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Threat of inauguration violence casts a long shadow over social media

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As the U.S. heads into one of the most perilous phases of American democracy since the Civil War, social media companies are scrambling to shore up their patchwork defenses for a moment they appear to have believed would never come.

Most major platforms pulled the emergency break last week, deplatforming the president of the United States and enforcing suddenly robust rules against conspiracies, violent threats and undercurrents of armed insurrection, all of which proliferated on those services for years. But within a week’s time, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google had all made historic decisions in the name of national stability — and appearances. Snapchat, TikTok, Reddit and even Pinterest took their own actions to prevent a terror plot from being hatched on their platforms.

Now, we’re in the waiting phase. More than a week after a deadly pro-Trump riot invaded the iconic seat of the U.S. legislature, the internet still feels like it’s holding its breath, a now heavily-fortified inauguration ceremony looming ahead.

(Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

What’s still out there

On the largest social network of all, images hyping follow-up events continued to circulate mid this week. One digital Facebook flyer promoted an “armed march on Capitol Hill and all state Capitols,” pushing the dangerous and false conspiracy that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Facebook says that it’s working to identify flyers calling for “Stop the Steal” adjacent events using digital fingerprinting, the same process it uses to remove terrorist content from ISIS and Al Qaeda. The company noted that it has seen flyers calling for events on January 17 across the country, January 18 in Virginia and inauguration day in D.C.

At least some of Facebook’s new efforts are working: one popular flyer TechCrunch observed on the platform was removed from some users’ feeds this week. A number of “Stop the Steal” groups we’d observed over the last month also unceremoniously blinked offline early this week following more forceful action from the company. Still, given the writing on the wall, many groups had plenty of time to tweak their names by a few words or point followers elsewhere to organize.

With only days until the presidential transition, acronym-heavy screeds promoting QAnon, an increasingly mainstream collection of outrageous pro-Trump government conspiracy theories, also remain easy to find. On one page with 2,500 followers, a QAnon believer pushed the debunked claim that anti-fascists executed the attack on the Capitol, claiming “January 6 was a trap.”

QAnon sign

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On a different QAnon group, an ominous post from an admin issued Congress a warning: “We have found a way to end this travesty! YOUR DAYS ARE NUMBERED!” The elaborate conspiracy’s followers were well represented at the deadly riot at the Capitol, as the many giant “Q” signs and esoteric t-shirt slogans made clear.

In a statement to TechCrunch about the state of extremism on the platform, Facebook says it is coordinating with terrorism experts as well as law enforcement “to prevent direct threats to public safety.” The company also noted that it works with partners to stay aware of violent content taking root on other platforms.

Facebook’s efforts are late and uneven, but they’re also more than the company has done to date. Measures from big social networks coupled with the absence of far-right social networks like Parler and Gab have left Trump’s most ardent supporters once again swearing off Silicon Valley and fanning out for an alternative.

Social media migration

Private messaging apps Telegram and Signal are both seeing an influx of users this week, but they offer something quite different from a Facebook or Twitter-like experience. Some expert social network observers see the recent migration as seasonal rather than permanent.

“The spike in usage of messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal will be temporary,” Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan told TechCrunch. “Most users will either settle on platforms with a social experience, like Gab, MeWe, or Parler, if it returns, or will migrate back to Twitter and Facebook.”

That company uses AI to track how social groups connect online and what they talk about — violent conspiracies included. Morgan believes that propaganda-spreading “performative internet warriors” make a lot of noise online, but a performance doesn’t work without an audience. Others may quietly pose a more serious threat.

“The different types of engagement we saw during the assault on the Capitol mirror how these groups have fragmented online,” Morgan said. “We saw a large mob who was there to cheer on the extremists but didn’t enter the Capitol, performative internet warriors taking selfies, and paramilitaries carrying flex cuffs (mislabeled as “zip ties” in a lot of social conversation), presumably ready to take hostages.

