz dev and partnerships at Facebook around the IPO could serve him well.

Mark Zuckerberg discusses the Facebook family of apps at F8 2015

But more important than their siloed efforts is what a more unified family under Cox could accomplish. Over 2016 and 2017, all four apps launched isolated Stories products. While Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s took off, Facebook’s and Messenger’s felt absurdly redundant and underpopulated. It took until late 2017 for Facebook to realize it should synchronize Stories across Instagram, Facebook and Messenger so users could post once to their audiences everywhere.

The reorg could prevent Facebook from haphazardly tripping over itself in an attempt to seize on emerging trends. As visual communication becomes the new Facebook mandate, the company could similarly align its efforts in augmented reality, ephemeral and encrypted messaging and e-commence tools. Mosseri and Daniels can implement the Facebook strategy and shield their apps from the same old pitfalls. Instagram and WhatsApp have instituted themselves in their respective markets, and now have the leaders to make them well-oiled cogs in the Facebook machine.

Move fast and shake things up

Few hires have had the impact at Facebook of Marcus and Weil. The former president of PayPal, Marcus has brought Messenger from 200 million monthly users in 2014 to more than 1.3 billion now. He successfully managed the forced migration of users off Facebook’s chat feature to Messenger, laid the foundation for advertising and business tools and turned the app into a platform for games and useful utilities (beyond the initially half-baked bots).

Weil, formerly SVP of Product at Twitter, where changes came at molasses pace, turned Instagram into a rapid-fire launcher of new features. Most significantly, he implemented Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom’s plan to copy Snapchat’s Stories. Instagram was growing stale, showing just the occasional highlights of users’ lives. Instagram Stories solved that, and Weil grew it to more than 300 million daily users — much bigger than Snapchat’s whole 191 million user audience. Meanwhile, using Stories to spark conversation, Instagram Direct grew into one of the most popular messaging apps.

But today, Messenger and Instagram have begun to feel bloated. Marcus had to announce a plan to simplify the chat app at the start of 2018 after its version of Stories, called Messenger Day, steamrolled the rest of the product’s design. The camera, games and bots got as much space in the navigation bar as the core chat product. Last week Messenger revealed a redesign that refocuses on… messaging, giving the app a sensible roadmap. Instagram, now having effectively won the Stories war with Snapchat and having acclimated users to an algorithmic feed, left Weil without as many urgent changes to make.

If Facebook wasn’t careful, it could have lost these leaders to the CEO or COO role of a growing startup, or seen them leave to launch something of their own. Marcus had already taken a board seat at crypto giant Coinbase, while Weil took one at exercise community Strava.

Kevin Weil (Instagram) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

That’s why it was so wise to give Marcus the latitude to build a new team of fewer than a dozen, including Weil, focused on finding how Facebook could take advantage of the blockchain. It’s a massive, open new problem space in which to operate. One that needs visionaries in both product and business.

It’s unclear what they’ll build together, but there are plenty of opportunities.

They could explore payments facilitated by the blockchain’s lack of transaction fees. Messenger and Instagram both added native payment systems recently. Cutting out the credit card companies could be a lucrative shot for Facebook. And micropayments could open new ways to tip creators or compensate news outlets. Cloud storage based on blockchains could help Facebook cut its massive server bills. And the decentralized nature of the blockchain might unlock new paradigms for social networking with increased autonomy that might threaten Facebook if invented elsewhere.

Perhaps they’ll conclude Facebook doesn’t need the blockchain. That’s fine. The risk would be leaving the space unmined and ripe for someone else’s taking.

Facebook has lasted this long by identifying new threats of disruption, and thwarting them with its build, buy or copy strategy. Streams like FriendFeed and Twitter? Facebook built News Feed. Photos and chat? Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp. Ephemeral content? Facebook copied Snapchat.

The reorganization recognizes how Facebook had become a danger to itself — disruption through internal redundancy and wasted chances. It saw the discombobulated wings of Google lead it to massive failure in messaging, with a half-dozen chat apps all competing while confusing users. And it saw how internet giants like Microsoft and Apple ignored social because it was outside their wheelhouse, only to end up sharing the titan’s table with Facebook.

Zuckerberg loves to say the journey is 1 percent finished. Today Facebook proved it’s always looking for a new finish line.

