Facebook deletes Brazil President’s coronavirus misinfo post – TechCrunch

Facebook has diverted from its policy of not fact-checking politicians in order to prevent the spread of potentially harmful coronavirus misinformation from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Facebook made the decisive choice to remove a video shared by Bolsonaro on Sunday where he claimed that “hydroxychloroquine is working in all places.” That’s despite the drug still undergoing testing to determine its effectiveness for treating COVID-19, which researchers and health authorities have not confirmed.

“We remove content on Facebook and Instagram that violates our Community Standards, which do not allow misinformation that could lead to physical harm” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. Facebook specifically prohibits false claims regarding cure, treatments, the availability of essential services, and the location or intensity of contagion outbreaks.

BBC News Brazil first reported the takedown today in Portuguese. In the removed video, Bolsonaro had been speaking to a street vendor, and the President claimed “They want to work”, in contrast to the World Health Organization’s recommendation that people practice social distancing. He followed up that “That medicine there, hydroxychloroquine, is working in all places.”

If people wrongly believe there’s an widely-effective treatment for COVID-19, they may be more reckless about going out in public, attending work, or refusing to stay in isolation. That could cause the virus to spread more quickly, defeat efforts to flatten the curve, and overrun health care systems.

This why Twitter removed two of Bolsonaro’s tweets on Sunday, as well as one from Rudy Giuliani, in order to stop the distribution of misinformation. But to date, Facebook has generally avoided acting as an arbiter of truth regarding the veracity of claims by politicians. It notoriously refuses to send blatant misinformation in political ads, including those from Donald Trump, to fact-checkers.

Last week, though, Facebook laid out that COVID-19 misinformation “that could contribute to imminent physical harm” would be directly and immediately removed as it’s done about other outbreaks since 2018, while less urgent conspiracy theories that don’t lead straight to physical harm are sent to fact-checkers that can then have the Facebook reach of those posts demoted.

Now the question is whether Facebook would be willing to apply this enforcement to Trump, who’s been criticized for spreading misinformation about the severity of the outbreak, potential treatments, and the risk of sending people back to work. Facebook is known to fear backlash from conservative politicians and citizens who’ve developed a false narrative that it discriminates against or censors their posts.

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Facebook commits $100M to support local news orgs hit by COVID-19 crisis – TechCrunch

Facebook announced this morning that it will be offering another $100 million worth of support to local newsrooms that are trying to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, while that same pandemic is dealing a major blow to their bottom lines.

The company says the funding will consist of $25 million in grant funding for local coverage, plus $75 million in marketing for news organizations around the world.

“If people needed more proof that local journalism is a vital public service, they’re getting it now,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president of global news partnerships, in a blog post. “And while almost all businesses are facing adverse financial effects from this crisis, we recognize we’re in a more privileged position than most, and we want to help.”

Earlier this month, Facebook announced an initial $1 million in grants to help fund coverage of the pandemic, which it says today supported 50 newsrooms in the U.S. and Canada. Examples include South Carolina’s Post and Courier (which will use the money to cover the travel costs and remote work necessary to expand its coverage into rural areas), the Southeastern Missourian (funding remote work and contingency plans for delivering news to elderly readers) and El Paso Matters (hiring freelance reporters and translators).

This funding comes on top of the $300 million that Facebook committed to local news last year, as well as the $100 million in grants for small businesses impacted by COVID-19 that it announced earlier this month.

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Yaguara nabs $7.2M seed to help e-commerce companies understand customers better – TechCrunch

Yaguara, a Denver-based startup that wants to help e-commerce companies understand their customers better to deliver more meaningful experiences, announced a $7.2 million seed investment today.

The round was led by Foundation Capital with participation from Gradient Ventures, Rainfall Ventures and Zelkova. It also had help from some e-commerce heavy hitters including Warby Parker, Harry’s and Allbirds.

Yaguara CEO Jonathan Smalley was working at an agency building specialized cloud tools for online businesses when he recognized there was a need to pull data together into a single place and help companies understand their customer’s behavior better.

“Yaguara is based on integrating data and having all their data in the right place. For us, it started with several dozen tools from performance marketing to your actual e-commerce data to your fulfillment and unit economic data — bringing that all into one place letting them see their data in real time.”

