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A first look at Twitter’s new prototype app, twttr

March 13, 2019 No Comments

Yesterday, Twitter rolled out its much-anticipated prototype application to the first group of testers. We’ve now gotten our hands on the app and can see how the current version differs from the build Twitter introduced to the world back in January. While the original version and today’s prototype share many of the same features, there have been some small tweaks as to how conversation threads are displayed, and the color-coded reply labeling system is now much more subtle.

“Twttr,” as the prototype build is called, was created to give Twitter a separate space outside its public network to experiment with new ideas about how Twitter should look, feel and operate. Initially, the prototype focuses on changes to replies, with the goal of making longer conversations easier to read.

However, the company said it will likely continue to test new ideas within the app in the future. And even the features seen today will continue to change as the company responds to user feedback.

In the early build of the twttr prototype, the color-coded reply system was intentionally designed to be overly saturated for visibility’s sake, but Twitter never intended to launch a garish color scheme like this to its testers.

The new system is more readable and no longer color codes the entire tweet.

Below are a few screenshots of what the public Twitter app looks like when compared with the new prototype, plus other features found in twttr alone.

Feedback

Above: regular Twitter on the left; twttr on the right

Before digging into twttr’s key features, it’s worth noting there’s an easy way for testers to submit feedback: a menu item in the left-side navigation.

Here, you can tap on a link labeled “twttr feedback” that takes you directly to a survey form where you can share your thoughts. The form asks for your handle, and what you liked and disliked, and offers a space for other comments.

Reply threads

Left: Original Twitter; Right: twttr prototype

This is the big change Twitter is testing in the prototype.

In the photo on the left, you can see how replies are handled today — a thin, gray line connects a person replying to another user within the larger conversation taking place beneath the original tweet. In the photo, TechCrunch editor Jonathan Shieber is replying both to the TechCrunch tweet and the person who tagged him in a question in their own reply to the TC tweet.

In twttr, Shieber’s reply is nested beneath that question in a different way. It’s indented to offer a better visual cue that he’s answering Steven. And instead of a straight line, it’s curved. (It’s also blue because I follow him on Twitter.)

You’ll notice that everyone’s individual responses are more rounded — similar to chat bubbles. This allows them to pop out on the contrasting background, and gives an appearance of an online discussion board.

Left: Original Twitter; Right: twttr prototype

This is even more apparent when the background is set to the white day theme instead of the darker night theme.

Color-coded replies

Here’s a closer look at nested replies.

People you follow will be prominently highlighted at the top of longer threads with a bright blue line next to their name, on the left side of their chat bubble-shaped reply. Twitter says the way people are ranked is personalized to you, and something it’s continuing to iterate.

Left: Original Twitter; Right: twttr prototype

In the public version of the Twitter app, the original poster is also highlighted in the Reply thread with a prominent “Original Tweeter” label. In the prototype, however, they’re designated only by a colored line next to their name, on the left side of the chat bubble. (See Jordan’s tweet above.)

This is definitely a more subtle way to highlight the tweet’s importance to the conversation. It’s also one that could be overlooked — especially in the darker themed Night Mode where the gray line doesn’t offer as much contrast with the dark background.

In the day theme, it’s much easier to see the difference (see below).

Engagements are hidden

Another thing you’ll notice when scrolling through conversations on twttr is that engagements are hidden on people’s individual tweets. That is, there’s no heart (favorite) icon, no retweet icon, no reply bubble icon and no sharing icon, like you’re used to seeing on tweets today.

Instead, if you want to interact with any tweet using one of those options, you have to tap on the tweet itself.

The tweet will then pop up and become the focus, and all the interaction buttons — including the option to start typing your reply — will then become available.

“Show more”

Another change to conversations is that some replies are hidden by default when you’re reading through a series of replies on Twitter.

Often, in long conversation threads, people will respond to someone else in a thread besides the original Tweeter. Both are tagged in the response when that occurs, but the reply may not be about the original tweet at all. This can make it difficult to follow conversations.

