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TechScape: How the world is turning against social media | Technology

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Government workers in the UK, US, Canada and European Union (the list will have grown by the time you read this) are banned from installing TikTok on their phones.

On Friday, France joined that list, preventing its civil servants from installing TikTok – and everything else. From the government’s press release (original in French):

After an analysis of the issues, in particular security, the government has decided to ban the downloading and installation of recreational applications on professional telephones provided to public officials from now on.

Recreational applications do not have sufficient levels of cybersecurity and data protection to be deployed on government equipment. This ban applies immediately and uniformly. Exemptions may be granted on an exceptional basis …

From a cybersecurity point of view, there are two reasons to ban TikTok: one is that it gathers a substantial amount of data in its natural course of operation; the other is that it cannot credibly commit to withstanding efforts from the Chinese Communist party to compel TikTok to promote the party’s interests overseas.

But either of those rationales poses awkward questions for those who would ban TikTok, because the app isn’t unique. Plenty of apps and companies are exposed to China to a greater or lesser extent, and even more harvest vast amounts of personal data. So why focus on just one app?

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France, at least, appears to have drawn the same conclusion. If TikTok can’t be safely installed on government devices, then how can anything else?

As with everything related to this spat, there is a geopolitical undercurrent: France gets to follow the international crowd, but bloody America’s nose in the process, highlighting the similarities between the data harvesting of TikTok and Facebook and declaring that neither of them is appropriate for a government device.

A world without TikTok?

In the short term, it’s hard not to feel as if everything is falling in Facebook’s favour. Sure, the company loses access to a few French civil servants, but everyone knows the real target here, and the further the bans spread, the more chance that the real ban-hammer drops, and TikTok faces general suppression.

Analysts at Wedbush Securities said on Sunday that such a ban was a matter of “when, not if”, “with the odds of a ban 90%+ in our opinion. We believe now it’s just a matter of time until CFIUS [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] formally comes out with its recommendations for a US ban.” The legal wrangling would be tricky but the US, at least, probably has the power to do so, with TikTok’s status as a foreign-owned company enabling the government to invoke powers designed to protect national security.

TikTok could stave off a total ban if it secured its independence from Chinese-owned ByteDance, or if it was sold to another – American – owner, but the odds of that happening seem slim. “Project Texas”, an engineering effort to isolate American user data in servers controlled by Oracle, looks to be as big a concession the company was willing to make there, and it’s failed to convince those pushing for a ban.

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So what would happen next? It’s hard to say: some of the fallout would depend on TikTok’s own actions. Any technical enforcement of the ban would likely be at the App Store level, as Google and Apple would be compelled to eject the app from their centralised distribution. The company could try to continue offering services to American users in spite of the CFIUS ban, building out its web service, offering Android apps for installation through third-party app stores, and continuing to operate for users who already downloaded the app on their iPhones. It’s not impossible to use a social network in a country that’s banned it: just look at the many, many Twitter and Facebook users posting from mainland China.

That would see a slow death of the site, similar to the constant drain of users from Musk’s Twitter. Without seismic upheaval, the winners would be the obvious places for other users to go: Instagram’s Reels and YouTube Shorts, which have spent years trying to clone TikTok’s appeal (and algorithm) with only moderate success.

More interesting would be if the company decided to push the big red button. Blocking all Americans overnight would cause instant upheaval. Some of the 150 million US users might shrug their shoulders and open another app, but others – many others – wouldn’t. Their dissatisfaction may not be enough to force the state to backtrack, but it could dissuade other governments from following course.

A new type of viral image

An AI-generated image of Pope Francis.
An AI-generated image of Pope Francis. Photograph: Reddit

This week you may have seen the photo of the pope in a white puffer jacket.

Hopefully you have also realised that the image is a fake. It was generated by the latest version of AI art bot Midjourney, prompted to create a picture of the pope in a Balenciaga jacket. (As such, there’s an infinite amount of similar pictures available if you want to see more dripped-out papas).

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The pic came hot on the heels of a similarly viral Midjourney creation, after Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins found himself banned from the tool for creating a selection of visualisations of Donald Trump being arrested in New York.

Higgins’s images didn’t quite escape containment in the same way the pope shot did, though, which is why I think the latter has a good case for being the first of a new type of viral image: the AI-generated fake that goes viral despite – not because – it was created by AI.

