Facebook hopes detailing concrete examples of fake news it’s caught — or missed — could improve news literacy, or at least prove it’s attacking the misinformation problem. Today Facebook launched “The Hunt for False News,” in which it examines viral B.S., relays the decisions of its third-party fact-checkers and explains how the story was tracked down. The first edition reveals cases where false captions were put on old videos, people were wrongfully identified as perpetrators of crimes or real facts were massively exaggerated.
The blog’s launch comes after three recent studies showed the volume of misinformation on Facebook has dropped by half since the 2016 election, while Twitter’s volume hasn’t declined as drastically. Unfortunately, the remaining 50 percent still threatens elections, civil discourse, dissident safety and political unity across the globe.
In one of The Hunt’s first examples, it debunks that a man who posed for a photo with one of Brazil’s senators had stabbed the presidential candidate. Facebook explains that its machine learning models identified the photo, it was proven false by Brazilian fact-checker Aos Fatos, and Facebook now automatically detects and demotes uploads of the image. In a case where it missed the mark, a false story touting NASA would pay you $ 100,000 to study you staying in bed for 60 days “racked up millions of views on Facebook” before fact-checkers found NASA had paid out $ 10,000 to $ 17,000 in limited instances for studies in the past.
While the educational “Hunt” series is useful, it merely cherry-picks random false news stories from over a wide time period. What’s more urgent, and would be more useful, would be for Facebook to apply this method to currently circulating misinformation about the most important news stories. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently began using Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool to highlight the top 10 recent stories by engagement about topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
Top performing Kavanaugh-related posts on Facebook over the last 24 hours (per @crowdtangle) come from:
2. Fox News
3. Franklin Graham
4. Fox News
6. NRA Institute for Legislative Action
8. Ben Shapiro
9. The Sage Page
— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) October 7, 2018
If Facebook wanted to be more transparent about its successes and failures around fake news, it’d publish lists of the false stories with the highest circulation each month and then apply the Hunt’s format explaining how they were debunked. This could help dispel myths in society’s understanding that may be propagated by the mere abundance of fake news headlines, even if users don’t click through to read them.
But at least all of Facebook’s efforts around information security — including doubling its security staff from 10,000 to 20,000 workers, fact checks and using News Feed algorithm changes to demote suspicious content — are paying off:
- A Stanford and NYU study found that Facebook likes, comments, shares and reactions to links to 570 fake news sites dropped by more than half since the 2016 election, while engagements through Twitter continued to rise, “with the ratio of Facebook engagements to Twitter shares falling by approximately 60 percent.”
- A University of Michigan study coined the metric “Iffy Quotient” to assess the how much content from certain fake news sites was distributed on Facebook and Twitter. When engagement was factored in, it found Facebook’s levels had dropped to nearly 2016 volume; that’s now 50 percent less than Twitter.
- French newspaper Le Monde looked at engagement with 630 French websites across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Facebook engagement with sites dubbed “unreliable or dubious” has dropped by half since 2015.
Of course, given Twitter’s seeming paralysis on addressing misinformation and trolling, they’re not a great benchmark for Facebook to judge by. While it’s useful that Facebook is outlining ways to spot fake news, the public will have to internalize these strategies for society to make progress. That may be difficult when the truth has become incompatible with many peoples’ and politicians’ staunchly held beliefs.
In the past, Facebook has surfaced fake news-spotting tips atop the News Feed and bought full-page newspaper ads trying to disseminate them. The Hunt for Fake News would surely benefit from being embedded where the social network’s users look everyday instead of buried in its corporate blog.
Americans looking to reduce their reliance on products from tech’s most alarmingly megalithic companies might be surprised to learn just how far their reach extends.
Privacy-minded browser company DuckDuckGo conducted a small study to look into that phenomenon and the results were pretty striking.
“… As Facebook usage wanes, messaging apps like WhatsApp are growing in popularity as a ‘more private (and less confrontational) space to communicate,’” DuckDuckGo wrote in the post. “That shift didn’t make much sense to us because both services are owned by the same company, so we tried to find an explanation.”
DuckDuckGo gathered a random sample of 1,297 adult Americans who are “collectively demographically similar to the general population of U.S. adults” (i.e. not just DuckDuckGo diehards) using SurveyMonkey’s audience tools. The survey found that 50.4 percent of those surveyed who had used WhatsApp in the prior six months (247 participants) did not know the company is owned by Facebook.
