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The deplatforming of a president

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After years of placid admonishments, the tech world came out in force against President Trump this past week following the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. From Twitter to PayPal, more than a dozen companies have placed unprecedented restrictions or outright banned the current occupant of the White House from using their services, and in some cases, some of his associates and supporters as well.

The news was voluminous and continuous for the past few days, so here’s a recap of who took action when, and what might happen next.

Twitter: a permanent ban and a real-time attempt to shut down all possible account alternatives

Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to electron integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.

This week, however, Twitter’s patience seemed to have been exhausted. Shortly after the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter put in place a large banner warning its users about the president’s related tweet on the matter, blocking retweets of that specific message. A few hours later, the company instituted a 12-hour ban on the president’s personal account.

At first, it looked like the situation would return to normal, with Twitter offering Thursday morning that it would reinstate the president’s account after he removed tweets the company considered against its policies around inciting violence. The president posted a tweet later on Thursday with a video attachment that seemed to be relatively calmer than his recent fiery rhetoric, a video in which he also accepted the country’s election results for the first time.

Enormous pressure externally on its own platform as well as internal demands from employees kept the policy rapidly changing though. Late Friday night, the company announced that it decided to permanently ban the president from its platform, shutting down @realDonaldTrump. The company then played a game of whack-a-mole as it blocked the president’s access to affiliated Twitter handles like @TeamTrump (his official campaign account) as well as the official presidential account @POTUS and deleted individual tweets from the president. The company’s policies state that a blocked user may not attempt to use a different account to evade its ban.

Twitter has also taken other actions against some of the president’s affiliates and broader audience, blocking Michael Flynn, a bunch of other Trump supporters, and a variety of QAnon figures.

With a new president on the horizon, the official @POTUS account will be handed to the new Biden administration, although Twitter has reportedly been intending to reset the account’s followers to zero, unlike its transition of the account in 2016 from Obama to Trump.

As for Trump himself, a permanent ban from his most prominent platform begs the question: where will he take his braggadocio and invective next? So far, we haven’t seen the president move his activities to any social network alternatives, but after the past few years (and on Twitter, the last decade), it seems hard to believe the president will merely return to his golf course and quietly ride out to the horizon.

Snap: a quick lock after dampening the president’s audience for months

Snap locked the president’s account late Wednesday following the events on Capitol Hill, and seemed to be one of the most poised tech companies to rapidly react to the events taking place in DC. Snap’s lock prevents the president from posting new snaps to his followers on the platform, which currently number approximately two million. As far as TechCrunch knows, that lock remains in place, although the president’s official profile is still available to users.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the concomitant Black Lives Matter protests, the company had announced back in June that it would remove the president’s account from its curated “Discover” tab, limiting its distribution and discoverability.

The president has never really effectively used the Snap platform, and with an indefinite ban in place, it looks unlikely he will find a home there in the future.

Facebook / Instagram: A short-to-medium ban with open questions on how long “indefinite” means

Facebook, like Twitter, is one of the president’s most popular destinations for his supporters, and the platform is also a locus for many of the political right’s most popular personalities. It’s moderation actions have been heavily scrutinized by the press over the past few years, but the company has mostly avoided taking direct action against the president — until this week.

On Wednesday as rioters walked out of the halls of Congress, Facebook pulled down a video from President Trump that it considered was promoting violence. Later Wednesday evening, that policy eventually extended into a 24-hour ban of the president’s account, which currently has 33 million likes, or followers. The company argued that the president had violated its policies multiple times, automatically triggering the one-day suspension. At the same time, Facebook (and Instagram) took action to block a popular trending hashtag related to the Capitol riots.

On Thursday morning, Mark Zuckerberg, in a personal post on his own platform, announced an “indefinite” suspension for the president, with a minimum duration of two weeks. That timing would neatly extend the suspension through the inauguration of president-elect Biden, who is to assume the presidency at noon on January 20th.

What will happen after the inauguration? Right now, we don’t know. The president’s account is suspended but not deactivated, which means that the president cannot post new material to his page, but that the page remains visible to Facebook users. The company could remove the suspension once the transition of power is complete, or it may continue the ban longer-term. Given the president’s prominence on the platform and the heavy popularity of the social network among his supporters, Facebook is in a much more intense bind between banning content it deems offensive, and retaining users important to its bottom line.

Shopify / PayPal: Ecommerce platforms won’t sell Trump official merchandise for the time being

It’s not just social networks that are blocking the president’s audience — ecommerce giants are also getting into moderating their platforms against the president. On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand.

That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.

