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Legislators from ten parliaments put the squeeze on Facebook

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The third meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, a multi-nation body comprised of global legislators with concerns about the societal impacts of social media giants, has been taking place in Dublin this week — once again without any senior Facebook management in attendance.

The committee was formed last year after Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly refused to give evidence to a wide-ranging UK parliamentary enquiry into online disinformation and the use of social media tools for political campaigns. That snub encouraged joint working by international parliamentarians over a shared concern that’s also a cross-border regulatory and accountability challenge.

But while Zuckerberg still, seemingly, does not feel personally accountable to international parliaments — even as his latest stand-in at today’s committee hearing, policy chief Monika Bickert, proudly trumpeted the fact that 87 per cent of Facebook’s users are people outside the US — global legislators have been growth hacking a collective understanding of nation-state-scale platforms and the deleterious impacts their data-gobbling algorithmic content hierarchies and microtargeted ads are having on societies and democracies around the world.

Incisive questions from the committee today included sceptical scrutiny of Facebook’s claims and aims for a self-styled ‘Content Oversight Board’ it has said will launch next year — with one Irish legislator querying how the mechanism could possibly be independent of Facebook , as well as wondering how a retrospective appeals body could prevent content-driven harms. (On that Facebook seemed to claim that most complaints it gets from users are about content takedowns.)

Another question was whether the company’s planned Libra digital currency might not at least partially be an attempt to resolve a reputational risk for Facebook, of accepting political ads in foreign currency, by creating a single global digital currency that scrubs away that layer of auditability. Bickert denied the suggestion, saying the Libra project is unrelated to the disinformation issue and “is about access to financial services”.

Twitter’s recently announced total ban on political issue ads also faced some critical questioning by the committee, with the company being asked whether it will be banning environmental groups from running ads about climate change yet continuing to take money from oil giants that wish to run promoted tweets on the topic. Karen White, director of public policy, said they were aware of the concern and are still working through the policy detail for a fuller release due later this month.

But it was Facebook that came in for the bulk of criticism during the session, with Bickert fielding the vast majority of legislators’ questions — almost all of which were sceptically framed and some, including from the only US legislator in the room asking questions, outright hostile.

Google’s rep, meanwhile, had a very quiet hour and a half, with barely any questions fired his way. While Twitter won itself plenty of praise from legislators and witnesses for taking a proactive stance and banning political microtargeting altogether.

The question legislators kept returning to during many of today’s sessions, most of which didn’t involve the reps from the tech giants, is how can governments effectively regulate US-based Internet platforms whose profits are fuelled by the amplification of disinformation as a mechanism for driving engage with their service and ads?

Suggestions varied from breaking up tech giants to breaking down business models that were roundly accused of incentivizing the spread of outrageous nonsense for a pure-play profit motive, including by weaponizing people’s data to dart them with ‘relevant’ propaganda.

The committee also heard specific calls for European regulators to hurry up and enforce existing data protection law — specifically the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — as a possible short-cut route to shrinking the harms legislators appeared to agree are linked to platforms’ data-reliant tracking for individual microtargeting.

A number of witnesses warned that liberal democracies remain drastically unprepared for the ongoing onslaught of malicious, hypertargeted fakes; that adtech giants’ business models are engineered for outrage and social division as an intentional choice and scheme to monopolize attention; and that even if we’ve now passed “peak vulnerability”, in terms of societal susceptibility to Internet-based disinformation campaigns (purely as a consequence of how many eyes have been opened to the risks since 2016), the activity itself hasn’t yet peaked and huge challenges for democratic nation states remain.

The latter point was made by disinformation researcher Ben Nimmo, director of investigations at Graphika.

Multiple witnesses called for Facebook to be prohibited from running political advertising as a matter of urgency, with plenty of barbed questions attacking its recent policy decision not to fact-check political ads.

Others went further — calling for more fundamental interventions to force reform of its business model and/or divest it of other social platforms it also owns. Given the company’s systematic failure to demonstrate it can be trusted with people’s data that’s enough reason to break it back up into separate social products, runs the argument.

Former Blackberry co-CEO, Jim Ballsillie, espoused a view that tech giants’ business models are engineered to profit from manipulation, meaning they inherently pose a threat to liberal democracies. While investor and former Facebook mentor, Roger McNamee, who has written a critical book about the company’s business model, called for personal data to be treated as a human right — so it cannot be stockpiled and turned into an asset to be exploited by behavior-manipulating adtech giants.