Similarly, DuckDuckGo found that 56.4 percent of those surveyed who had used Waze in the past six months (291 participants) had no idea that the navigation app is owned by Google. A similar study conducted back in April found the same phenomenon when it came to Facebook/Instagram and Google/YouTube, though for Instagram the effect was even stronger (wow).
If you’re reading TechCrunch it’s probably almost impossible to imagine that average people aren’t tracing the lines between tech’s biggest companies and the products scooped up or built under their wings. And yet, it is so.
Even as companies like Google and Facebook suffer blowback from privacy crises, it’s clear that they can lean on the products they’ve picked up along the way to chart a path forward. If this survey is any indication, half of U.S. consumers will have no idea that they’ve jumped ship from a big tech product into a lifeboat captained by the very same company they sought to escape.
And for the biggest tech companies, it’s at least one reason that keeping satellite products at arm’s length from their respective motherships is advantageous for maintaining trust — especially while aggressive data sharing happens behind the scenes.
Facebook is demoting trashy news publishers and other websites that illicitly scrape and republish content from other sources with little or no modification. Today it exclusively told TechCrunch that it will show links less prominently in the News Feed if they have a combination of this new signal about content authenticity along with either clickbait headlines or landing pages overflowing with low-quality ads. The move comes after Facebook’s surveys and in-person interviews discovered that users hate scraped content.
If ill-gotten intellectual property gets less News Feed distribution, it will receive less referral traffic, earn less ad revenue and there’ll be less incentive for crooks to steal articles, photos and videos in the first place. That could create an umbrella effect that improves content authenticity across the web.
And just in case the scraped profile data stolen from 29 million users in Facebook’s recent massive security breach ended up published online, Facebook would already have a policy in place to make links to it effectively disappear from the feed.
Here’s an example of the type of site that might be demoted by Facebook’s latest News Feed change. “Latest Nigerian News” scraped one of my recent TechCrunch articles, and surrounded it by tons of ads.
“Starting today, we’re rolling out an update so people see fewer posts that ink out to low quality sites that predominantly copy and republish content from other sites without providing unique value. We are adjusting our Publish Guidelines accordingly,” Facebook wrote in an addendum to its May 2017 post about demoting sites stuffed with crappy ads. Facebook tells me the new publisher guidelines will warn news outlets to add original content or value to reposted content or invoke the social network’s wrath.
Personally, I think the importance of transparency around these topics warrants a new blog post from Facebook as well as an update to the original post linking forward to it.
So how does Facebook determine if content is stolen? Its systems compare the main text content of a page with all other text content to find potential matches. The degree of matching is used to predict that a site stole its content. It then uses a combined classifier merging this prediction with how clickbaity a site’s headlines are plus the quality and quantity of ads on the site.
It’s 8:00 PM on Friday night and you’re home alone and already drunk. Oh, is that just me? Well no matter. Snapchat has made lenses for your cat now. Yes, that’s right. Your cat! This is what the internet is made for, friends. Not all that fake news and trolling. Not having to read tweets where people use words like “woke” unironically. Cat lenses!
So technically, I guess, Snapchat added the ability to recognize things in your photos last November, like food, sports, and even pets, then suggest appropriate filters – like a sticker that says “IT’S A PAWTY” above a photo of a dog.
But now you can put a set of matching glasses on yourself and your cat.
Or give you and your cat rainbow unicorn horns.
Or give Mr. Fluffypants some big ol’ googley eyes.
Or put a piece of toast over his face, which makes him look even less amused than usual.
What the actual f***
You can even give you and kitty big, fat lips as you kissy face the camera.
You can be the angel, while the cat gets devil horns and wings, as is – of course, appropriate.
I mean, this may or may not solve Snap’s long list of problems, like its rushed redesign, the mess that’s Snapchat Discover, its inability to attract adult users, falling share price, and ooooh, all that money it’s bleeding. ($ 353M last quarter!)
But I mean, c’mon. C’MON.
Internet, we deserve this.
This is what 2018 needs.
Cat lenses to make everything better.
Cat lenses, and this here drink.
TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark
Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?
Portal: Dialling Mark…
TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.
MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…
TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!
MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home
TC: We feel you, go ahead.
As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.
MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh
TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.
[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]
[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]
Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now
MZ: Oh, right, right!
Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already
[sound of knuckles cracking]
TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?
MZ: Uh, well…
TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal
MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product
TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?
MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…
TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!
MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.
You can also look at album art
TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling
MZ: It’s an amazing technology
TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…
MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.
TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there
MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to
TC: Like my therapist?
MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up
TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?
MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?
TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.
