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TikTok takes down some hashtags related to election misinformation, leaves others



As social media platforms struggle to get U.S. election misinformation under control with varying degrees of success, TikTok has taken new actions to stop people from searching and browsing select hashtags associated with misinformation and conspiracies related to the U.S. election results.

The video app has redirected some hashtags — including #RiggedElection, #SharpieGate and others — where users have been publishing election misinformation. And it has taken down various videos making claims of “election fraud.

However, based on our scans of the app and other election-related hashtags today, it’s clear that it’s still an uphill battle for TikTok in terms of getting a handle on violating content.

Because of TikTok’s size and scale, even smaller videos from unknown publishers can rack up thousands of views before they disappear.

Media Matters, for example, reported yesterday it was able to identify 11 examples of election misinformation spreading across TikTok, with more than 200,000 combined views. The videos shared conspiracies that ranged from unfounded “magic ballot” narratives to the completely untrue allegations that Arizona poll workers handed out markers to Trump voters so their votes wouldn’t count.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via Media Matters

TikTok says all the videos Media Matters reported have since been removed except one where a user made a premature declaration of victory. That one was shadowbanned — meaning its discoverability on the platform was reduced. It also has a banner pointing to authoritative information about the election results.

These individual takedowns are a drop in the bucket compared to the number of videos that are still out there making claims of election fraud. And, so far, TikTok has only removed a small number of hashtags on this subject.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot via TechCrunch

TikTok confirmed it has removed content and redirected searches for the hashtag #RiggedElection as of yesterday. Now, when you try to find videos flagged with this term in the app, you’ll get to a blank page with a notification that says the search term “may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines.” The page also provides a link to TikTok’s Community Guidelines.

“Promoting a safe and positive experience is TikTok’s top priority,” the message reads.

This is the same playbook that TikTok recently used to address the spread of QAnon-related content on its platform. By redirecting searches and hashtags, it makes misinformation harder to find.

While TikTok declined to share an exhaustive list of hashtags it has taken action on during the elections, we found a few hashtags that returned either no results — like #RiggedElection and #SharpieGate — as well as those that returned only a small handful videos, or what TikTok considers “counter speech.”

The TikTok community will often create videos with counter speech or other content related to a misinformation-related hashtag. In these videos, they’ll provide factual information or will dispute the claims being made in another video. TikTok says this sort of counter speech doesn’t violate its policies. That’s why you may see videos listed under hashtags that would otherwise be associated with misinformation, as opposed to seeing the hashtag entirely silenced.

We also found some lesser-used hashtags like #RepealtheSteal and #VeritasArmy, which have been seen on Twitter, were not showing on TikTok at all. (However, upon reaching out to TikTok, the company chose to redirect these hashtags, too.)

A popular misinfo hashtag, #StoptheSteal, was also not available, but its variation, #StoptheStealing, had seven videos.

Many other hashtags were being used, too, as of the time of writing, including #VoterFraud (and its misspelling #VoterFruad), #DemsCheat, #CorruptElection, #ElectionCorruption, #StoptheStealing, #ElectionFraud (and misspelling #ElectionFruad), #CrookedJoeBiden, #CrookedDems, #Fraud (and its misspelling #Fruad), #Rigged, #Rigged2020, #MailinBallots, #CoupdEtat, #ElectionMeddling, #DemocratsAreDestroyingAmerica and #BallotHarvesting, to name a few.

While some hashtags had little content, many were filled with videos that weren’t just expressing their political views — they were making claims of election fraud. Combined, these hashtags have tens of millions of views, or even more.

Image Credits: TikTok screenshot, video republished previously removed content; screenshot via TechCrunch

For example, when we searched for the hashtag #VoterFraud (20.9 million views), we first encountered videos posted in the months leading up to Election Day that were responding to the Republican-driven claims of voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots.

But many videos under this hashtag have been published by Trump supporters this week, and are videos where the supporters are directly disputing the election results.

Among the videos we found were those reposting videos TikTok had already taken down. These included videos featuring Trump supporters’ protests against or for the counting of ballots in various states, calling them proof of election fraud.