Above: “Show more,” before being expanded

In twttr, these sorts of “side conversations” are hidden.

In their place, a “Show more” button appears. When tapped, those hidden replies come into view again. They’re also indented to show they are a part of a different thread.

This change highlights only those replies that are in response to the original tweet. That means people trolling other individuals in the thread could see their replies hidden. But it also means that those responding to a troll comment to the original poster — like one offering a fact check, for example — will also be hidden.

There are other reasons to hide some replies, notes Twitter — like if the original response was too large or the thread has too many replies. It’s not always about the quality of the responses.

Above: after being expanded

The icon!

Twttr is very much a prototype. That means everything seen here now could dramatically change at any point in the future. Even the twttr icon itself has gone through different iterations.

The first version of the icon was a very lovely bird logo that looked notably different from original Twitter. The new version (which we’ll dub twttr’s Yo icon), is a plain blue box.

Twitter has its reasons for that one… and clearly, it didn’t ask for feedback on this particular change.

Where’s that feedback form again?


Social – TechCrunch


Why mobile first design is the only 2019 strategy that will work

March 5, 2019 No Comments

Everyone knows that mobile is red-hot right now. In fact, there is a pretty good chance you are reading this very article on a mobile device.

And yet, like an old dog who just won’t learn a new trick, most people are still designing websites for desktop computers and then trying to make them work well on mobile devices. Square peg, meet round hole.

Quite simply, it doesn’t make sense. Why would you create a website for a dying medium (cough, cough; desktop) and then try to force it to work for new technology? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Why not, instead, create a website for the devices most people are using that will also work on a desktop?

Google has made it clear that mobile-first is the way to go. It is time to leave the past behind because five billion mobile phone users have made it clear they aren’t going anywhere.

Here is why designing for desktop first is a mistake, why responsive mobile design isn’t enough, and why mobile first is the only way to go in 2019.

It is time to put a stop to responsive mobile design

Let’s say you need a train. You want a fast one, one that can get you from Paris to London in two hours. (Ignore, if you will, that this train already exists.) Would you build a coal train, then convert it to a high-speed diesel-electric train? No, that would be a ridiculous waste of time and resources, particularly since the high-speed train can run on standard tracks.

And yet, that is what most people are doing when it comes to designing sites for mobile. They create a site for desktop first, then try to make it work on mobile instead of building a better, faster site that will work just fine on both.

Before we dig into how to design mobile first websites, we need to talk about responsive design.

What is the difference between responsive mobile design and mobile first design? Aren’t they, essentially, the same thing? Not quite.

Is ‘mobile responsive’ the same as ‘mobile first’?

Mobile responsive and mobile first have some of the same ingredients, but their methods, approaches, and strategies are totally different.

Here is how they differ:

Mobile responsive is a technical web design approach where CSS is used to adjust the site to the device it is viewed on. The coding is more complex, and the design still often places desktop needs at the forefront. In other words, the website’s built for desktop users first and then made to work on mobile later.

Mobile first, on the other hand, is a design strategy. While it may use a mobile responsive framework, it considers mobile users’ needs first and foremost. Instead of creating a desktop website and then forcing it to fit in a mobile box, you create a website that considers the majority of users (on mobile) first.

Mobile websites have been an afterthought for years. Yet, 52.64% of all internet traffic happens on a mobile device.

By implementing the seven strategies below, you’ll start designing websites for the devices users are actually using and not just for desktop.

Seven easy strategies to create mobile-first websites

Designing for mobile first doesn’t have to be complicated. And with the rise of the freelancer and gig economy, finding high-quality designers isn’t complicated either.

So get started and start putting the needs of your mobile users first.

Here’s how you can keep your mobile users at the forefront of your mind and get a few handy tools to make your life easier.

1. Less is more when it comes to content (yes, really)

Wait, what? Isn’t longer content better?

Well, (here comes everyone’s favorite internet answer) it depends.

Longer, more in-depth blog posts are, in fact, proven to generate nine times more leads than short posts.

But, mobile readers are looking at tiny little screens.