PayPal meanwhile has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters this week, who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill. PayPal has been increasingly banning some political accounts, banning a far-right activist in 2019 and also banning a spate of far-right organizations in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.

Given the president’s well-known personal brand and penchant for product tie-ins before becoming president, it’s a major open question about how these two platforms and others in ecommerce will respond to Trump once he leaves office in two weeks. Will the president go back to shilling steaks, water and cologne? And will he need an ecommerce venue to sell his wares online? Much will depend on Trump’s next goals and whether he stays focused on politics, or heads back to his more commercial pursuits.

Google removes Parler from the Google Play Store, while Apple mulls a removal as well

For supporters of Trump and others concerned about the moderation actions of Facebook and other platforms, Parler has taken the lead as an alternative social network for this audience. Right now, the app is number one in the App Store in the United States, ahead of encrypted and secure messaging app Signal, which is at number four and got a massive endorsement from Elon Musk this week.

Parler’s opportunism for growth around the riots on Capitol Hill though has run into a very real barrier: the two tech companies which run the two stores for mobile applications in the United States.

Google announced Friday evening that it would be removing the Parler app from its store, citing the social network’s lack of moderation and content filtering capabilities. The app’s page remains down as this article was going to press. That ban means that new users won’t be able to install the app from the Play Store, however, existing users who already have Parler installed will be able to continue using it.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that Apple has reportedly sent a 24-hour takedown notice to Parler’s developers, saying that it would mirror Google’s actions if the app didn’t immediately filter content that endangers safety. As of now, Parler remains available in the App Store, but if the timing is to be believed, the app could be taken down later this Saturday.

Given the complexities of content moderation, including the need to hire content moderators en masse, it seems highly unlikely that Parler could respond to these requests in any short period of time. What happens to the app and the president’s supporters long-term next is, right now, anyone’s guess.

Discord / Twitch / YouTube / Reddit / TikTok: All the socials don’t want to be social anymore with President Trump

Finally, let’s head over to the rest of the social networking world, where Trump is just as unpopular as he is at Facebook and Twitter HQ these days. Companies widely blocked the president from accessing their sites, and they also took action against affiliated groups.

Google-owned YouTube announced Thursday that it would start handing out “strikes” against channels — including President Trump’s — that post election misinformation. In the past, videos with election misinformation would have a warning label attached, but the channel itself didn’t face any consequences. In December, the company changed that policy to include the outright removal of videos purveying election misinformation.

This week’s latest policy change is an escalation from the company’s previous approach, and would result in lengthier and lengthier temporary suspensions for each additional strike that a channel receives. Those strikes could eventual result in a permanent ban for a YouTube channel if they happen within a set period of time. That’s precisely what happened with Steve Bannon’s channel, which was permanently banned Friday late afternoon for repeated violations of YouTube’s policies. Meanwhile, President Trump’s official channel has less than 3 million followers, and is currently still available for viewing on the platform.

Outside YouTube, Twitch followed a similar policy to Facebook, announcing Thursday morning that it would ban the president “indefinitely” and at least through the inauguration on January 20th. The president has a limited audience of just about 151,000 followers on the popular streaming platform, making it among the least important of the president’s social media accounts.

In terms of the president’s supporters, their groups are also being removed from popular tech platforms. On Friday, Reddit announced that it would ban the subreddit r/DonaldTrump, which had become one of a number of unofficial communities on the platform where the president’s most ardent supporters hung out. The social network had previously removed the controversial subreddit r/The_Donald back in June. Discord on Friday shut down a server related to that banned subreddit, citing the server’s “overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence.”

Lastly, TikTok announced on Thursday that it was limiting the spread of some information related to the Capitol riots, including redirecting hashtags and removing violent content as well as the president’s own video message to supporters. The president does not have a TikTok account, and therefore, most of the company’s actions are focused on his supporters and broader content surrounding the situation on Capitol Hill this week.

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Unmind raises $47M for a platform to provide mental health support in your workplace

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Mental health has been put into the spotlight in a big way in recent times. For many of us, our lives and lifestyles have changed massively in the last year, and alongside that, we’re collectively facing pandemic-fueled mortality on a global scale in a way that hasn’t existed for generations, a perfect storm of sorts that has inevitably had an impact on our state of mind and our moods.

Today a startup that has built a platform to help people think about and respond to this situation is announcing a big round of growth funding, specifically to help address all of this and how it plays out in one of the more stress-inducing aspects of our life — our workplaces.

Unmind — a London startup that has built a mental health app for the workplace — has raised $47 million, a Series B that it will be using to continue investing in its research and development and also to expand its business reach. The funding is being led by EQT Ventures –- a very active investor at the moment in UK growth rounds — with participation also from Sapphire Ventures and previous backers Project A, Felix Capital, and True.

The core of Unmind’s service is an app built around a set of questions to help employees explore their own states of mental health, which could include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and a host of other manifestations. It provides advice and content to begin addressing the results of that — exercises, advice, podcasts, links for further reading, and links to seeing further help from professionals (not more machine interfaces, but humans). It also provides a service to the employers, sharing anonymized data from the app with them so that they, too, can consider how better to respond to their employees’ needs.

The app has seen some notable traction especially in the last year, a time when the conversation about mental health has become much more commonplace and critical, given the environment we’ve been living in.

Unmind does not disclose user numbers, nor how they have grown, but it tells me that uptake and adoption of its app ranges from 15% to over 60% of an organization’s workforce (this varies by size, and the emphasis that the organization itself puts on using the app, among other things). It said that of those employees who are using Unmind, 88% have said they experience an improvement in mental wellbeing, work, or relationships, while 92% report higher confidence, awareness, and understanding of mental health.

The company also said that revenues grew by more than 3x in the last 12 months. Meanwhile, its customers include major retailers like John Lewis and M&S, high street bank TSB, Uber, Samsung, Virgin Media, British Airways and Asos — a list of companies that have strong degrees of customer service around them, have been greatly impacted by the lockdowns, and you can imagine must have a lot of people working in them pretty stressed out as a result of being on the front lines of interfacing with a stressed-out wider population of consumers.

The company was co-founded by Dr Nick Taylor, who previously had been a clinical psychologist and worked for years in mental health care (and before that was a classically-trained singer), who said he came up with the idea after feeling like he was seeing too many people only for the first time at a stage when their issues were already very advanced.

“I kept encountering the same frustration time and again: I wish I’d met this person six months ago,” Taylor said in an interview.

As with all kinds of preventative healthcare, it’s always better to identify and work on issues before they grow big and more urgent, and so he set out to think about how one might approach the concept of a preventative check-up and check-in for mental health.

The workplace is not a bad place to base that effort. Not only is it often a source of stress for people, but it’s a regular place for them to be every day so creating a way of assessing mental health through that implicitly creates a kind of routine to the effort. It also potentially means a closer connection to the employer to work on issues more collectively when and if they emerge, in a way that the employer might not do (or ever discover) through other means.

The connection between work and mental health is a longstanding one but has perhaps been proven out more than ever before in the last year.

“I didn’t know what would happen with mental health during Covid,” Taylor recalled. “I actually wondered if it would be demoted,” given all of the other conflicting priorities. “But the prevalence of mental illness has escalated. It’s out of control. And in the workplace, it’s a leading cause of absenteeism and turnover.” And given how full-on everything has become, including likely more hours spent working since now it all has merged with our home lives, we all know (and may well be among) many people who are feeling incredibly burned out right now.

Taylor said that in fact quite the opposite has happened to his early skepticism: mental health has become front of mind, “and the shackles of stigma are falling away.”

This is part of what has really caught the eye of investors: technology that is not just effective, but very relevant to right now. “It is now universally recognized that our Mental Health is as important if not more important than our physical health – but has long been neglected. That is now changing rapidly,” said Alastair Mitchell, a partner at EQT Ventures. “As a result there has been a massive rise in the popularity of consumer mental health apps which is now being matched by surging demand from employers and employees for the same in the workplace. Unmind is the leading mental health app for the enterprise and we are so excited to work with Dr Nick and the team to support their scaling globally.” EQT is also a strategic investor, not just a financial one: it’s rolling out Unmind across its own workplace and its many portfolio companies.

Unmind, it should be noted, is not the only company that has identified this “opportunity,” if you could call it that. They include other startups like SF-based Ginger — which has also built a platform that partners with employers, but also healthcare providers and other stakeholders, to help people identify and manage their state of mind. Ginger has been well-capitalised over the years. Others in the same space include Welbot in New York, Spill also out of London and a host of others providing different aspects of mental wellness like Calm and Headspace, the meditation apps.

I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the problem and that mental health should not be a bunfight but something that takes a village to address, the key will be in how each company approaches its remit, and how people respond to it, and whether what people do ultimately use results in better bridges for employees to getting the help and peace they need, whether it’s from the app or a professional.

“We have a responsibility to connect with our mental health in the same way that we do when it comes to healthcare,” Taylor said, likening the effort to how it takes a number of skill sets sometimes to work on the complexities of a health issue. “Great healthcare integrates across a number of systems.”

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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