In other videos, users opine about how Trump’s lawsuits will prove fraud took place and win him re-election. They sometimes use screenshots of website vote tallies as their “proof.”

Image Credits: TikTok app screenshot via TechCrunch

We also saw videos using text labels overtop their video footage. The text was used to make their claims of election fraud, while the video itself may have them talking in more measured terms about their disappointment with the election results. (It’s unclear if this is a viable workaround to avoiding rule enforcement, however.)

TikTok says its list of blocked hashtags continually grows as new terms and phrases emerge and it’s able to determine how the terms are being used on its platform. It also said it block more election misinformation hashtags in the hours, days and weeks to come.

To be clear, TikTok’s decision to keep this sort of content online doesn’t make it much different from other social networks.

During election season, Facebook and Twitter have taken to labeling election misinformation from high-profile accounts (like Trump’s). Facebook even ran in-app notifications to inform users that votes are still being counted. But both platforms today still easily allow users to click through on a wide range of hashtags that promote this idea of election fraud or rigged results.

TikTok may not much be doing much better, overall, in addressing the sizable amount of content promoting election misinformation on its video network. But TikTok’s ban of top election misinformation hashtags works differently from hashtag bans on other social networks.

Once TikTok has made the decision to ban a term like “SharpieGate,” for example, the content won’t be surfaced whether you use the hashtag symbol (#) itself or not. Facebook, on the other hand, may ban the hashtag specifically, but not the term entirely. That means you can still find content about SharpieGate on its platform — even if it’s largely posts and videos from news organizations.

#SharpieGate was also among the hashtags Facebook began blocking today related to election misinformation. It also blocked #StoptheSteal and a related group.

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The election is over, but voter fraud conspiracies aren’t going away



President Trump’s conspiracy-theory-fueled plan to overturn his defeat in the 2020 elections targeted six states that President-elect Joe Biden narrowly won: Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada and Georgia. All six of those states have now certified their vote counts—with recounts sometimes even increasing the victory margin for Biden. 

The confirmation of the results has correlated with a decrease in election disinformation. But according to Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company, while fraud-related claims have dropped in volume, they haven’t exactly gone away. In fact, they’re still getting widely shared: Zignal’s database of social media, broadcast, traditional media, and online sites recorded more than 1.9 million mentions of voter fraud claims over the past seven days. And tweets from prominent right-wing figures and elected officials, such as this one from Senator Rand Paul, are still getting tens of thousands of shares. So what will happen next?

It’s not going away

“I don’t think that the unrest will stop,” says Francesca Tripodi, an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science. If anything, she says, voters who believe the election was stolen from Trump will act with “increasing resolve” in the coming months. 

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center, points out that it’s not just the volume of content disputing the result that we should be worried about. Instead, she’s concerned about the long-term impact this moment could have on how Trump-supporting voters view democracy. “It’s going to decrease trust in the process for a long time to come,” she says. “Perpetuating these narratives is going to make it more difficult for Trump supporters to trust the democratic process in the future.”  

And while Trump may have lost his reelection bid, the political movements that have harnessed misinformation for their own benefit have not been voted out of office as a whole. One prominent QAnon promoter even won a seat in Congress

There is a danger, especially on a local level, of conspiracy theories and other falsehoods about the 2020 elections translating into legislation, says Shireen Mitchell, a disinformation researcher who runs the Stop Digital Voter Suppression Project. “Imagine something that’s a complete disinformation campaign becoming a law,” she said. “Someone’s going to be in a policy position, trying to commit policy based on these conspiracy beliefs.”

Partly because it’s been around for a while 

Trump didn’t suddenly start talking conspiracy theories about a stolen election in November; he’s been tweeting out baseless claims that the election was going to be stolen for months. Likewise, the infrastructure that helps spread these claims predates the 2020 election, as does the history of questioning whose votes should count in America. 

“‘Stop the Steal’ is an evolution of an old argument used to disenfranchise predominantly people of color and indigenous communities,” says Brandi Collins-Dexter, a disinformation researcher. “So, is the fundamental argument ever going to go away completely? As long as voting and participation in our democracy is not embraced by the country as a fundamental human right, I have doubts.” 

