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Facebook Clashes with the US Government Over Vaccine Misinformation



It seems like Facebook may be on a collision course with the US Government once again, this time over the role that it may or may not be playing in the amplification of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, which has been identified as a key impediment in the nation’s path to recovery from the pandemic.

On Friday, when asked directly about vaccine misinformation on Facebook, US President Joe Biden responded that ‘they’re killing people‘ by allowing vaccine conspiracy theories to spread.

Biden’s comment came a day after the White House also noted that it’s been in regular contact with social media platforms to ensure that they remain aware of the latest narratives which pose a danger to public health

As per White House press secretary Jen Psaki:

“We work to engage with them to better understand the enforcement of social media platform policy.”

In response to Biden’s remarks, Facebook immediately went on the offensive, with a Facebook spokesperson telling ABC News that it “will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts”.

Facebook followed that up with an official response today, in a post titled ‘Moving Past the Finger Pointing’.

At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies. While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic. And facts – not allegations – should help inform that effort. The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the US has increased. These and other facts tell a very different story to the one promoted by the administration in recent days.”

The post goes on to highlight various studies which show that Facebook’s efforts to address vaccine hesitancy are working, and that, if anything, Facebook users are less resistant to the vaccine effort, in opposition to Biden’s remarks.  

Which is largely in line with Facebook’s broader stance of late – that, based on academic research, there’s currently no definitive link between increased vaccine hesitancy and Facebook sharing, nor, on a similar path, is there any direct connection between Facebook usage and political polarization, despite ongoing claims.

In recent months, Facebook has taken a more proactive approach to dismissing these ideas, by explaining that polarizing and extremist content is actually bad for its business, despite the suggestion that it benefits from the related engagement with such posts.

As per Facebook:

“All social media platforms, including but not limited to ours, reflect what is happening in society and what’s on people’s minds at any given moment. This includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. For example, in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, posts about soccer will naturally increase – not because we have programmed our algorithms to show people content about soccer but because that’s what people are thinking about. And just like politics, soccer strikes a deep emotional chord with people. How they react – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will be reflected on social media.”

Facebook’s Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg also took a similar angle back in March in his post about the News Feed being an interplay between people and platform – which means the platform itself cannot be fully to blame:

The goal is to make sure you see what you find most meaningful – not to keep you glued to your smartphone for hours on end. You can think about this sort of like a spam filter in your inbox: it helps filter out content you won’t find meaningful or relevant, and prioritizes content you will.”

Clegg further notes that Facebook actively reduces the distribution of sensational and misleading content, as well as posts that are found to be false by its independent fact-checking partners.

“For example, Facebook demotes clickbait (headlines that are misleading or exaggerated), highly sensational health claims (like those promoting “miracle cures”), and engagement bait (posts that explicitly seek to get users to engage with them).”

Clegg also says that Facebook made a particularly significant commitment to this, in conflict with its own business interests, by implementing a change to the News Feed algorithm back in 2018 which gives more weight to updates from your friends, family, and groups that you’re a part of, over content from Pages that you follow.

So, according to Facebook, it doesn’t benefit from sensationalized content and left-of-center conspiracy theories – and in fact, it actually goes out of its way to penalize such.

Yet, despite these claims, and the references to inconclusive academic papers and internal studies, the broader evidence doesn’t support Facebook’s stance.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Facebook has been working to change the way that its own data analytics platform works, in order to restrict public access to insights which show that far-right posts and misinformation perform better on the platform than more balanced coverage and reports.

The controversy stems from this Twitter profile, created by Times reporter Kevin Roose, which displays a daily listing of the ten most engaging posts across Facebook, based on CrowdTangle data.

Far-right Pages always dominate the chart, which is why Facebook has prevously sought to explain that the metrics used in creating the listing are wrong, and are therefore not indicative of actual post engagement and popularity.

According to the NYT report, Facebook had actually gone further than this internally, with staffers looking for a way to alter the data displayed within CrowdTangle to avoid such comparison.

Which didn’t go as planned:

“Several executives proposed making reach data public on CrowdTangle, in hopes that reporters would cite that data instead of the engagement data they thought made Facebook look bad. But [Brandon] Silverman, CrowdTangle’s chief executive, replied in an email that the CrowdTangle team had already tested a feature to do that and found problems with it. One issue was that false and misleading news stories also rose to the top of those lists.”

So, no matter how Facebook was looking to spin it, these types of posts were still gaining traction, which shows that, even with the aforementioned updates and processes to limit such sharing, this remains the type of content that sees the most engagement, and thus, reach on The Social Network.