But let’s talk about kids
MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids
TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…
MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!
TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?
TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.
And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.
Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?
MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days
TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!
But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…
MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway
TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…
MZ: What about it?
[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?
TC: Hello? Mark?
[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]
[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]
MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?
TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?
MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos
MZ: She’s only just turned one
TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,
might have a problem selling a $ 200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?
MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!
Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…
[sound of paper rustling]
Here we go [reading]:
Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.
For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.
Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.
Pretty cool, huh!
TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water…
MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring
TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?
MZ: You can control all your information, yes
TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.
So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.
Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.
MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads
TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.
One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?
MZ: We had it on pause for a while
TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?
MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes
TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?
MZ: Uh, well we are obviously
TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?
MZ: Uh, sure
[sound of a finger thudding against glass]
MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!
Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…
[sound of a child crying]
Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!
TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.
Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.
Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?
The effortless way you fast forward through Stories could be coming to more of Instagram . A screenshot from user Suprateek Bose shows Instagram “Introducing a new way to move through posts — Tap through posts, just like you tap through stories.”
Now Instagram confirms to TechCrunch that it’s testing tap to advance within Explore, and a spokesperson provided this statement: “We’re always testing ways to improve the experience on Instagram and bring you closer to the people and things you love.” As for whether this could come to the main feed, an Instagram spokesperson tells me that not something it’s actively thinking about right now.
Instagram already uses an auto-advance feature in its Videos You Might Like section of Explore, jumping down to the next video when the last one finishes. It previously offered themed video collections around Halloween and top creators too. But for photos where it’s not clear when you’re done viewing, a quick tap is the closest thing to Instagram propelling you through posts automatically.
Next: turn your mind off completely. Succumb to the feed.
Open instagram, and it does the browsing of the feed for you.
Like by smiling.
Comment by grunting one of 5 known emotions at your phone. https://t.co/EzrJWccjbh
— PaSKULL D'Silva (@pasql) October 11, 2018
Tap to advance, pioneered by Snapchat, eliminates the need for big thumbstrokes on your touch screen that can get tiring after awhile. It also means users always see media full-screen rather than having to fiddle with scrolling the perfect amount to see an entire post. Together, these create a more relaxing browsing experience that can devour hours of a user’s time. Instagram doesn’t show ads in Explore, but tap-to-advance could save your thumb stamina for more feed and Stories viewing where it does earn money. While Snapchat remains the teen favorite, Instagram could cater to seniors with arthritis with this new method of navigation (no, seriously, swiping can be tough on the joints for some people).
The fact that tap-to-advance is now testing but Instagram still hasn’t actually rolled out the Your Activity screentime digital well-being dashboard it says was launching two months ago begs the question of whether it really wants us to be more purposeful with our social media usage.
Workplace, the version of Facebook tailored to enterprises that has over 30,000 organizations as paying customers, is ramping up the service today with a rush of new features to help it competes with the likes of Slack and Microsoft’s Teams.
The additions are being announced at a new, standalone conference called Flow — the first time Facebook has built what’s likely to become a recurring event for a specific product, Workplace’s head Julien Codorniou told me in an interview. He described Workplace as “Facebook’s first SaaS startup.” He tells us that for existing clients, the goal of Flow is to show off new features that deepen employee engagement with Workplace so they can’t imagine switching away. And for enterprise software partners Facebook integrates with, it’s to foster an ecosystem surrounding Workplace so it can adapt to any business.
In a big upgrade to the “chat” features of Workplace (conversations that happen outside the news feed, first launched last year), users will now be able to start chats, calls and video conversations either one-to-one or in groups, in the style of WhatsApp or Messenger. Facebook is also making it easier to navigate through high volumes of messages in your channels by adding in replies, do not disturb and pinning features — Facebook’s first move to bring in algorithmic sorting to Workplace. And Facebook is also bringing its Safety Check feature from the main app to Workplace, delivered via Workchat, as a tool that can be controlled by admins to check on the status of employees during a critical incident.
Workplace has picked up 30,000 businesses as customers in the two years since it launched (including some biggies like Walmart, the world’s largest employer); and today it also added a couple of notable large enterprises to the mix: GSK, Astra Zeneca, Chevron, Kantar, Telefonica, Securitas, Clarins UK, Jumia and GRAB.
But Facebook has never revealed how many users (or “seats”, in enterprise parlance) it has on Workplace. As a point of comparison, Slack today has 8 million users across 70,000 organizations, and Facebook hasn’t updated its 30,000 figure in a year.