Also giving evidence today, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has been instrumental in investigating the Cambridge Analytica Facebook data misuse scandal, suggested no country should be trusting its election to Facebook. She also decried the fact that the UK is now headed to the polls, for a December general election, with no reforms to its electoral law and with key individuals involved in breaches of electoral law during the 2016 Brexit referendum now in positions of greater power to manipulate democratic outcomes. She too added her voice to calls for Facebook to be prohibited from running political ads.

In another compelling testimony, Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) in Washington DC, recounted the long and forlorn history of attempts by US privacy advocates to win changes to Facebook’s policies to respect user agency and privacy — initially from the company itself, before petitioning regulators to try to get them to enforce promises Facebook had renaged on, yet still getting exactly nowhere.

No more ‘speeding tickets’

“We have spent the last many years trying to get the FTC to act against Facebook and over this period of time the complaints from many other consumer organizations and users have increased,” he told the committee. “Complaints about the use of personal data, complaints about the tracking of people who are not Facebook users. Complaints about the tracking of Facebook users who are no longer on the platform. In fact in a freedom of information request brought by Epic we uncovered 29,000 complaints now pending against the company.”

He described the FTC judgement against Facebook, which resulted in a $5BN penalty for the company in June, as both a “historic fine” but also essentially just a “speeding ticket” — because the regulator did not enforce any changes to its business model. So yet another regulatory lapse.

“The FTC left in place Facebook’s business practices and left at risk the users of the service,” he warned, adding: “My message to you today is simple: You must act. You cannot wait. You cannot wait ten years or even a year to take action against this company.”

He too urged legislators to ban the company from engaging in political advertising — until “adequate legal safeguards are established”. “The terms of the GDPR must be enforced against Facebook and they should be enforced now,” Rotenberg added, calling also for Facebook to be required to divest of WhatsApp — “not because of a great scheme to break up big tech but because the company violated its commitments to protect the data of WhatsApp users as a condition of the acquisition”.

In another particularly awkward moment for the social media giant, Keit Pentus-Rosimannus, a legislator from Estonia, asked Bickert directly why Facebook doesn’t stop taking money for political ads.

The legislator pointed out that it has already claimed revenue related to such ads is incremental for its business, making the further point that political speech can simply be freely posted to Facebook (as organic content); ergo, Facebook doesn’t need to take money from politicians to run ads that lie — since they can just post their lies freely to Facebook.

Bickert had no good answer to this. “We think that there should be ways that politicians can interact with their public and part of that means sharing their views through ads,” was her best shot at a response.

“I will say this is an area we’re here today to discuss collaboration, with a thought towards what we should be doing together,” she added. “Election integrity is an area where we have proactively said we want regulation. We think it’s appropriate. Defining political ads and who should run them and who should be able to and when and where. Those are things that we would like to work on regulation with governments.”

“Yet Twitter has done it without new regulation. Why can’t you do it?” pressed Pentus-Rosimannus.

“We think that it is not appropriate for Facebook to be deciding for the world what is true or false and we think that politicians should have an ability to interact with their audiences. So long as they’re following our ads policies,” Bickert responded. “But again we’re very open to how together we could come up with regulation that could define and tackle these issues.”

tl;dr Facebook could be seen once again deploying a policy minion to push for a ‘business as usual’ strategy that functions by seeking to fog the issues and re-frame the notion of regulation as a set of self-serving (and very low friction) ‘guide-rails’, rather than as major business model surgery.

Bickert was doing this even as the committee was hearing from multiple voices making the equal and opposite point with acute force.

Another of those critical voices was congressman David Cicilline — a US legislator making his first appearance at the Grand Committee. He closely questioned Bickert on how a Facebook user seeing a political ad that contains false information would know they are being targeted by false information, rejecting repeated attempts to misleading reframe his question as just about general targeting data.

“Again, with respect to the veracity, they wouldn’t know they’re being targeted with false information; they would know why they’re being targeted as to the demographics… but not as to the veracity or the falseness of the statement,” he pointed out.

Bickert responded by claiming that political speech is “so heavily scrutinized there is a high likelihood that somebody would know if information is false” — which earned her a withering rebuke.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s theory that sunlight is the best disinfectant only works if an advertisment is actually exposed to sunlight. But as hundreds of Facebook employees made clear in an open letter last week Facebook’s advanced targeting and behavioral tracking tools — and I quote — “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech” — end quote — as they know — and I quote — “these ads are often so microtargeted that the conversations on Facebook’s platforms are much more siloed than on the other platforms,” said Cicilline.

“So, Ms Bickert, it seems clear that microtargeting prevents the very public scrutiny that would serve as an effective check on false advertisements. And doesn’t the entire justification for this policy completely fall apart given that Facebook allows politicians both to run fake ads and to distribute those fake ads only to the people most vulnerable to believe in them? So this is a good theory about sunlight but in fact in practice you policies permit someone to make false representations and to microtarget who gets them — and so this big public scrutiny that serves as a justification just doesn’t exist.”