“Then our platform serves predictive and prescriptive insights and recommendations to individual users across your teams, so they can drive specific outcomes across the organization based on that unified data set,” Smalley explained.

Screenshot: Yaguara

They build that data set by connecting to a variety of popular tools to help understand what’s happening across the customer lifecycle, whether that’s customer acquisition through Facebook or Google ads or understanding shopping cart abandonment data or how often the customer has returned to buy again, all of which help build a better picture of the customer.

While this may sound like a customer data platform (CDP), Smalley says it’s actually more than that. While the CDP provides the pipeline to your data sources like Yaguara, it doesn’t stop there. He says it reduces the complexity of helping front-line marketing personnel access and query that data without having to know SQL or R or have a technical intermediary to understand the data.

While the company is young it already has 250 e-commerce customers using the platform. With the new infusion of cash, it should be able to bring in more employees, build more data connectors and continue working to build out the platform.

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Elizabeth Warren for President open-sources its 2020 campaign tech – TechCrunch

Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren may have ended her 2020 presidential run, but the tech used to drive her campaign will live on.

Members of her staff announced they would make public the top apps and digital tools developed in Warren’s bid to become the Democratic nominee for president.

“In our work, we leaned heavily on open source technology — and want to contribute back to that community…[by] open-sourcing some of the most important projects of the Elizabeth Warren campaign for anyone to use,” the Warren for President Tech Team said.

In a Medium post, members of the team — including chief technology strategist Mike Conlow and chief technology officer Nikki Sutton — previewed what would be available and why.

“Our hope is that other Democratic candidates and progressive causes will use the ideas and code we developed to run stronger campaigns and help Democrats win,” the post said.

Warren’s tech team listed several of the tools they’ve turned over to the open source universe via GitHub.

One of those tools, Spoke, is a peer to peer texting app, originally developed by MoveOn, which offered the Warren Campaign high volume messaging at a fraction of the costs of other vendor options. The team used it to send four million SMS messages on Super Tuesday alone.

Pollaris is a location lookup tool with an API developed to interface directly with Warren’s official campaign website and quickly direct supporters to their correct polling stations.

One of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign app, Caucus, designed for calculating delegates. (Image: supplied)

Warren’s tech team will also open-source Switchboard (FE and BE) — which recruited and connected volunteers in primary states — and Caucus App, a delegate calculating and reporting tool.

The campaign’s Redhook tool took in web hook data in real time and experienced zero downtime.

“Our intention in open sourcing it is to demonstrate that some problems campaigns face do not require vendor tools and are solved…efficiently with a tiny bit of code,” said the Tech Team.

Elizabeth Warren ended her 2020 presidential bid on March 4 after failing to win a primary. Among her many policy proposals, the Massachusetts senator had proposed breaking up big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Her campaign will continue to share the tech tools they used on open source channels.

“We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks on all that we did with technology on our campaign,” the team said.

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Facebook appoints Treasury’s Kimmitt as lead independent board director – TechCrunch

Facebook has filled the lead independent board director role with former Deputy Secretary of the Treasury and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Robert M. Kimmitt. His job will be to serve as the go-between connecting Facebook CEO and controlling shareholder Mark Zuckerberg with the rest of the board.

Meanwhile, the CEO of The Cranemere Group Limited Jeffrey D. Zients will not seek re-election to Facebook’s board at the 2020 annual meeting, but will serve until then. Kimmitt replaces Dr. Susan Desmond-Hellmann, who was the former lead independent director but left the board in October.

When Zients departs, the only remaining independent directors besides Kimmitt will be long-time Zuckerberg loyalists and Facebook early investors Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel. They, Zuckerberg, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg will be the only board members who’ve been on the job more than a year.

“The lead independent director is an important role for us and we’ve been looking for a leader who can bring significant oversight and governance experience” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. “Bob has deep experience working in business, technology and public policy at the highest levels — serving in senior roles at the Treasury, State, and Defense departments under multiple presidents, as US Ambassador to Germany, and on the National Security Council. He has also served as president of a public technology company in Silicon Valley” Zuckerberg wrote.

