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Facebook Messenger Now Allows Users to Watch Videos Together Online

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By Reuters | Updated: 14 September 2020

Facebook said on Monday that its users will now be able to watch videos with their friends online using the social media company’s Messenger app, enabling them to see reactions in real time.

The “Watch Together” feature will allow a user to add up to eight people through a video call and up to 50 people through its videoconferencing tool Messenger Rooms.

The company launched the tool in July as it looks to take on Zoom that became a household name driven by the coronavirus-driven boom in demand for its platform.

Facebook joins a crowded field of companies rushing to dominate the stay-at-home market as millions of people turn to online platforms to stay connected for work, social life and school amid health concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Netflix also has a similar feature called “Netflix Party” that allows multiple users to join in and watch a film on the same screen.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Says Spammers, Scanners Using US Election to Turn Profit Online

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 October 2020

Fraudsters from Albania to Vietnam are posting about US politics and the upcoming presidential election to build fake audiences, maximise clicks and make money online, Facebook said on Wednesday.

In a new report about so-called “inauthentic behaviour” on its platform, Facebook said the November 3 election had become a common lure to trick users into visiting online stores or websites laden with pay-per-view adverts.

“If you are a financially motivated actor who’s trying to make money based on clicks, you are going to use whatever content is going to get you eyeballs,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, told Reuters.

“And obviously, there’s a lot of attention being paid to what’s happening in the United States around the election.”

After weathering fierce criticism over efforts by political and commercial groups to manipulate its users, Facebook now regularly announces takedowns of online influence operations, such as three networks tied to Russia which it said last month could be used to disrupt the US vote.

Gleicher said Wednesday’s report differed from previous takedown announcements because it dealt with less threatening activity, which was usually financially rather than politically motivated but often confused with foreign interference attempts.

In an interview ahead of the report’s release, he said he wanted to make a distinction between the two types of activity ahead of the US vote and next month’s election in Myanmar, a country where the military and other groups have repeatedly been caught using social media to spread hate and disinformation.

“I want people to be aware of the full range of deception that is happening out there,” Gleicher said. “One of the ongoing challenges is people so often and so regularly mistake a financially motivated scheme to sell T-shirts as an influence operation coming from a foreign government.”
Hot-button issues

There is frequently crossover between the two types of activity, both of which deliberately mislead users with fake accounts and post about “hot-button” issues to build an audience, Facebook said in its report.

But the networks suspended on Wednesday were primarily schemes to amplify content for financial gain, such as by using fake accounts to boost follower numbers or by repeatedly posting spam-like content about popular topics.

Facebook detailed four examples of networks it had suspended between May and September this year, which it said were operated by unconnected groups from countries including Botswana, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Macedonia and the Philippines.

One network operated from Albania and posted about US politics to trick people into following pages that directed them to clickbait websites which generated money through adverts. A page in the network ran under the banner, “We need 1Million Trumpers to Make America Great Again.”

In Myanmar, Facebook said it had suspended 655 pages and 12 groups in August and September that posted about celebrity gossip and local news to attract clicks and views.

“A minority of posts from some of these networks and their ad-heavy websites focused on politics in Myanmar, including support for the military and references to ethnic tensions,” Facebook said. “We did not see evidence of these networks being politically motivated.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Unveils Machine Learning Translator for 100 Languages

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 20 October 2020

Facebook on Monday unveiled software based on machine learning which the company said was the first to be able to translate from any of 100 languages without relying on English.

The open-source artificial intelligence software was created to help the massive social network deliver content better in 160 languages to its more than two billion users around the world.

“This milestone is a culmination of years of Facebook AI’s foundational work in machine translation,” research assistant Angela Fan said in a blog post.

Fan said the new model is more accurate than other systems because it does not rely on English as an intermediary translation step.

“When translating, say, Chinese to French, most English-centric multilingual models train on Chinese to English and English to French, because English training data is the most widely available,” Fan wrote.

“Our model directly trains on Chinese to French data to better preserve meaning. It outperforms English-centric systems by 10 points on the widely used BLEU metric for evaluating machine translations.”

Facebook said it already handles an average of 20 billion translations every day on its news feed, and that it hopes the new system will deliver better results.

“Breaking language barriers through machine translation is one of the most important ways to bring people together, provide authoritative information on COVID-19, and keep them safe from harmful content,” Fan said.

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Twitter Raps Trump COVID-19 Adviser as US Cases Rise

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By Reuters | Updated: 19 October 2020

Twitter on Sunday removed a “misleading” tweet downplaying the efficacy of masks posted by a top coronavirus adviser to the US President Donald Trump, while US cases surged before the November 3 election.

As the Trump administration fends off accusations that its mixed messaging on wearing masks hampered the fight against the coronavirus, Dr. Scott Atlas continued to minimise the importance of masks with a Twitter post on Saturday, saying, “Masks work? NO.”

