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What happened when humans stopped managing social media content

This article is part of a special report, The Essential Tech Worker.

Nobody appreciated the content..



This article is part of a special report, The Essential Tech Worker.

Nobody appreciated the content moderators until they were gone.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept the world, social media giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter did what other companies did. They sent workers home — including the tens of thousands of people tasked with sifting through mountains of online material and weeding out hateful, illegal and sexually explicit content.

In their place, the companies turned to algorithms to do the job. It did not go well.

The COVID-driven experiment represented a real-world baptism of fire for something social media companies have long dreamed of: using machine-learning tools and artificial intelligence — not humans — to police posts on their platforms.

When the social media giants announced the changes, they acknowledged the algorithms might struggle to discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate content. And indeed, the effects were almost immediate.

While far more content was flagged and removed for allegedly breaking the companies’ rules on what could be posted online, in some areas dangerous and possibly illegal material was more likely to slip past the machines.

Facebook and Google roughly doubled the amount of potentially harmful material they removed in the second quarter of this year compared with the three months through March, according to the companies’ most recent transparency reports. Twitter has yet to provide figures for 2020.

In Syria, where campaigners and journalists rely on social media to document potential war crimes, scores of activists’ accounts were closed down overnight — often with no right to appeal those decisions. Other content, including news articles and health information linked to the coronavirus, was similarly scrubbed from the internet as the machines got to work.

And yet, a lot of questionable posts remained untouched. In France, campaigners fighting against racism and anti-Semitism noticed a more than 40 percent increase in hate speech on Twitter. Less than 12 percent of those posts were removed, the groups said.

In other high-profile areas, like child exploitation and self-harm, the number of removals fell by at least 40 percent in the second quarter of 2020 because of a lack of humans to make the tough calls about what broke the platforms’ rules, according to Facebook’s transparency report.

“Everything changed with COVID,” said Jeff Deutch, a researcher at the Syrian Archive, an organization that helps document atrocities in war-torn countries worldwide, often on social media. “It was concerning. We thought we were going back to the problems we had seen before in 2017, when the platforms removed content, out of an abundance of caution, that they believed was glorifying terrorism.”

The results of this impromptu experiment — taken on a massive scale, without notifying users — raise far-reaching questions about what happens to free speech when human arbiters are taken out of the equation, and algorithms become the final judges of what is and is not appropriate to post.

It also reinforces a very non-digital truth: Even the most sophisticated algorithms and machine-learning tools still can’t replicate the computing power of an army of human content moderators.

“It’s very hard to automate certain things,” said Joris von Hoboken, a law professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussels who co-authored a recent study into the use of artificial intelligence to police online material. “A lot of what we see online is based on context. There are serious problems of transparency and accountability when you rely on machines over humans to make these decisions.”

The impact of COVID-19

Before the global pandemic forced tech giants to send home their content moderators, more than 30,000 people — often low-paid workers in places like Berlin and Austin, Texas — spent hours looking at some of the worst material to be found on the world’s largest social networks.

Facebook, Google and Twitter, almost in unison, announced their switch to automation in the middle of March.

There was a bittersweet reaction among many of those who found themselves temporarily out of a job, according to three current and former content moderators who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to jeopardize their current positions or had signed agreements not to speak publicly about their previous work.

Social media content moderators review thousands of explicit posts each day and are given little mental support to handle the graphic imagery they have to police. Their decisions are then pumped into the companies’ machine-learning tools, which require large datasets of removal decisions to learn from, according to Tarleton Gillespie, who works at Microsoft Research, an independent research unit of the tech company.

One content moderator told POLITICO that the monthslong break was a welcome relief to what he considered “back-breaking work.”

The tech giants initially said content moderators could not work from home because of concerns about how people’s data may be handled — though Facebook now allows some moderators to review material remotely, with the exception of the most explicit material. Google said it would follow suit, but has not given details about how.

The moderator said the unplanned experiment also confirmed something many contractors already suspected — that the human content reviewers weren’t just making calls on questionable content; they were training the machines that were planned to eventually replace them.

“It just fast-tracked something that many of us saw coming,” the moderator said. “We are only here until the AI tools can catch up.”

For now, those tools remain anything but perfect.

Google’s YouTube, for instance, removed 11.4 million videos in the second quarter compared with 6 million videos in the three months through March, based on the company’s latest records. The number of successful appeals — when content creators believed their videos had been deleted incorrectly — also grew fourfold, to 160,000 videos, over the same period.

“Human review is critical for us,” said Marco Pancini, YouTube’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told POLITICO.

It’s “not only necessary to train our machine learning systems, but it also serves as a check providing feedback that improves the accuracy of our systems over time,” Pancini added.