Before serving with the U.S. Treasury from 2005 to 2009, 72-year-old Kimmitt was on Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which has been eying Chinese Facebook competitor TikTok and how it acquired Musically to become a giant in short-form video. The Vietnam combat veteran was a Major General in the Army Reserve. He was also the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs during the Gulf War.

In the private sector, Ambassador Kimmitt was Executive Vice President of Global Public Policy at Time Warner, President of Commerce One, a partner at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering, and a managing director at Lehman Brothers. He’s now the Senior International Counsel at law firm WilmerHale.

“I am excited to take on this leadership role on Facebook’s board, as the company continues to improve the ways technology and innovation can bring us together” said Kimmitt.

Kimmitt’s appointment comes after several concerning changes to the board recently. Kenneth Chenault left the board at the beginning of the month following his push for Facebook to do more to protect elections, given its refusal to fact-check political ads. Disagreements with Zuckerberg about political policy led to Chenault’s exit.

In February, Zuckerberg’s friend Drew Houston, the co-founder of Dropbox, joined the board in what felt like a chummy appointment. Former White House Chief Of Staff Erskine Bowles and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings left in April 2019.

The board now consists of Zuckerberg, Kimmitt, Zients until the annual meeting, Sandberg, Thiel, Andreessen, Houston, PayPal’s Peggy Alford, McKinsey’s Nancy Killefer, and Estee Lauder’s Tracey T. Travis.

Fewer checks on Zuckerberg’s near-total power could make Facebook more efficient and decisive, but less able to foresee problems that those further removed from its rhetoric might predict.

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Facebook launches Community Hub for Messenger users to fight coronavirus rumors – TechCrunch

Facebook today unveiled Coronavirus Community Hub on Messenger that offers tips, authoritative information and other resources to help people stay connected and informed about the coronavirus outbreak, weeks after launching a similar information hub on WhatsApp, its other messaging service.

The launch of the coronavirus hub on Messenger, used by more than a billion people, comes at a time when users are engaging with the instant messaging and voice calling more often than they have ever before, the company said.

“Around the world, we’ve seen significant increases in people using Messenger for group calls to stay in touch with their loved ones. Globally, 70% more people are participating in group video calls and time spent on group video calls has doubled,” wrote Stan Chudnovsky, VP of Messenger.

The community hub for Messenger users is the latest effort from the social conglomerate, used by more than 2.7 billion users, to help fight the global pandemic.

In recent weeks, Facebook has stepped up to help governments and agencies with free developer tools for Messenger to combat COVID-19, and introduced an info centre atop of the news feed to prominently showcase reliable information.

Additionally, the company is also working with nonprofit organizations such as the WHO to build helplines, and has committed to donate millions of dollars. The World Health Organization’s helpline on WhatsApp has already reached more than 10 million users, days after its launch.

But the vast reach of Facebook has also attracted scammers. “Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of people’s vulnerability and generosity during this time. We take your safety seriously and continue to take aggressive steps to remove fake accounts and catch scammers before they reach you,” wrote Chudnovsky.

The hub on Messenger will additionally also recommend activities such as scheduling a virtual play date for parents to engage with their kids’ friends, Chudnovsky wrote.

“For local community leaders, this could mean organizing group video chats or text groups to support each other when we can’t physically be together,” he added.

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WhatsApp has seen a 40% increase in usage due to COVID-19 pandemic – TechCrunch

Social media usage has grown as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, as more users go online to stay connected with family, friends and colleagues. Now, new data from insights and consulting firm Kantar reveals exactly how much some apps are benefiting. According to a survey of more than 25,000 consumers in 30 markets conducted from March 14 to 24, WhatsApp is the social media app that has experienced the greatest gains due to COVID-19.

Overall, Facebook -owned WhatsApp has seen a 40% increase in usage that grew from an initial 27% bump in the earlier days of the pandemic to 41% in the mid-phase. For countries already in the later phase of the pandemic, WhatsApp usage has jumped by 51%.

In individual markets, that usage may be even higher, Kantar noted. For example, WhatsApp usage in Spain was up 76%.

Across all messaging platforms, the growth in usage has been the largest in the 18 to 34-year-old age group, the study also found. In addition, WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram saw a 40%+ increase in usage from this same demographic.