Midjourney’s fifth iteration is probably the best AI image generator on the market, particularly when trying to generate photorealistic images of humans. It’s even able to generate hands with five fingers (£), something this technology has notoriously struggled with before now.

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So expect this to happen more in the future. The immediate future. Now. It’s time to treat photographic evidence as no more reliable than written statements: if @bonerfart420 posted that Rishi Sunak kicked a beggar, you wouldn’t believe them; it’s time to extend that same scepticism if they post a photo of him caught in the act.

Microsoft ahead of the game

It’s looking good for Microsoft’s multibillion takeover of gaming mega publisher Activision Blizzard, after the UK regulator dropped one of its key objections. According to the Competition and Markets Authority, Microsoft has provided sufficient proof that it would continue to make the Call of Duty series available on PlayStation consoles after the purchase was completed, and so that risk should be discounted.

“It would not be commercially beneficial to Microsoft to make CoD exclusive to Xbox following the deal,” the CMA says. “Microsoft will instead still have the incentive to continue to make the game available on PlayStation.”

That means, more broadly, that the CMA has provisionally concluded that the acquisition “will not result in a substantial lessening of competition in relation to console gaming in the UK”.

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There’s still the question of “cloud gaming services”: few believe that Microsoft would offer Call of Duty to Sony to add to its PlayStation Plus service, making Xbox Game Pass the only subscription likely to have the series for the foreseeable future, and the CMA could still decide that’s a deal-breaker.

Of course, there are at least two other major regulators to go, with the EU competition commission and the FTC in the US both weighing in. But the former is expected to approve the deal itself. That leaves just the FTC still potentially committing itself to full-throated opposition of the deal. Things might still shake out the way Microsoft hopes.

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

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Christian family goes in hiding after being cleared of blasphemy

LAHORE, Pakistan — A court in Pakistan granted bail to a Christian falsely charged with blasphemy, but he and his family have separated and gone into hiding amid threats to their lives, sources said.

Haroon Shahzad (right) with attorney Aneeqa Maria. | The Voice Society/Morning Star News

Haroon Shahzad, 45, was released from Sargodha District Jail on Nov. 15, said his attorney, Aneeqa Maria. Shahzad was charged with blasphemy on June 30 after posting Bible verses on Facebook that infuriated Muslims, causing dozens of Christian families in Chak 49 Shumaali, near Sargodha in Punjab Province, to flee their homes.

Lahore High Court Judge Ali Baqir Najfi granted bail on Nov. 6, but the decision and his release on Nov. 15 were not made public until now due to security fears for his life, Maria said.

Shahzad told Morning Star News by telephone from an undisclosed location that the false accusation has changed his family’s lives forever.

“My family has been on the run from the time I was implicated in this false charge and arrested by the police under mob pressure,” Shahzad told Morning Star News. “My eldest daughter had just started her second year in college, but it’s been more than four months now that she hasn’t been able to return to her institution. My other children are also unable to resume their education as my family is compelled to change their location after 15-20 days as a security precaution.”

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Though he was not tortured during incarceration, he said, the pain of being away from his family and thinking about their well-being and safety gave him countless sleepless nights.

“All of this is due to the fact that the complainant, Imran Ladhar, has widely shared my photo on social media and declared me liable for death for alleged blasphemy,” he said in a choked voice. “As soon as Ladhar heard about my bail, he and his accomplices started gathering people in the village and incited them against me and my family. He’s trying his best to ensure that we are never able to go back to the village.”

Shahzad has met with his family only once since his release on bail, and they are unable to return to their village in the foreseeable future, he said.

“We are not together,” he told Morning Star News. “They are living at a relative’s house while I’m taking refuge elsewhere. I don’t know when this agonizing situation will come to an end.”

The Christian said the complainant, said to be a member of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and also allegedly connected with banned terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, filed the charge because of a grudge. Shahzad said he and his family had obtained valuable government land and allotted it for construction of a church building, and Ladhar and others had filed multiple cases against the allotment and lost all of them after a four-year legal battle.

“Another probable reason for Ladhar’s jealousy could be that we were financially better off than most Christian families of the village,” he said. “I was running a successful paint business in Sargodha city, but that too has shut down due to this case.”

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Regarding the social media post, Shahzad said he had no intention of hurting Muslim sentiments by sharing the biblical verse on his Facebook page.

