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Why social media can’t keep moderating content in the shadows

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Back in 2016, I could count on one hand the kinds of interventions that technology companies were willing to use to rid their platforms of misinformation, hate speech, and harassment. Over the years, crude mechanisms like blocking content and banning accounts have morphed into a more complex set of tools, including quarantining topics, removing posts from search, barring recommendations, and down-ranking posts in priority. 

And yet, even with more options at their disposal, misinformation remains a serious problem. There was a great deal of coverage about misinformation on Election Day—my colleague Emily Drefyuss found, for example, that when Twitter tried to deal with content using the hashtag #BidenCrimeFamily, with tactics including “de-indexing” by blocking search results, users including Donald Trump adapted by using variants of the same tag. But we still don’t know much about how Twitter decided to do those things in the first place, or how it weighs and learns from the ways users react to moderation.

What actions did these companies take? How do their moderation teams work? What is the process for making decisions?

As social media companies suspended accounts and labeled and deleted posts, many researchers, civil society organizations, and journalists scrambled to understand their decisions. The lack of transparency about those decisions and processes means that—for many—the election results end up with an asterisk this year, just as they did in 2016.

What actions did these companies take? How do their moderation teams work? What is the process for making decisions? Over the last few years, platform companies put together large task forces dedicated to removing election misinformation and labeling early declarations of victory. Sarah Roberts, a professor at UCLA, has written about the invisible labor of platform content moderators as a shadow industry, a labyrinth of contractors and complex rules which the public knows little about. Why don’t we know more? 

In the post-election fog, social media has become the terrain for a low-grade war on our cognitive security, with misinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories proliferating. When the broadcast news business served the role of information gatekeeper, it was saddled with public interest obligations such as sharing timely, local, and relevant information. Social media companies have inherited a similar position in society, but they have not taken on those same responsibilities. This situation has loaded the cannons for claims of bias and censorship in how they moderated election-related content.  

Bearing the costs

In October, I joined a panel of experts on misinformation, conspiracy, and infodemics for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. I was flanked by Cindy Otis, an ex-CIA analyst; Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center; and Melanie Smith, head of analysis at Graphika. 

As I prepared my testimony, Facebook was struggling to cope with QAnon, a militarized social movement being monitored by their dangerous-organizations department and condemned by the House in a bipartisan bill. My team has been investigating QAnon for years. This conspiracy theory has become a favored topic among misinformation researchers because of all the ways it has remained extensible, adaptable, and resilient in the face of platform companies’ efforts to quarantine and remove it. 

QAnon has also become an issue for Congress, because it’s no longer about people participating in a strange online game: it has touched down like a tornado in the lives of politicians, who are now the targets of harassment campaigns that cross over from the fever dreams of conspiracists to violence. Moreover, it’s happened quickly and in new ways. Conspiracy theories usually take years to spread through society, with the promotion of key political, media, and religious figures. Social media has sped this process through ever-growing forms of content delivery. QAnon followers don’t just comment on breaking news; they bend it to their bidding

I focused my testimony on the many unnamed harms caused by the inability of social media companies to prevent misinformation from saturating their services. Journalists, public health and medical professionals, civil society leaders, and city administrators, like law enforcement and election officials, are bearing the cost of misinformation-at-scale and the burden of addressing its effects. Many people tiptoe around political issues when chatting with friends and family, but as misinformation about protests began to mobilize white vigilantes and medical misinformation led people to downplay the pandemic, different professional sectors took on important new roles as advocates for truth

Take public health and medical professionals, who have had to develop resources for mitigating medical misinformation about covid-19. Doctors are attempting to become online influencers in order to correct bogus advice and false claims of miracle cures—taking time away from delivering care or developing treatments. Many newsrooms, meanwhile, adapted to the normalization of misinformation on social media by developing a “misinformation beat”—debunking conspiracy theories or fake news claims that might affect their readers. But those resources would be much better spent on sustaining journalism rather than essentially acting as third-party content moderators. 