Other social media apps seeing gains during the pandemic include, not surprisingly, Facebook and China’s WeChat and Weibo .

Overall, Facebook usage has increased by 37%, while China’s local social media apps saw usage climb by 58%, Kantar says.

Despite the gains, consumers reported they didn’t trust their social media platforms for critical news related to COVID-19. National news channels and government agency websites were considered better options, with 58% and 48% of survey respondents, respectively, identifying them as a “trustworthy” source of news and information. Social media platforms, meanwhile, were only considered “trustworthy” by 11% of consumers.

Kantar’s is not the first study to report on the growth in social media activity attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Facebook recently shared its own data, noting that total messaging on its platform was up by more than 50% over last month. This would include Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp combined. It also claimed that time across all apps since the crisis had grown 70%, as well, and time in group calls (three or more participants) was up by more than 1,000% during the last month.

In addition, Instagram and Facebook Live views doubled in a week’s time, Facebook said.

While not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, Facebook’s metrics confirm Kantar’s report of significant growth during March related to the pandemic. The company spoke, too, of preparing its infrastructure for this unprecedented amount of usage. Previously, Facebook was able to remain stable during major events, like New Year’s Eve or the Olympics, but now says it’s seeing sustained, record levels of use, which required it to reduce bit rates on Facebook and Instagram videos and add capacity as needed.

Related to this, another report from influencer marketing platform Klear compared the week of March 7-14 to the week of March 15-21, in order to drill down into more specific Instagram user behavior. It found that users posted 6.1 Instagram Stories per day, on average, an increase of 15% week-over-week. Stories’ impressions, meaning views, also increased by 21% during that time.

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Stocks shoot upward as ‘Phase Three’ stimulus passes Senate and unemployment skyrockets – TechCrunch

Stocks soared on Thursday even as the U.S. reported its worst unemployment numbers in 50 years of tracking data.

The pain felt on Main Street was offset for investors by the federal government opening its wallet to Wall Street, businesses and (at some point) workers in the form of the $2 trillion stimulus package designed as a response to business closures as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic.

Details of the plan and its implications for startup companies are still being assessed, but the spigot is now on for businesses large and small to avail themselves of low-interest stimulus loans and financing that should keep them afloat even as prolonged shutdowns look to continue in the nation’s most populous cities.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average: jumped 6.38%, or 1,351.62, to close at 22,552.17
  • S&P 500: popped 6.24%, or 154.51, to close at 2,630.07
  • Nasdaq Composite: bounced 5.60%, or 413.24, to close at 7,797.54

Tech stocks followed the broader markets and posted gains on the day. Facebook was up nearly 4.5% and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) was up 5.5%. Shares of Apple were up over 5% as well, and Amazon rose 3% on the day.



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Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge – TechCrunch

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.

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It’s still easy to find coronavirus mask ads on Facebook – TechCrunch

Ads for face masks are still appearing on Facebook, Instagram and Google, according to a review of the platforms carried out by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP). This despite pledges by the platforms that they would stamp out ads which seek to profit from the coronavirus pandemic.

Facebook said on March 6 that it would temporarily ban commerce listings and advertisements for medical face masks, in an effort to combat price-gouging and misinformation during the COVID-19 crisis.

Google followed suit a few days later, saying it would temporarily ban all medical face mask ads “out of an abundance of caution.”

The risk of online misinformation exacerbating a global public health crisis has been front of mind for policymakers in many Western markets. Meanwhile front-line medical staff continue to face shortages of vital personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, as they battle rising rates of infection.

There has also been concern that online sellers are attempting to cash in on a public health crisis by price gouging and/or targeting internet users with ads for substandard masks.

Early last week two senators urged the U.S.’ FTC to act, blasting Google for continuing to allow ads for face masks to be shown to internet users.

A week later and ads are still circulating.

The TTP — a research project by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability, a group which focuses on exposing misconduct and malfeasance in public life — reported finding web users still being targeted with face mask ads on Google this week.

It also conducted a review of Facebook and Instagram, and was able to find more than 130 pages on Facebook listing masks for sale, including some using the platform’s e-commerce tools. 