To be mobile first, your content needs to be concise and clear, so keep the mobile-first design in mind when starting your blogging strategy.

Solution: Keep your copy succinct and unique using a grammar tool to deliver in-depth information in as few words as possible. Break up text into single-sentence paragraphs when possible.

Screenshot of grammar tool

(Image Source)

2. Keep your site simple

Minimization is having a pop-culture moment. The truth is people, love simplicity. It reduces anxiety, improves clarity, and makes us happier.

This applies to web design as well. Less, really is more. Keep the website elements you truly need and ditch the rest.

“But, what about X thing that my site really, really needs??” Ask yourself, “Does it spark joy?” If yes, then keep it.

Ask yourself if each element is really necessary. For example, could you ask fewer questions on your 13 field contact us form?

Can you reduce the number of links on your nav bar?

Here are six more website simplification tips:

  1. Reduce the number of pages on your site
  2. Add an improved search feature so users can still find what they need
  3. Increase white space to reduce the appearance of clutter
  4. Use clean lines and wide borders
  5. Use a simple font and make it larger
  6. Keep a maximum of two columns on mobile

Get VOIP screenshot

(Image Source)

Solution: Keep it simple. Get rid of tiny buttons, ditch scrolling images, trash that 13 field form.

3. Bring your calls to action (CTA) into the 21st

There is nothing worse than clicking on a link from your mobile device that doesn’t load because, while the main site is mobile responsive, the landing page it links to is not.

Or, our favorite, when you get taken to an off-center, impossible to fill out lead-gen form.

Your calls to action are useless if they aren’t designed with mobile in mind. Which means you are missing out on leads and sales.

Solution: Stop throwing money down the drain. Make sure your CTA is designed mobile-first, too. Test links and consider using mobile-friendly calls to action such as SMS text messaging and live chat.

Chat bot example

(Image Source)

Additionally, your mobile conversion funnel needs to be brought into the 21st century with new features like mobile vibration on button clicks, full-screen mobile e-commerce experiences, and signature collection.

Mobile interaction experience example

(Image Source)

4. Let’s talk about it: Make mobile communication a breeze

There is no question that mobile devices have changed the way we communicate with each other and with brands.

Did you know that 97% of Americans report they send at least one text message a day? Research even shows that the increase in text messaging has contributed to a rise in phone call-related anxiety.

People want answers to their questions now, not at 9 a.m. when your phone support opens back up.

And they don’t want to call you if they don’t have to.

Have you adjusted your contact methods to meet the communication preferences of today’s consumers? If not, you may be leaving customers dissatisfied–without even know it. It is time to change. Luckily, there are plenty of tools to make this shift painless.

Consider using a help desk software like Freshdesk to manage your customer communications across channels and devices. It can track previous conversations, prioritize incoming requests, and even help automate the process.

Freshdesk screenshot

(Image Source)

Or, consider adding a live chat or a chatbot to your website to humanize your website for mobile users. If you are looking for an easy way to transition, this is it. Chatbots are a great way to give a fantastic mobile experience without a massive overhaul of your entire website.

Solution: Use technology like chatbots and mobile-friendly help-desk software to make mobile communication frictionless.

5. Graphic design for mobile first

You might be wondering, “Does graphic design really matter when it comes to mobile first?” The answer is a resounding yes!

A study into the value of graphic design found companies who emphasized on graphic design outperformed non-design-focused companies by 200 percent. Well-designed websites are also considered more trustworthy, more memorable, and easier to use.

So, what does mobile first graphic design look like?

According to Venngage, the most significant graphic design trends of 2019 are:

  • Vivid colors
  • Strong typographical elements
  • Geometric shapes and abstract patterns
  • Light and dark contrasting color schemes
  • Gradients and duotones
  • Bright minimalism
  • Original, hand-drawn illustrations and designs
  • Real photographs

What does this all mean in practice?

Aim for bold shapes, clean lines, bright colors, and typographical elements. Make use of white space, which is both visually soothing and makes navigating on mobile easier.