“Most users (the mob) will be back on Parler if it returns, and in the meantime, they are moving to other apps that mimic the social experience of Twitter and Facebook, like MeWe.”

Still, Morgan says that research shows “deplatforming” extremists and conspiracy-spreaders is an effective strategy and efforts by “tech companies from Airbnb to AWS” will reduce the chances of violence in the coming days.

Cleaning up platforms can help turn the masses away from dangerous views, he explained, but the same efforts might further galvanize people with an existing intense commitment to those beliefs. With the winds shifting, already heterogeneous groups will be scattered too, making their efforts desperate and less predictable.

Deplatforming works, with risks

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told TechCrunch that social media companies still need to do much more to prepare for inauguration week. “We saw platforms fall short in their response to the Capitol insurrection,” Greenblatt said.

He cautioned that while many changes are necessary, we should be ready for online extremism to evolve into a more fractured ecosystem. Echo chambers may become smaller and louder, even as the threat of “large scale” coordinated action diminishes.

“The fracturing has also likely pushed people to start communicating with each other via encrypted apps and other private means, strengthening the connections between those in the chat and providing a space where people feel safe openly expressing violent thoughts, organizing future events, and potentially plotting future violence,” Greenblatt said.

By their own standards, social media companies have taken extraordinary measures in the U.S. in the last two weeks. But social networks have a long history of facilitating violence abroad, even as attention turns to political violence in America.

Greenblatt repeated calls for companies to hire more human moderators, a suggestion often made by experts focused on extremism. He believes social media could still take other precautions for inauguration week, like introducing a delay into livestreams or disabling them altogether, bolstering rapid response teams and suspending more accounts temporarily rather than focusing on content takedowns and handing out “strikes.”

“Platforms have provided little-to-nothing in the way of transparency about learnings from last week’s violent attack in the Capitol,” Greenblatt said.

“We know the bare minimum of what they ought to be doing and what they are capable of doing. If these platforms actually provided transparency and insights, we could offer additional—and potentially significantly stronger—suggestions.”

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InsurGrid raises pre-seed financing to help modernize legacy insurance agents

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Insurance agents spend hours handling paperwork and grabbing client information over the phone. A new seed-stage startup, InsurGrid, has developed a software solution to help ease the process, and make it easier for agents to serve existing clients — and secure new ones.

InsurGrid gives agents a personalized platform to collect information from clients, such as date of birth, driver’s license information and policy declaration. This platform helps agents avoid sitting on long calls or managing back-to-back emails, and instead gives them one spot to understand how all their different clients function. It is starting with property and casualty management.

The startup integrates with 85 insurance carriers, serving as the software layer instead of the provider. Using the InsurGrid platform, insurers can ask clients to upload information and within seconds be registered as a policyholder. This essentially turns into a living Rolodex that insurers can use to access information on the account, and offer quotes on a faster rate.

Image Credits: InsurGrid

There’s a monetary benefit in providing better service. Eden Insurance, a customer of InsurGrid, said that people who submit information through the platform converted at an 82% higher rate than those who don’t. Jeremy Eden, the agency owner of Eden Insurance, said they were able to show consumers that its plan was $300 cheaper than its existing rate.

At the heart of InsurGrid is a bet from the founding team that legacy insurance agents aren’t going anywhere. Co-founder/CEO Chase Beach pointed out that the majority of the $684 billion of annual property and casualty insurance premiums in the United States is distributed by approximately 800,000 agents working in 16,000 brokerages. So far, InsurGrid works with more than 150 of those agencies.

When asked if InsurGrid ever had plans to offer its own insurance, similar to insurtech giants Hippo, Lemonade and Root, Beach said that it is solely working on innovating around the sales process for now. He said that these big companies, which have either recently gone public or are planning to, still rely on agents to be successful.

“Instead of us replacing the insurance agent, what if we gave them that same level of technology of a Hippo or large carrier,” Beach said. “And provide them with the digital experiences so they can compete in 2021.”