“I posted the verse a week before Eid Al Adha [Feast of the Sacrifice] but I had no idea that it would be used to target me and my family,” he said. “In fact, when I came to know that Ladhar was provoking the villagers against me, I deleted the post and decided to meet the village elders to explain my position.”

The village elders were already influenced by Ladhar and refused to listen to him, Shahzad said.

“I was left with no option but to flee the village when I heard that Ladhar was amassing a mob to attack me,” he said.

Shahzad pleaded with government authorities for justice, saying he should not be punished for sharing a verse from the Bible that in no way constituted blasphemy.

Similar to other cases

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Shahzad’s attorney, Maria, told Morning Star News that events in Shahzad’s case were similar to other blasphemy cases filed against Christians.

“Defective investigation, mala fide on the part of the police and complainant, violent protests against the accused persons and threats to them and their families, forcing their displacement from their ancestral areas, have become hallmarks of all blasphemy allegations in Pakistan,” said Maria, head of The Voice Society, a Christian paralegal organization.

She said that the case filed against Shahzad was gross violation of Section 196 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which states that police cannot register a case under the Section 295-A blasphemy statute against a private citizen without the approval of the provincial government or federal agencies.

Maria added that Shahzad and his family have continued to suffer even though there was no evidence of blasphemy.

“The social stigma attached with a blasphemy accusation will likely have a long-lasting impact on their lives, whereas his accuser, Imran Ladhar, would not have to face any consequence of his false accusation,” she said.

The judge who granted bail noted that Shahzad was charged with blasphemy under Section 295-A, which is a non-cognizable offense, and Section 298, which is bailable. The judge also noted that police had not submitted the forensic report of Shahzad’s cell phone and said evidence was required to prove that the social media was blasphemous, according to Maria.

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Bail was set at 100,000 Pakistani rupees (US $350) and two personal sureties, and the judge ordered police to further investigate, she said.

Shahzad, a paint contractor, on June 29 posted on his Facebook page 1 Cor. 10:18-21 regarding food sacrificed to idols, as Muslims were beginning the four-day festival of Eid al-Adha, which involves slaughtering an animal and sharing the meat.

A Muslim villager took a screenshot of the post, sent it to local social media groups and accused Shahzad of likening Muslims to pagans and disrespecting the Abrahamic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Though Shahzad made no comment in the post, inflammatory or otherwise, the situation became tense after Friday prayers when announcements were made from mosque loudspeakers telling people to gather for a protest, family sources previously told Morning Star News.

Fearing violence as mobs grew in the village, most Christian families fled their homes, leaving everything behind.

In a bid to restore order, the police registered a case against Shahzad under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment of up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to one year in prison and a fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.

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Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

Morning Star News is the only independent news service focusing exclusively on the persecution of Christians. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide complete, reliable, even-handed news in order to empower those in the free world to help persecuted Christians, and to encourage persecuted Christians by informing them that they are not alone in their suffering.

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Individual + Team Stats: Hornets vs. Timberwolves

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CHARLOTTE HORNETS MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES You can follow us for future coverage by liking us on Facebook & following us on X: Facebook – All Hornets X – …

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What went wrong with ‘the Metaverse’? An insider’s postmortem

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What went wrong with 'the Metaverse'? An insider's postmortem


It’s now two years since Facebook changed its name to Meta, ushering in a brief but blazing enthusiasm over “the Metaverse”, a concept from science fiction that suddenly seemed to be the next inevitable leap in technology. For most people in tech, however, the term has since lost its luster, seemingly supplanted by any product with “artificial intelligence” attached to its description. 

But the true story of the Metaverse’s rise and fall in public awareness is much more complicated and interesting than simply being the short life cycle of a buzzword — it also reflects a collective failure of both imagination and understanding.  

Consider:

The forgotten novel

Ironically, many tech reporters discounted or even ignored the profound influence of Snow Crash on actual working technologists. The founders of Roblox and Epic (creator of Fortnite) among many other developers were directly inspired by the novel. Despite that, Neal Stephenson’s classic cyberpunk tale has often been depicted as if it were an obscure dystopian tome which merely coined the term. As opposed to what it actually did: describe the concept with a biblical specificity that thousands of developers have referenced in their virtual world projects — many of which have already become extremely popular.

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Snow Crash.

You can see this lack of clarity in many of the mass tech headlines attempting to describe the Metaverse in the wake of Facebook’s name change: 

In a widely shared “obituary” to the Metaverse, Business Insider’s Ed Zitron even compounded the confusion still further by inexplicably misattributing the concept to TRON, the original Disney movie from the 80s.