Facebook stops accepting foreign-funded ads about Ireland’s abortion vote

Facebook has announced it has stopped accepting ads paid for by foreign entities that are related to a referendum vote in Ireland later this month, saying it’s acting to try to prevent outsiders from attempting to skew the vote. The referendum will decide whether to repeal or retain Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion.

“Concerns have been raised about organisations and individuals based outside of Ireland trying to influence the outcome of the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Ireland by buying ads on Facebook. This is an issue we have been thinking about for some time,” the company writes today on its Dublin blog.

“Today, as part of our efforts to help protect the integrity of elections and referendums from undue influence, we will begin rejecting ads related to the referendum if they are being run by advertisers based outside of Ireland.”

Facebook says it’s stopping foreign-funded ads because additional ad transparency and election integrity tools it has in the works — and is intending to roll out more widely, across its platform — will not be ready in time for Ireland’s Eighth Amendment vote, which will take place on May 25.

“What we are now doing for the referendum on the Eighth Amendment will allow us to operate as though these tools, which are not yet fully available, were in place today with respect to foreign referendum-related advertising. We feel the spirit of this approach is also consistent with the Irish electoral law that prohibits campaigns from accepting foreign donations,” Facebook writes.

“This change will apply to ads we determine to be coming from foreign entities which are attempting to influence the outcome of the vote on May 25. We do not intend to block campaigns and advocacy organisations in Ireland from using service providers outside of Ireland,” it adds.

The social media’s ad platform has been under increasing political scrutiny since revelations emerged about the extent of Kremlin-backed disinformation campaigns during the 2016 US presidential election. And last year Facebook admitted Kremlin-backed content — including, but not limited to, Facebook ads — may have reached as many as 126 million people during the election period.

Concerns have also been raised about the role of its platform during the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership — with an investigation into social media and campaign spending ongoing by the UK’s Electoral Commission, and another — by the UK’s data watchdog, the ICO — also looking more broadly at the use of data analytics for political purposes.

At the same time, a major Facebook data privacy scandal that erupted in March, after fresh details were published about the use of user data by a controversial political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica, has further dialed up the pressure on the company as lawmakers have turned their attention to the messy intersections of social media and politics.

Of course Facebook is by no means the only place online where all sorts of foreign agents have been caught seeking to influence opinions. But the Cambridge Analytica scandal has illustrated the powerful lure of the platform’s reach (and data holdings), as well as underlining how lax Facebook has historically been in controlling the messages people are paying it to target at its users.

In Ireland, the company had already fast-tracked the rollout of its ‘view ads’ ad transparency tool — ahead of a wider global rollout planned for this summer.

And last month policy staffers told a local parliamentary committee that the tool would help eliminate “foreign interference” in the upcoming referendum.

Although clearly Facebook has decided that an additional stop-gap measure — i.e. of rejecting foreign funded ads — was also needed given the timing (and indeed the sensitivity) — of the Eighth Amendment vote.

Last month Facebook also trailed plans to require advertisers that run popular Pages and/or are trying to run ads with political messages to verify their identity and location. But those advertiser verification steps do not appear to be ready in time for Ireland’s referendum. (Nor indeed were they in place for local elections in the UK earlier this month — although in a referendum the risks to democracy from a skewed vote are arguably higher, given there’s no established process for a re-vote in a few years’ time.)

The simpler-to-implement ‘view ads’ tool launched in Ireland on April 25, according to Facebook, which makes it the second market after Canada — where it began testing the feature.

The company claims the tool “enables Irish Facebook users to see all of the ads any advertiser is running on Facebook in Ireland at the same time” — though clearly ad visibility is not enough of a barrier against election fiddling on its own.

Facebook also says it will be using machine learning technology to help it identify ads that “should no longer be running”. And it’s supplementing these AI checks with human review, saying it’s built relationships with “political parties, groups representing both sides of the campaign and with the Transparent Referendum Initiative” — and is asking them to notify it if they have concerns about ad campaigns so it can assess and act on their reports, having established a dedicated reporting channel for this purpose.

Last month it also says it hosted an information session about its advertising and content policies for referendum campaign groups.

“We understand the sensitivity of this campaign and will be working hard to ensure neutrality at all stages. We are an open platform for people to express ideas and views on both sides of a debate. Our goal is simple: to help ensure a free, fair and transparent vote on this important issue,” it adds.