Civil society organizations, too, have been forced to spend resources on monitoring misinformation and protecting their base from targeted campaigns. Racialized disinformation is a seasoned tactic of domestic and foreign influence operations: campaigns either impersonate communities of color or use racism to boost polarization on wedge issues. Brandi Collins-Dexter testified about these issues at a congressional hearing in June, highlighting how tech companies hide behind calls to protect free speech at all costs without doing enough to protect Black communities targeted daily on social media with medical misinformation, hate speech, incitement, and harassment. 

Election officials, law enforcement personnel, and first responders are at a serious disadvantage attempting to do their jobs while rumors and conspiracy theories spread online. Right now, law enforcement is preparing for violence at polling places. 

A pathway to improve

When misinformation spreads from the digital to the physical world, it can redirect public resources and threaten people’s safety. This is why social media companies must take the issue as seriously as they take their desire to profit. 

But they need a pathway to improve. Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act empowers social media companies to improve content moderation, but politicians have threatened to remove these protections so they can continue with their own propaganda campaigns. All throughout the October hearing, the specter loomed of a new agency that could independently audit civil rights violations, examine issues of data privacy, and assess the market externalities of this industry on other sectors. 

As I argued during the hearing, the enormous reach of social media across the globe means it is important that regulation not begin with dismantling Section 230 until a new policy is in place. 

Until then, we need more transparency. Misinformation is not solely about the facts; it’s about who gets to say what the facts are. Fair content moderation decisions are key to public accountability. 

Rather than hold on to technostalgia for a time when it wasn’t this bad, sometimes it is worth asking what it would take to uninvent social media, so that we can chart a course for the web we want—a web that promotes democracy, knowledge, care, and equity. Otherwise, every unexplained decision by tech companies about access to information potentially becomes fodder for conspiracists and, even worse, the foundation for overreaching governmental policy.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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What to make of Stripe’s possible $100B valuation

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This is The TechCrunch Exchange, a newsletter that goes out on Saturdays, based on the column of the same name. You can sign up for the email here.

Welcome to a special Thanksgiving edition of The Exchange. Today we will be brief. But not silent, as there is much to talk about.

Up top, The Exchange noodled on the Slack-Salesforce deal here, so please catch up if you missed that while eating pie for breakfast yesterday. And, sadly, I have no idea why Palantir is seeing its value skyrocket. Normally we’d discuss it, asking ourselves what its gains could mean for the lower tiers of private SaaS companies. But as its public market movement appears to be an artificial bump in value, we’ll just wait.

Here’s what I want to talk about this fine Saturday: Bloomberg reporting that Stripe is in the market for more money, at a price that could value the company at “more than $70 billion or significantly higher, at as much as $100 billion.”

Hot damn. Stripe would become the first or second most valuable startup in the world at those prices, depending on how you count. Startup is a weird word to use for a company worth that much, but as Stripe is still clinging to the private markets like some sort of liferaft, keeps raising external funds, and is presumably more focused on growth than profitability, it retains the hallmark qualities of a tech startup, so, sure, we can call it one.

Which is odd, because Stripe is a huge concern that could be worth twelve-figures, provided that gets that $100 billion price tag. It’s hard to come up with a good reason for why it’s still private, other than the fact that it can get away with it.

Anyhoo, are those reported, possible prices bonkers? Maybe. But there is some logic to them. Recall that Square and PayPal earnings pointed to strong payments volume in recent quarters, which bodes well for Stripe’s own recent growth. Also note that 14 months ago or so, Stripe was already processing “hundreds of billions of dollars of transactions a year.”

You can do fun math at this juncture. Let’s say Stripe’s processing volume was $200 billion last September, and $400 billion today, thinking of the number as an annualized metric. Stripe charges 2.9% plus $0.30 for a transaction, so let’s call it 3% for the sake of simplicity and being conservative. That math shakes out to a run rate of $12 billion.

Now, the company’s actual numbers could be closer to $100 billion, $150 billion and $4.5 billion, right? And Stripe won’t have the same gross margins as Slack .

But you can start to see why Stripe’s new rumored prices aren’t 100% wild. You can make the multiples work if you are a believer in the company’s growth story. And helping the argument are its public comps. Square’s stock has more than tripled this year. PayPal’s value has more than doubled. Adyen’s shares have almost doubled. That’s the sort of public market pull that can really help a super-late-stage startup looking to raise new capital and secure an aggressive price.