As time goes on, he sees insurance agents taking the same role that financial advisors or real estate agents take: “very much involved in the process because they are that expert.”

Other startups that have popped up in this space include Gabi, Trellis and Canopy Connect. The differentiator, the team sees, is that Beach comes from a 144-year-old insurance legacy, giving him key insights on how to sell to agents in a successful and effective way. It is starting with sales, but expect InsurGrid to expand to other parts of the insurance process as well.

To help them compete with new and old startups, InsurGrid recently raised $1.3 million in pre-seed financing to help it fulfill its goal to be the “underdog for the underdogs,” Beach said. Investors include Engineering Capital, Hustle Fund, Vess Capital, Sahil Lavingia and Trevor Kienzle.

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Backed by Blossom, Creandum and Index, grocery delivery and dark store startup Dija launches in London

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Dija, the London-based grocery delivery startup, is officially launching today and confirming that it raised £20 million in seed funding in December — a round that we first reported was partially closed the previous month.

Backing the company is Blossom Capital, Creandum and Index Ventures, with Dija seemingly able to raise pre-launch. In fact, there are already rumours swirling around London’s venture capital community that the upstart may be out raising again already — a figure up to £100 million was mooted by one source — as the race to become the early European leader in the burgeoning “dark” grocery store space heats up.

Image Credits: Dija

Over the last few months, a host of European startups have launched with the promise of delivering grocery and other convenience store items within 10-15 minutes of ordering. They do this by building out their own hyper-local, delivery-only fulfilment centres — so-called “dark stores” — and recruiting their own delivery personnel. This full-stack or vertical approach and the visibility it provides is then supposed to produce enough supply chain and logistics efficiency to make the unit economics work, although that part is far from proven.

Earlier this week, Berlin-based Flink announced that it had raised $52 million in seed financing in a mixture of equity and debt. The company didn’t break out the equity-debt split, though one source told me the equity component was roughly half and half.

Others in the space include Berlin’s Gorillas, London’s Jiffy and Weezy, and France’s Cajoo, all of which also claim to focus on fresh food and groceries. There’s also the likes of Zapp, which is still in stealth and more focused on a potentially higher-margin convenience store offering similar to U.S. unicorn goPuff. Related: goPuff itself is also looking to expand into Europe and is currently in talks to acquire or invest in the U.K.’s Fancy, which some have dubbed a mini goPuff.

However, let’s get back to Dija. Founded by Alberto Menolascina and Yusuf Saban, who both spent a number of years at Deliveroo in senior positions, the company has opened up shop in central London and promises to let you order groceries and other convenience products within 10 minutes. It has hubs in South Kensington, Fulham and Hackney, and says it plans to open 20 further hubs, covering central London and Zone 2, by the summer. Each hub carries around 2,000 products, claiming to be sold at “recommended retail prices”. A flat delivery fee of £1.99 is charged per order.

“The only competitors that we are focused on are the large supermarket chains who dominate a global $12 trillion industry,” Dija’s Menolascina tells me when I ask about competitors. “What really sets us apart from them, besides our speed and technology, is our team, who all have a background in growing and disrupting this industry, including myself and Yusuf, who built and scaled Deliveroo from the ground up”.

Menolascina was previously director of Corporate Strategy and Development at the takeout delivery behemoth and held several positions before that. He also co-founded Everli (formerly Supermercato24), the Instacart-styled grocery delivery company in Italy, and also worked at Just Eat. Saban is the former chief of staff to CEO at Deliveroo and also worked at investment bank Morgan Stanley.

During Dija’s soft-launch, Menolascina says that typical customers have been doing their weekly food shop using the app, and also fulfilling other needs, such as last minute emergencies or late night cravings. “The pain points Dija is helping to solve are universal and we built Dija to be accessible to everyone,” he says. “It’s why we offer products at retail prices, available in 10 minutes – combining value and convenience. Already, Dija is becoming a key service for parents who are pressed for time working from home and homeschooling, as one example”.