The range of features Facebook is introducing today are notable both for their breadth and for what they are aiming to do. Some help put Workplace more on par with the core Facebook experience in terms of functionality, but ultimately they are all squarely aimed at making Workplace into something that fits more closely with how enterprises already use IT.
The chat features that are being incorporated build on the minimal chat features that were already present in Workplace and essentially create something like WhatsApp or Messenger that sits within the same secure framework as Workplace itself. It’s effectively Facebook’s first step forward into unified communications — a specific branch of enterprise IT that used to be centred around PBXs and other expensive physical equipment, but has more recently become more virtualised with the rise of voice of IP and cloud-based systems that can be used over any internet connection.
Workplace had already had a feature in place for up to 50 companies to converse in multi-organizational conversations on the platform, and now if some members of those groups want to take the conversation to a more direct channel potentially with voice or video calling, they can do that directly from within the app without having to open a separate messaging client (which may or may not be under the control of IT). Up to 50 people can join a video call in Workplace.
The three features that help you better organise your conversations — do not disturb, replies and pinning important items — will be especially welcome to people who have especially “noisy” channels on Workplace.
Replies, Codorniou said, will work “like on WhatsApp” — where you can select a message and reply to it and it will appear with its mini thread later in the feed.
But they are perhaps most notable of all because they will be the first time that Facebook is introducing “algorithmic” sorting to Workplace. For those who already use normal Facebook, or Twitter, or other social media services, algorithmic sorting is something that is well-known, as it plays with the sequence of posts to show you what is deemed to be more important, versus what’s most recent.
In the case of pinning, Facebook is letting the IT admins, and users, effectively play a part in the algorithmic sorting: Admins can pin “important” posts to the top of a feed, and that will affect what users see and can respond to first. “If the CEO posts a message, this might be more important than something posted an intern,” he said.
Do not disturb, meanwhile, will let users set times when they do not get pinged with messages, but when you “return” again to Workplace, Facebook decides what gets sorted to the top of what you view.
Codorniou notes that Facebook uses machine learning and AI “to make sure that if you don’t use Workplace for two weeks [as an example] you have the most relevant information on top of the news feed.” Signals that it uses to sort include who you work with, and which groups you are most active in. “It’s algorithmic by default,” he noted, and added that this was something that was requested by Workplace users. “People don’t believe in the chronological feed anymore,” he said. “It’s important to guarantee reach to communications teams.”
The Safety Check also fits into this concept. Here, Facebook will be putting IT managers/Workplace admins into the driver’s seat, “giving them the keys to the feature”, said Codorniou, and letting them control the use and distribution of a feature that in regular Facebook is controlled by Facebook itself.
Frederic takes a deeper diver into Safety Check here, but the main idea, as Codorniou described it to me, is that it allows companies “to track and clear who is safe and who is not” when a particular location has been through an emergency or critical incident. There are apps that companies can use to run safety checks, or sometimes they might use SMS, but these tend to work more manually and are harder to execute quickly, he said. Facebook doesn’t reveal how well penetrated their apps are at organizations like Walmart and Starbucks, but this potentially becomes one lever to helping get Workplace distributed more widely.
“Employees are a company’s number-one asset of the company, and this helps make sure you are safe,” he added. “People don’t want to play Candy Crush, but things like Live” — which Workplace launched last year — “and Safety Check are relevant. They help turn companies into communities.”
(Community, of course, is the big theme for Facebook these days.)
All these updates are happening at a time when many people have been scrutinising Facebook for its approach to user privacy and personal data.
The issue was notably highlighted over the Cambridge Analytica scandal many months ago, specifically over how third parties were able to access users’ information; and then more recently Facebook faced criticism two weeks ago, when it emerged that a bug in one of its features exposed user information to malicious hackers. Both of these problems were squarely about Facebook’s core consumer app, but I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of an impact it has had on the company’s enterprise business — given that levels of security in workplace networks typically tend to be higher as they are connected to corporate information.
“We had a few questions of course but we have no reason to believe that Workplace was affected,” Codorniou said. He noted that there had once been a feature to log in to Workplace using a user’s Facebook ID, but that was disabled some time go. “We have been investigating, but most customers are on single sign on,” he noted, which uses services like Okta, One Login and Ping to connect and sign in employees to their Workplace spaces.
Facebook’s scale brings it huge advantages in the enterprise. The consumerization of the office stack means Facebook can easily port over its familiar features. It’s big enough to extensively dogfood Workplace within the company. And it already has advertising relationships with many of the world’s top brands. But being a tech giant comes with the associated scandals and constant criticism. Facebook will have to convince business leaders that its social troubles won’t muddy their suits.
