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UK eyeing disclosure labels for online political campaigning

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The U.K. government is considering changes to the law that would require online political campaign material to carry labels disclosing who is promoting and funding the messaging.

The proposal, which is being put through a public consultation until November, follows years of warnings over the lack of regulation around online political ads.

The government said the measures would mean voters get the same transparency from online campaign material as they do from leaflets posted through their letterbox.

A variety of platforms would be covered, per the current proposal, including social media and video sharing apps, general websites and apps, online ads, search engines, some forms of email, digital streaming services and podcasts.

“There is growing concern about the transparency of the sources of political campaigning online, which is starting to have a negative impact on trust and confidence in our elections and democracy,” the minister for the constitution & devolution, Chloe Smith, writes. “The Government committed in its last manifesto to protect the integrity of our democracy. That is why this Government will refresh our election laws so that citizens are empowered to make informed decisions in relation to election material online.”

Commenting in a press statement, she added: “People want to engage with politics online. That’s where campaigners connect with voters and is why, ahead of elections, almost half of political advertising budgets are now spent on digital content and activity. But people want to know who is talking. Voters value transparency, so we must ensure that there are clear rules to help them see who is behind campaign content online.

“The measures we have outlined today are a big step forward towards making UK politics even more transparent and would lead to one of the most comprehensive set of regulations operating in the world today.”

The government is calling for digital imprints to apply to all types of campaign content, regardless of the country it is being promoted from, and across a variety of digital platforms.

The requirement for imprints would also apply all year round, not only during election or referenda periods.

Imprints would be required to be displayed as part of the digital content — or where that’s not possible located in an “accessible alternative location linked to the material,” per the proposal.

The government argues that the requirement for digital imprints on political campaign material will help existing regulators better monitor who is promoting election material and enforce spending rules.

The U.K.’s 2016 EU referendum vote was mired by the Election Commission’s finding, after the fact of Brexit, of improper spending by the official Vote Leave campaign. The campaign channeled money to a Canadian data firm, AggregateIQ, to use for microtargeting political advertising on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with another Brexit campaign, BeLeave.

As we said at the time, more stringent regulations and transparency mechanisms were needed to prevent powerful social media platforms from quietly absorbing politically motivated money and messaging without recognizing any responsibility to disclose the transactions, let alone carry out due diligence on who or what may be funding the political spending.

But whether the government’s current proposal goes far enough in updating regulations looks questionable.

U.K. parliamentarians on the DCMS committee have been calling for “urgent action” to update national election laws for years — warning in a report back in 2018 that democratic integrity and trust in democratic processes are at risk from rampant data-fueled digital manipulation.

Damian Collins, who was chair of the DCMS committee during a multi-month investigation into the impact of online disinformation, criticized the government for continued delay in taking action — also attacking the proposals for not going far enough.

“This is important but there have already been government consultations and multiple inquiries which have recommended transparency for who is running political ads online. We should legislate to make this happen now,” he said via Twitter, in response to news of the consultation.

“We need to go much further to protect our elections: Clamp down on deepfakes, foreign donation loopholes, and generally bring in line political ads with the standards of the rest of ad-land,” he added.

Political broadcasts on U.K. television and radio are very heavily regulated — with stringent limits placed on the length and frequency of such broadcasts. Paid political ads simply aren’t permitted there. But no such limits are being proposed for online political ads, where it’s trivially easy and cheap to deploy glossy video ads targeted at specific, niche groups of voters.

Meanwhile, some tech firms have voluntarily deleted this type of advertising from their platforms in response to concerns about how it can be used to hijack, manipulate and skew genuine democratic debate.

Last year some of Facebook’s own employees raised public concerns that its advanced targeting and behavioral tracking tools make it “hard for people in the electorate to participate in the public scrutiny that we’re saying comes along with political speech,” as congressman David Cicilline noted during the third meeting of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation.