Graphic design examples

(Image Source)

Solution: Use graphic design tools to make creating memorable, trustworthy, and easy to use websites simple. We love Canva and Snappa for their library of templates and stock photos.

6. A need for speed

Site speed has always been important to user experience. But now, site speed is a Google ranking factor, too.

If you are too cool to care about what Google thinks, consider that 40% of people will leave a website if it takes longer than 3 seconds to load.

Even more damaging, 79% of shoppers are less likely to buy from a site again if they experience web performance issues.

Clearly, your site needs to load fast if you want to survive on mobile.

How to improve speed on your mobile first website

Luckily, building your site with an eye on mobile first means you aren’t stuck trying to strip features away to make your site load faster on mobile.

Instead, you can implement speed protocols from the beginning.

Here is how to build a fast, mobile-first website.

  1. Check your page speed using Google’s Test My Site. Google site speed tool
  2. Install a CDN, which loads content from a cache closest to the user.
  3. Compress images so they look good but load fast
  4. Consider using lazy load, which loads elements separately so the user can view at least some of your content right away.
  5. Make the switch to HTTPS, which is faster, more secure, and has SEO benefits.

Solution: Start by testing your mobile page speed, then implementing the changes above.

7. Test, test, test

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Testing is more important than ever for websites. Even the most carefully designed mobile first website needs to be tested on multiple devices.

Why? Currently, there are at least nine different operating systems in use on mobile devices.

According to StatCounter, Android makes up 75% of the mobile operating system market share. iOS clocks in with just under 22 percent of the marketing share, but KaiOs, Windows, and Samsung all claim at least a small portion of the market.

Statcounter screenshot

(Image Source) 

Dozens of new phones are released every year. In fact, Motorola released 11 new mobile devices in just 2017.

In 2018, Apple released two new iPad models (Mini and Pro), two new iPhones (iPhone XS and XR), and three new computers (new models for the iMac Pro, MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini).

Trying to keep up is just plain exhausting. If you want to stay ahead of the curve, you need to test your site across platforms regularly.

Solution: Use a cross browser and cross platform tool to see how your site performs across the multitude of different operating systems and devices.

Conclusion

The desktop computer is dying. Mobile responsiveness is not enough to keep mobile users on your site.

If you want to create an easy to use website that Google and users will love, mobile first design is simply the only way to go.

But changing the way we’ve always done things can feel overwhelming.

You’ve got enough on your plate, right?

As you can see, the mobile first design doesn’t mean changing your entire process. Instead, it means reimagining how we create content, images, CTAs, and communications while keeping a firm focus on mobile users’ needs.

Stop spending too much time creating sub-par mobile sites that users hate. Instead, use these tips to build websites that search engines and (more importantly) web users will love.

Adam Enfroy is Affiliate Partnerships Manager at BigCommerce, and also does Content Marketing Consulting and Blogging at adamenfroy.com. He can be found on Twitter @AdamEnfroy.

The post Why mobile first design is the only 2019 strategy that will work appeared first on Search Engine Watch.

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Watch SpaceX Launch the First Private Lunar Lander

February 22, 2019 No Comments

Tonight an Israeli company will dispatch its spacecraft to the moon aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.
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SpaceX’s Starship, Meant for Mars, Prepares for a First Hop

February 7, 2019 No Comments

A new, extra-beefy SpaceX rocket is undergoing testing in Texas. Formerly called the BFR, Starship is designed to ferry up to 100 humans to Mars.
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IBM unveils its first commercial quantum computer

January 8, 2019 No Comments

At CES, IBM today announced its first commercial quantum computer for use outside of the lab. The 20-qubit system combines the quantum and classical computing parts it takes to use a machine like this for research and business applications into a single package. That package, the IBM Q system, is still huge, of course, but it includes everything a company would need to get started with its quantum computing experiments, including all the machinery necessary to cool the quantum computing hardware.

While IBM describes it as the first fully integrated universal quantum computing system designed for scientific and commercial use, it’s worth stressing that a 20-qubit machine is nowhere near powerful enough for most of the commercial applications that people envision for a quantum computer with more qubits — and qubits that are useful for more than 100 microseconds. It’s no surprise then, that IBM stresses that this is a first attempt and that the systems are “designed to one day tackle problems that are current seen as too complex and exponential in nature for classical systems to handle.” Right now, we’re not quite there yet, but the company also notes that these systems are upgradable (and easy to maintain).

“The IBM Q System One is a major step forward in the commercialization of quantum computing,” said Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud and director of IBM Research. “This new system is critical in expanding quantum computing beyond the walls of the research lab as we work to develop practical quantum applications for business and science.”

More than anything, though, IBM seems to be proud of the design of the Q systems. In a move that harkens back to Cray’s supercomputers with its expensive couches, IBM worked with design studios Map Project Office and Universal Design Studio, as well Goppion, the company that has built, among other things, the display cases that house the U.K.’s crown jewels and the Mona Lisa. IBM clearly thinks of the Q system as a piece of art and, indeed, the final result is quite stunning. It’s a nine feet tall and nine feet wide airtight box, with the quantum computing chandelier hanging in the middle, with all of the parts neatly hidden away.

If you want to buy yourself a quantum computer, you’ll have to work with IBM, though. It won’t be available with free two-day shipping on Amazon anytime soon.

In related news, IBM also announced the IBM Q Network, a partnership with ExxonMobil and research labs like CERN and Fermilab that aims to build a community that brings together the business and research interests to explore use cases for quantum computing. The organizations that partner with IBM will get access to its quantum software and cloud-based quantum computing systems.


Enterprise – TechCrunch


Pew: Social media for the first time tops newspapers as a news source for US adults

December 10, 2018 No Comments

It’s not true that everyone gets their news from Facebook and Twitter. But it is now true that more U.S. adults get their news from social media than from print newspapers. According to a new report from Pew Research Center out today, social media has for the first time surpassed newspapers as a preferred source of news for American adults. However, social media is still far behind other traditional news sources, like TV and radio, for example.

Last year, the portion of those who got their news from social media was around equal to those who got their news from print newspapers, Pew says. But in its more recent survey conducted from July 30 through August 12, 2018, that had changed.

Now, one-in-five U.S. adults (20 percent) are getting news from social media, compared with just 16 percent of those who get news from newspapers, the report found. (Pew had asked respondents if they got their news “often” from the various platforms.)

The change comes at a time when newspaper circulation is on the decline, and its popularity as a news medium is being phased out — particularly with younger generations. In fact, the report noted that print only remains popular today with the 65 and up crowd, where 39 percent get their news from newspapers. By comparison, no more than 18 percent of any other age group does.

While the decline of print has now given social media a slight edge, it’s nowhere near dominating other formats.

Instead, TV is still the most popular destination for getting the news, even though that’s been dropping over the past couple of years. TV is then followed by news websites, radio and then social media and newspapers.

But “TV news” doesn’t necessarily mean cable news networks, Pew clarifies.

In reality, local news is the most popular, with 37 percent getting their news there often. Meanwhile, 30 percent get cable TV news often and 25 percent watch the national evening news shows often.

However, if you look at the combination of news websites and social media together, a trend toward increasing news consumption from the web is apparent. Together, 43 percent of U.S. adults get their news from the web in some way, compared to 49 percent from TV.

There’s a growing age gap between TV and the web, too.

A huge majority (81 percent) of those 65 and older get news from TV, and so does 65 percent of those ages 50 to 64. Meanwhile, only 16 percent of the youngest consumers — those ages 18 to 29 — get their news from TV. This is the group pushing forward the cord cutting trend, too — or more specifically, many of them are the “cord-nevers,” as they’re never signing up for pay TV subscriptions in the first place. So it’s not surprising they’re not watching TV news.

Plus, a meager 2 percent get their news from newspapers in this group.

This young demographic greatly prefers digital consumption, with 27 percent getting news from news websites and 36 percent from social media. That is to say, they’re four times as likely than those 65 and up to get news from social media.