In addition to view ads and the decision to stop accepting foreign-funded referendum ads, Facebook says it is deploying its “Election Integrity Artificial Intelligence” for the vote in Ireland, as part of its efforts to identify fake accounts, misinformation and/or foreign interference — describing its approach as similar to what it did in advance of recent elections in France, Germany and Italy.

Last month its policy staffers also said it had set up an internal task force to handle the Ireland referendum.

‘Facebook Avatars’ is its new clone of Snapchat’s Bitmoji

Hidden inside the code of Facebook’s Android app is an unreleased feature called Facebook Avatars that lets people build personalized, illustrated versions of themselves for use as stickers in Messenger and comments. It will let users customize their avatar to depict their skin color, hair style and facial features. Facebook Avatars is essentially Facebook’s version of Snapchat’s acquisition, Bitmoji, which has spent years in the top-10 apps chart.

Back in October I wrote that “Facebook seriously needs its own Bitmoji,” and it seems the company agrees. Facebook has become the identity layer for the internet, allowing you to bring your personal info and social graph to other services. But as the world moves toward visual communication, a name or static profile pic aren’t enough to represent us and our breadth of emotions. Avatars hold the answer, as they can be contorted to convey our reactions to all sorts of different situations when we’re too busy or camera-shy to take a photo.

The screenhots come courtesy of eagle-eyed developer Jane Manchun Wong, who found the Avatars in the Facebook for Android application package — a set of files that often contain features that are unreleased or in testing. Her digging also contributed to TechCrunch’s reports about Instagram’s music stickers and Twitter’s unlaunched encrypted DMs.

Facebook confirmed it’s building Avatars, telling me, “We’re looking into more ways to help people express themselves on Facebook.” However, the feature is still early in development and Facebook isn’t sure when it will start publicly testing.

In the onboarding flow for the feature, Facebook explains that “Your Facebook Avatar is a whole new way to express yourself on Facebook. Leave expressive comments with personalized stickers. Use your new avatar stickers in your Messenger group and private chats.” The Avatars should look like the images on the far right of these screenshot tests. You can imagine Facebook creating an updating reel of stickers showing your avatar in happy, sad, confused, angry, bored or excited scenes to fit your mood.

Currently it’s unclear whether you’ll have to configure your Avatar from a blank starter face, or whether Facebook will use machine vision and artificial intelligence to create one based on your photos. The latter is how the Facebook Spaces VR avatars (previewed in April 2017) are automatically generated.

Facebook shows off its 3D VR avatars at F8 2018. The new Facebook Avatars are 2D and can be used in messaging and comments.

Using AI to start with a decent lookalike of you could entice users to try Avatars and streamline the creation process so you just have to make small corrections. However, the AI could creep people out, make people angry if it misrepresents them or generate monstrous visages no one wants to see. Given Facebook’s recent privacy scandals, I’d imagine it would play it conservatively with Avatars and just ask users to build them from scratch. If Avatars grow popular and people are eager to use them, it could always introduce auto-generation from your photos later.

Facebook has spent at least three years trying to figure out avatars for VR. What started as generic blue heads evolved to take on basic human characteristics, real skin tones and more accurate facial features, and are now getting quite lifelike. You can see that progression up top. Last week at F8, Facebook revealed that it’s developing a way to use facial tracking sensors to map real-time expressions onto a photo-realistic avatar of a user so they can look like themselves inside VR, but without the headset on.

But as long as Facebook’s Avatars are trapped in VR, they’re missing most of their potential.

Bitmoji’s parent company Bitstrips launched in 2008, and while its comic strip creator was cool, it was the personalized emoji avatar feature that was most exciting. Snapchat acquired Bitstrips for a mere $64.2 million in early 2016, but once it integrated Bitmoji into its chat feature as stickers, the app took off. It’s often risen higher than Snapchat itself, and even Facebook’s ubiquitous products on the App Store charts, and was the No. 1 free iOS app as recently as February. Now Snapchat lets you use your Bitmoji avatar as a profile pic, online status indicator in message threads, as 2D stickers and as 3D characters that move around in your Snaps.

It’s actually surprising that Facebook has waited this long to clone Bitmoji, given how popular Instagram Stories and its other copies of Snapchat features have become. Facebook comment reels and Messenger threads could get a lot more emotive, personal and fun when the company eventually launches its own Avatars.

Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said that visual communication is replacing text, but that’s forced users to either use generic emoji out of convenience or deal with the chore and self-consciousness of shooting a quick photo or video. Especially in Stories, which will soon surpass feeds as the main way we share social media, people need a quick way to convey their identity and emotion. Avatars let your identity scale to whatever feeling you want to transmit without the complications of the real world.

For more on the potential of Facebook Avatars, read our piece calling for their creation:

Twitter has an unlaunched ‘Secret’ encrypted messages feature

Buried inside Twitter’s Android app is a “Secret conversation” option that if launched would allow users to send encrypted direct messages. The feature could make Twitter a better home for sensitive communications that often end up on encrypted messaging apps like Signal, Telegram or WhatsApp.

The encrypted DMs option was first spotted inside the Twitter for Android application package (APK) by Jane Manchun Wong. APKs often contain code for unlaunched features that companies are quietly testing or will soon make available. A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the record. It’s unclear how long it might be before Twitter officially launches the feature, but at least we know it’s been built.

The appearance of encrypted DMs comes 18 months after whistleblower Edward Snowden asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for the feature, which Dorsey said was “reasonable and something we’ll think about.”

Twitter has gone from “thinking about” the feature to prototyping it. The screenshot above shows the options to learn more about encrypted messaging, start a secret conversation and view both your own and your conversation partner’s encryption keys to verify a secure connection.

reasonable and something we’ll think about

— jack (@jack) December 14, 2016

Twitter’s DMs have become a powerful way for people to contact strangers without needing their phone number or email address. Whether it’s to send a reporter a scoop, warn someone of a problem, discuss business or just “slide into their DMs” to flirt, Twitter has established one of the most open messaging mediums. But without encryption, those messages are subject to snooping by governments, hackers or Twitter itself.

Twitter has long positioned itself as a facilitator of political discourse and even uprisings. But anyone seriously worried about the consequences of political dissonance, whistleblowing or leaking should be using an app like Signal that offers strong end-to-end encryption. Launching encrypted DMs could win back some of those change-makers and protect those still on Twitter.

Tech watchdogs call on Facebook and Google for transparency around censored content

If a company like Facebook can’t even understand why its moderation tools work the way they do, then its users certainly don’t have a fighting shot. Anyway, that’s the idea behind what a coalition of digital rights groups are calling The Santa Clara Principles (PDF), “a set of minimum standards” aimed at Facebook, Google, Twitter and other tech companies that moderate the content published on their platforms.

The suggested guidelines grew out of a set of events addressing “Content Moderation and Removal at Scale,” the second of which is taking place today in Washington, D.C. The group participating in these conversations shared the goal of coming up with a suggested ruleset for how major tech companies should disclose which content is being censored, why it is being censored and how much speech is censored overall.

“Users deserve more transparency and greater accountability from platforms that play an outsized role — in Myanmar, Australia, Europe, and China, as well as in marginalized communities in the U.S. and elsewhere — in deciding what can be said on the internet,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Director for International Freedom of Expression Jillian C. York said.

As the Center for Democracy and Technology explains, The Santa Clara principles (PDF) ask tech companies to disclose three categories of information:

  • Numbers (of posts removed, accounts suspended);
  • Notice (to users about content removals and account suspensions); and
  • Appeals (for users impacted by content removals or account suspensions).

“The Santa Clara Principles are the product of years of effort by privacy advocates to push tech companies to provide users with more disclosure and a better understanding of how content policing works,” EFF Senior Staff Attorney Nate Cardozo added.

“Facebook and Google have taken some steps recently to improve transparency, and we applaud that. But it’s not enough. We hope to see the companies embrace The Santa Clara Principles and move the bar on transparency and accountability even higher.”

Participants in drafting The Santa Clara Principles include the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, Center for Democracy and Technology, Electronic Frontier Foundation, New America’s Open Technology Institute and a handful of scholars from departments studying ethics and communications.

Instagram code reveals upcoming music feature

Instagram is preparing to let you add music to your Stories, judging by code found inside its Android app. “Music stickers” could let you search for and add a song to your posts, thanks to licensing deals with the major record labels recently struck by Facebook.