Facebook reported similar figures, with the number of removals flagged as hate speech on its main platform more than doubling to 22.5 million in the second quarter of 2020, according to the social network’s data. The rise was in part because the company expanded its content moderation tools to non-English language posts. Meanwhile, the number of successful content appeals was just 12,600, a significant drop from the 2.3 million figure for the first three months of the year.

Appeals to overturn incorrect decisions also took longer or, in some cases, were not handled at all because of an absence of people to handle them, according to the company’s latest transparency report.

That represents a “backslide” in the rights of people posting content online, said Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group.

“Before the pandemic, people were getting some notice about bans and violations,” she added. “We were making more progress. I’m worried we’re back to 10 years ago.”

Stephen Turner, European director for public policy at Twitter, said in a statement that the company had widened its definition of what constitutes harmful content in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The company will publish figures on how much content its machines have so far taken down later this year.

There’s a growing awareness within the social media giants — which have been grappling with how to deal with hateful and false content from high-profile figures like U.S. President Donald Trump — that it may never be possible to fully automate decisions on questionable content, especially when it comes to difficult calls that require local knowledge or cultural cues.

“Content enforcement is not an either-or approach, where we use either human reviewers or artificial intelligence,” Guy RosenRead More – Source

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Google suspends ‘free speech’ app Parler




Google has suspended “free speech” social network Parler from its Play Store over its failure to remove “egregious content”.

Parler styles itself as “unbiased” social media and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter.

But Google said the app had failed to remove posts inciting violence.

Apple has also warned Parler it will remove the app from its App Store if it does not comply with its content-moderation requirements.

On Parler, the app’s chief executive John Matze said: “We won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech!”

Launched in 2018, Parler has proved particularly popular among supporters of US President Donald Trump and right-wing conservatives. Such groups have frequently accused Twitter and Facebook of unfairly censoring their views.

While Mr Trump himself is not a user, the platform already features several high-profile contributors following earlier bursts of growth in 2020.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz boasts 4.9 million followers on the platform, while Fox News host Sean Hannity has about seven million.

It briefly became the most-downloaded app in the United States after the US election, following a clampdown on the spread of election misinformation by Twitter and Facebook.

However, both Apple and Google have said the app fails to comply with content-moderation requirements.

Analysis: Necessary or draconian action?

By Shayan Sardarizadeh, BBC Monitoring

For months, Parler has been one of the most popular social media platforms for right-wing users.

As major platforms began taking action against viral conspiracy theories, disinformation and the harassment of election workers and officials in the aftermath of the US presidential vote, the app became more popular with elements of the fringe far-right.

This turned the network into a right-wing echo chamber, almost entirely populated by users fixated on revealing examples of election fraud and posting messages in support of attempts to overturn the election outcome.

In the days preceding the Capitol riots, the tone of discussion on the app became significantly more violent, with some users openly discussing ways to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by Congress.

Unsubstantiated allegations and defamatory claims against a number of senior US figures such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Vice-President Mike Pence were rife on the app.

Google and Apple say they are taking necessary action to ensure violent rhetoric is not promoted on their platforms.

However, to those increasingly concerned about freedom of speech and expression on online platforms, it represents another example of draconian action by major tech companies which threatens internet freedom.

This is a debate which is certain to continue beyond the Trump presidency.

In a statement, Google confirmed it had suspended Parler from its Play Store, saying: “Our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence.

“In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”

Apple has warned Parler it will be removed from the App Store on Saturday in a letter published by Buzzfeed News.

It said it had seen “accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate” the attacks on the US Capitol on 6 January.

Mr Matze said Parler had “no way to organise anything” and pointed out that Facebook groups and events had been used to organise action.

But Apple said: “Our investigation has found that Parler is not effectively moderating and removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users in direct violation of your own terms of service.”

“We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.”

In a related development, Google has kicked Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast off YouTube, saying it had repeatedly violated the platform’s rules.

The ex-White House aide’s channel had more than 300,000 subscribers.

“In accordance with our strikes system, we have terminated Steve Bannon’s channel ‘War room’ and one associated channel for repeatedly violating our Community Guidelines,” Google said in a statement.

“Any channel posting new videos with misleading content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election in violation of our policies will receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or live-streaming. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from YouTube.”

The action was taken shortly after the channel posted an interview with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in which he blamed the Democrats for the rioting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

One anti-misinformation group said the action was long overdue after “months of Steve Bannon calling for revolution and violence”.

“The truth is YouTube should have taken down Steve Bannon’s account a long time ago and they shouldn’t rely on the labour of extremism researchers to moderate the content on their platform,” said Madeline Peltz, Senior Researcher at Media Matters for America.

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20 years of tech with Jeff: From green iMacs and DVDs to the iPhone era




When I started covering technology here two decades ago, I didn’t own a cellphone, nor did my company deem it in their interests to buy me one.