“One Facebook Page called ‘CoronaVirus Mask’ offers a ‘respiratory mask collection,’ with prices ranging from $32 to $37, and uses Facebook’s ‘Shop’ feature to display its merchandise and allow people to add purchases to their cart,” it writes in a blog post. “Facebook’s ‘check out on website’ button then directs users to complete the purchase on the seller’s website.”

“Facebook pages that use WhatsApp to establish contact with buyers are employing a tactic commonly used by wildlife and other traffickers, who often display goods on Facebook and then arrange the actual purchase through WhatsApp encrypted messages. The Facebook Page ‘Surgical Face Mask For Sale,’ for example, has a video showing boxes of medical masks and the seller’s WhatsApp number scrawled on a piece of paper,” it added.

“A visit to one of these Facebook pages often triggers recommendations for other pages selling face masks, a sign that the platform’s algorithms are actually amplifying the reach of these sketchy sellers. TTP, without logging into Facebook, went to the page for ‘Corona Mask Shop’ and was served up ‘Related Pages’ for ‘Corona Mask 247’ and ‘Corona MASK on sale.’ ”

TechCrunch conducted our own searches on Facebook today and while some obvious search terms returned no results a little tweaking of keywords choice and we were quickly able to find additional pages hawking face masks — such as the below example grabbed from a Facebook page calling itself “Face Mask Manufacturer.”

From this page Facebook’s algorithm then recommended more pages — with names like “Medical Masks” and “Dispo mask for sale” — which also appeared to be selling masks.

The TTP’s review also found mask ads circulating on Facebook-owned Instagram.

“One Instagram account for @coronavsmask reads, ‘Act now before it’s too late! GET your N95 Respiratory Face Mask NOW!’ It only has a single post but already counts over 6,300 followers,” it wrote. “An account created on March 14 called @handsanitizers_and_coronamask includes over a dozen posts offering such products.”

It also found “several” Instagram accounts that sell drugs had begun to incorporate medical face masks into their offerings.

At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to our request for comment on the findings. Update: The company has now sent this statement, attributed to a Facebook spokesperson:

Facebook is focused on preventing exploitation of this crisis for financial gain. Since COVID-19 was declared a public health emergency, Facebook has removed millions of ads and commerce listings for the sale of masks, hand sanitiser, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits. While enforcement is not perfect, we have put several automated detection mechanisms in place to block or remove this material from our platform.

In further searches the group was reproduced examples of Google’s third-party advertising display network serving ads for face masks alongside news stories related to the coronavirus — an issue highlighted by Sen. Mark Warner in a tweet last week when he blasted the company for “still running ads for facemasks and other coronavirus scams.”

“The Facebook mask pages were searched and collected on March 17-18 using the terms “corona mask,” “N95” and “surgical mask” in Facebook’s search function,” a TTP spokesman told us when asked for more info about its review. “Of the more than 130 pages identified, 43 were created in the month of March, more than a dozen of those just days before TTP ran the searches.”

“We don’t have the same level of data from Instagram/Google. Instagram’s search function does not lend itself to the same search ability; it doesn’t bring up a list of accounts based on a single term like Facebook’s search function does. With Google, our goal was to show examples of Google-served ads; those were identified in news stories on March 18,” he added.

We reached out to Google for comment on the findings and a spokesman told us the company has a dedicated task force that has removed “millions” of ads in the past week alone — which he said had already led to a sharp decrease in face mask ads. But Google said “opportunistic advertisers” had been trying to run “an unprecedented number” of these ads on its platforms.

Here’s Google’s statement:

Since January, we’ve blocked ads for products that aim to capitalise on coronavirus, including a temporary ban on face mask ads. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen opportunistic advertisers try to run an unprecedented number of these ads on our platforms. We have a dedicated task force working to combat this issue and have removed millions of ads in the past week alone. We’re monitoring the situation closely and continue to make real-time adjustments to protect our users.

Google declined to specify how many people it has working to identify and remove mask ads, saying only that the taskforce is made up of members from its product, engineering, enforcement and policy teams — and that it’s been set up with coverage across time zones.

It also said the examples highlighted by TTP are already over a week old and do not reflect the impact of its newest enforcement measures.

The company told us it’s analysing both ad content and how they’re served to enhance its take-down capacity.



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