Tripodi’s work has involved following Facebook groups devoted to spreading misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. Those groups, which previously played a role in helping introduce QAnon conspiracies to a wider audience, are also hotbeds of election misinformation. And “reopen” campaigns are themselves partially funded and influenced by some right-wing super-PACs and media outlets.

Preventing the spread of misinformation

There are so many aspects to the story of misinformation and American power: the companies that built networks incentivizing the spread of misinformation; the impact those narratives have on vulnerable and oppressed communities; the labor of content moderation, often causing trauma to the workers paid to do it; the money that funds the misinformation campaigns; the network of news-adjacent publications and organizations that help spread them; the impact of misinformation on our daily lives and relationships. It is important, say experts, that the media covering this problem gets it right.

“If I’m reading a story about white nationalist violence and the main person being directly quoted and discussed is a white nationalist, then that, to me, is romanticizing the abuser,” says Collins-Dexter. “But if you’re talking to and about the community that was impacted by white nationalism—if your experts are those from impacted communities, and not ‘reformed’ Nazis or active Nazis—that’s a different story and experience for the reader that does a public service.” 

Journalists can cover this effectively if they can cover climate change effectively,” says Ryan Hagen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. “The wrong answer is that there’s good truth on both sides of every issue.” 

These same considerations are also important for platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, where conspiracy theories about the election still gain large audiences, despite some temporary and permanent moderation policies that were designed to limit their reach. 

For Collins-Dexter, the companies’ approach to misinformation remains inadequate. “Even with the most vigilant of moderating, this would be a hard job. But content moderators are undertrained, underpaid, and under-resourced on a number of fronts. And the companies want to do the bare minimum,” she says. 

Tripodi, meanwhile, called on platforms to provide more transparency to researchers outside the company. “I think they, in some ways, don’t want to be held responsible for the degradation of democracy in the US,” she says. “But if they repeatedly keep data inaccessible to social scientists, then there’s no way to adequately combat this problem.”

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our weekly email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.

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The UK has granted emergency approval for Pfizer/BioNTech’s covid-19 vaccine



The news: The UK’s regulator has approved Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, making it the first country in the world to provide emergency authorization for a covid-19 vaccine. The UK had already signed an agreement to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine due to be delivered this year and in 2021, with the first batch set to arrive in the coming days. As the vaccine requires two doses, that is enough for 20 million people. The vaccine will be delivered in stages to each country that has bought it, in order to make sure the doses can be allocated fairly, the two companies said. The US and EU are expected to provide emergency authorizations for vaccines in December too.

The basis for the decision: The UK’s Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) studied Pfizer and BioNTech’s data on a rolling basis as it came in from the trials, including data from the Phase 3 clinical trial, which found the vaccine to be 95% effective. Pfizer said it recorded 170 covid-19 cases (in 44,000 volunteers), with just 162 recorded in the placebo group versus 8 in the vaccine group. Pfizer reported that there were no serious safety concerns related to the vaccine in its study. Side effects included fatigue and headache, but these were not severe and seemed to mostly affect younger participants. “We believe that the rollout of the vaccination program in the UK will reduce the number of people in the high-risk population being hospitalized,” said Ugur Sahin, CEO and cofounder of BioNTech. The vaccine is the fastest to ever be developed, taking just 10 months as opposed to the many years development usually requires.

A project like no other: Now the vaccine has been approved, the enormous task of distribution can start. A particular challenge posed by the vaccine is its need to be kept at -70°C. Pfizer and BioNTech have developed containers which use dry ice to keep the vaccine at these ultra-cold temperatures. The UK is on the precipice of the biggest vaccination campaign in its history. Its government has drawn up plans to start immunizing elderly and vulnerable patients within days. It has drafted a priority list which starts with care home residents, people over 80, and health and social care workers. When more stocks become available, the UK will start vaccinating everyone over 50, and younger people with pre-existing conditions. Its National Health System will contact people to invite them for the shot when it is their turn.

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Genesis Therapeutics raises $52M A round for its AI-focused drug discovery mission



Sifting through the trillions of molecules out there that might have powerful medicinal effects is a daunting task, but the solution biotech has found is to work smarter, not harder. Genesis Therapeutics has a new simulation approach and cross-disciplinary team that has clearly made an impression: the company just raised a $52 million A round.

Genesis competed in the Startup Battlefield at Disrupt last year, impressing judges with its potential, and obviously others saw it as well — in particular Rock Springs Capital, which led the round.

Over the last few years many companies have been formed in the drug discovery space, powered by increased computing and simulation power that lets them determine the potential of molecules in treating certain diseases. At least that’s the theory. The reality is a bit messier, and while these companies can narrow the search, they can’t just say “here, a cure for Parkinson’s.”

Founder Evan Feinberg got into the field when an illness he inherited made traditional lab work, as an intern at a big pharma company, difficult for him. The computational side of the field, however, was more accessible and ended up absorbing him entirely.

He had dabbled in the area before and arrived at what he feels is a breakthrough in how molecules are represented digitally. Machine learning has, of course, accelerated work in many fields, biochemistry among them, but he felt that the potential of the technology had not been tapped.

“I think initially the attempts were to kind of cut and paste deep learning techniques, and represent molecules a lot like images, and classify them — like you’d say, this is a cat picture or this is not a cat picture,” he explained in an interview. “We represent the molecules more naturally: as graphs. A set of nodes or vertices, those are atoms, and things that connect them, those are bonds. But we’re representing them not just as bond or no bond, but with multiple contact types between atoms, spatial distances, more complex features.”

The resulting representation is richer and more complex, a more complete picture of a molecule than you’d get from its chemical formula or a stick diagram showing the different structures and bonds. Because in the world of biochemistry, nothing is as simple as a diagram. Every molecule exists as a complicated, shifting 3D shape or conformation where important aspects like the distance between two carbon formations or bonding sites is subject to many factors. Genesis attempts to model as many of those factors as it can.

“Step one is the representation,” he said, “but the logical next step is, how does one leverage that representation to learn a function that takes an input and outputs a number, like binding affinity or solubility, or a vector that predicts multiple properties at once?”

That’s the work they’ve focused on as a company — not just creating a better model molecule, but being able to put a theoretical molecule into simulation and say, it will do this, it won’t do this, it has this quality but not that one.

Some of this work may be done in partnerships, such as the one Genesis has struck up with Genentech, but the teams could very well find drug candidates independent of those, and for that reason the company is also establishing an internal development process.

The $52M infusion ought to do a lot to push that forward, Feinberg wrote in an email:

“These funds allow us to execute on a number of critical objectives, most importantly further pioneering AI technologies for drug development and advancing our therapeutics pipeline. We will be hiring more top notch AI researchers, software engineers, medicinal chemists and biotech talent, as well as building our own research labs.”

Other companies are doing simulations as well and barking up the same tree, but Feinberg says Genesis has at least two legs up on them, despite the competition raising hundreds of millions and existing for years.

“We’re the only company in the space that’s working at the intersection of modern deep neural network approaches and biophysical simulation — conformational change of ligands and proteins,” he said. “And we’re bringing this super technical platform to experts who have taken FDA-approved drugs to market. We’ve seen tremendous value creation just from that — the chemists inform the AI too.”

The recent breakthrough of AlphaFold, which is performing the complex task of simulation protein folding far faster than any previous system, is as exciting to Feinberg as to everyone else in the field.

“As scientists, we are incredibly excited by recent progress in protein structure prediction. It is an important basic science advance that will ultimately have important downstream benefits to the development of novel therapeutics,” he wrote. “Since our Dynamic PotentialNet technology is unique in how it leverages 3D structural information of proteins, computational protein folding — similar to recent progress in cryo-EM — is a nice complementary tailwind for the Genesis AI Platform. We applaud all efforts to make protein structure more accessible such that therapeutics can be more easily developed for patients of all conditions.”

Also participating in the funding round were T. Rowe Price Associates, Andreessen Horowitz (who led the seed round), Menlo Ventures, and Radical Ventures.

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