Facebook’s first hardware product combines Alexa (and eventually Google Assistant) with a countertop video chat screen that zooms to always keep you in frame. Yet the fancy gadget’s success depends not on functionality, but whether people are willing to put a Facebook camera and microphone in their home even with a physical clip-on privacy shield.
Today Facebook launches pre-sales of the $ 199 10-inch screen Portal, and $ 349 15.6-inch swiveling screen with hi-fi audio Portal+, minus $ 100 if you buy any two. They’ve got “Hey Portal” voice navigation, Facebook Messenger for video calls with family, Spotify and Pandora for Bluetooth and voice-activated music, Facebook Watch and soon more video content providers, augmented reality Story Time for kids, a third-party app platform, and it becomes a smart photo/video frame when idle.
Knowing buyers might be creeped out, Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo tells me “We had to build all the stacks — hardware, software, and AI from scratch — and it allowed us to build privacy into each one of these layers”. There’s no facial recognition and instead just a technology called 2D pose that runs locally on the device to track your position so the camera can follow you if you move around. A separate chip for local detection only activates Portal when it hears its wake word, it doesn’t save recordings, and the data connection is encrypted. And with a tap you can electronically disable the camera and mic, or slide the plastic privacy shield over the lens to blind it while keeping voice controls active.
As you can see from our hands-on video demo here, Facebook packs features into high-quality hardware, especially in the beautiful Portal+ which has a screen you can pull from landscape to portrait orientation and impressive-sounding 4-inch woofer. The standard Portal looks and sounds a bit stumpy by comparison. The Smart Camera smoothly zooms in and out for hands-free use, though their are plenty of times that video chatting from your mobile phone will be easier. The lack of YouTube and Netflix is annoying, but Facebook promises there are more video partners to come.
The $ 199 Portal comes in $ 20 cheaper than the less functional Amazon Echo Show (read our gadget reviewer Brian Heater’s take on Portal below), and will also have to compete with Lenovo and Google’s upcoming version that might have the benefit of YouTube. Portal and the $ 349 Portal+ go on sale today in the US on Portal.Facebook.com, Amazon, and Best Buy in both black and white base colors. They ship in November when they’ll also appear in physical Amazon Books and Best Buy stores.
Hands-On With Portal
Deep inside Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters, the secretive Building 8 lab began work on Portal 18 months ago. The goal was to reimagine video chat not as a utilitarian communication tool, but for “the feeling of being in the same room even if you’re thousands of miles apart” Facebook Portal’s marketing lead Dave Kaufman tells me. Clearly drinking the social network’s kool-aid, he says that “it’s clear that Facebook has done a good job when you’re talking about the breadth of human connection, but we’re focusing on the depth of connection.”
The saddening motive? 93% of the face-to-face time we spend with our parents is done by the time we finish high-school, writes Wait but Why’s Tim Urban. “It felt like punch in the gut to people working at Facebook” says Kaufman. So the team built Portal to be simple enough for young children and grandparents to use, even if they’re too young or old to spend much time on smartphones.
Before you even wake up Portal, it runs a slideshow of your favorite Facebook photos and videos, plus shows birthday reminders and notifications. From the homescreen you’ll get suggested and favorite Messenger contacts you can tap to call, or you can just say “Hey Portal, call Josh.” Built atop the Android Open Source framework, Facebook designed a whole new UI for Portal for both touch and voice. Alex is integrated already. “We definitely have been talking to Google as well” Camargo tells me. “We view the future of these home devices . . . as where you will have multiple assistants and you will use them for whatever they do best . . . We’d like to expand and integrate with them.”
Portal uses your existing social graph instead of needing to import phone numbers or re-establish connections with friends. You can group video chat with up to seven friends, use augmented reality effects to hide your face or keep children entertained, and transfer calls to and from your phone. 400 million Facebookers use Messenger video chat monthly, racking up 17 billion calls in 2017, inspiring Facebook to build Portal around the feature. Kaufman says the ability to call phone numbers is in the roadmap, which could make Portal more tolerant of people who don’t live on Messenger.