Meanwhile, online news websites are the most popular with the 30 to 49-year-old crowd, with 42 percent saying they get their news often from this source.

Despite their preference for digital, younger Americans’ news consumption is better spread out across mediums, Pew points out.

“Younger Americans are also unique in that they don’t rely on one platform in the way that the majority of their elders rely on TV,” Pew researcher Elisa Shearer writes. “No more than half of those ages 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 get news often from any one news platform,” she says.


Social – TechCrunch


Before Spending Money On LinkedIn, Do This First

November 26, 2018 No Comments

Explore what you can and should be doing with your LinkedIn profile before you start to advertise on the platform.

Read more at PPCHero.com
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First ever drone-delivered kidney is no worse for wear

November 20, 2018 No Comments

Drone delivery really only seems practical for two things: take-out and organ transplants. Both are relatively light and also extremely time sensitive. Well, experiments in flying a kidney around Baltimore in a refrigerated box have yielded positive results — which also seems promising for getting your pad thai to you in good kit.

The test flights were conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland there, led by surgeon Joseph Scalea. He has been frustrated in the past with the inflexibility of air delivery systems, and felt that drones represent an obvious solution to the last-mile problem.

Scalea and his colleagues modified a DJI M600 drone to carry a refrigerated box payload, and also designed a wireless biosensor for monitoring the organ while in flight.

After months of waiting, their study was assigned a kidney that was healthy enough for testing but not good enough for transplant. Once it landed in Baltimore, the team loaded it into the container and had it travel 14 separate missions of various distances and profiles. The longest of these was three miles, a realistic distance between hospitals in the area, and the top speed achieved was 67.6 km/h, or about 42 mph.

Biopsies of the kidney were taken before and after the flights, and also after a reference flight on a small aircraft, which is another common way to transport organs medium distances.

Image credit: Joseph Scalea

The results are good: despite the potential threats of wind chill and heat from the motors of the drone (though this was mitigated by choosing a design with a distal motor-rotor setup), the temperature of the box remained at 2.5 degrees Celsius, just above freezing. And no damage appeared to have been done by the drones’ vibrations or maneuvers.

Restrictions on drones and on how organs can be transported make it unlikely that this type of delivery will be taking place any time soon, but it’s studies like this that make it possible to challenge those restrictions. Once the risk has been quantified, then kidneys, livers, blood, and other tissues or important medical supplies may be transported this way — and in many cases, every minute counts.

One can also imagine the usefulness of this type of thing in disaster situations, when not just ordinary aircraft but also land vehicles may have trouble getting around a city. Drones should be able to carry much-needed supplies — but before they do, they should definitely be studied to make sure they aren’t going to curdle the blood or anything.

The specifics of the study are detailed in a paper published in the IEEE Journal of Translational Engineering in Health and Medicine.

Gadgets – TechCrunch


Instagram tests tapping instead of scrolling through posts, first in Explore

October 12, 2018 No Comments

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.

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.


Social – TechCrunch


Tech and ad giants sign up to Europe’s first weak bite at ‘fake news’

September 26, 2018 No Comments

The European Union’s executive body has signed up tech platforms and ad industry players to a voluntary  Code of Practice aimed at trying to do something about the spread of disinformation online.

Something, just not anything too specifically quantifiable.

According to the Commission, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Mozilla, some additional members of the EDIMA trade association, plus unnamed advertising groups are among those that have signed up to the self-regulatory code, which will apply in a month’s time.

Signatories have committed to taking not exactly prescribed actions in the following five areas:

  • Disrupting advertising revenues of certain accounts and websites that spread disinformation;
  • Making political advertising and issue based advertising more transparent;
  • Addressing the issue of fake accounts and online bots;
  • Empowering consumers to report disinformation and access different news sources, while improving the visibility and findability of authoritative content;
  • Empowering the research community to monitor online disinformation through privacy-compliant access to the platforms’ data.

Mariya Gabriel, the European commissioner for digital economy and society, described the Code as a first “important” step in tackling disinformation. And one she said will be reviewed by the end of the year to see how (or, well, whether) it’s functioning, with the door left open for additional steps to be taken if not. So in theory legislation remains a future possibility.