Given all that, the U.K. government’s proposal for digital imprints on political ads looks like an enabling framework for digital campaigning — and one that risks glossing over the democratic threat inherent in allowing voters to be treated as just so many online consumers to be profiled and targeted in the same way as internet users are spied upon to sell a holiday, fitness gear or a particular shampoo brand.

In 2018 the U.K.’s data watchdog called for an ethical pause on behavioral targeting of voters. In a report entitled “Democracy Disrupted? Personal information and political influence,” the regulator warned: “Without a high level of transparency – and therefore trust amongst citizens that their data is being used appropriately – we are at risk of developing a system of voter surveillance by default. This could have a damaging long-term effect on the fabric of our democracy and political life.”

Its warnings then fell on deaf ears — with the Conservative party going on to use some very similar-looking data-grabbing campaign techniques for last year’s general election as were deployed to target voters during the Brexit referendum. (Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings, is now PM Boris Johnson’s chief advisor.) So, tl;dr, the U.K.’s governing party is fully in bed with big data for election campaigns.

(Not to mention flush with Russian money, per a more recent U.K. parliamentary committee report, which appears to have encouraged ministers to look the other way vis-à-vis democratic threats posed by foreign-funded online disOps.)

In a statement accompanying the government’s press release, Facebook’s head of U.K. public policy, Rebecca Stimson, sounded pleased with the government’s enabling approach to regulating political ads — taking the opportunity to promote steps it’s taken toward what she couched as “online transparency” by highlighting a platform requirement, introduced in the wake of the Brexit Facebook ad scandal, which means political ads on Facebook need to be badged with a “paid for by” disclaimer (and retained in an ad archive for a set number of years).

“We look forward to further engaging with the government on this important consultation,” she added.

The U.K. proposal suggests two tests for determining when digital content should require an imprint: Either where it’s “intended to achieve the electoral success of registered political parties and candidates, or the material relates to a referendum”; or where paid and organic digital content is being promoted by either: Registered political parties, registered third party campaigners, candidates, holders of elected office and registered referendum campaigners.

For other types of campaigners the digital imprint requirement will only apply to paid digital content (i.e. ads). “Imprint rules will… not apply to unregistered campaigners that are not paying to promote content, so that members of the public remain able to exercise their right to free speech,” the government notes on that.

It looks as if the latter will open up a loophole for unofficial campaign content to slip under the imprint radar — i.e. if manufactured opinion content can be passed off as “individual” speech. In much the same way as Russia was able to pass off disinformation targeting the U.S. election by seeding it through a network of fake profiles controlled by its bot agents.

Platforms remain terrible at identifying and labeling bots, and continue to be allowed to choose their own adventure when it comes to making fake account disclosures. So dark political messaging that’s natively hidden from regulatory oversight will continue to flourish without far closer regulation of these tech giants.

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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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Facebook Could Be Messing With Your Phone. Here’s What We Know

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Facebook Could Be Messing With Your Phone. Here's What We Know

Battery life is one of the most important aspects of smartphone usage — without solid battery life, a phone becomes far less useful. Even worse are instances when a phone’s battery drains faster than expected for no apparent reason, which may result in the user being caught off guard with a dead battery while away from a charger.

That’s the issue that prompted Hayward’s complaint, according to The New York Post, which quotes the data scientist as saying, “I said to the manager, ‘This can harm somebody,’ and she said by harming a few we can help the greater masses.” Hayward was allegedly fired in November 2022 after refusing to engage in the negative testing practices, leading to the lawsuit soon after. The big question is whether this practice — assuming the allegations are accurate — is widespread at Meta. 

If so, what other kinds of negative testing may be taking place without a user’s knowledge, and how might those tests impact their experiences with the company’s products? Hayward claimed that during his time working for the company, Meta gave him a training document that allegedly described types of negative tests that may be conducted — the document was reportedly titled, “How to run thoughtful negative tests.” Unfortunately, specific examples of those tests weren’t provided, and Meta hasn’t commented on the allegations to clarify how its testing practices may impact users, if at all.

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