My tenure at USA TODAY pre-dates text messages, soundbars, talking speakers, QR codes, video chat, Uber, DoorDash, Zoom calls, YouTube, Wi-Fi, affordable flat-screen TVs….you get the idea.

So many changes in such a short period of time! This is my last column for USA TODAY as your Talking Tech columnist. Let’s say goodbye by celebrating how far we’ve come through the years.

My stint started in 2000 – I began at USA TODAY earlier, covering entertainment – at a time when we spent a lot of time talking about the big three tech companies: AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. AOL had just shocked the world by buying Time Warner for $165 billion. (You know how well that turned out. But I digress.)

We did use computers, yes indeed, mostly desktops, and they were Windows machines with black-and-white monitors. We weren’t online; we went online, with a phone line attached to our computers. You know, the type we used on our landlines. Remember them?

Apple back then had less than 3% market share. It wouldn’t start its evolution into the world’s most valuable $2 trillion company until 2001, when it introduced the iPod MP3 music player and helped bring digital music to the masses. This is after the short-lived Napster popularized MP3s by showing how easy it was to copy licensed music. In 2003, the iPod shifted into a mainstream product when CEO Steve Jobs (who rejoined the company in 1997) opened it up to be used on Windows computers with the iTunes music store, the first easy to use, legitimate avenue for buying music, back then at 99 cents a song. Streaming and the celestial jukebox was a far off dream.

We started Talking Tech in 2006 as a weekly, ahead-of-its-time video series, produced bicoastally on two webcams. The first episode – with my former partner, Edward C. Baig – was a review of the Flip Video camera. Remember that one, kids?

By 2010, Flip was soon to be gone, as Apple introduced the iPhone 4, the first iPhone with a decent camera. Kodak became a memory, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and other mainstays of the camera business saw their sales tumble, as people preferred the camera that was in their pocket, their phone.

But I have to admit, I never foresaw just how great the smartphone cams would become. I always loved using them, but there was a stigma to “cellphone video.” Now we can shoot 4K video that looks nearly as good as what you get from a traditional camera, mostly due to computational photography tricks. But I’m not complaining. Have you seen my iPhone sunsets?

Then there’s Google and Facebook.

It was in 2000 that Yahoo handed over its search keys to a scrappy startup that said it had a method for more effective online searches. From there, we got Google stepping out onto its own in 2003 by sending people to its website and popularizing the verb, “Google It.” We got Google Maps (remember life without it?), Gmail (free e-mail without being tied to our internet provider), Google Translate, Google Photos and so many other features that I don’t think we could live without today.

That’s the good side.

There’s also Google tracking our every move, in order to put personalized ads in front of us everywhere we go, and saying goodbye to our privacy. Google will claim that much of the privacy invasion is “opt-in” and that we agreed to it when we signed up for services. But who remembers doing that?

Facebook took the snooping to an even greater level. But today’s column is about celebrating tech. So let’s bypass the misinformation and online rage that erupted from the social network and instead just give props to a site that reconnected some 2 billion people with old friends and family. I announced my pending exit on my newsletter, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know where I got the lion’s share of responses? Facebook, hands down.

Amazon. Who believed you could order anything you ever wanted with one click, and have it arrive the next day? By 2001 Amazon had announced its first profit, but it was more recently that we saw Amazon really showcase what was it was to become, by acquiring Whole Foods and launching Amazon Fresh, the supermarket with a radical cart that automatically tallied up your purchases, launching the smart speaker craze with Echo and Alexa and being a dominant force in streaming with Fire TV.

But Amazon missed out on phones. Google got in early, in 2008, with the Android operating system, which it grew by giving it away for free to companies like Samsung, LG and Huawei. That business model would enable Android to claim a whopping 85% market share, where it’s featured on so many low-cost phones.

If I had to pick the most influential tech device of my generation, there’s no hesitation. It’s the iPhone, hands down, even bigger than the VCR or the personal computer.

Because the iPhone (and other smartphone brands to follow) put the computer into our pockets, untethered and presented in a easy, intuitive way that appealed to the masses. Listen to music, answer the phone, watch TV, surf the net, all on one device. One in which we can also monitor our daily steps, show us how to get around and take amazing photos. (Again, those sunsets!)

I love my laptop, but it didn’t change my life.

So what of the future?

In 2016, I did a column quoting analysts saying that the smartphone as we know it, would cease and morph into some form of eyewear within the next few years. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now.

Having stuff flying in front of your eyes as you walk down the street is a distraction. (Take that, Google Glass.) We watched screens in the 1950s. We’re going to be looking at screens in the 2020s and 2030s.

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Are you willing to pay for email? How about podcasts? Here are our tech predictions for 2021




It’s that time of year when we make predictions about what to see from technology in 2021.