Facebook’s head of global policy management responded by claiming there’s “great transparency” around political ads on its platform — as a result of what she dubbed its “unprecedented” political ad library.

“You can look up any ad in this library and see what is the breakdown on the audience who has seen this ad,” she said, further claiming that “many [political ads] are not microtargeted at all”.

“Isn’t the problem here that Facebook has too much power — and shouldn’t we be thinking about breaking up that power rather than allowing Facebook’s decisions to continue to have such enormous consequences for our democracy?” rejoined Cicilline, not waiting for an answer and instead laying down a critical statement. “The cruel irony is that your company is invoking the protections of free speech as a cloak to defend your conduct which is in fact undermining and threatening the very institutions of democracy it’s cloaking itself in.”

The session was long on questions for Facebook and short on answers with anything other than the most self-serving substance from Facebook.

Major GDPR enforcements coming in 2020

During a later session without any of the tech giants present which was intended for legislators to query the state of play of regulation around online platforms, Ireland’s data protection commissioner, Helen Dixon, signalled that no major enforcements will be coming against Facebook et al this year — saying instead that decisions on a number of cross-border cases will be coming in 2020.

Ireland has a plate stacked high with complaints against tech giants since the GDPR came into force in May 2018. Among the 21 “large scale” investigations into big tech companies that remain ongoing are probes around transparency and the lawfulness of data processing by social media platform giants.

The adtech industry’s use of personal data in the real-time bidding programmatic process is also under the regulatory microscope.

Dixon and the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) take center stage as a regulator for US tech giants given how many of these companies have chosen to site their international headquarters in Ireland — encouraged by business friendly corporate tax rates. But the DPC has a pivotal role on account of a one-stop-shop mechanism within GDPR that allows for a data protection agency with primary jurisdiction over a data controller to take a lead on cross-border data processing cases, with other EU member states’ data watchdogs feeding but not leading such a complaint.

Some of the Irish DPC’s probes have already lasted as long as the 18 months since GDPR came into force across the bloc. Dixon argued today that this is still a reasonable timeframe for enforcing an updated data protection regime, despite signalling further delay before any enforcements in these major cases. “It’s a mistake to say there’s been no enforcement… but there hasn’t been an outcome yet to the large scale investigations we have open, underway into the big tech platforms around lawfulness, transparency, privacy by design and default and so on. Eighteen months is not a long time. Not all of the investigations have been open for 18 months,” she said.

“We must follow due process or we won’t secure the outcome in the end. These companies they’ve market power but they also have the resources to litigate forever. And so we have to ensure we follow due process, we allow them a right to be heard, we conclude the legal analysis carefully by applying what our principles in the GDPR to the scenarios at issue and then we can hope to deliver the outcomes that the GDPR promises.

“So that work is underway. We couldn’t be working more diligently at it. And we will have the first sets of decisions that will start rolling out in the very near term.”

Asked by the committee about the level of cooperation the DPC is getting from the tech giants under investigation she said they are “engaging and cooperating” — but also that they’re “challenging at every turn”.

She also expressed a view that it’s not yet clear whether GDPR enforcement will be able to have a near-term impact on reining in any behaviors found to be infringing the law, given further potential legal push back from platforms after decisions are issued.

“The regulated entities are obliged under the GDPR to cooperate with investigations conducted by the data protection authority, and to date of the 21 large-scale investigations were have opened into big tech organizations they are engaging and cooperating. With equal measure they’re challenging at every turn as well and seeking constant clarifications around due process but they are cooperating and engaging,” she told the committee.

“What remains to be seen is how the investigations we currently have open will conclude. And whether there will ultimately be compliance with the outcomes of those investigations or whether they will be subject to lengthy challenge and so on. So I think the big question of whether we’re going to be able to near-term drive the kind of outcomes we want is still an open question. And it awaiting us as a data protection authority to put down the first final decisions in a number of cases.”

She also expressed doubt about whether the GDPR data protection framework will, ultimately, sum to a tool that can  regulate underlying business models that are based on collecting data for the purpose of behavioral advertising.

“The GDPR isn’t set up to tackle business models, per se,” she said. “It’s set up to apply principles to data processing operations. And so there’s a complexity when we come to look at something like adtech or online behavioral advertising in that we have to target multiple actors.

