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Censored by China, under attack in America: what’s next for WeChat?

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Four years ago, Bin Xie was happy to sing the praises of WeChat. The IT manager from Houston had seen his pro-Trump blog, “Chinese Voice of America,” go viral on the app. 

Today, Xie stands firmly behind his president, but his relationship with the platform that fueled his rise has soured. The shift didn’t happen when Trump announced that he would ban the app, though: it came in 2019, when Xie’s account was temporarily suspended after he shared the results of Hong Kong’s district elections in a WeChat group, with the note, “The pro-China candidates totally lost.” 

For Xie, who had long been tired of writing in purposefully bungled Chinese to confuse the platform’s censors (“like a kindergartener,” he says) this was the final straw. He started encouraging his followers to leave for alternative apps. 

And he was far from alone. For years, many Chinese American WeChat users have become increasingly disillusioned with the platform’s opaque censorship and surveillance practices. While some have turned to alternatives, like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Line, most found that WeChat’s popularity meant it was impossible to leave. 

WeChat “is so important to the Chinese American community,” says Steven Chen, who writes a popular liberal-leaning WeChat blog and helps non-profit organizations use the platform. “But more importantly,” he adds, “we actually have to use it to communicate with our parents… the elder[ly] people in China basically only have WeChat.”

This level of nuance was lost when President Trump issued an executive order in early August that would ban WeChat (as well as Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok) within 45 days on grounds of national security. While many Chinese-Americans actually agreed that WeChat deserved more scrutiny, few believed that Trump’s ban—seen as both another attack on Chinese Americans and an example of the administration’s blunt force approach to US-China relations—was the right way to go about it.

‘A virtual Chinatown’

Since its creation in 2011, WeChat has become the undisputed messaging app of choice in China. With its 1.2 billion monthly active users, it is the world’s fifth largest social network. 

For the service’s owner, Tencent, it has been a huge success, essentially acting as its own mobile operating system. It has an app store that caters to all of its users’ digital needs, combining the social features of Facebook profiles, timelines, and groups, with blogs; the payment/shopping features of Venmo, Paypal, and Amazon; the geolocation and mapping functions of Google Maps; and, in the age of covid-19, even a health code program that predicts your likelihood of infection, which then determines your ability to leave your home, visit stores and restaurants, or travel.

In the US, WeChat’s user base is much smaller, numbering in the “single digit millions,” according to Tencent America. They are mostly first-generation Chinese American immigrants or others with strong ties to China, who mainly use the app for social activity and information-sharing. 

Many of these immigrants are more comfortable conversing in Chinese than English, and Chinese is the main language in use on the app. Steven Chen is concerned that this has made WeChat into a “virtual Chinatown,” keeping “isolated first-generation immigrants from mainland China from the rest of the country and the broader range of political views,” as he wrote in a Medium post in 2018.

The limits are exacerbated by the censorship that, Chen says, everyone knows to occur on the platform. It is one that WeChat users—like all Chinese internet users—regularly navigate. (While American WeChat users aren’t necessarily subject to the same levels of Chinese internet policing, it is dramatically easier to create a blog through the Chinese arm of the app, which means that most content is still subject to Bejing’s rules.) Most people don’t have that much to worry about, says Chen, because “they’re not trying to overthrow the government.” But he acknowledges that he is “really careful” when publishing articles, and that he has had them removed in the past. So have Xie and three other blog owners that I interviewed.

Online mobilization

At the center of these first generation immigrants’ experiences on WeChat are its groups. They can be created by anyone, but are limited to 500 members. Users can join an unlimited number of them, and can choose how their name displays in each one. 

In the beginning, groups were mostly non-political, reflecting the fact that Chinese Americans have historically been one of the least politically active demographics in the United States. But this began to change in 2014, driven by two specific events.

The first was a proposition in California called SCA-5 that planned to restore affirmative action in university admissions. The move to allow race, gender and ethnicity to be considered in college applications was intended to ensure that more non-white students entered the University of California, and a field poll conducted that year showed that Asian Americans actually supported affirmative action at a rate of 69 percent.  

But first generation Chinese American parents—who were less supportive of affirmative action—panicked, swayed by rumors on WeChat and ethnic media that the bill would result in racial quotas that would damage the higher education prospects of their children. They used WeChat to mobilize demonstrations and protests, many for the first time, and the bill was withdrawn under pressure, which the new activists considered a victory. 

