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Twitter bans Trump

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Less than 24 hours after President Trump was allowed back on Twitter, the social media platform announced on Friday afternoon, January 8, that it was permanently suspending his @realdonaltrump account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” The decision followed several more tweets warning that his supporters would not be “disrespected” and saying he would not attend the inauguration of Joe Biden.

The move was the latest in a chain of shutdowns that started after pro-Trump loyalists invaded the Capitol building on Wednesday, and an unapologetic Trump continued repeating unfounded conspiracy theories about the election being stolen. 

Facebook and YouTube began on Wednesday by deleting a video in which Trump repeated his claims and told his followers: “Go home. We love you, you’re  very special … I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.” Twitter then blocked that video and two other messages for violating its recently implemented civic integrity policy, and locked him from tweeting unless he agreed to delete the videos. Even then, he had to serve a 12-hour timeout before he could tweet again. Facebook and Instagram then announced a 24-hour ban, which they soon extended indefinitely—or at least until after Joe Biden’s inauguration. Facebook argued that Trump was violating their policies against “real-world harm.” Twitch, the streaming platform, and Snapchat also made similar moves. 

“The degree to which this changes the circulation of information [can be] easily overstated”

Will Partin, Data & Society

Preventing the president’s accounts from posting will reduce the ease with which he can spread certain messages, but it may not dramatically shift the online conversation, says Will Partin, a disinformation research analyst at Data & Society.

“While I doubt Mr. Trump and his closest allies are happy about being blocked … the degree to which this changes the circulation of information,” he says, can be “easily overstated.”

Banning Trump from posting on social platforms does have the immediate and obvious impact of decreasing his ability to communicate directly with his followers. But it does not suddenly dismantle the ecosystem of online extremism, or stop networks like Fox News and Newsmax that have fed conspiracy thinking and widespread, growing distrust of government. Nor does it undo the white supremacy that has characterized America from its founding. 

Even if it doesn’t immediately solve the larger problems leading to this week’s assault on the Capitol, however, deplatforming Trump will have consequences for Trump today and in the future, say disinformation experts. 

Removing the “bells and whistles” of big platforms

“A large part of Trump’s power comes from how easy he is to hear,” says Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Many of his supporters hear him directly on Twitter.” And the media expands this reach dramatically: a Harvard study from earlier this year found that mainstream news outlets are the largest amplifier of White House disinformation, since “journalists, all of whom are on Twitter, quickly work his statements into their broadcasts,” he adds. 

That means that losing access to the mainstream platforms will reduce his audience and dilute the reach of his statements, as the deplatforming of far-right figures like Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos shows. Yiannopoulos, who was banned in 2016 for his repeated racist abuse of actress Leslie Jones, complained about the effect that deplatforming had on his income.  

“Part of it is because people just don’t remember to go to other websites,” says Joan Donovan, the research director at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. Donovan, a regular MIT Technology Review contributor, points out that the mainstream platforms have built in “bells and whistles” designed to minimize friction and make engaging with content as easy as possible. If Trump were limited to a niche service with limited design and features, such as Parler, she says, it would create an additional barrier to sharing his content. 

Communicating through proxies—with smaller followings

Even during @realdonaldtrump’s day-long absence from Twitter, Trump was not entirely silent on the platform. On Thursday, while the president was still unable to post from his personal account, White House social media director Dan Scavino tweeted a statement from the president that conceded the election—but did not concede his claim that the election was stolen. It was picked up by the media, but with 40,000 retweets and 100,000 likes, it fell far short of the hundreds of thousands that typically engage with each of Trump’s own missives.

As a result, it is “casual supporters” that Trump is most likely to lose if he is permanently banned, says Brooking; they “will hear from him less frequently,” which could mean that that “in time, they may become less wedded to the conspiracy theories and falsehoods that he has made a habit of spreading.”

Of course, it depends on whom he’s speaking through. Much of his disinformation around voter fraud, for example, came from a wider “network of content creation,” says Donovan; that is, individuals close to the president who each have large followings themselves, including Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood, among others. “These are the accounts that I’m most worried about, because these are the people that are incentivized … because they’re making money off of this,” she says.

 A Trump “digital media empire” could also be blocked

One route around losing his perch on major social media sites could be for Trump to spin up his own systems to talk directly to supporters. The campaign app for his failed campaign for reelection, for example, had its own news and notification system, which often shared questionable or disproven stories that emphasized the president’s talking points.

And back in 2016, when it looked certain that his first presidential campaign would fail, Trump reportedly was already in discussions to turn his massive follower base into a profitable cable news empire. Since November’s election, there have been rumors that he might start a digital media empire that would include an online streaming channel. 

Even if his deplatforming accelerated these plans, Trump could continue to be marginalized if his channel’s links were blocked on social media or if internet hosting companies or other service providers declined to provide him support. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer, website infrastructure provider Cloudflare terminated its services to The Daily Stormer, effectively taking the right-wing website offline. 

“They’re going to keep pressing forward” 

After the assault on Congress and subsequent social media bans, Trump’s supporters have to decide “whether they’re wholly committed to violence or to get off the train,” says Bennett Clifford, who studies violent extremism at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. 

For those committing to violence, Trump may have already become a remote figurehead and rallying point rather than a leader in the ecosystem. 

Of these individuals, “it really doesn’t matter what he does now. They’re going to keep pressing forward,” Brooking said, in a briefing call with reporters. “And it will be more expressively anti-state than it was before, and probably more prone to political violence.”

This outcome is not inevitable, however. Brooking says that “financial and social costs can become high enough” for the relatively small group of disinformation influencers to stop peddling their conspiracy theories. He counts around 100 people who contribute heavily to the spread of constant disinformation, and figures that without them “more Americans will be able to be brought into the fold [of the mainstream] and be deradicalized.” 

Deplatforming also goes beyond social media. Business groups were quick to condemn Trump and his supporters’ actions on Wednesday, and some companies have already taken steps. On Thursday, Shopify, the e-commerce platform that powers over one million online stores, permanently removed two stores affiliated with Trump. PayPal soon followed suit, shutting down the account of a group that paid for Trump supporters to travel to Washington and join the siege on the Capitol. 

And the media’s shifting coverage will play an important role. While news organizations found it hard to ignore Trump when he was president of the United States, they may find it easier when he isn’t—especially if they intentionally decide to prevent amplification of his message, as networks have increasingly done since he began making baseless claims about election fraud. 

“What then?” asks Donovan. “Is he a guest on Infowars?” 

A brief return to Twitter

Trump’s return to Twitter was short-lived. Thursday afternoon, the president came back online after deleting his offending tweets and serving his temporary suspension, with a pre-recorded video message in which he said he was committed to a peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden. In the same message, he lied about having immediately deployed the National Guard, when in fact he initially resisted.

If there were any lingering questions about whether his recent experiences might soften his tone, his initial tweets on Friday provided the answer. His first described his supporters as “American patriots” who would have a “giant voice long into the future” and should not be “disrespected or treated unfairly,” and his second announced that he would not attend his successor’s inauguration. 

Apparently, Twitter agreed, permanently suspending @realdonaldtrump hours later. 

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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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