WhatsApp’s dark mode arrives in latest Android beta

The latest beta version of WhatsApp’s Android app has introduced a long-anticipated dark mode, WABetaInfo is reporting. “Dark Theme” is available to all beta users with version 2.20.13, and can be enabled in the “Chats” section of the app’s settings menu. You have the option of turning WhatsApp’s dark mode permanently on, permanently off, or else having it dictated by Android’s system-wide dark mode or battery saver settings.

Proponents claim that dark modes make app interfaces easier on the eyes in dark environments, and they can also improve the battery life of devices with OLED displays. Purists are likely to object to the fact that WhatsApp’s dark mode is more gray than absolute black, but it’s still a lot darker than the app’s regular green and white color scheme.

Yep, looks pretty dark to me.
Image: WABetaInfo

With the beta release, WhatsApp has become the third of Facebook’s major apps to get the dark mode treatment after Facebook Messenger and Instagram. It’s not clear when the mode will be available for iOS or non-beta users, but it can’t be long considering this widespread release of the beta version.

The new mode is available to Android beta users for now, but since WhatsApp doesn’t appear to be accepting new signups, non-beta users will need to side-load an APK to get their hands on it. 9to5Google links to an APK available here — just remember that you’re side-loading it at your own risk.

Facebook gives Oculus Go permanent $50 price cut

Facebook has permanently cut the price of its Oculus Go VR headset. “Oculus Go is now priced at $149, which is equal to a $50 price drop,” the company tells UploadVR. “We are applying comparable discounts across all countries where Go is sold. Updated pricing is rolling out to all channels.”

The Oculus Go is manufactured by Xiaomi and marked Facebook’s effort to produce a low-cost, entry-level headset that could handle 360-degree video and other basic VR content without relying on a phone. With a Snapdragon 821 processor and no real head or hand tracking, it offered a roughly comparable experience to phone-based solutions like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream.

Phone-based VR is kind of a dead end, though — both of those competing platforms are essentially finished, and while the Oculus Go has a reasonable content library, it’s hard to recommend it in 2020 unless your needs are very simple. (This isn’t going to work with Half-Life: Alyx, for example.) The all-in-one Oculus Quest is far more advanced and, with its new PC compatibility, looks to be where Facebook will be focusing most of its effort from now on.

Facebook backs off plan to plaster ads all over WhatsApp

Facebook is “backing away” from earlier plans to sell ads for placement inside its enormously popular WhatsApp messaging service. According to The Wall Street Journal, the team that had been working on building ads into WhatsApp was disbanded in recent months, with their work subsequently “deleted from WhatsApp’s code.”

The Journal notes that Facebook still ultimately aims to integrate ads into WhatsApp’s Status feature, but for now, the app will remain ad-free. The company’s desire to monetize WhatsApp, which it acquired for $22 billion in 2014, is part of what drove WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum out of Facebook in 2018. His fellow co-founder Brian Acton left months earlier (over similar clashes related to privacy and targeted advertising) and has been a vocal critic of Facebook’s unchecked power since his departure.

The advertising setback has led Facebook to instead focus on WhatsApp features that will “allow businesses to communicate with customers and organize those contacts.” Koum and Acton were reportedly concerned that a commercial messaging feature would force WhatsApp to weaken its end-to-end encryption.

But this was all before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans last year to gradually shift away from public posts in favor of a unified, encrypted messaging system across Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. As the company is now discovering, bringing ads to an encrypted service comes with challenges.

Twitter allowed ad targeting based on ‘neo-Nazi’ keyword

In the latest “keyword targeting gone awry” experiment, the BBC was able to use terms like “neo-Nazi” and “white supremacist” in a Twitter ad campaign, despite the social media platform’s policy that advertisers “may not select keywords that target sensitive categories.”

According to Twitter’s policies, those sensitive categories include genetic or biometric data, health, commission of a crime, sex life, religious affiliation or beliefs, and racial or ethnic origin, among others.

The BBC ran an ad and says it was able to target users who were interested in the words “white supremacist,” “transphobic,” and “anti-gay,” among others. It wasn’t clear whether the news organization was reaching users who were interested in those terms (such as for research) or people who identified as such, only noting that “Twitter allows ads to be directed at users who have posted about or searched for specific topics.”

The ad, which cost £3.84 (about $5) was only live for a couple of hours, the BBC reports, during which time 37 people saw it and two people clicked on it. A second version of the ad was targeted at users aged 13 to 24 using “anorexia,” “anorexic,” “bulimia,” and “bulimic” as keywords. It was seen by 255 users with 14 clicks before the BBC took it down. But according to Twitter’s tool, it had the potential to reach 20,000 people.

In an emailed statement to The Verge, Twitter seems to suggest the words tested by the BBC may not have been on its sensitive words list:

Twitter has specific policies related to keyword targeting, which exist to protect the public conversation. Preventative measures include banning certain sensitive or discriminatory terms, which we update on a continuous basis. In this instance, some of these terms were permitted for targeting purposes. This was an error. We’re very sorry this happened and as soon as we were made aware of the issue, we rectified it.

The company says it continues to enforce its ad policies, “including restricting the promotion of content in a wide range of areas, including inappropriate content targeting minors.”

Ad-targeting on social media platforms has come under increased scrutiny, raising questions about the potential for discrimination. ProPublica found that it was possible to run ads on Facebook that essentially discriminated against groups protected by federal law. In 2018, The Guardian found Facebook ads could be used to target users based on sensitive topics, which is in violation of since-implemented privacy laws in Europe.

Instagram messages on the web could pose an encryption challenge

It’s a relatively slow week on the platforms-and-democracy beat, so let’s talk about something small but fascinating in its own way: the arrival of Instagram messages on the web.

An unfortunate thing about being a xennial who grew up using (and loving) the world wide web is that most developers no longer build for it. Over the past 15 years, mobile phones became more popular than desktop computers ever were, and the result is that web development has entered a slow but seemingly inexorable decline. At the same time, like most journalists, I spent all day working on that same web. And with each passing year, the place where I do most of my work seems a little less vital.

This all feels particularly true when it comes to communications tools. Once, every messaging kingdom was united with a common API, allowing us to gather our conversations into a single place. (Shout out to Adium.) But today, our messages are often scattered across a dozen or more corporate inboxes, and accessing them typically requires picking up your phone and navigating to a separate app.

As a result, I spend a lot of time typing on a glass screen, where I am slow and typo-prone, rather than on a physical keyboard, where I’m lightning-quick. And each time I pick up my phone to respond to a message on WhatsApp, or Snapchat, or Signal, I inevitably find a notification for some other app, and the next thing I know 20 minutes have passed.

All of which is to say, I was extremely excited today to see Instagram’s announcement that it had begun rolling out direct messages on the web. (The company gave me access to the feature, and it’s glorious.) Here’s Ashley Carman at The Verge:

Starting today, a “small percentage” of the platform’s global users will be able to access their DMs from Instagram’s website, which should be useful for businesses, influencers, and anyone else who sends lots of DMs, while also helping to round out the app’s experience across devices. Today’s rollout is only a test, the company says, and more details on a potential wide-scale rollout will come in the future.

The direct messaging experience will be essentially the same through the browser as it is on mobile. You can create new groups or start a chat with someone either from the DM screen or a profile page; you can also double-tap to like a message, share photos from the desktop, and see the total number of unread messages you have. You’ll be able to receive desktop DM notifications if you enable notifications for the entire Instagram site in your browser.

Instagram didn’t state a strategic rationale for the move, but it makes sense in a world that is already moving toward small groups and private communication. Messengers win in part by being ubiquitous, and even if deskbound users like myself are in the minority, Facebook can only grab market share from rivals if it’s everywhere those rivals can be found. (iMessage and Signal, for example, have long been usable on desktop as well as mobile devices.)

Now, thanks to this move, I can make greater use of Instagram as both a social and reporting tool, and the web itself feels just a bit more vital. All of which is good news — but, asks former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos, is it secure? After all, Facebook is in the midst of a significant shift toward private, end-to-end encrypted messaging, with plans to create a single, encrypted backend for all of its messaging apps.

Stamos went on to highlight two core challenges in making web-based communications secure. One is securely storing cryptographic information in JavaScript, the lingua franca of the web. (This problem is being actively worked on, Stamos notes.) The second is that the nature of the web would allow a company to create a custom backdoor targeting an individual user — if compelled by a government, say. For that, there are few obvious workarounds.

One alternative is to take the approach that Signal and Facebook-owned WhatsApp have, and create native or web-based apps. As security researcher Saleem Rashid told me, the web version of WhatsApp generates a public key in the browser using JavaScript, then encodes it in a QR code that a users scans with their phone. This creates an encrypted tunnel between the web and the smartphone, and so long as the JavaScript involved in generating the key is not malicious, WhatsApp should not be able to encrypt any of the messages.

When I asked Instagram about how it plans to square the circle between desktop messages and encryption, the company declined to comment. I’m told that it still plans to build encryption into its products, and is still working through exactly how to accomplish this.

Granted, when I think of the tasks that I hope Facebook accomplishes this year, encrypted Instagram DMs are low on the list. But with our authoritarian president browbeating Apple today for failing to unlock a suspected criminal’s phone, the stakes for all this are relatively clear. We will either have good encrypted messaging backed by US corporations, or we won’t. As Apple put it this week:

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor just for the good guys,” the company explained. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers. … We feel strongly encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

On one level, today’s Instagram news is a small story about a niche feature. But in the background, questions about the security of our private communications are swirling. Which should give us all reason to watch Facebook’s next moves here very closely.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending down: Facebook said it doesn’t need to change its web-tracking services to comply with California’s new consumer-privacy law. The company’s rationale is that routine data transfers about consumers don’t fit the law’s definition of “selling” data. The move puts it at odds with Google, which is taking the opposite tack.

Trending down: Grindr, OkCupid and Tinder are sharing sensitive user data like dating choices and precise location to advertisers in ways that may violate privacy laws, according to a new report. I don’t want to downplay that, but if you think that data is sensitive, you should see the average Grindr user’s DMs.

Governing

Two days before the UK election in December, some 74,000 political advertisements vanished from Facebook’s Ad Library, a website that serves as an archive of political and issue ads run on the platform. The company said a bug wiped 40 percent of all political Facebook ads in the UK from the public record. Rory Smith at BuzzFeed has the story:

In the wake of the failure during the UK elections, Facebook said it had launched a review of how to prevent these issues, as well as how to communicate them more clearly.

But the events of Dec. 10 are not the first time Facebook’s Ad Library has failed since its launch in May 2018. The API, which is supposed to give researchers greater access to data than the library website, went live in March 2019 and ran into trouble within weeks of the European Parliament election in May. Researchers have been documenting a myriad of issues ever since.

The platform also drew the ire of researchers when it failed to deliver the data it promised as part of a partnership with the nonprofit Social Science Research Council and Social Science One, a for-profit initiative run by researchers — a project that was funded by several large US foundations. Facebook said it remains committed to providing data to researchers, but the SSRC and funders have begun withdrawing from the project due to the company’s delays.

Russian military hackers may have been boring into the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the impeachment inquiry, where Hunter Biden served on the board. Experts say the timing and scale of the attacks suggest that the Russians could be searching for potentially embarrassing material on the Bidens, similar to what Trump was looking for. On Twitter, security experts like Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher have urged caution when writing about this story, arguing that the case for attribution to Russia is thin. (Nicole Perlroth and Matthew Rosenberg / The New York Times)

There’s been an explosion of online disinformation, including the use of doctored images, from politicians. They do it for a simple reason: It’s effective at spreading their messages, and so far none have paid a price for trafficking in bogus memes. (Drew Harwell / The Washington Post)

Artificial personas, in the form of AI-driven text generation and social-media chatbots, could drown out actual human discussions on the internet, experts warn. They say the issue could manifest itself in particularly frightening ways during an election. (Bruce Schneier / The Atlantic)

The Treasury Department unveiled new rules designed to increase scrutiny of foreign investors whose potential stakes in US companies could pose a national security threat. The rules are focused on businesses that handle personal data, and come after the United States has heightened scrutiny of foreign involvement in apps such as Grindr and TikTok. (Katy Stech Ferek / The Wall Street Journal)

The Harvard Law Review just floated the idea of adding 127 more states to the union. These states would add enough votes in Congress to rewrite the Constitution by passing amendments aimed at making every vote count equally. Worth a read.(Ian Millhiser / Vox)

The New York Times editorial board interviewed Bernie Sanders on how he plans carry out his ambitious policy ideas if faced with the Republican-led Senate that stymied so many of President Barack Obama’s proposals. Notably, he says he’s not an Amazon Prime customer and tries never to use any apps.

Workers for grocery delivery platform Instacart are organizing a national boycott of the company next week to push for the reinstatement of a 10 percent default tip on all orders. One of 2020’s big stories is going to be tech-focused labor movements; this is but the latest example. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella strongly criticized a new citizenship law that the Indian government passed last month. The law, known as the Citizenship Amendment Act, fast-tracks Indian citizenship for immigrants from most major South Asian religions except Islam. India is Nadella’s birthplace, and one of Microsoft’s largest markets, making his comments all the more notable. (Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed)

Industry

Facebook’s push into virtual reality has resulted in a slew of new patents, mostly for heads-up displays. The company won 64 percent more patents in 2019 than in 2018. Christopher Yasiejko and Sarah Frier at Bloomberg explain what this might mean:

The breadth of Facebook’s patent growth, said Larry Cady, a senior analyst with IFI, resembled that of intellectual-property heavyweights Amazon.com Inc. and Apple Inc., which were No. 9 and No. 7, respectively, with each winning more than twice as many patents as the social media titan. Facebook’s largest numbers were in categories typical of Internet-based computer companies — data processing and digital transmission, for example — but its areas of greatest growth were in more novel categories that may suggest where the company sees its future.

Facebook’s 169 patents in the Optical Elements category marked a nearly six-fold jump. Most of that growth stems from the Heads-Up Displays sub-category, which Cady said probably is related to virtual-reality headsets. Facebook owns the VR company Oculus and in November acquired the Prague-based gaming studio behind the popular Beat Saber game. One such patent, granted Nov. 5, is titled “Compact head-mounted display for artificial reality.”

Popular “e-boys” on TikTok are nabbing fashion and entertainment deals. They’re known mostly for making irony-steeped videos of themselves in their bedrooms wearing tragically hip outfits composed of thrifted clothes. Some observers predict that top e-boys will have success reminiscent of the boy bands of yore. (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)

YouTube signed three video stars — Lannan “LazarBeam” Eacott, Elliott “Muselk” Watkins and Rachell “Valkyrae” Hofstetter — to combat Amazon’s Twitch and Facebook. Exclusive deals for top video game streamers have been one of the big tech stories of the year so far. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)

Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener’s beautiful memoir about life working at San Francisco tech companies, is out today. Kaitlyn Tiffany has a great interview with Wiener in the Atlantic. Read this book and stay tuned for news about an Interface Live event with Wiener in San Francisco next month!

Mark Bergen, friend of The Interface and a journalist at Bloomberg, is writing a book about YouTube titled Like, Comment, Subscribe. Bergen is a former Recode colleague and ace YouTube reporter, and this book will be a must-read in our world. (Kia Kokalitcheva / Axios)

The Information published a Twitter org chart that identifies the company’s 66 top executives, including the nine people who report directly to CEO Jack Dorsey. (Alex Heath / The Information)

A new app called Doublicat allows users to put any face on a GIFs in seconds, essentially allowing them to create deepfakes. The app launches just as prominent tech companies like Facebook and Reddit ban deepfakes almost completely. (Matthew Wille / Input)

And finally…

Wired got Jack Dorsey to do 11 minutes of Twitter tech support on video. Enjoy!

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Instagram starts bringing DMs to the web

Instagram is finally bringing direct messages to the web. Starting today, a “small percentage” of the platform’s global users will be able to access their DMs from Instagram’s website, which should be useful for businesses, influencers, and anyone else who sends lots of DMs, while also helping to round out the app’s experience across devices. Today’s rollout is only a test, the company says, and more details on a potential wide-scale rollout will come in the future.

The direct messaging experience will be essentially the same through the browser as it is on mobile. You can create new groups or start a chat with someone either from the DM screen or a profile page; you can also double-tap to like a message, share photos from the desktop, and see the total number of unread messages you have. You’ll be able to receive desktop DM notifications if you enable notifications for the entire Instagram site in your browser. Instagram says it’ll “continue to iterate” on this during the test.

When asked why Instagram prioritized web DMs over something like an iPad app, a company spokesperson referred The Verge back to its usual justification and said that DMs on the web help its users “stay in touch with the people you care about.”

Facebook has increasingly placed a focus on messaging over the past year. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The New York Times last spring that “private messaging, groups, and Stories” were the “three fastest-growing areas of online communication.” Instagram Stories are already on the web, and with today’s announcement, Instagram now allows some of its users to access group chats and private messages from the browser, too, which aligns with what Zuckerberg said he and the company would prioritize.

Zuckerberg said last year that the company plans to eventually allow Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram users to message each other, regardless of the platform they’re using. We haven’t heard how the company plans to pull this feat off, but the browser could potentially play an important role, if only to give users even more flexibility about where they have conversations.

I’ve lobbied for Instagram DMs on the web, mostly because I’m a reporter who occasionally reaches sources through Instagram. I also live on my laptop for most of the day, so treating Instagram DMs like I do any other desktop chat app streamlines my process and makes it faster and easier to chat with my friends and sources.

Why activists get frustrated with Facebook

On Monday morning I met with a group of activists who live under authoritarian regimes. The delegation had been brought to San Francisco by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation as part of a fellowship focused on the relationship between activism and Silicon Valley. And the big question they had for me was: why do social networks keep taking down my posts?

The question caught me off guard. For every story in this newsletter about an activist’s post wrongly (and often temporarily) being removed, there are three more about the consequences of a post that was left up: a piece of viral misinformation, a terrorist recruitment video, a financial scam, and so on. As I wrote in 2018, we are well into the “take it down” era of content moderation.

Sometimes the activists’ posts came down because their governments demanded it. Other times the posts came down because of over-cautious content moderation. Increasingly, the activists told me, social networks were acting as if they would rather be safe from government intervention than sorry. And whenever their posts and pages came down, they said, they had very little recourse. Facebook does not have a customer support hotline, much less a judicial branch. (Yet. More on that below.)

The activists’ concerns were fresh in my mind when I read about the weekend’s removal of Instagram accounts in Iran that expressed support for the Iranian general Qassem Soleiman, who was killed by the United States last week. Like a strong antibiotic, it appears that Instagram’s enforcement action wiped out both accounts tied to the ruling regime and the posts of everyday Iranians.

Facebook’s explanation? Sanctions. Here’s Donie O’Sullivan and Artemis Moshtaghian in CNN:

As part of its compliance with US law, the Facebook spokesperson said the company removes accounts run by or on behalf of sanctioned people and organizations.

It also removes posts that commend the actions of sanctioned parties and individuals and seek to help further their actions, the spokesperson said, adding that Facebook has an appeals process if users feel their posts were removed in error.

GoFundMe also removed at least two fundraising campaigns for passengers on the Ukrainian flight brought down by Iranian missiles, only to later reinstate them, my colleague Colin Lecher reported at The Verge. But Twitter, on the other hand, said it would leave posts up so long as they complied with the company’s rules.

The confusion is to be expected. Legal experts disagree on the extent to which sanctions require tech platforms to remove user posts, and the issue of Iran in particular has been giving companies fits for years. Here’s Lecher in The Verge:

While recent news has put the focus on Iran, it’s hardly the first time tech companies have mounted a zealous response to sanctions. Last year, GitHub restricted users in several countries under US sanctions.

Iran, which has faced sanctions for years, has regularly had tech companies limit use in the country in response to US policy. In 2018, Slack deactivated accounts around the world that were tied to Iran, in a move that stretched well beyond the borders of the country. Apple took several popular Iranian apps off its store in 2017 in the face of US sanctions. At the time, Apple issued a statement that’s still relevant: “This area of law is complex and constantly changing.”

At the same time, once again people around the world are waking up to the reality that their speech is governed by actors who are not accountable to them. Instagram has users but not citizens. Executives in California will decide what can be said in Tehran.

Of course, there’s vastly more free speech on Instagram than in a country like Iran, where activism is brutally repressed. But as the activists shared with me on Monday, the ramifications of social networks acting as quasi-states to reshape political speech in their countries are significant. And their struggles to appeal unjust content removals are real.

The good news is that later this year, Facebook will launch its independent Oversight Board: a Supreme Court for content moderation that will allow users to appeal in cases like the activists’ and the Iranian citizens’. One of the board’s rules will be that cases selected for review will include at least one person from the region in which the case originated. That’s not quite a democratically elected representative — but hopefully it bolsters the board’s accountability to Facebook’s user base.

There are still many questions about how the board will work in practice, and whether it can serve as a model for quasi-judicial systems at other companies. But hearing the activists’ stories today, and reading about the confusion over sanctions in Iran, it seemed to me that the board can’t launch quickly enough.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: In December, Facebook updated its standards surrounding hate speech and banned many dehumanizing comparisons.

Trending down: In 2019, Americans said that social media wastes our time, spreads lies and divides the nation. And yet 70 percent still use Twitter or Facebook at least once a day.

Governing

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new bill that would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws. It would allow them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. Cecilia Kang from The New York Times has the story:

Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.

“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.

But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.

Attorney General William Barr asked Apple to unlock two iPhones used by the gunman in the Pensacola shooting last month. The company already gave investigators data on the shooter’s iCloud account, but has refused to help them open the phones, which would undermine its privacy-focused marketing. (Katie Benner / The New York Times)

A Microsoft tool used to transcribe audio from Skype and Cortana, its voice assistant, ran for years with “no security measures”, according to one former contractor. He says he reviewed thousands of potentially sensitive recordings on his personal laptop from his home in Beijing over the two years he worked at the company. (Alex Hern / The Guardian)

Most cookie consent pop-ups seen by people in the EU are likely flouting regional privacy laws, a new study suggests. The pop-ups are ostensibly supposed to get permission to track people’s web activity. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)

India’s Supreme Court said indefinite internet shutdowns violate the country’s laws concerning freedom of speech and expression. However, the order won’t immediately impact the ongoing internet shutdown in Kashmir. The government still has a week to produce a restrictive order detailing the reasons for the shut down. (Ivan Mehta / TNW)

India ordered an investigation into Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart over allegedly anti-competitive practices. It’s the latest setback for US e-commerce giants operating in the country. (Aditya Kalra and Aditi Shah / Reuters)

Industry

Facebook and Google are no longer the top destinations for college students looking to land prestigious jobs after graduation. While some still see Big Tech as a way to make a lot of money, others feel like it’s an ethical minefield. Emma Goldberg at The New York Times explains the trend:

The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in “JoJo Rabbit”: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends.”

That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise. In August, the reporter April Glaser wrote about campus techlash for Slate. She found that at Stanford, known for its competitive computer science program, some students said they had no interest in working for a major tech company, while others sought “to push for change from within.”

Facebook shares hit an all-time high, despite attacks from both sides of the aisle ahead of this year’s presidential election. The company closed at $218.30 on Thursday, exceeding its previous high of $217.50 in July 2018 and valuing the company at $622 billion. (Tim Bradshaw / The Financial Times)

Facebook’s newest Oculus headset is in high demand, and the company has a VR-only sequel to Valve’s “Half Life” game series due out in March. The news signals Facebook’s VR quest is finally getting real. (Dan Gallagher / Wall Street Journal)

Facebook’s redesigned look for desktops is already here for some users, and will be broadly available before the spring. If you’re getting a first peak, you’ll see a pop-up inviting you to help test the “The New Facebook” when you login. (Ian Sherr / CNET)

Instagram added new Boomerang effects in an effort to compete with TikTok. Now, users can add SlowMo, “Echo” blurring, and “Duo” rapid rewind special effects to their Boomerangs, as well as trim their length. This all reminds me of one of my favorite tweets. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)

AI-assisted health care systems, such as those being developed by Google, promise to combine humans and machines in order to facilitate cancer diagnosis. But they also has the potential to worsen pre-existing problems such as overtesting, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment. (Christie Aschwanden / Wired)

On TikTok, teens are using memes to cope with the possibility of World War III. The trend gained momentum after Soleimani’s death, with people posting bleak jokes about getting drafted. Fun!! (Kalhan Rosenblatt / NBC)

TikTok might launch a curated feed to provide a safer space for brands to advertise in. The decision comes as the Chinese-owned company faces new concerns about the volume of advertiser-unfriendly content on its platform.

Nine years after Twitch’s launch, the content that hardcore gamers most revile has officially become its most watched: just talking. A new report from StreamElements shows that in December, Twitch viewers watched 81 million hours of “Just Chatting.” (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Wired)

And finally…

My favorite thing on Twitter is just former costars Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates supporting one another as the Oscar nominations were announced.

Better luck next time, Sandman. (Uncut Gems is great.)

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Send us tips, comments, questions, and sanctions: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.

Facebook’s revised political advertising policy doubles down on division

In October, Facebook made the controversial decision to exempt most political ads from fact-checking. The announcement met with a swift backlash, particularly among leading Democratic candidates for president. As criticism mounted, Facebook began to hint that it would further refine its policy to address lawmakers’ concerns. One change that seemed likely was to limit the ability of candidates to use the company’s sophisticated targeting tools, particularly after hundreds of employees wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg asking for it.

On Thursday, Facebook unveiled the refinements to its policy that it had been promising. But restrictions on targeting were nowhere to be found. Instead, the company doubled down on its current policy, and said the only major change in 2020 would be to allow users to see “fewer” ads. (Fewer than what? It didn’t say.) Here’s Rob Leathern, the company’s director of product management for ads, in the blog post:

There has been much debate in recent months about political advertising online and the different approaches that companies have chosen to take. While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads. […]

We recognize this is an issue that has provoked much public discussion — including much criticism of Facebook’s position. We are not deaf to that and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections.

The move is rooted in ideas of personal responsibility — if you want to see fewer political ads and remove yourself from campaigns, that’s on you. In practice, though, it seems unlikely that many Facebook users would take advantage of the semi-opt-out, which is due to be released sometime before April. When’s the last time you visited your ad preferences dashboard?

Among the commentators I follow, condemnation of Facebook’s move was more or less universal. Elizabeth Warren hated it (and took a dig at the Teen Vogue imbroglio while she was at it.) Joe Biden hated it. Ellen Weintraub of the Federal Election Commission hated it. Barbra Streisand hated it. And the list goes on.

Republicans, who the conventional wisdom holds will benefit most from the move, were largely silent on the decision. (Ben Shapiro was a minor exception; and here’s a Washington Post columnist who likes the policy,) Still, it’s safe to assume that President Donald Trump, whose campaign made great use of targeting capabilities during the 2016 election, would have raged had Facebook taken those tools away. And given that Facebook is the subject of at least four ongoing federal investigations, it wouldn’t be surprising if the company developed this policy with appeasement in mind.

At the same time, Republicans aren’t the sole beneficiary of Facebook’s announcement. As Leathern noted, the Democratic National Committee opposed the elimination of targeting tools. There is also some evidence that Facebook tools have prompted more candidates overall to buy ads, increasing the amount of paid political discussion generally.

I’ve come around to the idea that microtargeting ought to be banned, because it accelerates the polarization and tribalism that are transforming the country. Let politicians craft divisive messages to ever-smaller splinters of the populace and they probably will. The media will write about the most egregious examples of misinformation and hypocrisy that this practice enables, but it seems likely that much of it will go unchallenged. Meanwhile, sorting fact from fiction will become even harder for the average voter. The negatives here seem to far outweigh any benefits.

Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, a top Facebook executive who ran the ad platform during the 2016 election, called polarization “the real disaster” in an internal post made public this week by the New York Times. Bosworth wrote:

What happens when you see 26% more content from people you don’t agree with? Does it help you empathize with them as everyone has been suggesting? Nope. It makes you dislike them even more. This is also easy to prove with a thought experiment: whatever your political leaning, think of a publication from the other side that you despise. When you read an article from that outlet, perhaps shared by an uncle or nephew, does it make you rethink your values? Or does it make you retreat further into the conviction of your own correctness? If you answered the former, congratulations you are a better person than I am. Every time I read something from Breitbart I get 10% more liberal.

A world in which politicians are able to advertise only to large groups of people — as they do on broadcast television, for example — is one in which they have incentives to promote more unifying messages. But if they can slice and dice the electorate however they like, those incentives are much weaker.

Meanwhile, misleading political ads will continue to go viral, prompting a fresh news cycle whenever a candidate’s lie crosses a few hundreds thousand impressions. In each case, calls for Facebook to revisit its policies will be renewed, and the beleaguered PR team will dig up old quotes from Leathern’s post and email them to reporters by way of explanation.

And make no mistake: Facebook executives already know all this, and have decided that it beats the alternative. The company is committing to 11 full months of getting kicked in the teeth. It may well be the company’s smartest move politically. But it would seem to augur very poorly for our politics.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Microsoft released a new tool that scans online chats for people seeking to sexually exploit children. It’s part of a broader push by the tech industry to crack down on the dangers facing kids online, amid pressure from lawmakers.

Trending down: Anti-vaxxers continue to circumvent Facebook’s ban against ads that contain vaccine misinformation. “Facebook does not have a policy that bans advertising on the basis that it expresses opposition to vaccines,” a Facebook spokesperson said. OK!

Governing

⭐ House lawmakers introduced a new bill that would give parents the right to delete data that companies have collected about their children and extend the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act to older minors. The Verge’s Makena Kelly explains the significance:

The bill would make big updates to the law that’s already brought enormous changes to YouTube and TikTok and infuriated creators. In its settlement with YouTube, the FTC fined the company over $170 million and prohibited the company from running targeted ads on videos the agency could deem child-friendly. Many critics argued that this settlement didn’t go far enough, and if the PROTECT Kids Act was approved, YouTube and other online platforms would be under a lot more pressure than they already are to ensure children’s data remains safe online.

Under current law, COPPA only prohibits platforms from collecting the data of children under the age of 13. Under the PROTECT Kids Act, that age would be increased to 16. COPPA also doesn’t include precise geolocation and biometric information as part of its definition of “personal information.” This House bill would ban platforms from collecting those sensitive pieces of information from children as well. And if a parent wanted to remove their children’s data from a website, the company would have to provide some kind of delete feature for them to use.

Here are 10 things tech platforms can do to create more election security before November. The list, which includes contributions from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, offers a refreshingly concrete take on the ongoing debate over big tech and election manipulation. (John Borthwick / Medium)

Iranian teenagers are defacing US websites in protest of the Trump administration killing Soleimani. Some of the hackers say they do not work for the Iranian government. (Kevin Collier / The Verge)

A pro-Iran Instagram campaign targeted the Trump family after the funeral of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. The campaign consisted of tagging the president’s family, especially Ivanka and Melania, in images ranging from the Iranian flag to a beheaded Donald Trump. (Jane Lytvynenko and Jeremy Singer-Vine / BuzzFeed)

Android users in the EU will soon be able to choose their default search engine from a list of four options, including Google, when setting up their new phones or tablets. The changes follow a $5 billion fine from EU regulators that found Google had used its mobile operating system to hurt rivals. (Lauren Feiner / CNBC)

Many politicians have been hesitant to create profiles on TikTok, the video looping app plagued by national security concerns. The vacuum has allowed impersonators to roam free. The problem is compounded by the fact that TikTok lacks a robust verification system, which makes identifying and taking down such accounts difficult. (Maria Jose Valero and Yueqi Yang / Bloomberg)

Reddit updated its impersonation policy ahead of the 2020 election. The new policy covers fake articles misleadingly attributed to real journalists, forged election communications purporting to come from real government agencies, and scammy domains posing as those of a particular news outlet or politician.

YouTube’s algorithm isn’t the only thing responsible for making the platform a far-right propaganda machine, researcher Becca Lewis argues. The company’s celebrity culture and community dynamics play a major role in the amplification of far-right content. (Becca Lewis / Medium)

A judge in Brazil ruled that a film made by a YouTube comedy group that depicts Jesus as gay must be temporarily removed from Netflix. Two million people signed a petition calling for the movie to be axed, and the production company was attacked with Molotov cocktails last month. And you thought Richard Jewell got bad reviews. (BBC)

Industry

Mark Zuckerberg is giving up on annual personal challenges. Instead, he wrote a more thematic list of goals for the next decade, which include a new private social platform, a decentralized payments platform, and new forms of community governance. Here’s how he framed the pivot:

This decade I’m going to take a longer term focus. Rather than having year-to-year challenges, I’ve tried to think about what I hope the world and my life will look in 2030 so I can make sure I’m focusing on those things. By then, if things go well, my daughter Max will be in high school, we’ll have the technology to feel truly present with another person no matter where they are, and scientific research will have helped cure and prevent enough diseases to extend our average life expectancy by another 2.5 years.

I’m really glad to see this — as I argued here, the annual challenges had outlived their usefulness.

Meanwhile, here’s your content moderation story of the day, from David Gilbert at Vice. It centers on Facebook moderators in Europe.

One moderator who worked at CPL for 14 months in 2017 and 2018 told VICE News that he decided to leave the company when a manager sanctioned him while he was having a panic attack at his computer. He’d just found out that his elderly mother, who lived in a different country, had had a stroke and gone missing.

“On the day I had the most stress in the world, when I think I might lose my mother, my team leader, a 23-year-old without any previous experience, decided to put more pressure on me by saying that I might lose my job,” said the moderator, who did not want to be identified.

YouTube creator David Dobrik has gotten well over one million downloads on his new digital disposable camera app. YouTubers launching apps isn’t anything new, but the disposable camera idea is tied directly to David B’s brand, and it’s one that fans want to try for themselves. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)

Thanks to YouTuber MrBeast’s viral tree planting campaign, more than 21 million trees will be planted across the United States, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Haiti, Indonesia, Ireland, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal, and the United Kingdom. (Justine Calma / The Verge)

Amazon’s Twitch is facing mounting competition from Facebook. Facebook Gaming was the fastest growing streaming platforms (in terms of streaming hours watched) in December. (Olga Kharif / Bloomberg)

The Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin, just hit 400 million daily active users. The news was revealed by parent company ByteDance in its annual report this week. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)

And finally…

Text this number for an infinite feed of AI-generated feet

It’s a big day for foot fetishists, The Next Web reports:

The site relies on a generative adversarial network (GAN) to produce eerily realistic images of feet. Of course, since these are all the figment of a computer’s imagination, you’re bound to see some gruesome deformities.

Have a wonderful evening and absolutely do not send us any AI-generated feet.

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and microtargeted advertisements: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.

Reddit bans impersonation on its platform

Today, Reddit updated its policies about impersonation to no longer allow impersonation of an individual or entity in a misleading or deceptive manner. That means the new policies won’t just affect things like misleadingly altered videos (like deepfakes), but could implicate simple lies made by people impersonating others online. The new policies expand upon the platform’s 2018 ban on deepfake porn videos and were made just days after Facebook updated its own platform policies to ban deepfake videos.

Here are Reddit’s updated policies:

Do not impersonate an individual or entity in a misleading or deceptive manner.

Reddit does not allow content that impersonates individuals or entities in a misleading or deceptive manner. This not only includes using a Reddit account to impersonate someone, but also encompasses things such as domains that mimic others, as well as deepfakes or other manipulated content presented to mislead, or falsely attributed to an individual or entity. While we permit satire and parody, we will always take into account the context of any particular content.

In the announcement post about the updated policies, a Reddit admin said that Reddit updated the rules to “hedge against things that we haven’t seen much of to date, but could see in the future.” (Reddit says impersonation was the second-lowest “class” of reported policy violation on Reddit in 2018, making up only 2.3 percent of reports.) The admin also cited malicious deepfakes of politicians as an example of content the platform is trying to prevent.

The updated policies seem to imply that any kind of misleading impersonation, deepfake or not, could trigger a removal or ban. That could mean, for example, that an account impersonating a US presidential candidate and making posts that falsely and misleadingly represent that candidate’s positions could be banned.

The new policies do allow impersonation that’s seen as satire and parody, however, which could be a hard line to enforce. Reddit seems to have given itself some flexibility to make judgment calls, though, because it will apparently “always take into account the context of any particular contentof satire or parody.

The new policies could also give Reddit a new method to shut down misinformation campaigns, which have appeared on the platform before. In 2018, Reddit said it had identified 944 “suspicious” accounts that were suspected to be linked to the Internet Research Agency. Some of the most popular posts from those accounts were negative articles about Hillary Clinton, linked to broader misinformation campaigns around the 2016 election.

Instagram and Facebook won’t stop lies in political ads, but users will get more control

Facebook has stood firm in the face of pressure over its policies on political ads, defending a “warts and all” approach that allows politicians to lie in ads placed on its platform. In a post published in its newsroom, the company said it had based its policies on the principle that “people should be able to hear from those who wish to lead them” and “what they say should be scrutinized and debated in public.” Facebook will be offering more transparency and control over political ads for users of both Instagram and Facebook.

The company’s current ad policies came under tough scrutiny last year, when it emerged that it exempts politicians from its rules about posting misinformation in ads. The policy was fiercely criticized both internally and externally, and Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren published a deliberately misleading Facebook ad in a direct challenge to the policy. However, Facebook has remained firm in its stance.

Rather than make any wholesale changes to its policies on political ads, Facebook is instead giving its users more control over the ads they see. Similar to how you can currently tell Facebook you want to see less ads about certain topics, the company says it will add a new control to let you see fewer political and social issue ads across Facebook and Instagram. It plans to roll out the feature starting this summer in the US.

The company also says it’s adding more features to its Ad Library, which lets anyone see the ads politicians and campaigns are running on Facebook. You’ll now be able to see how many people an advertiser was attempting to reach with a particular ad, and the library’s search and filtering tools will see improvements. Facebook says it plans to roll out these updates in the first quarter of this year.

In a speech made at Georgetown University last October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians,” and said that political ads are “an important part of voice” for “local candidates, up-and-coming challengers, and advocacy groups that may not get much media attention otherwise.” Today it called for the industry to be regulated by “democratically accountable rules” concerning political advertising.

Facebook’s policies sit in contrast to an increasing number of tech firms. Following the criticism received by Facebook, Twitter decided to ban political ads entirely at the end of October, while Google issued harsh new restrictions on political ad targeting. In December, Spotify took the decision to “pause” political ads on its platform.