Twitter removed the tweet on Sunday, saying it violated its misleading information policy on COVID-19, which targets statements that have been confirmed to be false or misleading by subject-matter experts.

The White House had no immediate comment on the decision.

Atlas has downplayed the wearing of masks, a coronavirus containment measure that has been widely endorsed by health experts but not enthusiastically promoted by the president.

Trump, a Republican, is seeking re-election on November 3 against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in the midst of a pandemic that has weakened the economy and killed more than 2,17,000 Americans.

New infections have been rising fast in the United States, according to a Reuters analysis, with more than 69,400 reported on Friday, up from 46,000 a month ago. Total US cases have surpassed 8 million.

Trump, who was hospitalised with the disease for three nights in early October, has been criss-crossing the country in a surge of 11th-hour campaigning as he lags in many public opinion polls. His rallies draw thousands of supporters in close quarters, with many not wearing masks despite federal coronavirus guidelines.

Despite data showing otherwise, Trump has said repeatedly in recent weeks that the country is “rounding the turn” on coronavirus.

On Sunday, Trump again attributed the latest surge in coronavirus cases to more testing, but health experts cite increases in hospitalisations and the rates at which people are testing positive for the virus to show cases are indeed rising.

“The United States shows more CASES than other countries, which the Lamestream Fake News Media pounces on daily, because it TESTS at such a high (and costly) level,” he wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said the United States is probably entering the worst phase of the pandemic without a national strategy.

“I think the next three months are going to be very challenging. There’s really no backstop against the spread that we’re seeing,” Gottlieb told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Hospitalisations were rising in 42 states and there is no intervention short of a vaccine that can thwart the spread, he said. The White House has come out against universal masking, against testing asymptomatic and mildly symptomatic people and wants businesses and schools reopened, he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urged Americans to continue social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. “Hang in there with us,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding, “We are so close.”

However, Gottlieb, who sits on the board of vaccine maker Pfizer, said it may not be until February or March until the first tranche of people who are vaccinated are really protected against the virus.

“So it begs the question, ‘what is the strategy?'” he said. “And I think the strategy is just to endure the spread until we get to that vaccine.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Twitter Backtracks, Allows Users to Post Previously Blocked New York Post Article on Joe Biden’s Son

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By Reuters | Updated: 17 October 2020

Twitter on Friday confirmed it reversed its decision to block links to a New York Post article about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son, despite reaffirming the ban late on Thursday.

Republicans who had decried Twitter’s earlier actions posted the story freely on the site. “You can now share the bombshell story Big Tech didn’t want you to see,” Arizona Representative Paul Gosar tweeted on Friday morning.

Twitter acknowledged Friday it had stopped blocking links to early versions of the New York Post articles, saying the private information included in them had become widely available in the press and on other platforms.

The company’s policy chief Vijaya Gadde said Thursday night that Twitter had decided to make changes to its hacked materials policy following feedback, but a spokesman told Reuters that the New York Post story would still be blocked for “violating the rules on private personal information.”

“We will no longer remove hacked content unless it is directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them,” Gadde said in a series of tweets. “We will label Tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter.”

Twitter had initially said the Post story violated its “hacked materials” policy, which bars the distribution of content obtained through hacking, but has provided no details on what materials it viewed as hacked.

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said in a tweet Friday morning that “straight blocking of URLs was wrong” and suggested that Twitter instead should have applied tools like labels.

“Our goal is to attempt to add context, and now we have capabilities to do that,” he tweeted.

Tweets of the story successfully published on Friday did not have any labels attached. Twitter declined to answer Reuters questions on whether that was due to an error or a policy decision.

The company had briefly restricted the Twitter account of US President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign after it posted a video that referred to the New York Post story on Thursday.

US Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley said on Thursday the committee would vote on Tuesday on sending a subpoena to Dorsey.

Separately, the Senate Commerce Committee confirmed Friday it will hold an October 28 hearing with Dorsey and the chief executives of Facebook and Google parent Alphabet and will look at “how best to preserve the internet as a forum for open discourse.”

The companies previously confirmed the executives would remotely appear at the hearing.

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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FCC Will Move to Clarify Key Social Media Legal Protections, Chairman Ajit Pai Says

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By Reuters | Updated: 16 October 2020

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai said Thursday the agency will move forward to set new rules to clarify the meaning of a key legal protection for social media companies.

The announcement came as Republicans expressed anger over Twitter decision to bar sharing a New York Post story about Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son.

US President Donald Trump in May directed the US Commerce Department to file a petition with the FCC seeking to curb legal protections for social media companies over a provision known as “Section 230.” Pai said the FCC’s general counsel said the agency “has the legal authority to interpret Section 230.”

Pai stopped short of offering any concrete ideas or to say if he would propose narrowing social media companies legal protections that could jeopardise current business models.

The petition asked the FCC to limit protections for social media companies under Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields them from liability for content posted by their users and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts.

Twitter froze the account of US President Donald Trump’s campaign @TeamTrump after it posted a video that referred to the Post story that contained alleged details of Hunter Biden’s business dealings with a Ukrainian energy company.

Many legal experts and Internet companies argue the FCC has no authority to issue regulations under Section 230.

The Internet Association, a group representing major internet companies, including Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Alphabet’s Google said “the First Amendment protects every private enterprise’s ability to set and enforce rules for acceptable content on their services.”

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the commission “has no business being the President’s speech police.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said the FCC “will bring much-needed clarity to Section 230 and close the loopholes that Big Tech has exploited.”

In September, Trump nominated Nathan Simington, a senior administration official who was involved in the social media petition, to a seat on the FCC, and last week Trump urged for a quick confirmation vote. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker on Thursday set a hearing on Simington’s nomination for November 10.

Pai has for months refused to offer any comment on the petition, and Trump has repeatedly demanded action. Still any final regulation could take at least another year.

In August 2018, Pai at a forum said he hoped social media companies would embrace free speech but did not see a role for the FCC to regulate websites like Facebook, Google and Twitter.

“The government is not here to regulate these platforms. We don’t have the power to do that,” Pai said in 2018.

On Thursday, Pai noted he has favoured free expression during his tenure but added: “What does Section 230 currently mean? Many advance an overly broad interpretation that in some cases shields social media companies from consumer protection laws in a way that has no basis in the text of Section 230.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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Facebook Proceeding of Delhi Assembly Committee Without Jurisdiction: Centre to Supreme Court

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 16 October 2020

The Centre Thursday told the Supreme Court that proceedings of the Delhi Assembly’s Peace and Harmony committee, which has summoned Facebook India VP and MD Ajit Mohan to appear as a witness in connection with the north-east Delhi riots, is “without jurisdiction” as the issue pertained to law and order.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta submitted before a bench of Justices S K Kaul and Dinesh Maheshwari that “public order and police are not within the domain of the Delhi Legislative Assembly and therefore this proceeding is without jurisdiction.”

The apex court, which said that its September 23 order asking the assembly’s panel not to take any coercive action against Mohan, would continue.

The bench, which posted the matter for arguments on December 2, was hearing a petition filed by Mohan and Facebook against the summons issued by the committee.

The plea filed by Mohan, Facebook India and Facebook has contended that the committee lacks power to summon or hold petitioners in breach of its privileges for failing to appear and it was exceeding its constitutional limits.

They have challenged the September 10 and 18 notices issued by the committee that sought Mohan’s presence before the panel which is probing the Delhi riots in February and Facebook’s role in spread of alleged hate speeches.

The Delhi assembly has recently told the top court that no coercive action has been taken against Mohan and he was only summoned by its Peace and Harmony committee to appear as witness in connection with north-east Delhi riots.

During the hearing conducted on Thursday through video-conferencing, senior advocate A M Singhvi, appearing for the Delhi Legislative Assembly, said that Mohan has been called as a witness only.

Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for the petitioner, raised question over the jurisdiction of the committee and said that Mohan is not willing to appear before it.

“Allegations are being made that Facebook has promoted disharmony in Delhi. Facebook does not write anything. It provides a platform,” Salve said, adding that Facebook is regulated by a central law.

The bench, after hearing the submissions, said the prima facie issue is regarding the jurisdiction and power of Delhi assembly.

The apex court said that affidavits, if any, be filed by October 31 and the matter would be heard on December 2.

In an affidavit filed recently in the top court, the Delhi Assembly has said that Mohan has not been issued any summons for breach of privilege.

It has said, “No coercive action has been taken against the Petitioner No. 1 (Mohan) and none was intended if he merely attended and participated in the proceedings as a witness.

It is also important to note that the proceedings are being conducted in the most transparent manner with live broadcast and therefore there is no question of any apprehension in respect of the proceedings either by the Petitioner No. 1 or anyone else”.

“There is no notice to the Petitioner No.1 (Mohan) asking him to appear before this Committee of Respondent No.1 (Assembly) for a breach of privilege or contempt of the Committee.

It has not been alleged at any time by the Committee of Respondent No.1 that the Petitioner has already committed a breach of privilege”, the affidavit has said.

It added that there is no occasion for the Committee to report to the Speaker about Mohan having committed any breach of privilege.

It said that the procedure for breach of privilege is separate and that stage had not as yet been reached and even the mention of it was made for the first time in communication dated September 18, in light of the refusal of Mohan pursuant to validly issued summons September 10.

It said that the Peace and Harmony committee of the assembly had received multiple complaints/representations addressed to its chairman Raghav Chadha, underscoring the alleged instances of inaction/inability on the part of social media platform-Facebook to enforce its policies against inflammatory and hateful contents.

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