Had the media referenced Snow Crash far more accurately when the buzz began, they’d come away with a much better understanding of why so many technologists are excited by the Metaverse concept — and realize its early incarnation is already gaining strong user traction.  

Because in the book, the Metaverse is a vast, immersive virtual world that’s simultaneously accessible by millions of people through highly customizable avatars and powerful experience creation tools that are integrated with the offline world through its virtual economy and external technology. In other words, it’s more or less like Roblox and Fortnite — platforms with many tens of millions of active users. 

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But then again, the tech media can’t be fully blamed for following Mark Zuckerberg’s lead.

Rather than create a vision for its Metaverse iterating on already successful platforms — Roblox’s 2020 IPO filing even describes itself as the metaverse — Meta’s executive leadership cobbled together a mishmash of disparate products. Most of which, such as remotely working in VR headsets, remain far from proven. According to an internal Blind survey, a majority of Zuckerberg’s own employees say he has not adequately explained what he means by the Metaverse even to them.

Grievous of all, Zuckerberg and his CTO Andrew Bosworth promoted a conception of the Metaverse in which the Quest headset was central. To do so, they had to overlook compelling evidence — raised by senior Microsoft researcher danah boyd at the time of the company acquiring Oculus in 2014 — that females have a high propensity to get nauseous using VR.

Meta Quest 3 comes out on October 10 for $500.
Meta Quest 3.

Contacted in late 2022 while writing Making a Metaverse That Matters, danah told me no one at Oculus or Meta followed up with her about the research questions she raised. Over the years, I have asked several senior Meta staffers (past and present) about this and have yet to receive an adequate reply. Unsurprisingly, Meta’s Quest 2 VR headset has an estimated install base of only about 20 million units, significantly smaller than the customer count of leading video game consoles. A product that tends to make half the population puke is not exactly destined for the mass market — let alone a reliable base for building the Metaverse. 

Ironically, Neal Stephenson himself has frequently insisted that virtual reality is absolutely not a prerequisite for the Metaverse, since flat screens display immersive virtual worlds just fine. But here again, the tech media instead ratified Meta’s flawed VR-centric vision by constantly illustrating articles about the Metaverse with photos of people happily donning headsets to access it — inadvertently setting up a straw man destined to soon go ablaze.

Duct-taped to yet another buzzword

Further sealing the Metaverse hype wave’s fate, it crested around the same time that Web3 and crypto were still enjoying their own euphoria period. This inevitably spawned the “cryptoverse” with platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox. When the crypto crash came, it was easy to assume the Metaverse was also part of that fall.

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But the cryptoverse platforms failed in the same way that other crypto schemes have gone awry: By offering a virtual world as a speculative opportunity, it primarily attracted crypto speculators, not virtual world enthusiasts. By October of 2022, Decentraland was only tracking 7,000 daily active users, game industry analyst Lars Doucet informed me

“Everybody who is still playing is basically just playing poker,” as Lars put it. “This seems to be a kind of recurring trend in dead-end crypto projects. Kind of an eerie rhyme with left-behind American cities where drugs come in and anyone who is left is strung out at a slot machine parlor or liquor store.”

All this occurred as the rise of generative AI birthed another, shinier buzzword — one that people not well-versed in immersive virtual worlds could better understand.

But as “the Metaverse” receded as a hype totem, a hilarious thing happened: Actual metaverse platforms continued growing. Roblox now counts over 300 million monthly active users, making its population nearly the size of the entire United States; Fortnite had its best usage day in 6 years. Meta continues plodding along but seems to finally be learning from its mistakes — for instance, launching a mobile version of its metaverse platform Horizon Worlds.  

Roblox leads the rise of user-generated content.
Roblox.

Into this mix, a new wave of metaverse platforms is preparing to launch, refreshingly led by seasoned, successful game developers: Raph Koster with Playable Worlds, Jenova Chen with his early, successful forays into metaverse experiences, and Everywhere, a metaverse platform lead developed by a veteran of the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

At some point, everyone in tech who co-signed the “death” of the Metaverse may notice this sustained growth. By then however, the term may no longer require much usage, just as the term “information superhighway” fell away as broadband Internet went mainstream.  

Wagner James Au is author of Making a Metaverse That Matters: From Snow Crash & Second Life to A Virtual World Worth Fighting For 

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