To wrap, Stripe’s possible new valuation could make some sense. The fact that it is still a private company does not.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

And speaking of edtech, Equity’s Natasha Mascarenhas and our intrepid producer Chris Gates put together a special ep on the education technology market. You can listen to it here. It’s good.

Hugs and let’s both go do some cardio,

Alex

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How Ryan Reynolds and Mint Mobile worked without becoming the joke

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In the past decade, celebrity interest and investment in tech companies has significantly increased. But not all celebrity investments are created equally. Some investors, like Ashton Kutcher, have prioritized the VC pursuits. Some have invested casually without getting overly involved. Others have used their considerable platforms to market their portfolio to varying degrees of success.

It’s been a little over a year since Ryan Reynolds bought a majority stake in Mint Mobile, a deal that has already had a dramatic impact on the the MVNO (mobile virtual network operator).

The four-year-old company has seen a tremendous amount of growth, boosting revenue nearly 50,000% in the past three years. However, the D2C wireless carrier has seen its highest traffic days on the backs of Reynolds’ marketing initiatives and announcements.

There is a long history of celebrities getting involved with brands, either as brand ambassadors or ‘Creative Directors’ without much value other than the initial press wave.

Lenovo famously hired Ashton Kutcher as a product engineer to help develop the Yoga 2 tablet, on which I assume you are all reading this post. Alicia Keys was brought on as BlackBerry’s Global Creative Director, which felt even more convoluted a partnership than Lady Gaga’s stint as Polaroid’s Creative Director. That’s not to say that these publicity stunts necessarily hurt the brands or the products (most of the time), but they probably didn’t help much, and likely cost a fortune.

And then there are the actual financial investments, in areas where celebrities fundamentally understand the industry, that still didn’t get to ‘alpha.’

Even Jay-Z has struggled to make a music streaming service successful. Justin Bieber never really got a selfie app off the ground. Heck, not even Justin Timberlake could breathe life back into MySpace. Reynolds seemingly has an even heavier lift here. It’s hard to imagine a string of words in the English language less sexy than, “mobile virtual network operator.”

Reynolds tells TechCrunch that he viewed celebrity investments as a kind of “handicapping,” prior to the Mint acquisition.

“I’ve just sort of seen how most celebrities are doing very, very well,” he explains. “We’re generally hocking or getting behind or investing in luxury and aspirational items and projects. Then George and I had a conversation about a year-and-a-half ago, maybe longer, about what if we swerved the other way? What if he kind of got into something that was hyper practical and just forget about the sexy aspirational stuff.”

Mint isn’t Reynolds’ first entrepreneurial venture. He bought a majority stake in Portland-based Aviation Gin in 2018, which recently sold for $610 million. He also cofounded marketing agency Maximum Effort alongside George Dewey, which has made its own impact over the past several years.

Maximum Effort was founded to help promote the actor’s first Deadpool film. Reynolds and Dewey had come up with several low-budget spots to get people excited about an R-rated comic book movie. The bid appears to have worked. The film raked in $783.1 million at the box office — a record for an R-rated film that held until the 2019 release of Joker.

Maximum Effort (and Reynolds) was also behind the viral Aviation Gin spot, which poked fun at the manipulative Peloton ad that aired last year around the holidays. The same actress who portrayed a woman seemingly tortured by her holiday gift of a Peloton sits at a bar with her friends, shell-shocked, sipping a Martini.

The original ad on YouTube, not counting recirculation by the media, has more than 7 million hits. Reynolds calls it ‘fast-vertising’.

“We get to react,” he told TechCrunch. “We get to acknowledge and play with the cultural landscape in real time and react to it in real time. There isn’t any red tape to come through, because it’s just a matter of signing off on the approval. So in a way, it’s unfair, in that sense, because most big corporations, they take weeks and weeks or months to get something approved. Our budgets are down and dirty, fast and cheap.”

He explained that this type of real-time marketing is only possible because he’s the owner of Maximum Effort (and in some cases of the client businesses, as well), but because there is no red tape to cut through when a great idea presents itself.

Reynolds has brought this marketing acumen to Mint Mobile in a big way. Last year during the Super Bowl, Reynolds took out a full page ad in The New York Times, explaining that the decision to spend $125,000 on a print ad instead of $5 million+ on a Super Bowl commercial would enable the prepaid carrier to pass the savings on to consumers.

In October, Reynolds spun Mint’s 5G launch into another light-hearted spot. He brought on the head of mobile technology to explain what 5G actually is, and after hearing the technical explanation, happily said “We may never know, so we’ll just give it away for free.”

Mint also released a holiday ad just a couple of weeks ago warning of wireless promo season, wherein large wireless carriers may try to lure customers into expensive contracts using new devices. Standing over a bear trap, Reynolds dryly states: “At Mint Mobile, we don’t hate you.”

Reynolds enjoys nearly 17 million Twitter followers and more than 36 million Instagram followers. He uses both platforms to promote his various brands without alienating his followers. Moreover, he doesn’t exclusively promote his brands on social media, but weaves in his own funny personal commentary or gives followers a peek into his marriage with Blake Lively, which we can all agree is #relationshipgoals.

Mint Mobile partners exclusively with T-Mobile to provide service, and unlike some other MVNOs, it uses a direct-to-consumer model, foregoing any physical footprint. Plans start at $15/month and top out at $30/month. CMO Aron North says that Reynolds’ ownership and involvement with Mint Mobile is “absolutely critical.”

“Ryan is an A plus plus celebrity, and he’s very funny and entertaining and engaging,” said North. “His reach has given us a much bigger platform to speak on. I would say he is absolutely critical in our success and our growth.”

We asked Reynolds if he has any specific plans for further tech investment, or if there are any trends he’s keeping an eye on. He explained that his motivations are not purely capitalistic.

“I’m really focused on community and bringing people together,” said Reynolds. “We think it’s super cool to bring people together, particularly in a world that is very divisive. Even in our marketing, we try to find ways to have huge cultural moments without polarizing people without dividing people without saying one thing is wrong.”

In one of the company’s more notable recent spots, Reynolds enlisted the help of iconic comedian, Rick Moranis. It was an impressive coup, given the actor’s seeming retreat from the public eye, turning down two separate Ghostbusters film reboots.

“It’s funny what happens when you just ask,” says Reynolds. “I explained that people genuinely miss him and his performances and his energy. And he, for whatever reason, said yes, and the next thing I know, six days later, we were out of there in 15, 20 minutes and we shot our spot.”

Of course, it didn’t escape the internet’s notice that two well-known Canadian actors were standing in a field, selling a U.S.-only wireless service.

“I would love to see [Mint] in Canada,” Reynolds says. “There’s a Big Three here that’s challenging to crack. I don’t pretend to know the telecom business well enough to say why, how or what the path forward would be there. I see basically a tsunami of feedback from Canada, asking ‘why can’t we have this here?’ I think it’s sexy. It’s pragmatic and sexy. That’s why I got involved with it.”

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Original Content podcast: Just don’t watch Netflix’s ‘Holidate’ with your parents

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You might think that a new Netflix film called “Holidate” offers holiday-themed romance that’s perfect for a family watch party. You’d be wrong.

The film stars Emma Roberts and Luke Bracey as a pair of strangers who agree (in classic romantic comedy style) to keep each other company on holidays.

And while the movie can’t be completely pigeonholed as a raunchy comedy — it also includes a dash of metatextual commentary, with a healthy dose of undiluted romantic schmaltz — “Holidate” is certainly filled with sexually frank dialogue, and a couple of its biggest set pieces go all-in on gross-out humor. So, and as one of the hosts of the Original Content podcast discovered, watching it with your family can be extremely uncomfortable.

But, assuming you avoid that awkwardness, is it actually funny? Sometimes! A word that comes up repeatedly in our review is “adequate” — Darrell embraced the film’s surprisingly dirty humor, while Anthony and Jordan were at least mildly entertained.

In addition to reviewing “Holidate,” we also discussed the implications of Netflix’s decision to remove “Chappelle’s Show” at Dave Chappelle’s request.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also follow us on Twitter or send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:
0:00 Intro
1:11 Dave Chappelle discussion
13:50 “Holidate” review
37:39 “Holidate” spoiler discussion

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