UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers questioned whether social media giants are doing enough to stop the spread of false information, after a conspiracy theory that 5G technology is contributing to the Covid-19 pandemic led to a spate of attacks on telecom masts and engineers.

Representatives from Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc were asked to appear before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Thursday to explain how their companies are tackling disinformation. It didn’t go well.

“We will be writing to all of your organisations with a series of questions and, frankly, we will be expressing our displeasure at the quality of the answers – well, the lack of answers – we received today,” chairman Julian Knight concluded after more than an hour of questioning via conference call.

The Silicon Valley giants outlined measures they’ve taken to combat fake news, such as Facebook’s move to restrict WhatsApp message forwarding and promote official guidance on the pandemic. But the panel of British lawmakers often interjected bluntly and deemed the testimony unsatisfactory.

Legislators demanded to know how Twitter was cracking down on world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, if they spread misinformation. The company’s UK head of government relations, Katy Minshall, was also grilled about the prevalence of bots on the site, which are automated accounts that perform repetitive tasks, such as sharing fake news stories.

“We’re really proud of the progress we’ve made over the past couple of years,” said Minshall, responding to a question about online abuse.

“Well I don’t know why,” interrupted member of Parliament John Nicolson.

Google public policy manager Alina Dimofte was asked why YouTube didn’t tackle 5G conspiracy videos earlier. It banned such videos on April 7 after a spate of attacks on towers and telecom engineers.

‘Astonished’

MP Steve Brine said that, during the session, he found a Facebook post from his district inciting the destruction of a 5G mast, which has been baselessly linked to the spread of Covid-19.

More than 60 telecom masts have been attacked in the UK in the past few weeks as the theory has gained traction and even made it onto mainstream TV shows.

Brine added that he was “astonished” that Facebook’s UK Public Policy Manager Richard Earley had not personally discussed the issues with chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg or its vice president for global affairs and communication, Nick Clegg. Clegg is also the former UK deputy prime minister.

TikTok, the most downloaded app in the world outside of China during the crisis, avoided questioning. The relatively new social media site was not asked to appear despite also hosting conspiracy theories. – Bloomberg

YouTube brings personalised topics to iOS - Latest News

YouTube brings personalised topics to iOS – Latest News

NEW DELHI: Tech giant Google has introduced an Android-only YouTube feature on iOS now. Last year, Google rolled out a new option which gave YouTube users more control over their HomePage and Up Next videos. Along with these two features Google also included personalized ‘topics’ on Home in the Up next video suggestions. This feature was exclusive to Android users only but now the company has introduced the same for iOS as well.

Google has announced that it is rolling out personalized topics on Home and Up Next YouTube on the web and on iOS.

In an official post, the company said, “Previously, this feature was only available in English on the YouTube Android app, so we’re excited to announce that we’re rolling this out over the next couple of weeks to more devices (iOS app and YouTube.com on Desktop) as well as more languages (French, Portuguese and Spanish)!”

The company has also revealed that it plans to add more topics personalized for you including more types of YouTube Mixes, Creators, Music, Gaming, and Learning topics.

Recently, Google said that it would start showing text and links from third-party fact-checkers to US viewers, part of efforts to curb misinformation on the site during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The information panels, launched in Brazil and India last year, will highlight third-party, fact-checked articles above search results for topics such as “covid and ibuprofen” or false claims like “COVID-19 is a bio-weapon,” as well as specific searches such as “did a tornado hit Los Angeles.”

In 2018, YouTube started using information panels that surfaced links to sources such as Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia for topics considered prone to misinformation

Twitter gains users, beats estimates but ad trends alarm investors - Latest News

Twitter gains users, beats estimates but ad trends alarm investors – Latest News

Twitter Inc reported higher first-quarter revenue and a smaller loss than analysts had expected amid the coronavirus pandemic, but its shares fell as investors fretted about potential weakness in the second quarter.

The San Francisco-based social media company said daily users who can view ads also grew 24% to 166 million, about 2 million above estimates, as people looked to Twitter for information related to the virus.

Twitter also said its ads sales had slightly rebounded in Asia after a plunge due to the coronavirus outbreak and it accelerated work on tools to attract advertisers, becoming the latest tech company to report a lighter blow from the pandemic than forecast.

The company did not provide specific guidance on the second quarter but on a conference call with analysts, Twitter’s chief financial officer Ned Segal pointed to a March 11 to March 31 time frame, when ad revenue declined approximately 27% year-over-year, as a sign of what the company has seen in April.

In comparison, Facebook Inc on Wednesday said that ad revenue was roughly flat in the first three weeks of April compared with last year, a tentative early sign of recovery following a steep decrease in March revenue.

Twitter shares, which initially rose 11% after the earning report, were down 4.8%.

The company said its March decline was particularly pronounced in the United States, its largest market by revenue.

The novel coronavirus halted travel, retail and entertainment in much of the world by March, leading to sudden budgets cuts at many advertisers and generating concerns about the prospects of ad sellers.

About 84% of Twitter’s revenue comes from ads on its service and partner apps, and those sales were 27% lower in the last three weeks of March than the same period in 2019, the company said on Thursday. But sales bounced back in Asia during late March as lockdowns lifted there, Twitter said, without providing specific figures.