Which, you could argue, is a human problem, rather than a Facebook one. But at 2.8 billion users, giving it more potential for content amplification than any platform in history, Facebook does need to take responsibility for the role that it plays within this process, and the role it can potentially play in amplifying the impact of such in the case of, say, a pandemic where vaccine fear-mongering could end up costing the world an unmeasurable toll.

It seems fairly clear that Facebook does play a significant part within this. And when you also consider that some 70% of Americans now get at least some news content from Facebook, it’s clear that the app has become a source of truth for many, which informs what they do, including their political stances, their civic understanding. And yes, their view of public health advice.

Heck, even flat earthers have been able to gain traction in the modern age, underlining the power of anti-science movements. And again, while you can’t definitively say that Facebook is responsible for such, if somebody posts a random video of flat earthers trying to prove their theory, that’s probably going to get traction due to the divisive, sensational nature of that content – like this clip for example:

Flat Earth video

Videos like this attract believers and skeptics alike, and while many of the comments are critical, that’s all, in Facebook’s algorithmic judgment, engagement.

Thus, even your mocking remarks will help such material gain traction – and the more people who comment, the more momentum such posts get.

8 out of 10 people might dismiss such theories as total rubbish, but 2 might take the opportunity to dig deeper. Multiply that by the view counts these videos see and that’s a lot of potential influence on this front that Facebook is facilitating.

And definitely, these types of posts do gain traction. A study conducted by MIT in 2019 found that false news stories on Twitter are 70% more likely to be retweeted than those that are true, while further research into the motivations behind such activity have found that a need for belonging and community can also solidify groups around lies and misinformation as a psychological response.

There’s also another key element within this – the changing nature of media distribution itself.

As Yale University social psychologist William J. Brady recently explained:

“When you post things [on social media], you’re highly aware of the feedback that you get, the social feedback in terms of likes and shares. So when misinformation appeals to social impulses more than the truth does, it gets more attention online, which means people feel rewarded and encouraged for spreading it.”

That shift, in giving each person their own personal motivation for sharing certain content, has changed the paradigm for content reach, which has diluted the influence of publications themselves in favor of algorithms, – which, again, are fueled by people and their need for validation and response.

You share a post saying ‘vaccines are safe’ and probably no one will care, but if you share one that says ‘vaccines are dangerous’, people will pay attention, and you’ll get all the notifications from all the likes, shares and comments, which will then trigger your dopamine receptors, and make you feel part of something bigger, something more – that your voice is important in the broader landscape.

As such, Facebook is somewhat right in pointing to human nature as the culprit, and not its own systems. But it, and other platforms, have given people the medium, they provide the means to share, they devise the incentives to keep them posting.

And the more time that people spend on Facebook, the better is for Facebook’s business.

You can’t argue that Facebook doesn’t benefit in this respect – and as such, it is in the company’s interests to turn a blind eye, and pretend there’s no problem with its systems, and the role that it plays in amplifying such movements.

But it does, it is, and the US Government is right to take a closer look at this element.


Meta Soars by Most in Decade, Adding $100 Billion in Value



Meta Soars by Most in Decade, Adding $100 Billion in Value

Correction: February 2, 2023 This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated how much Meta expected to spend on its deal with the virtual reality start-up Within. It is $400 million, not $400 billion. Meta’s stock surged on Thursday …

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Twitter’s Cancelling Free Access to its API, Which Will Shut Down Hundreds of Apps



Twitter’s Cancelling Free Access to its API, Which Will Shut Down Hundreds of Apps

Well, this is certainly problematic.

Twitter has announced that, as of February 9th, it’s cutting off free access to its API, which is the access point that many, many apps, bot accounts, and other tools use to function.

That means that a heap of Twitter analytics apps, management tools, schedulers, automated updates – a range of key info and insight options will soon cease to function. Which seems like the sort of thing that, if you were Twitter, you’d want to keep on your app.

But that’s not really how Twitter 2.0 is looking to operate – in a bid to rake in as much revenue as absolutely possible, in any way that it can, Twitter will now look to charge all of these apps and tools. But most, I’d hazard a guess, will simply cease to function.

The bigger business apps already pay for full API access – your Hootsuite’s and your Sprout Social’s – so they’ll likely be unaffected. But it could stop them from offering free plans, which would have a big impact on their business models.

The announcement follows Twitter’s recent API change which cut off a heap of Twitter posting tools, in order, seemingly, to stop users accessing the platform through a third-party UI. 

Now, even more Twitter tools will go extinct, a broad spread of apps and functions that contribute to the real-time ecosystem that Twitter has become. Their loss, if that’s what happens, will have big impacts on overall Twitter activity.

