Social Media Briefing: Facebook gets on the AI bandwagon
It looks like Facebook is the talk of the tech town this week.
In the first of several updates on the social media oligarch, Zuckerberg and his team have confirmed their acquisition of Bloomsbury AI for up to $30m.
The London-based artificial intelligence start-up focuses on natural language processing - so, tech which helps computers better understand human language.
It sounds like Facebook's ultimate aim is to use the tech to combat fake news, but in the meantime it'll be available to sites that want to add a Q&A service into their sites or documents.
Bloomsbury's website states: We've started off by building an AI that reads text documents and answers questions about their contents (called Cape).
“You can use Cape on your own documents or website, so that users of your knowledge can get immediate answers to their questions.
"We're going to use what we learn from this version to improve our AI, so that it can answer more questions - even ones that require elements of reasoning and synthesis. Eventually we want to be able to answer any question that requires reading better than a human."
This is impressive stuff and, although I’m more than a little bit nervous about the rate AI is progressing, it would also be great to be able to intelligently ask questions about websites or documents without having to trawl through five million unrelated answers first.
→ READ MORE: Facebook buys London AI to fight fake news
Social media designed to be behavioural ‘cocaine’
While I’d like to think chocolate and bad sci-fi shows are pretty much the only things I’m addicted to, if I’m honest social media would rank up there too. And, according to a new report, that’s exactly what they're designed to do.
It's no secret that social media is ridiculously addictive, but it's pretty amazing how deep that rabbit hole goes. In a new BBC Panorama documentary, Silicon Valley insiders revealed that social media companies work pretty hard to get us hooked on their sites.
For example, ex-Mozilla employee Aza Raskin created infinite scroll, the tools that means you don’t have to click anything to keep mindlessly thumbing through your feed.
"If you don't give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling," he said.
He told the BBC he didn’t intend for people to get so addicted, and that he now feels bad about the impact his feature has had, which means that when I can’t stop mindlessly scrolling through Facebook at 1am tomorrow morning I’ll know who to blame.
“It's as if they're taking behavioural cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface and that's the thing that keeps you like coming back and back and back," said Raskin.
The company denied that its service is deliberately designed to be addictive.
"The allegations that have arisen during BBC Panorama's production process are inaccurate. Facebook and Instagram were designed to bring people closer to their friends, family, and the things that they care about," a spokesperson for Facebook and Instagram said.
According to the BBC, Twitter declined to comment and Snap said it was happy to support frequent creative use of its app, Snapchat. However it denied using visual tricks to achieve this and added that it had no desire to increase empty engagement of the product.
WhatsApp under pressure to stop rumour-mill ‘lynchings’
When hitting send on WhatsApp it’s hard to imagine that your private, electronic message could have an impact in the real world.
The site can be used for great things - helping spread important messages, the free movement of information, entire conversations conducted entirely in GIFs - but it can also have horrific consequences.
Over the last couple of months India has seen a spate of mob attacks across the country, mostly fuelled by rumours spread on WhatsApp. Around 20 people have been killed, with about 16 mob lynchings reported since May.
It’s gotten so bad that the government has asked the messaging platform to bump up its regulation and take action to tackle the situation.
The attacks have mostly been in rural villages across the country, targeting innocent people accused of being part of child abduction gangs.
India's Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) has called on the app to help after the killings were linked to "irresponsible and explosive messages" circulating on its platform.
"Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the (sic) WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken," the ministry said in a statement.
In response, WhatsApp has said it’s commissioned global awards for research into the spread of misinformation.
"Through this new project, we look forward to working with leading academic experts in India to learn more about how online platforms are used to spread misinformation," it said in a statement.
It's a tough one as WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption, which means it would be hard to dig deeper into the messages even if they wanted to, and even if they did manage to shut it down presumably the same thing would pop up on a different platform instead.
Perhaps, instead of getting mad at the messenger, India would be better focussing its energy on finding out why people are spreading the rumours in the first place and how to support those affected by them.
Last week we shared the EU Commission's response to rumours that it was banning memes with a meme.
This week, free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia is stepping up to the plate in protest against parts of a copyright reform package going through a key vote in the EU parliament today.
The site’s Italian and Spanish language versions temporarily shut off access to their versions in Europe, instead displaying a banner asking users to help them defend the open internet against the controversial proposal.
They ask users to call their MEP, warning the changes will “weaken the values, culture and ecosystem on which Wikipedia is based”.
The two most controversial parts of the vote are around Article 13, which makes platforms directly liable for copyright infringements by their users (which was originally thought to affect GIFs and memes) and Article 11, the ‘link tax’, which targets news aggregator business models.
The Spanish Wikipedia community said: “If the proposal were approved in its current version, actions such as sharing a news item on social networks or accessing it through a search engine would become more complicated on the Internet; Wikipedia itself would be at risk.”
Facebook bugs users with blocked accounts
We might not be able to control whether or not we bump into someone who’s bad news on the street but we should be able to control who we interact with on social media.
However for a whopping 800,000 Facebook users that wasn’t the case last month.
From May 29 to June 5 Facebook confirmed that a bug temporarily unblocked accounts that users had blocked in the past. This means that any manner of bad eggs – from exes that won't leave you alone or even trolls and stalkers – got one step closer for that week.
While blockees couldn’t see things blockers had only shared with their friends, they could see wider posts – like pictures shared with friends of friends - and maybe even send them messages over Messenger.
Luckily it didn’t affect people users had unfriended, only those they’d blocked, but those tend to indicate more extreme cases so it's arguably worse.
If you’ve been affected you’ll get a notification from Facebook suggesting you double check that the people you’d keep at arm’s length are still blocked and, as Facebook seems to be a bit all over the place at the moment, it’s not a bad idea that the rest of us do the same.
Social media tax causes major problems
In a controversial move, the Ugandan government has started taxing social media - and, as you might imagne, it's not going down very well.
Users in the country now have to pay 200 Ugandan shillings — around £0.04— a day to access platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s also introduced a one per cent tax on mobile money transactions, which is a popular payment method.
It might not sound like much but it could make the difference between some people being able to use the platforms and not, in an era where the internet and social media are generally considered a pretty basic right.
Rights groups have said the tax is an attempt to control young Ugandans and increase censorship. There are also fears about people in rural areas who need mobile transfers to survive.
"It is not the place of the Ugandan authorities to determine what discussions taking place on social media platforms are useful. Rather, it is their responsibility to uphold and nurture unfettered enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression, both online and offline," said Amnesty International.
"Social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp have opened up cheaper avenues of communication and information sharing in Uganda.
“By making people pay for using these platforms, this tax will render these avenues of communication inaccessible for low-income earners, robbing many people of their right to freedom of expression, with a chilling effect on other human rights.
"This is a clear attempt to silence dissent, in the guise of raising government revenues."
Ugandans have also made their feelings clear: