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In expanded crackdown, Facebook increases penalties for rule-breaking groups and their members

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Facebook this morning announced it will increase the penalties against its rule-breaking Facebook Groups and their members, alongside other changes designed to reduce the visibility of groups’ potentially harmful content. The company says it will now remove civic and political groups from its recommendations in markets outside the U.S., and will further restrict the reach of groups and members who continue to violate its rules.

The changes follow what has been a steady, but slow and sometimes ineffective crackdown on Facebook Groups that produce and share harmful, polarizing or even dangerous content.

Ahead of the U.S. elections, Facebook implemented a series of new rules designed to penalize those who violated its Community Standards or spread misinformation via Facebook Groups. These rules largely assigned more responsibility to Groups themselves, and penalized individuals who broke rules. Facebook also stopped recommending health groups, to push users to official sources for health information, including for information about Covid-19.

This January, Facebook made a more significant move against potentially dangerous groups. It announced it would remove civic and political groups, as well as newly created groups, from its recommendations in the U.S. following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Previously, it had temporarily limited these groups ahead of the U.S. elections.)

As The WSJ reported when this policy became permanent, Facebook’s internal research had found that Facebook groups in the U.S. were polarizing users and inflaming the calls for violence that spread after the elections. The researchers said roughly 70% of the top 100 most active civic Facebook Groups in the U.S. had issues with hate, misinformation, bullying and harassment that should make them non-recommendable, leading to the January 2021 crackdown.

Today, that same policy is being rolled out to Facebook’s global user base, not just Facebook U.S. users.

That means in addition to health groups, users worldwide won’t be “recommended” civic or political groups when browsing Facebook. It’s important, however, to note that recommendations are only one of many ways users find Facebook Groups. Users can also find them in search, through links people post, through invites and friends’ private messages.

In addition, Facebook says groups that have gotten in trouble for violating Facebook’s rules will now be shown lower in recommendations — a sort of downranking penalty Facebook often uses to reduce the visibility of News Feed content.

The company will also increase the penalties against rule-violating groups and their individual members through a variety of other enforcement actions.

Image Credits: Facebook

For example, users who attempt to join groups that have a history of breaking Facebook’s Community Standards will be alerted to the the group’s violations through a warning message (shown above), which may cause the user to reconsider joining.

The rule-violating groups will have their invite notifications limited, and current members will begin to see less of the groups’ content in their News Feed, as the content will be shown further down. These groups will also be demoted in Facebook’s recommendations.

When a group hosts a substantial number of members who have violated Facebook policies or participated in other groups that were shut down for Facebook Community Standards violations, the group itself will have to temporarily approve all members’ new posts. And if the admin or moderator repeatedly approves rule-breaking content, Facebook will then take the entire group down.

This rule aims to address problems around groups that re-form after being banned, only to restart their bad behavior unchecked.

The final change being announced today applies to group members.

When someone has repeated violations in Facebook Groups, they’ll be temporarily stopped from posting or commenting in any group, won’t be allowed to invite others to join groups, and won’t be able to create new groups. This measure aims to slow down the reach of bad actors, Facebook says.

The new policies give Facebook a way to more transparently document a group’s bad behavior that led to its final shutdown. This “paper trail,” of sorts, also helps Facebook duck accusations of bias when it comes to its enforcement actions —  a charge often raised by Facebook critics on the right, who believe social networks are biased against conservatives.

But the problem with these policies is that they’re still ultimately hand slaps for those who break Facebook’s rules — not all that different from what users today jokingly refer to as “Facebook jail“. When individuals or Facebook Pages violate Facebook’s Community Standards, they’re temporarily prevented from interacting on the site or using specific features. Facebook is now trying to replicate that formula, with modifications, for Facebook Groups and their members.

There are other issues, as well. For one, these rules rely on Facebook to actually enforce them, and it’s unclear how well it will be able to do so. For another, they ignore one of the key means of group discovery: search. Facebook claims it downranks low-quality results here, but results of its efforts are decidedly mixed.

For example, though Facebook made sweeping statements about banning QAnon content across its platform in a misinformation crackdown last fall, it’s still possible to search for and find QAnon-adjacent content — like groups that aren’t titled QAnon but cater to QAnon-styled “patriots” and conspiracies).

Similarly, searches for terms like “antivax” or “covid hoax,” can also direct users to problematic groups — like the one for people who “aren’t anti-vax in general,” but are “just anti-RNA,” the group’s title explains; or the “parents against vaccines” group; or the “vaccine haters” group that proposes it’s spreading the “REAL vaccine information.” (We surfaced these on Tuesday, ahead of Facebook’s announcement.)