“This is the first time that the industry has agreed on a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation worldwide, on a voluntary basis,” she said in a statement. “The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetisation of purveyors of disinformation, and we welcome this.

“These actions should contribute to a fast and measurable reduction of online disinformation. To this end, the Commission will pay particular attention to its effective implementation.”

“I urge online platforms and the advertising industry to immediately start implementing the actions agreed in the Code of Practice to achieve significant progress and measurable results in the coming months,” she added. “I also expect more and more online platforms, advertising companies and advertisers to adhere to the Code of Practice, and I encourage everyone to make their utmost to put their commitments into practice to fight disinformation.”

Earlier this year a report by an expert group established by the Commission to help shape its response to the so-called ‘fake news’ crisis, called for more transparency from online platform, as well as urgent investment in media and information literacy education to empower journalists and foster a diverse and sustainable news media ecosystem.

Safe to say, no one has suggested there’s any kind of quick fix for the Internet enabling the accelerated spread of nonsense and lies.

Including the Commission’s own expert group, which offered an assorted pick’n’mix of ideas — set over various and some not-at-all-instant-fix timeframes.

Though the group was called out for failing to interrogate evidence around the role of behavioral advertising in the dissemination of fake news — which has arguably been piling up. (Certainly its potential to act as a disinformation nexus has been amply illustrated by the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal, to name one recent example.)

The Commission is not doing any better on that front, either.

The executive has been working on formulating its response to what its expert group suggested should be referred to as ‘disinformation’ (i.e. rather than the politicized ‘fake news’ moniker) for more than a year now — after the European parliament adopted a Resolution, in June 2017, calling on it to examine the issue and look at existing laws and possible legislative interventions.

Elections for the European parliament are due next spring and MEPs are clearly concerned about the risk of interference. So the unelected Commission is feeling the elected parliament’s push here.

Disinformation — aka “verifiably false or misleading information” created and spread for economic gain and/or to deceive the public, and which “may cause public harm” such as “threats to democratic political and policymaking processes as well as public goods such as the protection of EU citizens’ health, the environment or security”, as the Commission’s new Code of Practice defines it — is clearly a slippery policy target.

And online multiple players are implicated and involved in its spread. 

But so too are multiple, powerful, well resourced adtech players incentivized to push to avoid any political disruption to their lucrative people-targeting business models.

In the Commission’s voluntary Code of Practice signatories merely commit to recognizing their role in “contributing to solutions to the challenge posed by disinformation”. 

“The Signatories recognise and agree with the Commission’s conclusions that “the exposure of citizens to large scale Disinformation, including misleading or outright false information, is a major challenge for Europe. Our open democratic societies depend on public debates that allow well-informed citizens to express their will through free and fair political processes,” runs the preamble.

“[T]he Signatories are mindful of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and to an open Internet, and the delicate balance which any efforts to limit the spread and impact of otherwise lawful content must strike.

“In recognition that the dissemination of Disinformation has many facets and is facilitated by and impacts a very broad segment of actors in the ecosystem, all stakeholders have roles to play in countering the spread of Disinformation.”

“Misleading advertising” is explicitly excluded from the scope of the code — which also presumably helped the Commission convince the ad industry to sign up to it.

Though that further risks muddying the waters of the effort, given that social media advertising has been the high-powered vehicle of choice for malicious misinformation muck-spreaders (such as Kremlin-backed agents of societal division).

The Commission is presumably trying to split the hairs of maliciously misleading fake ads (still bad because they’re not actually ads but malicious pretenders) and good old fashioned ‘misleading advertising’, though — which will continue to be dealt with under existing ad codes and standards.

Also excluded from the Code: “Clearly identified partisan news and commentary”. So purveyors of hyper biased political commentary are not intended to get scooped up here, either. 

Though again, plenty of Kremlin-generated disinformation agents have masqueraded as partisan news and commentary pundits, and from all sides of the political spectrum.