On the other hand, some will see this as another element in Twitter’s crackdown on bots, which Twitter chief Elon Musk has made a personal mission to eradicate. Musk has taken some drastic measures to kill off bots, some of which are having an impact, but Musk himself has also admitted that such efforts are reducing overall platform engagement

This, too, could be a killer in this respect

It’ll also open the door to Twitter competitors, as many automated update apps will switch to other platforms. This relates to things like updates on downtime from video games, weather apps, and more. There are also tools like GIF generators and auto responders – there’s a range of tools that could now look for a new home on Mastodon, or some other Twitter replicant. 

In this respect, it seems like a flawed move, which is also largely ignorant of how the developer community has facilitated Twitter’s growth. 

But Elon and Co. are going to do things their own way, whether outside commentators agree or not – and maybe this is actually a path to gaining new Twitter data customers, and boosting the company’s income. 

But I doubt it.

If there are any third-party Twitter apps that you use, it’ll be worth checking in to see if they’re impacted before next week.

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Meta ‘Year of Efficiency’ call from Zuckerberg was what Street needed



Meta 'Year of Efficiency' call from Zuckerberg was what Street needed

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Meta Platforms Inc., center, departs from federal court in San Jose, Calif., on Dec. 20, 2022.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

With one simple slogan, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg temporarily quelled investor discontent with his company’s multibillion-dollar investment into the futuristic metaverse.

“Our management theme for 2023 is the ‘Year of Efficiency’ and we’re focused on becoming a stronger and more nimble organization,” Zuckerberg said as part of the release of Meta’s fourth-quarter earnings report.

Following a 64% plunge in Meta’s share price in 2022, Wall Street cheered the report, sending the stock up almost 20%, extending a rally that began late last year. Based on after-hours pricing, Meta is trading at its highest since July.

Growth is not what’s getting investors excited. Meta reported better-than-expected revenue in the fourth quarter, but sales still sank 4% from a year earlier, marking the third straight quarterly decline. And the forecast range for the first quarter suggests that year-over-year revenue could increase, but it could also fall again.

Rather, Zuckerberg’s commitment to cost cuts and efficiency is a sign that increasing profitability is important to Meta, which was known as a growth machine prior to last year’s slump.

“The first 18 years I think we grew it 20%, 30% compound or a lot more every year,” Zuckerberg said on the earnings call. “And then obviously that changed very dramatically in 2022, where our revenue was negative for growth, for the first time in the company’s history.”

In looking to the future, Zuckerberg struck a realistic tone.

“We don’t anticipate that that’s going to continue,” he said, regarding the recent drop in revenue. “But I also don’t think it’s going to go back to the way it was before.”

Meta lowered its estimates for total expenses in 2023 to be in the range of $89 billion to $95 billion, down from its prior outlook of $94 billion to $100 billion. In November, the company announced it would lay off over 11,000 workers, or 13% of its staff.

Zuckerberg said Meta will be more “proactive on cutting projects that aren’t performing or may no longer be crucial” and that it will emphasize “removing layers of middle management to make decisions faster.”

Meta is also reducing spending as it builds new data centers that are intended to be more efficient while still able to power the company’s various artificial intelligence technologies. Capital expenditures are now expected to be in the range of $30 billion to $33 billion for 2023 instead of $34 billion to $37 billion.

Zuckerberg is selling investors on a story they want to hear, acknowledging that the company got bloated and needed more financial discipline. One of Zuckerberg’s top deputies, technology chief Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, wrote a personal essay just a few days ago echoing that sentiment.

Still, Meta has plenty of challenges ahead, in terms of both costs and reviving its core ad business.

Meta’s Reality Labs unit, which is responsible for developing the nascent metaverse, lost $13.7 billion in 2022. Finance chief Susan Li told analysts that the company isn’t planning for any reduction in that unit anytime soon. Zuckerberg still sees it as the company’s future.

Digital advertising, meanwhile, is suffering from a struggling economy, and Li gave no indication that companies are planning to dramatically increase their spending in 2023.

Meta has also yet to recover from Apple’s 2021 iOS privacy update that made it harder to target users with ads. Li said the company has been improving its online advertising system, but Apple’s update is “still certainly an absolute headwind to our revenue number.”

During the question and answer part of the call, Zuckerberg was asked about Meta’s progress in generative artificial intelligence, which has become the latest hot thing in Silicon Valley. His answer indicated that Meta is pursuing opportunities there, but will be cautious in how quickly it proceeds. Running these programs is expensive, and Meta needs to ensure it can develop them affordably, he said.

Zuckerberg said that while Meta is researching how best to incorporate the new technology, he wants “to be careful not to get too ahead of the development of it.”

Correction: Meta’s earnings report and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments occurred after the market close on Wednesday. An earlier version misstated the day.

WATCH: Meta grows in daily active users, shares pop on revenue beat

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