In November of the same year, Peter Liang, a Chinese American police officer in New York City, shot and killed a 28-year-old Black man, Akai Gurley. While white officers in controversial shootings had not been indicted—including Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner in Long Island—Liang became the first NYPD officer charged for a shooting in over 10 years, and was indicted and later convicted. 

First generation Chinese Americans organized en masse via WeChat, believing that Liang was unfairly scapegoated for the more frequent crimes of white officers. In the end, Liang was sentenced to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service. 

The community’s interest in political participation grew. By the time the 2016 US presidential election took place, it captivated audiences on WeChat just as it did in the English-language media. 

And among those who benefited from the political activity was Xie and his blog. Chinese Voice of America was proudly pro-Trump, repeating right-wing talking points that, often, had already been debunked on English language fact-checking sites. One article, titled, “Banning pork has quietly begun across the United States,” typified how CVA tailored the messaging from right wing publications to cater to the specific concerns of Chinese Americans. (Pork is an important part of the middle class Chinese diet.)

In an interview I conducted with Xie in 2017, a few months after Trump had taken office, he described how WeChat helped his messages go viral. “If I publish it on WeChat, I’ll get thousands of hits,” he said. “If readers see something of their topic [of interest], they are going to spread it quickly to all their groups” — a much easier process than if he published on a website.

But Xie and his friends didn’t just publish articles and then sit back; they also actively engaged their readers, and their opponents, in vicious partisan debates that often dominated even the most non-political groups. Their coordination made it seem like most Chinese Americans supported Trump. “The pro-Trump side was definitely louder,” recalls Ling Luo, a prominent Democratic activist who now leads the Chinese Americans for Biden affinity group; she ran her own WeChat blog, but she admits that, in 2016, the Democratic side was not as prepared for the partisan fights that would take place in WeChat groups. 

For Chen, he had never seen politics become as divisive for the community as they became during the 2016 campaign. “In previous years,” he says, “of course people supported different presidents,” but that did not mean that “people stop talking to each other,” or that they gave up friendships that had spanned continents, as they did now. 

At first, he attributes this to Trump himself, but when I presses him further, he recognizes that the app itself was a factor. “Wechat probably played a bigger role… and intensified the difference between the people,” he says. “It’s not as easy to use email or phone to fight.”

Two sides 

If 2016 revealed strong divisions among the Chinese American community, at least the most ferocious political debates still focused on support for or against the candidates. But this year, some users say that the arguments hinge around something more existential: whether one is pro-China or pro-America. 

Both sides accuse each other of being “red guards,” referring to the youth militia groups weaponized during the Cultural Revolution to attack intellectuals and other “class enemies.” The insult implies that someone is a brainwashed ideologue doing another’s bidding. 

The Pro-China side might also use the more serious label, “traitors to the Chinese race,” (反华分子) while the pro-America side calls its opponents “CCP spies.” Both of these accusations carry serious weight, given China’s increased demand for loyalty from Chinese abroad, on the one hand, and the U.S. government’s increased concern about Chinese espionage

One woman, who I’ll call Jan to protect her from potential retaliation, recalls an incident that provoked accusations of being anti-Chinese. 

Sometime after Trump announced his ban, a member in one of her groups remarked, “WeChat is not innocent,” and suggested that people move to a more secure app, like Telegram. Another group member immediately jumped in, labeling him a traitor and accusing him of “moving people from a popular app to an app that nobody uses…destroying the grassroots movement.”

The escalation was immediate and dizzying. Pro-CCP users “always have the moral high ground,” she said, “sowing doubts” about the motives of others. 

She kicked the second member out of her group, but still, Jan has been haunted by a lingering question: are these just typical internet trolls that happen to be pro-China, or are they part of something more sinister—a targeted attack aimed at dividing the Chinese diaspora?

Over the past few months, she’s been comparing notes with friends across the country who have had similar experiences. “We spent a lot of time cross-referencing,” she said. Many shared her experiences, with accounts posting the same kinds of divisive messages and using the same language across multiple groups. They also use the same avatars with the same pseudonyms, which they have not bothered to change between groups. 

Jan has become paranoid about CCP internet operatives, who are already notorious within China’s firewalled internet. There, they are known as the “50 cent army,” because of the apocryphal 50 cents that they make for every pro-China post. Besides, the CCP is known for its long-standing strategy of using its diaspora communities to help the motherland.

So, Jan wondered, was it really so strange to think that the CCP was targeting people of Chinese descent in the United States? 

“In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up moves to influence the diaspora communities around the world to advance Beijing’s interests, and the use of Chinese tech is a key component of this influence operation,” says Yaqiu Wang, a China analyst with Human Rights Watch. “One of the biggest victims of China’s authoritarian tech expanding abroad has been the Chinese diaspora.”

Jan has been thinking about leaving WeChat, or at least to stop expressing even the faintest of political opinions (including, ironically, suggestions to leave WeChat). 

But regardless of whether she leaves, Jan is afraid that the damage has already been done. She’s aware of the U.S. government’s increased scrutiny of Chinese Americans which is not limited to just the FBI, but also includes the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. She is also afraid that she has been connected to potential CCP operatives just by virtue of being in the same WeChat groups. When it comes to Chinese Americans, she says, the FBI “cannot distinguish between victims, collaborators, and masterminds.” 

Indeed, even before the latest wave of discrimination and hate crimes against Chinese Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, and before Trump’s stubborn characterization of the pandemic as “the China virus” or “Kung flu,” anti-China sentiment in the United States has been growing. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has called China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property,” and said that a “whole-of-society” response from the United States is required to fight it. 

These kinds of remarks, civil rights advocates say, is already resulting in racial profiling, especially of scientists of Chinese descent. 

Backfiring ban

In late August, a group of WeChat users sued the Trump administration over his ban on First Amendment grounds. On September 20, the day the ban would have gone into effect, a judge in California’s Northern District Court granted the apps a preliminary reprieve. Since then, the ban has been making its way through the courts. The next decision is not expected until after the election, which might change everything anyway. 

Instead of pushing users away from WeChat, it did the opposite. On August 6, when Trump issued his executive order, there was a spike in the downloads of alternative apps such as Line, Telegram, and WhatsApp, according to data provided by the mobile apps insight company Apptopia. 

Chart: Eileen Guo. Data: Apptopia.

But it also lead to a rush of downloads of WeChat itself. This bump was even more pronounced and prolonged around September 20, when the ban was scheduled to go into effect. 

It’s unclear, though, from the data, whether or not anyone has deleted WeChat. 

For his part, Xie now splits his time between apps. “Everybody’s just like me,” he said with a chuckle, “Spend some time in WeChat, some time in Telegram, some time in Line… And, in fact, we enjoy better [the] replacements,” he adds, finding it freeing not to worry about group size limits or euphemisms and other creative ways to avoid censorship. 

But if WeChat was a “virtual Chinatown” before, it’s possible these shifts might end up exacerbating political divides. Before, at least, WeChat users could easily come across other Chinese Americans with different opinions in the same groups, whereas now, Xie, for example, runs a WhatsApp group for people censored by WeChat, while another woman invited me to a pro-America Telegram group that was decidedly pro-Trump. 

For Chen, the increased potential for unity is a reason for him to stay on WeChat. He could choose “to get out of the virtual Chinatown,” he says, but then he’d be leaving WeChat to other people. So, even though he doesn’t think WeChat is a good long-term solution, he hasn’t abandoned it because he wants “to fight to make [WeChat] a better place.”

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F3, a Stories-style Q&A app for Gen Z teens, raises $3.9M

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F3, an anonymous Q&A app targeting Gen Z teens which blends a Tinder-style swipe-to-friend gamification mechanic, Stories-esque rich media responses and eye-wateringly expensive subscriptions to unlock a ‘Plus’ version that actually lets you see who wants to friend you — has raised a $3.9M seed round, including for a planned push on the US market.

The Latvian team behind F3 are not new to the viral teen app game having founded the anonymous teen Q&A app Ask.fm — which faced huge controversy back in 2013 over bullying and safety concerns after being linked to a number of suicides of users who’d received abusive messages. Not that they’ve let that put them off the viral teen app space, clearly.

Investors in F3’s seed round hail from the Russian dating network Mamba (including the latter’s investor, Mail.ru Group) and a co-investor VC firm with a marketing focus, called AdFirst.

Alex Hofmann (former musical.ly president) and Marat Kichikov (GP at Bitfury Capital) are also named as being among those joining the round as angel investors.

F3, which launched its apps in 2018, has 25M registered users at this point — 85% of whom are younger than 25.

The typical user is a (bored) teenager, with the user base being reported as 65% female and 60% Europe / 20% LatAm / 20% Rest of World at this point. (They’re not breaking out any active user metrics but claim 80% of users have been on the app for more than three months at this point.)

On the safety front, F3 is using both automated tools and people for content moderation — with the founders claiming to have learnt lessons from their past experience with Ask.fm (which got acquired by IAC’s Ask.com back in 2014, given them the funds to plough into F3’s development up to now).

“We’ve been solving problem of violating content in our previous company (Ask.fm), and now at F3 we’ve used all our knowledge of solving this problem from day one. Automation tools include text analysis in all major languages with database of 250k+ patterns that is continuously being improved, and AI based image recognition algorithms for detecting violating content in photos and videos,” says the founding team — which includes CEO Ilja Terebin.

“Our 24/7 content moderation team (8 in-house safety experts and 30+ outsourced contractors) manually reviews user reports and items flagged by automation tools,” they add.

However reviews of the app that we saw included complaints from users who said they’ve being pestered by ‘pedophiles’ asking for nudes — so claims of safety risks being “solved” seem riskily overblown.

Why do teens need yet another social discovery/messaging app? On that Terebin & team say the app has been tailored for Gen Z from the get-go — “focusing on their needs to socialize and make new friends online, ‘quick’ content in the form of photos and short videos, which is true and personal”.

“Raw & real” is another of their teen-friendly product market fit claims.

F3 users get a personalized URL that they can share to other social networks to solicit questions from their friends — which can be asked anonymously or not. (F3 users can also choose not to accept anonymous questions if they prefer.)

Instead of plain text answers users snap a photo or grab a short video, add filters, fancy fonts and backgrounds, and so on to reply in a rich-media Stories-style that’s infiltrated all social networking apps (most recently infecting Twitter, where it’s called Fleets).

These rich media responses get made public on their feed — so if an F3 user chooses to answer a question they’re also engaging with the wider community by default (though they can choose not to respond as questions remain private until responded to).

Asked how F3 stands out in a very packed and competitive social media landscape, they argue the app’s “uniqueness” is that the Q&A is photo and video based — “so the format is familiar and close to other social networks (‘stories’ or ‘snaps’) but in a Q&A style back-and-forth communication”, as they put it, adding that for their Gen Z target “the outdated text-based Q&A just was too boring”.

“We compete for eyeballs of Gen Z with Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram. Our key strength is that through the Q&A format one can make new friends and truly get to know other people on a personal level through the prism of ‘raw and real’ content, which is not central on any of those platforms,” they also claim.

In terms of most similar competitors, they note Yolo has seen “some traction” and concede there are a bunch of others also offering Q&A. But here they argue F3 is more fully featured than rivals — suggesting the Q&A feature is just the viral hook to get users into a wider community net.

“[F3] is a fully functional social platform, built around visual communication — users have content feed where they can view posts by people they follow, they can create photo/video content using editing tools in the app itself, there’s a messenger functionality for direct chats, follow-ships, content and user discovery. So for us, the anonymous messaging/Q&A format is just an entry point which allows us to grow quickly and get the users on our platform, but then they make new connections and keep engaging with their unique social circle they have only on F3, making it a sustainable stand-alone social network.”

Again, though, user reviews tell more of a raw (and real?) story — with plenty of complaints that there’s little value in the free version of the app (while F3 Plus costs $3.99 for 7 days; $8.99 for 1 month or $19.99 for 3 months), and questions over the authenticity of some anonymous questions, as well as complaints that other users they’re able to meet aren’t nearby and/or don’t speak the same language. Other reviews aren’t wowed by more of the  same Q&A format. Others complain the app just feels like a data grab. (And the F3 ‘privacy policy‘ definitely has a detailed story to unfold vis-a-vis the tracking users are agreeing to, for anyone who bothers to dig in and read it.)

“This whole app is literally just like all the other apps. Just another copy cat that you still have to pay for,” runs one review from July 2020. “Don’t download.”

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Altana raises $7M to protect supply chains from disruptions, child labor

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Supply chains used to be one of those magical elements of capitalism that seemed to be designed by Apple: they just worked. Minus the occasional salmonella outbreak in your vegetable aisle, we could go about our daily consumer lives never really questioning how our fast-fashion clothes, tech gadgets, and medical supplies actually got to our shelves or homes.

Of course, a lot has changed over the past few years. Anti-globalization sentiment has grown as a political force, driving governments like the United States and the United Kingdom to renegotiate free trade agreements and attempt to onshore manufacturing while disrupting the trade status quo. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic placed huge stress on supply chains — with some entirely breaking in the process.

In short, supply chain managers suddenly went from one of those key functions that no one wants to think about, to one of those key functions that everyone thinks about all the time.

While these specialists have access to huge platforms from companies like Oracle and SAP, they need additional intelligence to understand where these supply chains could potentially break. Are there links in the supply chain that might be more brittle than at first glance? Are there factories in the supply chain that are on alert lists for child labor or environmental violations? What if government trade policy shifts — are we at risk of watching products sit in a cargo container at a port?

New York-headquartered Altana wants to be that intelligence layer for supply-chain management, bringing data and machine learning to bear against the complexity of modern capitalism. Today, the company announced that it has raised $7 million in seed financing led by Anne Glover of London-based Amadeus Capital Partners.

The three founders of the startup, CEO Evan Smith, CTO Peter Swartz, and COO Raphael Tehranian, all worked together on Panjiva, a global supply chain platform that was founded in 2006, funded by Battery Ventures a decade ago, and sold to S&P Global in early 2018. Panjiva’s goal was to build a “graph” of supply chains that would offer intelligence to managers.

That direct experience informs Altana’s vision, which in many ways is the same as Panjiva’s but perhaps revamped using newer technology and data science. Again, Altana wants to build a supply-chain knowledge graph, provide intelligence to managers, and create better resilience.

The difference has to do with data. “What we continually found when we were in the data sales business was that you are kind of stuck in that place in the value chain,” Smith said. “Your customers won’t let you touch their data, because they don’t trust you with it, and other proprietary data companies don’t let you work on and manage and transform their data.”

Instead of trying to be the central repository for all data, Altana is “operating downstream” from all of these data sources, allowing companies to build their own supply chain graphs using their own data and whatever other data sources they have access to.

The company sells into procurement offices, which are typically managed in the CFO’s office. Today, the majority of customers for Altana are government clients such as border control, where “the task is to pick the needles out of the haystack as the ship arrives and you’ve got to pick the illicit shipments from the safe ones and actually facilitate the lawful trade,” Smith said.

The company’s executive chairman is Alan Bersin, who is a former commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency currently working as a policy consultant for Covington & Burling, which has been one of the premier law firms on trade issues like CFIUS during the Trump administration.

Altana allows one-off investigations and simulations, but its major product goal is to offer real-time alerts that give supply chain managers substantive visibility into changes that affect their business. For instance, rather than waiting for an annual labor or environmental audit to find issues, Altana hopes to provide predictive capabilities that allow companies to solve problems much faster than before.

In addition to Amadeus, Schematic Ventures, AlleyCorp, and the Working Capital – The Supply Chain Investment Fund also participated.

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Adobe expands customer data platform to include B2B sales

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The concept of the customer data platform (CDP) is a relatively new one. Up until now, it has focused primarily on pulling data about an individual consumer from a variety of channels into a super record, where in theory you can serve more meaningful content and deliver more customized experiences based on all this detailed knowledge. Adobe announced its intention today to create such a product for business to business (B2B) customers, a key market where this kind of data consolidation had been missing.

Indeed Brian Glover, Adobe’s director of product marketing for Marketo Engage, who has been put in charge of this product, says that these kinds of sales are much more complex and B2B sales and marketing teams are clamoring for a CDP.

“We have spent the last couple of years integrating Marketo Engage across Adobe Experience Cloud, and now what we’re doing is building out the next generation of new and complimentary B2B offerings on the Experience platform, the first of which is the B2B CDP offering,” Glover told me.

He says that they face unique challenges adapting CDP for B2B sales because they typically involve buying groups, meaning you need to customize your messages for different people depending on their role in the process.

An individual consumer usually knows what they want and you can prod them to make a decision and complete the purchase, but a B2B sale is usually longer and more complex involving different levels of procurement. For example, in a technology sale, it may involve the CIO, a group, division or department who will be using the tech, the finance department, legal and others. There may be an RFP and the sales cycle may span months or even years.

Adobe believes this kind of sale should still be able to use the same customized messaging approach you use in an individual sale, perhaps even more so because of the inherent complexity in the process. Yet B2B marketers face the same issues as their B2C counterparts when it comes to having data spread across an organization.

“In B2B that complexity of buying groups and accounts just adds another level to the data management problem because ultimately you need to be able to connect to your customer people data, but you also need to be able to connect the account data too and be able to [bring] the two together,” Glover explained.

By building a more complete picture of each individual in the buying cycle, you can, as Glover puts it, begin to put the bread crumbs together for the entire account. He believes that a CRM isn’t built for this kind of complexity and it requires a specialty tool like a CDP built to support B2B sales and marketing.

Adobe is working with early customers on the product and expects to go into beta before the end of next month with GA some time in the first half of next year.

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