Hence, we must again assume, the Commission including the requirement to exclude this type of content where it’s “clearly identified”. Whatever that means.

Among the various ‘commitments’ tech giants and ad firms are agreeing to here are plenty of firmly fudgey sounding statements that call for a degree of effort from the undersigned. But without ever setting out explicitly how such effort will be measured or quantified.

For e.g.

  • The Signatories recognise that all parties involved in the buying and selling of online advertising and the provision of advertising-related services need to work together to improve transparency across the online advertising ecosystem and thereby to effectively scrutinise, control and limit the placement of advertising on accounts and websites belonging to purveyors of Disinformation.

Or

  • Relevant Signatories commit to use reasonable efforts towards devising approaches to publicly disclose “issue-based advertising”. Such efforts will include the development of a working definition of “issue-based advertising” which does not limit reporting on political discussion and the publishing of political opinion and excludes commercial

And

  • Relevant Signatories commit to invest in features and tools that make it easier for people to find diverse perspectives about topics of public interest.

Nor does the code exactly nail down the terms it’s using to set goals — raising tricky and even existential questions like who defines what’s “relevant, authentic, and authoritative” where information is concerned?

Which is really the core of the disinformation problem.

And also not an easy question for tech giants — which have sold their vast content distribution farms as neutral ‘platforms’ — to start to approach, let alone tackle. Hence their leaning so heavily on third party fact-checkers to try to outsource their lack of any editorial values. Because without editorial values there’s no compass; and without a compass how can you judge the direction of tonal travel?

And so we end up with very vague suggestions in the code like:

  • Relevant Signatories should invest in technological means to prioritize relevant, authentic, and authoritative information where appropriate in search, feeds, or other automatically ranked distribution channels

Only slightly less vague and woolly is a commitment that signatories will “put in place clear policies regarding identity and the misuse of automated bots” on the signatories’ services, and “enforce these policies within the EU”. (So presumably not globally, despite disinformation being able to wreak havoc everywhere.)

Though here the code only points to some suggestive measures that could be used to do that — and which are set out in a separate annex. This boils down to a list of some very, very broad-brush “best practice principles” (such as “follow the money”; develop “solutions to increase transparency”; and “encourage research into disinformation”… ).

And set alongside that uninspiringly obvious list is another — of some current policy steps being undertaken by the undersigned to combat fake accounts and content — as if they’re already meeting the code’s expectations… so, er…

Unsurprisingly, the Commission’s first bite at ‘fake news’ has attracted some biting criticism for being unmeasurably weak sauce.

A group of media advisors — including the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, the European Broadcasting Union, the European Federation of Journalists and International Fact-Checking Network, and several academics — are among the first critics.

Reuters reports them complaining that signatories have not offered measurable objectives to monitor the implementation. “The platforms, despite their best efforts, have not been able to deliver a code of practice within the accepted meaning of effective and accountable self-regulation,” it quotes the group as saying.

Disinformation may be a tough, multi-pronged, multi-dimensional problem but few would try to argue that an overly dilute solution will deliver anything at all — well, unless it’s kicking the can down the road that you’re really after.

The Commission doesn’t even seem to know exactly what the undersigned have agreed to do as a first step, with the commissioner saying she’ll meet signatories “in the coming weeks to discuss the specific procedures and policies that they are adopting to make the Code a reality”. So double er… !

The code also only envisages signatories meeting annually to discuss how things are going. So no pressure for regular collaborative moots vis-a-vis tackling things like botnets spreading malicious disinformation then. Not unless the undersigned really, really want to.

Which seems unlikely, given how their business models tend to benefit from engagement — and disinformation-fuelled outrage has shown itself to be a very potent fuel on that front.

As part of the code, these adtech giants have at least technically agreed to make information available to the Commission on request — and generally to co-operate with its efforts to assess how/whether the code is working.

So, if public pressure on the issue continues to ramp up, the Commission does at least have a route to ask for relevant data from platforms that could, in theory, be used to feed a regulation that’s worth the paper it’s written on.

Until then, there’s nothing much to see here.


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