“For that reason we’re looking at publishers at the front end, that start the data collection from users — it’s when we first click on a website that the tracking technologies, the pixels, the cookies, the social plug-ins — start the data collection that ultimately ends up categorizing us for the purposes of sponsored stories or ad serving. So we’re looking at that ad exchanges, we’re looking at the real-time bidding system. We’re looking at the front end publishers. And we’re looking at the ad brokers who play an important part in all of this in combining online and offline sources of data. So we’ll apply the principles against those data processing operations, we’ll apply them rigorously. We’ll conclude and then we’ll have to see does that add up to a changing of the underlying business model? And I think the jury is out on that until we conclude.”

Epic’s Rotenberg argued to the contrary on this when asked by the committee for the most appropriate model to use for regulating data-driven platforms — saying that “all roads lead to the GDPR”.

“It’s a set of rights and responsibilities associated with the collection and use of personal data and when companies choose to collect personal data they should be held to account,” he said, suggesting an interpretation of the law that does not require other European data protection agencies to wait for Ireland’s decision on key cross-border cases.

“The Schrems decision of 2015 makes clear that while co-ordinated enforcement anticipated under the GDPR is important, individual DPAs have their own authority to enforce the provisions of the charter — which means that individual DPAs do not need to wait for a coordinated response to bring an enforcement action.”

A case remains pending before Europe’s top court that looks set to lay down a firm rule on exactly that point.

“As a matter of law the GDPR contains the authority within its text to enforce the other laws of the European Union — this is largely about the misuse and the collection and use of personal data for microtargeting,” Rotenberg also argued. “That problem can be addressed through the GDPR but it’s going to take an urgent response. Not a long term game plan.”

When GDPR enforcement decisions do come Dixon suggested they could have a wider impact than only applying to the direct subject, saying there’s an appetite from data processors generally for more guidance on compliance with the law — meaning that both the clarity and deterrence factor derived from large scale platform enforcement decisions could help steer the industry down a reforming path.

Though, again, what exactly those platform enforcements may be remains pending until 2020.

“Probably the first large-scale investigation we’re going to conclude under GDPR is one into the principle of transparency and involving one of the larger platforms,” Dixon also told the committee, responding to a legislator’s question asking if she believes consumers are clear about exactly what they’re giving up when they agree to their information being processed to access a digital service.

“We will shortly be making a decision spelling out in detail how compliance with the transparency obligations under Articles 12 to 14 of the GDPR should look in that context. But it is very clear that users are typically unaware. For example some of the large platforms do have capabilities for users to completely opt out of personalized ad serving but most users aren’t aware of it. There are also patterns in operation that nudge users in certain directions. So one of the things that [we’re doing] — aside from the hard enforcement cases that we’re going to take — we’ve also published guidance recently for example on that issue of how users are being nudged to make choices that are perhaps more privacy invasive than they might otherwise if they had an awareness.

“So I think there’s a role for us as a regulatory authority, as well as regulating the platforms to also drive awareness amongst users. But it’s an uphill battle, given the scale of what users are facing.”

Asked by the committee about the effectiveness of financial penalties as a tool for platform regulation, Dixon pointed to research that suggests fines alone make no difference — but she highlighted the fact that GDPR affords Europe’s regulators with a far more potent power in their toolbox: The power to order changes to data processing or even ban it altogether.

“It’s our view that we will be obliged to impose fines where we find infringements and so that’s what will happen but we expect that it’s the corrective powers that we apply — the bans on processing, the requirements to bring processing operations into compliance that’s going to have the more significant effects,” she said, suggesting that under her watch the DPC will not shy away from using corrective powers if or when an infringement demands it.

The case for special measures

Also speaking today in a different public forum, Europe’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, made a similar point to Dixon’s about the uphill challenge for EU citizens to enforce their rights.

“We have you could call it digital citizens’ rights — the GDPR — but that doesn’t solve the question of how much data can be collected about you,” she said during an on stage interview at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, where she was asked whether platforms should have a fiduciary duty towards users to ensure they are accountable for what they’re distributing. The antitrust commissioner is set for an expanded digital strategy role in the incoming European Commission.

“We also need better protection and better tools to protect ourselves from leaving a trace everywhere we go,” she suggested. “Maybe we would like to be more able to choose what kind of trace we would leave behind. And that side of the equation will have to be part of the discussion as well. How can we be better protected from leaving that trace of data that allows companies to know so much more about any one of us than we might even realize ourselves?”

“I myself am very happy that I have digital rights. My problem is that I find it very difficult to enforce them,” Vestager added. “The only real result of me reading terms and conditions is that I get myself distracted from wanting to read the article that wanted me to tap T&Cs. So we need that to be understandable so that we know what we’re dealing with. And we need software and services that will enable us not to leave the same kind of trace as we would otherwise do… I really hope that the market will also help us here. Because it’s not just for politicians to deal with this — it is also in an interaction with the market that we can find solutions. Because one of the main challenges in dealing with AI is of course that there is a risk that we will regulate for yesterday. And then it’s worth nothing.”