Music stickers would make Instagram Stories much more interesting to watch. Amateur video footage suddenly looks like DIY MTV when you add the right score. The feature could also steal thunder from teen lip syncing app sensation Musically, and stumbling rival Snapchat that planned but scrapped a big foray into music. And alongside Instagram Stories’ new platform for sharing posts directly from third-party apps including Spotify and SoundCloud, these stickers could make Instagram a powerful driver of music discovery.

TechCrunch was tipped off to the hidden music icons and code from reader Ishan Agarwal. Instagram declined to comment. But Instagram later confirmed three other big features first reported by TechCrunch and spotted by Agarwal that it initially refused to discuss: Focus mode for shooting portraits, QR-scannable Nametags for following people, and video calling which got an official debut at F8.

Facebook and Instagram’s video editing features have been in a sad state for a long time. I wrote about the big opportunity back in 2013, and in 2016 called on both Facebook and Instagram to add more editing features including soundtracks. Finally in late 2017, Facebook started testing Sound Collection, which lets you add sound effects and a very limited range of not-popular aritsts’ songs to your videos there. But since then, Facebook has secured licensing deals with Sony, Warner, Universal, and European labels.

For years, people thought Facebook’s ongoing negotiations with record labels would power some Spotify competitor. But streaming is a crowded market with strong solutions already. The bigger problem for Facebook was that if users added soundtracks themselves using editing software, or a song playing in the background got caught in the recording, those videos could be removed due to copyright complaints from the labels. Facebook’s intention was the opposite — to make it easier to add popular music to your posts so they’d be more fun to consume.

Instagram’s music stickers could be the culmination of all those deals.

How Instagram Music Stickers Work

The code shows that Instagram’s app has an unreleased “Search Music” feature built in beside its location and friend-mention sticker search options inside Instagram Stories. These “music overlay stickers” can be searched using tabs for “Genres”, “Moods”, and “Trending”. Instagram could certainly change the feature before it’s launched, or scrap it all together. But the clear value of music stickers and the fact that Instagram owned up to the Focus, Nametags, and Video Calling features all within three months of us reporting their appearance in the code lends weight to an upcoming launch.

It’s not entirely clear, but it seems that once you’ve picked a song and added it as a music sticker to your Story, a clip of that song will play while people watch. These stickers will almost surely be addable to videos, but maybe Instagram will let you include them on photos too. It would be great if viewers could tap through the sticker to hear the song or check it out on their preferred streaming service. That could make Instagram the new Myspace where you fall in love with new music through you friends, there’s no indicators in the code about that.

Perhaps Instagram will be working with a particular partner on the feature like it did with Giphy for its GIF stickers. Spotify, with its free tier and long-running integrations with Facebook dating back to the 2011 Open Graph ticker, would make an obvious choice. But Facebook might play it more neutral, powering the feature another way, or working with a range of providers potentially including Apple, YouTube, SoundCloud, and Amazon.

Several apps like Sounds and Soundtracking have tried to be the “Instagram For Music”. But none have gained mass traction because it’s hard to tell if you like a song quickly enough to pause your scrolling, staring at album art isn’t fun, users don’t want a whole separate app for this, and Facebook and Instagram’s algorithms can bury cross-posts of this content. But Stories with original visuals that are easily skippable, natively created and consumed in your default social app could succeed.

Getting more users wearing headphones or turning the sound on while using Instagram could be a boon to the app’s business, as advertisers all want to be heard as well as seen. The stickers could also get young Instagrammers singing along to their favorite songs the way 60 million Musically users do. In that sense, music could spice up the lives of people that otherwise might not appear glamorous through Stories.

Music stickers could let Instagram beat Snapchat to the punch. Leaked emails from the 2014 Sony hack showed Snap CEO Evan Spiegel was intent on launching a music video streaming feature or even creating Snapchat’s own record label. But complications around revenue sharing negotiations and the potential to distract the team and product from Snapchat’s core use case derailed the project. Instead, Snap has worked with record labels on Discover channels and augmented reality lenses to promote new songs. But Snapchat still has no sound board or soundtrack features, leaving some content silent or drowned in random noise.

With the right soaring strings, the everyday becomes epic. With the perfect hip-hop beat, a standard scene gains swagger. And with the hottest new dance hook, anywhere can be a party. Instagram has spent the past few years building all conceivable forms of visual flare to embellish your photos and videos. But it’s audio that could be the next dimension of Stories.

For more in the future of Stories, reader our feature pieces: