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Meta, Formerly Facebook, Plans to Remove Thousands of Sensitive Ad-Targeting Options

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By Reuters | Updated: 10 November 2021

Meta said on Tuesday it plans to remove detailed ad-targeting options that refer to “sensitive” topics, such as ads based on interactions with content around race, health, religious practices, political beliefs or sexual orientation.

The company, which recently changed its name to Meta and which makes the vast majority of its revenue through digital advertising, has been under intense scrutiny over its ad-targeting abilities and rules in recent years.

In a blog post, Meta gave examples of targeting categories that would no longer be allowed on its platforms, such as “Lung cancer awareness,” “World Diabetes Day,” “LGBT culture,” “Jewish holidays,” or political beliefs and social issues. It said the change would take place starting January 19, 2022.

The company has been hit with criticisms around its micro-targeting capabilities, including over abuses such as advertisers discriminating against or targeting vulnerable groups. In 2019, it agreed to make changes to its ads platform as part of a settlement over housing discrimination issues.

“We’ve heard concerns from experts that targeting options like these could be used in ways that lead to negative experiences for people in underrepresented groups,” said Graham Mudd, the company’s vice president of product marketing for ads, in the post.

Its tailored ad abilities are used by wide-ranging advertisers, including political campaigns and social issue groups as well as businesses.

“The decision to remove these Detailed Targeting options was not easy and we know this change may negatively impact some businesses and organizations,” Mudd said in the post, adding some advertising partners were concerned they would not be able to use these ads to generate positive social change.

Advertisers on Meta’s platforms can still target audiences by location, use their own customer lists, reach custom audiences who have engaged with their content and send ads to people with similar characteristics to those users.

The move marks a key shift for the company’s approach to social and political advertising, though it is not expected to have major financial implications. CEO Mark Zuckerberg estimated in 2019, for example, that politicians’ ads would make up less than 0.5 percent of Meta’s 2020 revenue.

The issue of political advertising on social media platforms, including whether the content of politicians’ ads should be fact-checked, provoked much debate among the public, lawmakers and companies around the US presidential election.

Twitter in 2019 banned political ads altogether, but Meta had previously said it would not limit how political advertisers reached potential voters.

Facebook, which now allows users to opt to see fewer ads related to topics like politics and alcohol, said on Tuesday it would early next year give people more controls over the ads they see, including ones about gambling and weight loss.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook, Instagram Remove Chinese Accounts Over Fake ‘Swiss Biologist’ COVID-19 Origin Claims

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 December 2021

Facebook owner Meta Platforms said on Wednesday it had removed accounts used by an influence operation originating in China that promoted claims of a fake “Swiss biologist” saying the United States was interfering in the search for COVID-19’s origins.

Meta said in a report the social media campaign was “largely unsuccessful” and targeted English-speaking audiences in the United States and Britain and Chinese-speaking audiences in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet.

Claims by “Swiss biologist” Wilson Edwards were widely quoted by Chinese state media in July. In August, several Chinese newspapers removed comments and deleted articles quoting him after the Swiss embassy in Beijing said it had found no evidence of him as a Swiss citizen.

Meta said Facebook removed the Wilson Edwards account in August and has since removed 524 Facebook accounts, 20 Pages, four Groups and 86 Instagram accounts as part of its investigation. Such removals also take down content that these entities have posted.

“We…were able to link the activity to individuals in mainland China, including employees of a particular company in China, the Sichuan Silence Information Technology Company Limited, as well as some individuals associated with Chinese state infrastructure companies around the world,” Meta’s head of global threat disruption David Agranovich told Reuters.

Sichuan Silence Information Technology Co did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Chinese foreign ministry and internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Meta said it had not found any connection between Sichuan Silence Information Technology and the Chinese government.

Silence Information’s website describes itself as a network and information security company that provides network security services to China’s Ministry of Public Security activities and China’s CNCERT, the key coordination team for China’s cybersecurity emergency response.

On July 24, 10 hours after its creation, the “Wilson Edwards” Facebook account uploaded a post saying he had been informed the United States was seeking to discredit the qualifications of World Health Organization scientists working with China to probe the origins of COVID-19.

Meta said the account’s operators used virtual private network (VPN) infrastructure to conceal its origin and made efforts to give Edwards a rounded personality.

The persona’s original post was initially shared and liked by fake Facebook accounts, and later forwarded by authentic users, most of which belonged to employees of Chinese state infrastructure companies in over 20 countries, Meta said.

“This is the first time we have observed an operation that included a coordinated cluster of state employees to amplify itself in this way,” the report said. Meta said it did not find evidence that the network gained any traction among authentic communities.

China’s state-run media, from China Daily to TV news service CGTN, cited the July post widely as evidence that US President Joe Biden’s administration was politicising the WHO. The administration had said the joint WHO-China investigation lacked transparency.

The origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 remains a mystery and a source of tension between China, the United States and other countries.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Jack Dorsey-Led Square Rebrands to Block After Facebook’s Meta Change

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By Reuters | Updated: 2 December 2021

Square, the payments company led by Twitter Inc co-founder Jack Dorsey, said on Wednesday it was changing its name to Block Inc, as it looks to expand beyond its payment business and into new technologies like blockchain.

The San Francisco-based company said the name Square had become synonymous with it’s seller business. The new name would distinguish the corporate entity from its businesses, Square added, a strategy similar to Meta Platforms’s rebrand last month.

The company said there would be no organisational changes and its different business units – Square, peer-to-peer payment service Cash App, music streaming service Tidal and its bitcoin-focused financial services segment – will continue to maintain their respective brands. Shares were up nearly 1 percent in extended trading.

“The name has many associated meanings for the company — building blocks, neighbourhood blocks, and their local businesses, communities coming together at block parties full of music, a blockchain, a section of code, and obstacles to overcome,” Square said in a statement.

The move comes days after Dorsey stepped down from his role as chief executive officer at Twitter. The digital payments giant’s Square Crypto, a team “dedicated to advancing Bitcoin”, will also change its name to Spiral. Bitcoin price in India stood at Rs. 45.21 lakh as of 10am IST on December 2.

Under Dorsey, who has frequently expressed his interest in the cryptocurrency, Square bought $50 million (roughly Rs. 375 crore) worth of Bitcoin even before the wave of institutional interest that propelled the digital currency’s price to record highs this year. In February, it further raised its wager and invested another $170 million (roughly Rs. 1,275 crore) in it.

Square has also been weighing the creation of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin to make its custody more mainstream.

The new name would become effective on or about December 10, Square said, but the “SQ” ticker symbol on the New York Stock Exchange would not change at this time.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Twitter Bans Sharing Personal Photos, Videos of Other People Without Consent

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 1 December 2021

Twitter launched new rules Tuesday blocking users from sharing private images of other people without their consent, in a tightening of the network’s policy just a day after it changed CEOs.

Under the new rules, people who are not public figures can ask Twitter to take down pictures or video of them that they report were posted without permission.

Twitter said this policy does not apply to “public figures or individuals when media and accompanying tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

“We will always try to assess the context in which the content is shared and, in such cases, we may allow the images or videos to remain on the service,” the company added.

The right of Internet users to appeal to platforms when images or data about them are posted by third parties, especially for malicious purposes, has been debated for years.

Twitter already prohibited the publication of private information such as a person’s phone number or address, but there are “growing concerns” about the use of content to “harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of individuals,” Twitter said.

The company noted a “disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents, and members of minority communities.”

High-profile examples of online harassment include the barrages of racist, sexist,and homophobic abuse on Twitch, the world’s biggest video game streaming site.

But instances of harassment abound, and victims must often wage lengthy fights to see hurtful, insulting or illegally produced images of themselves removed from the online platforms.

Some Twitter users pushed the company to clarify exactly how the tightened policy would work.

“Does this mean that if I take a picture of, say, a concert in Central Park, I need the permission of everyone in it? We diminish the sense of the public to the detriment of the public,” tweeted Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at the City University of New York.

The change came the day after Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey announced he was leaving the company, and handed CEO duties to company executive Parag Agrawal.

The platform, like other social media networks, has struggled against bullying, misinformation, and hate-fuelled content.

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Twitter’s Former CEO Jack Dorsey’s Journey: From Microblogging Pioneer to Billionaire

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By Reuters | Updated: 30 November 2021

Jack Dorsey on Monday stepped down as the chief executive officer of Twitter, the social media firm he helped found in 2006 and steered through a high-profile hack and the controversial banning of former US President Donald Trump.

Dorsey, who also helms fintech firm Square, will be succeeded by Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal.

Here is a timeline of milestones in Dorsey tenure at Twitter:

2006: Typed out the microblogging platform’s first post: “just setting up my twttr”.

2008: Co-founder Evan Williams took over as CEO after the board pushed Dorsey out. Dorsey assumed the role of chairman.

2013: Twitter went public at a valuation of $31 billion (roughly Rs. 2,32,400 crore).

2015: Dorsey returned as CEO after Dick Costolo stepped down.

2017: A Twitter employee on his last day deactivated then US President Donald Trump’s account which was restored 11 minutes later.

2018: Twitter increased the character limit of tweets to 280 from 140, sparking a mixed reaction in twitterverse.

2020: Activist hedge fund Elliott Management pushed for changes, including the removal of Dorsey as CEO.

2020: Twitter reached an agreement with Elliott to add three new directors for letting Dorsey stay on as CEO.

2021: In the wake of the riots at the Capitol, Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account, with the company citing a risk of further incitement of violence.

2021: Twitter outlined plans in February to attain at least $7.5 billion (roughly Rs. 56,230 crore) in annual revenue and 315 million monetisable daily active users, or those who see ads, by the end of 2023.

2021: In March, Dorsey sold his first tweet as a non-fungible token (NFT) – a kind of unique digital asset – for just over $2.9 million (roughly Rs. 21,745 crore).

2021: Former US President Donald Trump in July filed lawsuits against Twitter, Facebook, and Alphabet’s Google, as well as their chief executives, alleging they unlawfully silence conservative viewpoints.

2021: The company said it had 211 million average monetisable daily active users, as of the three months ended September 30.

2021: Dorsey’s net worth is $11.8 billion (roughly Rs. 88,500 crore) as of November 29, according to Forbes.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Who Is Twitter’s New CEO Parag Agrawal?

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By Reuters | Updated: 30 November 2021

Twitter on Monday promoted company insider and technology head Parag Agrawal to replace Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey. The social media networking platform joins tech giants Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet in tapping a company insider for the top job.

Here are some facts about Agrawal:

Decade with Twitter

Agrawal joined Twitter as a software engineer and has been with the company for over a decade. He was appointed chief technology officer in October 2017.

He oversaw Twitter’s technical strategy and was responsible for improving the pace of software development, while advancing the use of machine learning across the company.

Project Bluesky

Since December 2019, Agrawal has also been working on Project Bluesky, an independent team of open source architects, engineers and designers to combat abusive and misleading information on Twitter.

Bluesky is seeking to introduce a new decentralised technology, the idea being that Twitter and others will become clients of Bluesky and rebuild their platforms on top of the standard, Dorsey has said previously.

Ex-Microsoft, Yahoo employee

Before joining Twitter, Agrawal worked at Microsoft, Yahoo, and AT&T Labs in their research units, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Stanford graduate

Agrawal has a Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Instagram Under Probe by US State Attorney Generals Over Its Effect on Children

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By Associated Press | Updated: 19 November 2021

A group of state attorneys general are investigating the photo-sharing platform Instagram and its effects on children and young adults, saying its parent company Facebook — now called Meta Platforms — ignored internal research about the physical and mental health dangers it posed to young people.

The investigation is led by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general from California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Vermont. It follows damning newspaper reports, first by The Wall Street Journal, based on the company’s own research that found that the company knew about the harms Instagram can cause teenagers — especially teen girls — when it comes to mental health and body image issues.

Since those first reports, a consortium of news organisations, including The Associated Press, have published their own findings based on leaked documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen, who has testified before Congress and a British parliamentary committee about what she found.

“For too long, Meta has ignored the havoc that Instagram is wreaking on the mental health and well-being of our children and teens,” said California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “Enough is enough. We’ve undertaken this nationwide investigation to get answers about Meta’s efforts to promote the use of this social media platform to young Californians – and to determine if, in doing so, Meta violated the law.”

The investigation targets, among other things, the techniques Meta uses to keep young people on its platforms — and the harms that extended time spent on Instagram can cause.

In a statement, Meta spokesperson Liza Crenshaw called the accusations “false” and said they demonstrate “a deep misunderstanding of the facts.”

“While challenges in protecting young people online impact the entire industry, we’ve led the industry in combating bullying and supporting people struggling with suicidal thoughts, self-injury, and eating disorders,” Crenshaw said in the statement.

The state investigations follow a Monday announcement that Ohio’s largest public employee pension fund had sued Meta, alleging that it broke federal securities law by purposely misleading the public about the negative effects of its social platforms and the algorithms that run them.

The lawsuit by the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System claims that Facebook buried inconvenient findings about how the company has managed those algorithms as well as the steps it said it was taking to protect the public.

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