Asked at what point she would herself advocate for big tech companies to be broken up, Vestager said there would need to be a competition case that involves damage that’s extreme enough to justify it. “We don’t have that kind of case right now,” she argued. “I will never exclude that that could happen but so far we don’t have a problem that big that breaking up a company would be the solution.”

She also warned against the risk of potentially creating more problems by framing the problem of platform giants as a size issue — and therefore the solution as breaking the giants up.

“The people advocating it don’t have a model as to have to do this. And if you know this story about an antique creature when you chopped out one head two or seven came up — so there is a risk you do not solve the problem you just have many more problems,” she said. “And you don’t have a way of at least trying to control it. So I am much more in the line of thinking that you should say that when you become that big you get a special responsibility — because you are de facto the rule setter in the market that you own. And we could be much more precise about what that then entails. Because otherwise there’s a risk that the many, many interesting companies they have no chance of competing.”

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Brandi Carlile and Catherine Shepherd Full Relationship Timeline

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Brandi Carlile and Catherine Shepherd Full Relationship Timeline

Once upon a time, Brandi Carlile and Catherine Shepherd first crossed paths via the telephone while they were in different countries and kept in touch FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR before they met IRL and fell in love. ❤️ They’ve been going strong ever since and have (blessedly) not been shy about posting their adorable ‘ship on social. Prepare to laugh, cry, and see tons of endearing Facebook life update posts as we walk through their decades-long ‘ship!

2009

Truly still can’t get over how iconic the beginning of this love story was. Way back when, Catherine—who is originally from the United Kingdom—was working for former Beatles singer Paul McCartney‘s charity. During one fated day while she was reaching out to donate Beatles memorabilia to Brandi’s Fight the Fear campaign, she actually wound up speaking to the singer herself. And the rest is history! Well…kind of.

2010

The pair wound up speaking for an entire year (!!) before they finally met IRL in New York City in 2010. “It was shocking to say the least,” Brandi confessed to People over a decade later in April 2021. “Every time I talked to her over the phone, I thought I was talking to somebody who was like 65 years old. I don’t know why. I think because of her wisdom and her demeanor. Or maybe I thought she was Paul’s age or something. So we met backstage in New York, and we were both like 27.”

 

Obsessed with them. Obsessed with this pic. Obsessed with everything!

musicares person of the year tribute to joni mitchell arrivals

Frazer Harrison//Getty Images

May 16, 2012

Brandi and Catherine walked their first red carpet at the 2012 Donor Of The Day Celebration at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. 😭❤️

2012 donor of the day celebration

Gary Gershoff//Getty Images

September 15, 2012

Only a few months after their red carpet ~debut~, the duo tied the knot in Boston during a ceremony in front of family and friends. At the time, Brandi took to Facebook to share everything that went down, including some truly wow moments you couldn’t make up if you tried.

brandi carlile and catherine shepherd

Facebook

“See I’m sure all weddings have an insane week preceding the event but me and Catherine might have won that contest,” the singer wrote on Facebook. “Bailey (the dog) had to be rushed to the vet on our wedding day, and the day before the wedding we had to put down one of our goats (RIP Tim). To top it all off our priest didn’t show up! Ha ha! (Not her fault but it’ll be one of those funny stories well be telling for years). My church friends Jason and Mandy were there and Jason performed the perfect ceremony with 15 minutes notice!” she continued.

Even with all this happening, Brandi maintained, “It was truly one of our best days, completely awkward and human and beautiful. I’m married to my best friend and nothing has ever brought me more joy than that.” Obsessed!

February 2013

“The more the merrier” was clearly the wedding theme for Brandi and Catherine, because they wound up following their Boston wedding with a ceremony in Brandi’s home state of Washington before heading to England for a civil ceremony in front of Catherine’s friends and family.

In another Facebook post, the Grammy winner mused the following alongside an image of herself and Catherine at their wedding venue: “We had our London ceremony at the famous Chelsea Old Town Hall. It was one of our best days and when the officiant asked if anyone could think of a reason we should not be married, a four-year-old guest wisely shouted NO!”

brandi carlile and catherine shepherd

Facebook

June 15, 2014

Congrats were in order for the stunning couple, who welcomed their first child, daughter Evangeline Ruth, in 2014. Brandi shared an adorbs photo of the bb with the caption, “Please allow me to introduce Evangeline Ruth Carlile, Born June 15th. Welcome to the world kid! xobc.”