“We’re not likely to see the full effects of the coronavirus on Twitter’s revenues until Q2, but due to rapidly changing conditions, the severity of the impact is hard to predict,” said eMarketer senior analyst Jasmine Enberg.

Twitter said it hoped to release tools earlier than planned this year to attract business from mobile games and other app makers. Those companies are trying to gain market share among consumers stuck at home and are continuing to buy what the ad industry calls “direct response” ads.

Alphabet Inc’s Google on Wednesday also said it expected revenue from direct response ads sold by its YouTube unit to return to normal faster than from other ad types.

Twitter also warned of smaller increases in non-advertising revenue.

SLASHING COSTS

Twitter’s first-quarter revenue was $808 million, up 3% compared with a year earlier, above the average estimate of $776 million among analysts tracked by Refinitiv.

The company said that sales growth from licensing users’ posts to researchers and marketers, which was 17% in the first quarter, is expected to “moderate” the rest of the year.

Twitter lost $8 million in the first quarter, or a penny per share, better than the average estimate of two cents per share.

Twitter is aiming to stem losses by slashing its own budgets, including by limiting hiring to product development, research and user support. Expense growth in 2020 is likely to be in “the low teens,” versus earlier plans to spend 20% more than last year, Twitter said.

Focusing its product teams on advertiser tools could pose challenges for Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey. He pledged in February to launch new features for users this year at a faster pace to stoke growth.

The growth goal was part of an agreement allowing Dorsey to remain CEO as a revamped board of directors evaluates Twitter’s leadership structure and CEO succession plan. Elliott had expressed concern about Dorsey, who is also CEO of financial tech company Square Inc , taking on too much.

Alphabet shares jump on Google cloud, YouTube expansion

Alphabet shares jump on Google cloud, YouTube expansion

By: Bloomberg |

Updated: April 29, 2020 8:23:16 pm


alphabet, google, youtube, alphabet share rise, covid 19 Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said the cloud business was still strong, even if some deals were taking longer to complete. (Image: Bloomberg)

Alphabet Inc shares surged after first-quarter results and upbeat executive comments showed the company’s cloud and YouTube businesses kept growing in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sales came in at $33.71 billion, up 14 per cent from a year ago and ahead of Wall Street estimates. YouTube revenue jumped 33.5 per cent, while Google Cloud’s top line soared 52 per cent.

“Results came out better than the market expected, with strong metrics in Google Cloud and YouTube,” Jason Bazinet, an analyst at Citigroup, wrote in a note to investors.

The world’s largest internet company has been trying to diversify away from search advertising for years by investing heavily in cloud services, digital video, consumer hardware and riskier long-term bets such as driverless cars. The first quarter showed progress in several of these areas, even as Google’s main ad business suffered from virus-fueled cuts in marketing spending in March.

Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said the cloud business was still strong, even if some deals were taking longer to complete. “We see overall momentum,” he told analysts during a conference call.

Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat said YouTube brand advertising growth accelerated in the first two months of the quarter but started to experience headwinds in the middle of March. Direct response ads on YouTube, which often entice viewers into buying something, “continued to have substantial year-on-year growth throughout the entire quarter,” she added.

Alphabet shares jumped as much 9 per cent in extended trading, putting them on course to wipe out big declines from earlier in the year.

“The quarter is essentially showing that Google is a diversified business positioned to be even more diversified on the other side of the pandemic,” said Jitendra Waral, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “The cloud division is becoming the guardian of Google’s growth amid uncertainty around ads.”

alphabet, google, youtube, alphabet share rise, covid 19 Porat told analysts that the company’s search and display ad revenue dropped more than 10% in March. (Image: Bloomberg)

Google’s massive cash pile, a pledge to continue share buybacks, and a major effort to rein in costs also buoyed the stock.

In an interview, Porat suggested the company’s services are being used more, which should help results in the future. “Given the usage trends we are seeing, we remain really optimistic about long-term trends,” she said.

The long-term opportunities include search, cloud computing, machine learning and consumer hardware, the CFO added while noting the company is “looking at levers we have to moderate spending.” Earlier this month, Pichai said the company would drastically slow hiring and cut its own marketing budget.

Google is not out of the woods, though. Porat told analysts that the company’s search and display ad revenue dropped more than 10 per cent in March, versus a year earlier, as the virus and associated lockdowns tore into marketing budgets. The second quarter will be “difficult,” she added.

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Ads still account for the vast majority of Alphabet revenue. Large clients like Expedia Group Inc. are slashing marketing costs. Google also sells a lot of ads to small businesses, thousands of which could shut as a deep recession sets in. The internet company’s self-service ad platform can be switched off quickly.

Porat said people have been searching more on Google, but many of those queries were not commercial in nature, limiting the company’s ability to show ads. That was likely linked to a surge in people looking online for information about Covid-19. The CFO said Google is seeing early signs of user behaviour returning to normal, but stressed that it’s unclear how durable the trend is for now.

First-quarter net income was $6.84 billion, or $9.87 a share, versus $6.66 billion, or $9.50 a share, in the same period last year, the company reported.