Despite the millions of dollars being pumped into the space, a number of VCs I’ve spoken to privately are sceptical that fresh groceries with near instant delivery can be made to work. The thinking is that fresh food perishes, margins are lower, and basket sizes won’t be large enough to cover the costs of delivery.

“This might be the case for other companies, but almost everyone at Dija comes from this industry and knows exactly what they are doing, from buying and merchandising to data and marketing,” Menolascina says, pushing back. “It’s also worth pointing out that we are a full-stack model, so we’re not sharing our margin with other parties. In terms of the average basket size, it varies depending on the customer’s need. On one hand, we have customers who do their entire grocery shop through Dija, while on the other hand, our customers depend on us for emergency purchases e.g. nappies, batteries etc.”

On pricing, he says that, like any retail business, Dija buys products at wholesale prices and sells them at recommended retail prices. “Going forward, we have a clear roadmap on how we generate additional revenue, including strategic partnerships, supply chain optimisation and technology enhancements,” adds Menolascina.

Dija testing on Deliveroo

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Meanwhile, TechCrunch has learned that prior to launching its own app, Dija ran a number of experiments on takeout marketplace Deliveroo, including selling various convenience store items, such as potato chips and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. If you’ve ever ordered toiletry products from “Baby & Me Pharmacy” or purchased chocolate sweets from “Valentine’s Vows,” you have likely and unknowingly shopped at Dija. Those brands, and a number of others, all delivered from the same address in South Kensington.

“Going direct to consumer without properly testing pick & pack is a big risk,” Menolascina told me in a WhatsApp message a few weeks ago, confirming the Deliveroo tests. “We created disposable virtual brands purely to learn what to sell and how to replenish, pick & pack, and deliver”.

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Daily Crunch: Square acquires Tidal

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Square buys a majority stake in Jay-Z’s Tidal, WhatsApp improves its desktop app and Hopin raises even more funding. This is your Daily Crunch for March 4, 2021.

The big story: Square acquires Tidal

Square announced this morning that it has purchased a majority stake in Tidal, the music streaming service founded by Jay-Z. It sounds like an odd fit at first, which Square CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged in a tweet asking, “Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!”

His answer: “It comes down to a simple idea: finding new ways for artists to support their work. New ideas are found at the intersections, and we believe there’s a compelling one between music and the economy. Making the economy work for artists is similar to what Square has done for sellers.”

Square is paying $297 million in cash and stock for the deal, which will result in Jay-Z joining Square’s board.

The tech giants

WhatsApp adds voice and video calling to desktop app — This should provide relief to countless people sitting in front of computers who have had to reach for their phone every time WhatsApp rang.

Apple’s App Store is now also under antitrust scrutiny in the UK — The U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority announced that it’s opened an investigation following a number of complaints from developers alleging unfair terms.

Google speeds up its release cycle for Chrome — Mozilla also moved to a four-week cycle for Firefox last year.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Hopin confirms $400M raise at $5.65B valuation — For Hopin, the round is another rapid-fire funding event.

Coursera is planning to file to go public tomorrow — The company has been talking to underwriters since last year, but tomorrow could mark its first legal step in the process to IPO.

Luxury air travel startup Aero raises $20M — The startup describes its offering as “semi-private” air travel.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

As activist investors loom, what’s next for Box? — A company with plenty of potential is mired in slowing growth.

Unraveling ThredUp’s IPO filing: Slow growth, but a shifting business model — ThredUp is a used-goods marketplace approaching the public markets in the wake of Poshmark’s own strong debut.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

SITA says its airline passenger system was hit by a data breach — Global air transport data giant SITA has confirmed a data breach involving passenger data.

How to successfully dance the creator-brand tango — What makes creators succeed, and how should brands work with them?

Announcing the Early Stage Pitch-Off Judges — On April 2, TechCrunch will feature 10 top startups across the globe at the Early Stage Pitch Off.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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