The couple opened up about having IVF treatments to get pregnant, and Brandi was super honest about the process.

“I made peace with knowing that there was some pioneering involved in what we were doing, to the point where there wasn’t even a two mother template on a birth certificate yet,” she confessed to People. “There is now, but psychologically, all these things are really hard. And the high dive into parenting is a complicated leap to take anyway…I’m hoping people see through my story that there’s no right or wrong way to evolve into a parenting role in either heterosexual or same-sex relationships.”

February 15, 2016

Brandi and Catherine looked amaze during their appearance at the 58th annual Grammy Awards. The night was especially meaningful, as it also marked Brandi’s first year being nominated for Best Americana Album for The Firewatcher’s Daughter.

brandi carlile and catherine shepherd

Larry Busacca//Getty Images

January 6, 2017

The duo realized a bucket list goal after attending a farewell party at the White House for former President Barack Obama. Always a Facebook girly, Brandi took to the platform to reflect on the evening: “We had the unbelievable privilege of spending the evening at the White House with the first family and friends in what will no doubt go down in history as a legendary party! It was so diverse and beautiful, full of all walks of life and an amazing sense of strength and community.”

March 18, 2018

Brandi and Catherine welcomed baby number two, a daughter named Elijah.

On Instagram, the singer noted that the newest addition to their family was 9 pounds, making Catherine “a beast.” Truly loving the sense of humor these two have. 😂

February 10, 2019

The couple stepped out to attend the 61st Grammy Awards, where Brandi delivered a legendary performance of her song “The Joke.”

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Brandi Carlile – The Joke (LIVE at the 61st GRAMMYs)

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Oh, and she also happened to be the most-nominated female artist of the night, NBD. (But actually, Very Big Deal.)

April 6, 2021

Brandi released her memoir, Broken Horses, which topped the New York Times bestseller list shortly after its release. I mean, what can’t she do?!?!?

. ‘Broken Horses: A Memoir’

'Broken Horses: A Memoir'

. ‘Broken Horses: A Memoir’

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June 1, 2021

Though Catherine doesn’t have an Instagram, she cheekily did a takeover on her wife’s account to celebrate her 40th birthday, and it could not be any cuter. “Happy 40th birthday to my beautiful, brilliant and fearless wife Brandi. I woke up this morning thinking about us falling in love on the eve of your 30th birthday 10 years ago in New York City. We were both tortured poets, too thin and unaware of the remarkable life that we were about to build together.”

P.S. Should you choose to read the whole post (you’re doing yourself a serious disservice if you don’t), you’re gonna wanna break out a box or two of Kleenex.

May 8, 2022

Brandi posts a sweet Mother’s Day vid to Instagram. Cue the waterworks again!

August 10, 2022

Brandi and Catherine decide to launch their monthly radio show, Somewhere Over the Radio.

A few months later, the singer posts a clip of herself and Catherine goofing off in the studio alongside the caption, “My wife Catherine took me to work with her today. I took it very seriously because I’m a professional, she on the other hand… 🤪. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock these past few months, my wife and I have a radio show! Celebrating queer brilliance in music!”

October 14, 2022

The couple beautifully sang Brandi’s song “You and Me on the Rock” for a live IMAX event.

Literally no words, just seconding *the* Mandy Moore’s comment: “Damn! Of course you both sound like magic together. So beautiful!!!!”

And that’s about it! This timeline will be updated with the next sweet installment of Brandi and Catherine’s relationship.

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Instagram’s co-founders launch Artifact, a kind of TikTok for text

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Instagram’s co-founders launch Artifact, a kind of TikTok for text

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are back.

The Instagram co-founders, who departed Facebook in 2018 amid tensions with their parent company, have formed a new venture to explore ideas for next-generation social apps. Their first product is Artifact, a personalized news feed that uses machine learning to understand your interests and will soon let you discuss those articles with friends.

Artifact — the name represents the merging of articles, facts, and artificial intelligence — is opening up its waiting list to the public today. The company plans to let users in quickly, Systrom says. You can sign up yourself here; the app is available for both Android and iOS.

The simplest way to understand Artifact is as a kind of TikTok for text, though you might also call it Google Reader reborn as a mobile app or maybe even a surprise attack on Twitter. The app opens to a feed of popular articles chosen from a curated list of publishers ranging from leading news organizations like The New York Times to small-scale blogs about niche topics. Tap on articles that interest you, and Artifact will serve you similar posts and stories in the future, just as watching videos on TikTok’s For You page tunes its algorithm over time.

“Every time we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things got really good really quickly.”

Users who come in from the waitlist today will see only that central ranked feed. But Artifact beta users are currently testing two more features that Systrom expects to become core pillars of the app. One is a feed showing articles posted by users that you have chosen to follow, along with their commentary on those posts. (You won’t be able to post raw text without a link, at least for now.) The second is a direct message inbox so you can discuss the posts you read privately with friends.

In one sense, Artifact can feel like a throwback. Inspired by TikTok’s success, big social platforms have spent the past few years chasing shortform video products and the ad revenue that comes with them.

Meanwhile, like a social network from the late 2000s, Artifact has its sights set firmly on text. But the founders are hopeful that a decade-plus of lessons learned, along with recent advances in artificial intelligence, will help their app break through to a bigger audience.

Systrom and Krieger first began discussing the idea for what became Artifact a couple years ago, he told me. Systrom said he was once skeptical of the ability of machine-learning systems to improve recommendations — but his experience at Instagram turned him into a true believer.

“Throughout the years, what I saw was that every time we use machine learning to improve the consumer experience, things got really good really quickly,” he said.

So why come back now? Technically, this isn’t the duo’s first project since Instagram; in 2020, they teamed up to create the website Rt.live to track the spread of covid.

But Systrom told me they didn’t want to start a new company until three things happened: One, a big new wave in consumer technology that he and Krieger could attempt to catch. Two, a way to connect that wave to social technology, which he and Krieger continue to feel invested in emotionally. And three, an idea for how their product could solve a problem — Systrom has long considered technology design from the standpoint of what jobs it can do for its customers.

The tech that enabled ChatGPT also created new possibilities for social networks

The breakthrough that enabled Artifact was the transformer, which Google invented in 2017. It offers a mechanism for systems to understand language using far fewer inputs than had previously been required.

The transformer helped machine-learning systems improve at a much faster pace, leading directly to last year’s release of ChatGPT and the attendant boom in interest around AI. (Transformers are the “T” in ChatGPT.)

It also created some new possibilities for social networks. At first, social networks showed you stuff your friends thought was interesting — the Facebook model. Then they started showing you stuff based on the people that you chose to follow, whether you were friends or not — the Twitter model.

TikTok’s innovation was to show you stuff using only algorithmic predictions, regardless of who your friends are or who you followed. It soon became the most downloaded app in the world.

Artifact represents an effort to do the same thing but for text.

“I saw that shift, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s the future of social,’” Systrom said. “These unconnected graphs; these graphs that are learned rather than explicitly created. And what was funny to me is as I looked around, I was like, ‘Man, why isn’t this happening everywhere in social? Why is Twitter still primarily follow-based? Why is Facebook?’”

Artifact will take seriously the job of serving readers with high-quality news and information

The question is whether personalized recommendations for news articles and blog posts can drive the same viral success for Artifact that video has for TikTok. It’s not a slam dunk: in 2014, a wave of personalized news apps with names like Zite and Pulse came and went, dogged by their inability to create deep habits in users. And earlier this month, Tokyo-based SmartNews, which uses similar AI technology to personalize recommendations, laid off 40 percent of its workforce in the United States and China amid a declining user base and challenging ad market.

Like most startups at this stage, Artifact has yet to commit to a business model. Advertising would be an obvious fit, Systrom said. He’s also interested in thinking about revenue-sharing deals with publishers. If Artifact gets big, it could help readers find new publications and encourage them to subscribe to them; it may make sense for Artifact to try to take a cut.

Systrom also told me Artifact will take seriously the job of serving readers with high-quality news and information. That means an effort to include only publishers who adhere to editorial standards of quality, he told me. For now, the company won’t disclose every publisher in its system, but you can search for individual outlets within the app.

Both left- and right-leaning publishers were included; you’ll find Fox News there, for example. But Systrom isn’t shy about the fact that the company will be exercising its own judgment about who belongs and who doesn’t.

“One of the issues with technology recently has been a lot of these companies’ unwillingness to make subjective judgments in the name of quality and progress for humanity,” he says. “Right? Just make the hard decision.”

Artifact will also remove individual posts that promote falsehoods, he says. And its machine-learning systems will be primarily optimized to measure how long you spend reading about various subjects — as opposed to, say, what generates the most clicks and comments — in an effort to reward more deeply engaging material.

“We fundamentally like building.”

For now, Systrom and Krieger are funding Artifact themselves, though I imagine they will soon have investors beating a path to their doors. A team of seven people is now working on the app, including Robby Stein, a top product executive at Instagram from 2016 to 2021.

Having sold Instagram to Facebook for $715 million, Systrom and Krieger had no pressing need to get a job. So what’s driving them this time?

“We fundamentally like building,” Systrom said. “There’s no other place in the world we’d rather spend our time than writing code and building products that people enjoy. I just love it.”

