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Instagram ‘pods’ game the algorithm by coordinating likes and comments on millions of posts

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instagram pods game the algorithm by coordinating likes and comments on millions of posts

Researchers at NYU have identified hundreds of groups of Instagram users, some with thousands of members, that systematically exchange likes and comments in order to game the service’s algorithms and boost visibility. In the process, they also trained machine learning agents to identify whether a post has been juiced in this way.

“Pods,” as they’ve been dubbed, straddle the line between real and fake engagement, making them tricky to detect or take action against. And while they used to be a niche threat (and still are compared with fake account and bot activity), the practice is growing in volume and efficacy.

Pods are easily found via searching online, and some are open to the public. The most common venue for them is Telegram, as it’s more or less secure and has no limit to the number of people who can be in a channel. Posts linked in the pod are liked and commented on by others in the group, with the effect of those posts being far more likely to be spread widely by Instagram’s recommendation algorithms, boosting organic engagement.

Reciprocity as a service

The practice of groups mutually liking one another’s posts is called reciprocity abuse, and social networks are well aware of it, having removed setups of this type before. But the practice has never been studied or characterized in detail, the team from NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering explained.

“In the past they’ve probably been focused more on automated threats, like giving credentials to someone to use, or things done by bots,” said lead author of the study Rachel Greenstadt. “We paid attention to this because it’s a growing problem, and it’s harder to take measures against.”

On a small scale it doesn’t sound too threatening, but the study found nearly 2 million posts that had been manipulated by this method, with more than 100,000 users taking part in pods. And that’s just the ones in English, found using publicly available data. The paper describing the research was published in the Proceedings of the World Wide Web Conference and can be read here.

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Importantly, the reciprocal liking does more than inflate apparent engagement. Posts submitted to pods got large numbers of artificial likes and comments, yes, but that activity deceived Instagram’s algorithm into promoting them further, leading to much more engagement even on posts not submitted to the pod.

When contacted for comment, Instagram initially said that this activity “violates our policies and we have numerous measures in place to stop it,” and said that the researchers had not collaborated with the company on the research.

In fact the team was in contact with Instagram’s abuse team from early on in the project, and it seems clear from the study that whatever measures are in place have not, at least in this context, had the desired effect. I pointed this out to the representative and will update this post if I hear back with any more information.

“It’s a grey area”

But don’t reach for the pitchforks just yet — the fact is this kind of activity is remarkably hard to detect, because really it’s identical in many ways to a group of friends or like-minded users engaging with each others’ content in exactly the way Instagram would like. And really, even classifying the behavior as abuse isn’t so simple.

“It’s a grey area, and I think people on Instagram think of it as a grey area,” said Greenstadt. “Where does it end? If you write an article and post it on social media and send it to friends, and they like it, and they sometimes do that for you, are you part of a pod? The issue here is not necessarily that people are doing this, but how the algorithm should treat this action, in terms of amplifying or not amplifying that content.”

Obviously if people are doing it systematically with thousands of users and even charging for access (as some groups do), that amounts to abuse. But drawing the line isn’t easy.

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More important is that the line can’t be drawn unless you first define the behavior, which the researchers did by carefully inspecting the differences in patterns of likes and comments on pod-boosted and ordinary posts.

“They have different linguistic signatures,” explained co-author Janith Weerasinghe. “What words they use, the timing patterns.”

As you might expect, strangers obligated to comment on posts they don’t actually care about tend to use generic language, saying things like “nice pic” or “wow” rather than more personal remarks. Some groups actually warn against this, Weerasinghe said, but not many.

The list of top words used reads, predictably, like the comment section on any popular post, though perhaps that speaks to a more general lack of expressiveness on Instagram than anything else:

niceBut statistical analysis of thousands of such posts, both pod-powered and normal, showed a distinctly higher prevalence of “generic support” comments, often showing up in a predictable pattern.

This data was used to train a machine learning model, which when set loose on posts it had never seen, was able to identify posts given the pod treatment with as high as 90% accuracy. This could help surface other pods — and make no mistake, this is only a small sample of what’s out there.

“We got a pretty good sample for the time period of the easily accessible, easily findable pods,” said Greenstadt. “The big part of the ecosystem that we’re missing is pods that are smaller but more lucrative, that have to have a certain presence on social media already to join. We’re not influencers, so we couldn’t really measure that.”

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The numbers of pods and the posts they manipulate has grown steadily over the last two years. About 7,000 posts were found during March of 2017. A year later that number had jumped to nearly 55,000. March of 2019 saw over 100,000, and the number continued to increase through the end of the study’s data. It’s safe to say that pods are now posting over 4,000 times a day — and each one is getting a large amount of engagement, both artificial and organic. Pods now have 900 users on average, and some had over 10,000.

You may be thinking: “If a handful of academics using publicly available APIs and Google could figure this out, why hasn’t Instagram?”

As mentioned before, it’s possible the teams there have simply not considered this to be a major threat and consequently have not created policies or tools to prevent it. Rules proscribing using a “third party app or service to generate fake likes, follows, or comments” arguably don’t apply to these pods, since in many ways they’re identical to perfectly legitimate networks of users (though Instagram clarified that it considers pods as violating the rule). And certainly the threat from fake accounts and bots is of a larger scale.

And while it’s possible that pods could be used as a venue for state-sponsored disinformation or other political purposes, the team didn’t notice anything happening along those lines (though they were not looking for it specifically). So for now the stakes are still relatively small.

That said, Instagram clearly has access to data that would help to define and detect this kind of behavior, and its policies and algorithms could be changed to accommodate it. No doubt the NYU researchers would love to help.

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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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