Once a video call starts, the 140-degree, 12-megapixel Smart Lens snaps into action, automatically zooming and recentering so your face stays on camera even if you’re bustling around the kitchen or playing with the kids. A four-microphone array follows you too to keep the audio crisp from a distance. If a second person comes into view, Portal will widen the frame so you’re both visible. Tap on a person’s face, and Portal Spotlight crops in tight around just them. Facebook worked with an Oscar award-winning cinematographer to make Smart Lens feel natural. Unfortunately it can’t track pets, but that got so many requests from testers that Facebook wants to add it in. I suggested Portal should let you call businesses so you could move around or be entertained while on hold, though the team says it hasn’t discussed that.
Portal’s most adorable feature is called Story Time. It turns public domain children’s books into augmented reality experiences that illustrate the action and turn you into the characters. You’ll see the three little pigs pop up on your screen, and an AR mask lets you become the big bad wolf when you might impersonate his voice. Kids and grandparents won’t always have much to talk about, and toddlers aren’t great conversation partners, so this could extend Portal calls beyond a quick hello.
Beyond chat, Facebook has built a grip of third-party experiences into Portal. You can use any Alexa to summon Spotify, Pandora, or IHeartRadio, and even opt to have songs play simultaneously on you and someone else’s Portal for a decentralized dance party. Portal also acts as a Bluetooth speaker, and Spotify Connect lets it power multi-room audio. Portal+ in portrait mode makes a great playlist display with artwork and easy song skipping. The Food Network and Newsy apps let you watch short videos so you follow recipes or catch up on the world as you do your housework. And while you can’t actually browse the News Feed, Facebook Watch pulls in original premium video as well as some viral pap to keep you occupied.
My biggest gripe with Portal is that there’s no voice controlled text messaging feature. Perhaps we’ll see that down the line, though, as Facebook Messenger is now internally testing speech transcription and voice navigation. You can’t use WhatsApp, Instagram Direct, pop open a web browser either. Even with the Smart Lens subject tracking, Portal is stuck on a table and lacks the convenience of video chatting from a phone in your portable, stabilized gimble commonly known as your hand. Other shortcomings could be shored up with the gadget’s app platform that is currently invite-only, but Facebook will have to prove there are enough Portal buyers out there to lure developers.
So how will Facebook make money on Portal? “we definitely don’t have ads on the devices, and we don’t see that coming” says Camargo. Facebook wouldn’t reveal the margin it will earn selling the device, but when asked if it’s a loss leader for driving ad views on its social network, Camargo tells me “I wouldn’t say that’s the case”, though boosting engagement is surely an incentive. Portal could earn money from enterprise clients, though, as Facebook is already internally testing a version of its Workplace team collaboration’s video chat feature on Portal. The team laughs that Facebook employees are starting to prefer Portal to their office’s expensive and complex video conference hardware.
Privacy vs Utility
After Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s recent 50 million user breach, it’s understandable that some people would be scared to own Portal’s all-seeing eye. Privacy makes Portal a non-starter to many even as they seem comfortable with Google or Amazon having access to their dwelling. In hopes of assuaging fears, Facebook put a dedicated button atop Portal that electronically disconnects the camera and microphone so they can’t record, let alone transmit. Portal isn’t allowed to save video, and Facebook says it won’t store your voice commands (though Alexa does). Oh, and just to kill this pervasive rumor, Camargo definitively confirmed that Facebook’s smartphone apps don’t secretly record you either.
For added protection, snap on the plastic privacy shield and you’ll blind the lens while still being able to voice-activate music and other features. If you use these, especially when you’re not video chatting, the privacy threat drops significantly. The fact that the shield isn’t attached on a hinge to swing on the place makes it feel like a last-minute scramble after a year of privacy scandals, even though Camargo claims all hardware decisions were locked in before this year.
Doing his part on the PR offensive to combat the privacy narrative, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared a photo of his young daughters playing with Portal, and wrote “Our girls don’t use a lot of screens yet, but we’re happy for them to do video calls to see their grandparents or so I can see them when I’m traveling.”
You could see Zuckerberg’s willingness to ship Portal amidst a storm of negative press as either infuriatingly negligent as Facebook’s privacy troubles remain, or a show of impressive conviction that the smart home is a future people want that the company must be part of. Maybe Portal is an improbable hail mary, but maybe it’s a calculated bet that the cynical and vocal minority don’t represent the average person who cares more about convenience than privacy. Camargo admits that “If no one wants it ever, we will reassess. But we also don’t think we’ll come and get it all right so we will continue to evolve, we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”
Overall, Portal could replace your favorite Alexa device and add seamless video chatting through Messenger if you’re willing to pay the price. That’s both in terms of the higher cost, but also the ‘brand tax’ of welcoming the data-gobbler with a history of privacy stumbles into your home. But Facebook also benefits as a neutral party to Amazon Alexa and Google. If it can integrate both assistant into one device alongside Portal’s own, it could offer the best of all worlds.