Advances in AI have also captured their imaginations, he said.

“I think machine learning is undeniably the coolest thing to work on right now,” he said. “Not because it’s hip, but because when it knows you’re into a certain topic, and it totally gets you, you’re like, ‘How is it that just some numbers multiplied together did that?’ The CTO of OpenAI said that machine learning is basically many months of things not working, and then suddenly it works, and then it works scarily well. I resonate with that.”

I’ve only used Artifact for a few hours now, and many of the features that the company plans to build remain in the planning stages. As you would expect from Systrom and Krieger, the app already shows a good deal of polish. Read an article inside the app, and when you return to the feed, it will suggest more stories like it in a handsome carousel. The app automatically switches to dark mode at night. And when you post a link, you can choose whether to let everyone comment, limit comments to people you follow, or shut them off entirely.

In many ways, I think the time is ripe for this kind of product. AI really is making new things possible in consumer apps, and the collapse of Twitter under Elon Musk has created an opportunity for a team with genuine expertise in this space to take a run at text-based social networking again.

To succeed on a grand scale, I suspect Artifact will have to do more than simply show you a collection of interesting links. Even in the current depressed state of digital publishing, the web remains rich with stories of interest, as anyone who has ever glanced at the list of clickbait headlines below the Google search box these days can attest. Few people spend much time complaining that they can’t find anything good to read on the internet.

Yes, AI represents a huge part of TikTok’s success. But like Twitter before it, TikTok also succeeded because of the way it captures conversations about the core feed — more than a few tweets have gone viral noting that the comments on TikTok are often better than the videos themselves. Similarly, Twitter endures as a primary source for breaking news in large part because it’s where elites go to discuss the news in public.

That aspect of Artifact remains under construction. But if Systrom and Krieger can bring the same craftsmanship to that part of the product that they brought to Instagram, it might not be long before they have me once again forgetting my Mastodon login.

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Where Will Meta Stock Be in 1 Year?

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Meta Platforms (META -3.08%) had an awful 2022. Revenue growth stalled at just the wrong time for the social media business, leading to collapsing earnings in the nine months that ended in late September. The company will close out 2022 with its Q4 earnings announcement in early February that’s expected to show a 3% sales drop.

Wall Street isn’t optimistic about the year ahead, either. Most Wall Street pros forecast that revenue will rise in the low-single-digit-percentage range as annual earnings decline for a second straight year.

Let’s look behind those headline projections for clues to where the stock might be headed as management works to turn the Facebook owner around.

Meta is growing faster

The immediate challenge for CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his team is to get the business back on a growth footing. The good news is that this goal is more achievable than you might think after a glance at the company’s 4% year-over-year sales decline in Q3. Strip out currency exchange rate shifts and that figure becomes a 2% increase, after all.

Meta is still gaining users, too, even on its most mature platform, Facebook. It’s not hard to see how a sustained focus on engaging videos in the Reels service can contribute to improving sales trends in 2023. “The fundamentals are there for a return to stronger revenue growth,” Zuckerberg told investors in late October. Ideally, executives will back up those words with more concrete signs of a rebound in the early February update.

Meta has been slashing costs

Meta entered the 2022 year with some of the best finances in the tech industry. But the scale of its negative turn here has been hard to watch.

META Operating Margin (TTM) Chart

META Operating Margin (TTM) data by YCharts

Operating income through the first three quarters of the year dropped to $22.5 billion from $34.2 billion. Net income in that period fell by more than $10 billion to $18.5 billion.

Watch for Meta to be brutal in slashing costs this year so it can end this profitability slide. The company already got the ball rolling here as it closed offices and announced layoffs in some areas. Yet these moves likely won’t start affecting the bottom line in a big way until future years, perhaps when sales growth is accelerating again.

The big questions Meta needs to answer

Meta isn’t skimping on the investments that management thinks will drive growth over the next several years. The Reality Labs division, home to the Quest VR brand, is projecting accelerating losses in 2023 as spending ramps up in areas like hardware and the metaverse. The company should add more context about these projects when it closes out fiscal 2022 and issues its first detailed projection for the new year ahead.

The stock’s path in 2023 will depend in part on things that are outside Meta’s control, including the pace of advertising spending and consumers’ discretionary tech budgets.

Yet there’s still plenty the company can do to improve sales and profitability trends over the next several quarters. And if both metrics have started rebounding, Meta shares have a good chance at outperforming the market in 2023 after posting their worst year yet last year.

Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of market development and spokeswoman for Facebook and sister to Meta Platforms CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Demitri Kalogeropoulos has positions in Meta Platforms. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Meta Platforms. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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