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YouTube, Facebook split on removal of doctors' viral coronavirus videos

YouTube, Facebook split on removal of doctors’ viral coronavirus videos

YouTube has removed two videos of California doctors whose calls to ease coronavirus lockdowns have become the newest ammunition used by conservative media and fringe activists in their calls to end government measures to slow the spread of the virus.

The doctors, Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi of Bakersfield, California, downplayed the risk of the coronavirus and asserted that stay-at-home measures were unnecessary. They also promoted a conspiracy theory that doctors were falsely attributing unrelated deaths to COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus.

Facebook, however, has not removed the doctors’ videos, and dozens of others remain on YouTube, some in full, some sliced into segments, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. One video on Facebook has been viewed more than 9 million times.

Facebook declined to comment.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

The different reactions of YouTube and Facebook highlight the challenges of moderating high-stakes misinformation as it goes viral, especially when it is considered to be expert opinion and produced by a usually trusted source. Facebook, YouTube and other tech platforms quickly took aggressive stances against coronavirus misinformation in the early days of the crisis but have struggled to contain the varied forms of false claims that have included everything from conspiracy theories about Bill Gates to racist claims about Asian people.

The moderation efforts have been further complicated by the growing politicization of the pandemic, with many supporters of President Donald Trump seizing on misleading claims or outright falsehoods about the coronavirus and state lockdowns and most Democrats expressing concern about the outbreak.

“We quickly remove flagged content that violates our Community Guidelines, including content that explicitly disputes the efficacy of local health authority recommended guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance,” YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said in a statement.

“However, content that provides sufficient educational, documentary, scientific or artistic context is allowed,” Choi said.

The video removed by YouTube showed a one-hour news conference livestreamed by local media, including NBC and ABC affiliates in Bakersfield. Dressed in medical scrubs, Erickson and Massihi, owners of several urgent care centers in the area, presented data from 5,213 COVID-19 tests, about half of them administered in Kern County. The data, they claimed, showed that the coronavirus was widespread in the community already but had caused few deaths. Their data, they said, supported the need to rethink state stay-at-home measures enacted to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Furthermore, Erickson dismissed the need for protective measures, including masks, and claimed that COVID-19 death numbers were inaccurate, citing other unnamed doctors in Wisconsin and California who he said had told him that they were urged to list the disease as a cause of death even if it was unrelated.

“Are we being pressured to add COVID to maybe increase the numbers and make it look a little bit worse than it is? I think so,” Erickson said.

Doctors, public health officials and epidemiologists were all quick to point out a number of flaws in the doctors’ claims.

On Monday, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine released a joint statement critical of Erickson’s and Massihi’s opinions as expressed in the video, calling them “reckless and untested musings” that “do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19.” The statement also suggested that their ownership of urgent care centers made it appear as if the doctors were “releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”

Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington and author of “Calling Bulls—: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World,” debunked the video’s claims Sunday.

In a series of tweets, Bergstrom criticized the doctors’ use of patients from their urgent care clinic to suggest that the national risk of death from COVID-19 was less than that from the flu, calling their analysis “absurd” and “highly biased.”

Others highlighted the doctors’ possible political motives, noting a selfie video of Erickson demonstrating in support of the president, which was posted to a Facebook page for the new political organization Trump Citizens of California.

“We’re out Trumpin’,” Erickson said while waving a flag from the roadside in the now-private or deleted video, which was archived by NBC News. “The time for silence is over.”

Erickson and Massihi did not respond to a request for comment. Massihi posted a video to his personal Facebook page Tuesday thanking supporters while insisting that their comments were meant only to share their own data, not to drive national or even state policy, a seeming walk back from the video’s anti-stay-at-home messaging. By Wednesday, Massihi’s profile had been made private.

Erickson dismissed criticism that his claims were reckless or dangerous in an interview Tuesday with KTTV-TV of Los Angeles.

“You have to think about this as a balancing act,” he said. “You have to balance the collateral damage with the medical illness and say which one has a worse effect on society.”

Download the NBC News app for full coverage and alerts about the coronavirus outbreak

Warnings from other health professionals did little to stop the video from going viral on nearly every social media platform this week, driven by influential conservative accounts like those of Ben Shapiro, Mark Levin and dozens of others who have voiced support for reopening the states.

By Wednesday, the video had been seen at least 15 million times and shared by hundreds of thousands of accounts on Facebook and YouTube, according to an NBC News analysis of the most popular videos across platforms. The video had also been spread widely in dozens of private Facebook groups dedicated to statewide protests against states’ quarantine measures and the anti-vaccination movement, whose activists fear a coming coronavirus vaccine.

The boost has pushed the doctors into mainstream conservative media.

They appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show Monday, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson promoted the doctors on his show Tuesday and condemned YouTube’s moderation. “When all of this is finally over,” Carlson said, “we’ll see this moment, what YouTube just did, as a turning point in the way we live in this country.”

“The only justification for taking it down was that the two physicians on screen had reached different conclusions from the people currently in charge. It was a form of dissent from orthodoxy,” Carlson said.