For a first-time hardware maker, Facebook did a remarkable job of building polished devices that add new value instead of reinventing the smart home wheel. Teaming up with Amazon and eventually Google instead of directly competing with their voice assistants shows a measure of humility most tech giants eschew. Yet a history of “move fast and break things” in search of growth has come back to haunt Facebook. Video chat is about spending time with people you love and trust, and Facebook hasn’t earned those feelings from us.
On Tuesday, Tencent Music Entertainment filed for an IPO in the US that is expected to value it in the $ 25-30 billion range, on par with Spotify’s IPO in April. The filing highlights just how different its social interaction and digital goods business is from the subscription models of leading music streaming services in Western countries.
That divergence suggests an opportunity for Spotify or one of its rivals to gain a competitive advantage.
Tencent Music is no small player: As the music arm of Chinese digital media giant Tencent, its four apps have several hundred million monthly active users, $ 1.3 billion in revenue for the first half of 2018, and roughly 75 percent market share in China’s rapidly growing music streaming market. Unlike Spotify and Apple Music, however, almost none of its users pay for the service, and those who do are mostly not paying in the form of a streaming subscription.
Its SEC filing shows that 70 percent of revenue is from the 4.2 percent of its overall users who pay to give virtual gifts to other users (and music stars) who sing karaoke or live stream a concert and/or who paid for access to premium tools for karaoke; the other 30 percent is the combination of streaming subscriptions, music downloads, and ad revenue.
At its heart, Tencent Music is an interactive media company. Its business isn’t merely providing music, it’s getting people to engage around music. Given its parent company Tencent has become the leading force in global gaming—with control of League of Legends maker Riot Games and Clash of Clans maker Supercell, plus a 40 percent stake in Fortnite creator Epic Games, and role as the top mobile games publisher in China—its team is well-versed in the dynamics of in-game purchasing.
At first glance, the fact that Tencent Music has a lower subscriber rate than its Western rivals (3.6 percent of users paying for a subscription or digital downloads vs. 46 percent paying for a premium subscription on Spotify) is shocking given it has the key ingredient they each crave: exclusive content. Whereas subscription video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video have anchored themselves in exclusive ownership of must-see shows in order to attract subscribers, the music streaming platforms suffer from commodity content. Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, YouTube Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Deezer… they all have the same core library of music licensed from the major labels. There’s no reason for any consumer to pay for more than one music streaming subscription in the way they do for video streaming services.
In China, however, Tencent Music has exclusive rights to the most popular Western music from the major labels. The natural strategy to leverage this asset would be to charge a subscription to access it. But the reality is that piracy is still enough of a challenge in China that access to that music isn’t truly “exclusive.” Plus while incomes are rising, there’s extraordinary variance in what price point the population can afford for a music subscription. As a result, Tencent Music can’t rely on a subscription for exclusive content; it sublicenses that content to other Chinese music services as an additional revenue stream instead.
“Online music services in China have experienced intense competition with limited ability to differentiate by content due to the widespread piracy.” Tencent Music, SEC Form F-1
This puts it in a position like that of the Western music streaming services—fighting to differentiate and build a moat against competitors—but unlike them it has successfully done so. By integrating live streams and social functionality as core to the user experience, it’s gaining exclusive content in another form (user-generated content) and the network effects of a social media platform.
Some elements of this are distinct to Tencent’s core market—the broader popularity of karaoke, for instance—but the strategy of gaining competitive advantage through interactive and live content is one Spotify and its rivals would be wise to pursue more aggressively. It is unlikely that the major record labels will agree to any meaningful degree of exclusivity for one of the big streaming services here, and so these platforms need to make unique experiences core to their offering.
Online social activities like singing with friends or singing a karaoke duet with a favorite musician do in fact have a solid base of participants around the world: San Francisco-based startup Smule (backed by Shasta Ventures and Tencent itself) has 50 million monthly active users on its apps for that very purpose. There is a large minority of people who care a lot about singing songs as a social experience, both with friends and strangers.
Spotify and Apple Music have experimented with video, messaging, and social streams (of what friends are listening to). But these have been bonus features and none of them were so integrated into the core product offering as to create serious switching costs that would stop a user from jumping to the other.
The ability to give tips or buy digital goods makes it easier to monetize a platform’s most engaged and enthusiastic users. This is the business model of the mobile gaming sector: A minority percentage of users get emotionally invested enough to pay real money for digital goods that enhance their experience, currency to tip other members of the community, or access to additional gameplay.
As the leading music platform, it is surprising that Spotify hasn’t created a pathway for superfans of music to engage deeper with artists or each other. Spotify makes referrals to buy concert tickets or merchandise —a very traditional sense of what the music fan wants—but hasn’t deepened the online music experience for the segment of its user base that would happily pay more for music-related experiences online (whether in the form of tipping, digital goods, special digital access to live shows, etc.) or for deeper exposure to the process (and people) behind their favorite songs.
Tencent Music has an advantage in creating social music experiences because it is part of the same company that owns the country’s leading social apps and is integrated into them. It has been able to build off the social graph of WeChat and QQ rather than building a siloed social network for music. Even Spotify’s main corporate rivals, Apple Music and Amazon Music, aren’t attached to leading social platforms. (Another competitor, YouTube Music, is tied to YouTube but the video service’s social features are secondary aspects of the product compared to the primary role of social interaction on Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp).
Spotify could build out more interactive products itself or could buy social-music startups like Smule, but Tencent Music’s success also suggests the benefits of a deal that’s sometimes speculated about by VCs and music industry observers: a Facebook acquisition of Spotify. As one, the leading social media company and the leading music streaming company could build out more valuable video live streaming, group music sharing, karaoke, and other social interactions around music that tap Facebook’s 2 billion users to use Spotify as their default streaming service and lock existing Spotify subscribers into the service that integrates with their go-to social apps.
Deeper social functionality doesn’t seem to be the path Spotify is prioritizing, though. It has removed several social features over the years and is anchoring itself in professional content distribution (rather than user-generated content creation), becoming the new pipes for professional musicians to put their songs out to the world (and likely aiming to disrupt the role of labels and publishers more than they will publicly admit). To that point, the company’s acquisitions—of startups like Loudr, Mediachain, and Soundtrap—have focused on content analytics, content recommendation, royalty tracking, and tools for professional creators.
This is the same race its more deep-pocketed competitors are running, however, and it doesn’t lock consumers into the platform like the network effects of a social app or the exclusivity of a mobile game do. It recently began opening its platform for musicians to add their songs directly—something Tencent Music has allowed for years—but this seems less like a move to a YouTube or SoundCloud-style user-generated content platform and more like a chess move in the game of eventually displacing labels. Ultimately, though, building out more social interaction around music will be critical to it in escaping the race with Apple Music and the rest by achieving more defensibility.
Less than 10 percent of the 50 million users attacked in Facebook’s recent breach lived in the European Union, tweeted the Irish Data Protection Commission which oversees privacy in the region. However, Facebook still could be liable for up to $ 1.63 billion in fines, or 4 percent of its $ 40.7 billion in annual global revenue for the prior financial year, if the EU determines it didn’t do enough to protect the security of its users.
Facebook wrote in response to the IDPC’s tweet that “We’re working with regulators including the Irish Data Protection Commission to share preliminary data about Friday’s security issue. As we work to confirm the location of those potentially affected, we plan to release further info soon.”
Facebook alerted regulators and the public to the breach Friday morning after discovering it Tuesday afternoon. That’s important because it came under the 72-hour deadline for announcing hacks that can trigger an additional fine of up to 2 percent of a company’s global revenue if not met.
UPDATE Facebook data breach – @DPCIreland understands that the number of potentially affected EU accounts is less than 10% of the 50 million accounts in total potentially affected by the security breach. DPC Ireland statement beneath. #dataprotection #GDPR #EUdataP pic.twitter.com/oSfGy6DP2S
— Data Protection Commission Ireland (@DPCIreland) October 1, 2018
That hack saw sophisticated attackers combine three bugs in Facebook’s profile, privacy, and video uploading features to steal the access token of 50 million users. These access tokens could allow the attackers to take over user accounts and act as them on Facebook, Instagram, Oculus, and other sites that rely on Facebook’s login system. The EU’s GDPR laws threaten heavy fines for improper security practices and are seen as stricter than those in the US, so its findings during this investigation carry weight.
The big question remains what data was stolen and how it could potentially be misused. Unless investigators or journalists discover a nefarious application for that data, such as how Cambridge Analytica’s illgotten data was used to inform Donald Trump’s campaign strategy, it’s unlikely for the public to see this as more than just another of Facebook’s constant privacy scandals. It could still trigger regulation, or push partners away from using Facebook’s login system, but the world seems to be growing numb to the daily cybersecurity breaches that plague the internet.
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