We already know we’re good for new iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, new smart speakers from Amazon and beautiful new smart TV sets that will have higher resolution than ever before – at a lower cost.

So let’s offer up some tech predictions about what else we’ll see, or just might.

Let’s start with a given:

You’ll be paying for email in 2021

The world’s most popular email program Gmail, is owned by Google, which has decided to follow in Apple’s footsteps by getting more people hooked on monthly subscriptions. (Apple’s Services – which includes Apple Music, News and iCloud – is now its second-highest revenue generator, above Macs, iPads and Apple Watches.)

As of June 1, Google will no longer allow users to upload their photos and videos to Google Photos for free. Google offers 15 GBs of free storage for photos, but that also includes Gmail and Google Drive backup. The ask is that you pay for storage, which starts at $1.99 a month – but for just 100 GB of storage.

I don’t know about you, but my Gmail is 41 GBs worth now, I have 15 GBs worth of photos in Google Photos and 1.7 TBs on Google Drive.

Sure, I can clear out Google Drive, but the thing is, my email is a living, growing thing that is just not going to get smaller, no matter how hard I try to clean it up. It grows every day. So if you like your Gmail, get used to it – you might be paying.

Microsoft and Yahoo still offer free email, but they’re littered with ads, and you’re encouraged to step up to the “premium” versions, which starts at $5 and $3.49 a month, respectively, to go ad-free. Yahoo is eliminating the ability to automatically forward emails from Yahoo Mail beginning next week, unless you spend $34.99 a year for the service.

Big tech won’t find the new administration any friendlier

Facebook and Google’s woes in Washington, D.C., won’t change with a new Biden administration, we believe. The companies will continue to be hauled into Washington to defend against being broken up. President-elect Joe Biden has complained to the social network many times about all the disinformation coming out about him on Facebook, and the company declined to act. That certainly isn’t likely to play well in the Biden years.

The streaming wars will lose a big player

Many new streaming networks launched in 2020, most notably HBO Max and Peacock, and many more are on the horizon for 2021, including Paramount Plus and Discovery +, but at least one of the new networks will go down. Or so says my USA TODAY colleague Brett Molina, who puts Paramount Plus as the most likely victim.

Paramount Plus is the soon-to-be new name for what was CBS All-Access, with the addition of movies from the Paramount Pictures library and TV shows from the Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon) vault. “There’s just too many of them,” Molina says. “I can’t see it lasting.” (You will see many more first-run films on streaming channels in 2021, as Warner Media has announced its entire slate for HBO Max and Disney + has first-run fare scheduled as well.)

5G won’t get any better until late 2021

The launch of new phones with access to the supposedly faster wireless speed of 5G, and the wireless carriers’ breathless hype about speed left many consumers scratching their heads. The promised speeds were no faster than 4G. One day 5G will live up to the hype, but not until late 2021, believes Gene Munster, an analyst and investor with Loup Ventures. For real progress, we’ll have to wait for 2022.

Local retailers will find a way to compete with Amazon

It’s an aspirational wish, but “someone will solve the need and find a way to fill it,” says Kieran Hannon, the chief marketing officer for OpenPath, a company that offers next generation office entry technology. He believes a service will be developed to help local retailers compete with the Amazons of the world by letting customers order from a direct website serving locals and have products delivered to them at home, thus keeping sales in the neighborhood.

Zoom and video meetings will only get bigger

Business travel may start to come back from the dead in the second half of 2021, but all the companies that saved money from the trips won’t likely be as eager to send staffers traipsing around the country when meetings can be done cheaper and more efficiently via video.

Students will one day return to the classrooms, but company meetings, seminars, webinars and the like will likely continue. No need to return those ring lights to improve your appearance yet.

Speaking of Zoom, a possible acquisition?

The video networks is one hot property that saw its usage numbers climb from 10 million to 300 million amid the pandemic, making it one prime acquisition target. Who better to buy Zoom than Amazon?

The companies already work together, with Amazon Web Services providing the server backbone for all those Zoom meetings. Unlike Google, Apple and Facebook, which have their own well-established video networks (Google Meet, FaceTime and Messenger), Amazon doesn’t have one.

So with Zoom in the company, and all those meeting minutes (about 2 trillion in April alone,) what an attractive target that would make for Amazon to remind us to use Alexa and buy more stuff, right?

Pay for podcasts?

Finally, Munster from Loup Ventures believes Apple will follow its smash success with the Services division by introducing a new way for podcasters to make money on their shows by charging admission. He sees a “Podcast +” that sees everyone’s favorite audio shows (like Talking Tech) added to the Apple One bundle with Apple Music. “Good news for podcasters, who may see Apple as another avenue to monetize their listener base.”

We love it.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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