 

Cleary, these are not official health resources, and would not otherwise be recommended per Facebook policies — but are easy to surface through Facebook search. The company, however, takes stronger measures against Covid-19 and Covid vaccine misinformation — it says it will remove Pages, groups, and accounts that repeatedly shared debunked claims, and otherwise downranks them.

Facebook, to be clear, is fully capable of using stronger technical means of blocking access to content.

It banned “stop the steal” and other conspiracies following the U.S. elections, for example. And even today, a search for “stop the steal” groups simply returns a blank page saying no results were found.

Image Credits: Facebook fully blocks “stop the steal”

So why should a search for a banned topic like “QAnon” return anything at all?

Why should “covid hoax?” (see below)

Image Credits: Facebook group search results for “covid hoax”

 

If Facebook wanted to broaden its list of problematic search terms, and return blank pages for other types of harmful content, it could. In fact, if it wanted to maintain a block list of URLs that are known to spread false information, it could do that, too. It could prevent users from re-sharing any post that included those links. It could make those posts default to non-public. It could flag users who violate its rules repeatedly, or some subset of those rules, as users who no longer get to set their posts to public…ever.

In other words, Facebook could do many, many things if it truly wanted to have a significant impact on the spread misinformation, toxicity, polarizing and otherwise harmful content on its platform. Instead, it continues inching forward with temporary punishments and those that are often only aimed at “repeated” violations, such as the ones announced today. These are, arguably, more penalties than it had before — but also maybe not enough.

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

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If you don’t want robotic dogs patrolling the streets, consider CCOPS legislation

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Boston Dynamics’ robot “dogs,” or similar versions thereof, are already being employed by police departments in Hawaii, Massachusetts and New York. Partly through the veil of experimentation, few answers are being given by these police forces about the benefits and costs of using these powerful surveillance devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a position paper on CCOPS (community control over police surveillance), proposes an act to promote transparency and protect civil rights and liberties with respect to surveillance technology. To date, 19 U.S. cities in have passed CCOPS laws, which means, in practical terms, that virtually all other communities don’t have a requirement that police are transparent about their use of surveillance technologies.

For many, this ability to use new, unproven technologies in a broad range of ways presents a real danger. Stuart Watt, a world-renowned expert in artificial intelligence and the CTO of Turalt, is not amused.

Even seemingly fun and harmless “toys” have all the necessary functions and features to be weaponized.

“I am appalled both by the principle and the dogbots and of them in practice. It’s a big waste of money and a distraction from actual police work,” he said. “Definitely communities need to be engaged with. I am honestly not even sure what the police forces think the whole point is. Is it to discourage through a physical surveillance system, or is it to actually prepare people for some kind of enforcement down the line?

“Chunks of law enforcement have forgotten the whole ‘protect and serve’ thing, and do neither,” Watts added. “If they could use artificial intelligence to actually protect and actually serve vulnerable people, the homeless, folks addicted to drugs, sex workers, those in poverty and maligned minorities, it’d be tons better. If they have to spend the money on AI, spend it to help people.”

The ACLU is advocating exactly what Watt suggests. In proposed language to city councils across the nation, the ACLU makes it clear that:

The City Council shall only approve a request to fund, acquire, or use a surveillance technology if it determines the benefits of the surveillance technology outweigh its costs, that the proposal will safeguard civil liberties and civil rights, and that the uses and deployment of the surveillance technology will not be based upon discriminatory or viewpoint-based factors or have a disparate impact on any community or group.

From a legal perspective, Anthony Gualano, a lawyer and special counsel at Team Law, believes that CCOPS legislation makes sense on many levels.

“As police increase their use of surveillance technologies in communities around the nation, and the technologies they use become more powerful and effective to protect people, legislation requiring transparency becomes necessary to check what technologies are being used and how they are being used.”

For those not only worried about this Boston Dynamics dog, but all future incarnations of this supertech canine, the current legal climate is problematic because it essentially allows our communities to be testing grounds for Big Tech and Big Government to find new ways to engage.

Just last month, public pressure forced the New York Police Department to suspend use of a robotic dog, quite unassumingly named Digidog. After the tech hound was placed on temporary leave due to public pushback, the NYPD used it at a public housing building in March. This went over about as well as you could expect, leading to discussions as to the immediate fate of this technology in New York.

The New York Times phrased it perfectly, observing that “the NYPD will return the device earlier than planned after critics seized on it as a dystopian example of overly aggressive policing.”

While these bionic dogs are powerful enough to take a bite out of crime, the police forces seeking to use them have a lot of public relations work to do first. A great place to begin would be for the police to actively and positively participate in CCOPS discussions, explaining what the technology involves, and how it (and these robots) will be used tomorrow, next month and potentially years from now.

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Bird Rides to go public via SPAC, at an implied value of $2.3B

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Bird Rides, the shared electric scooter startup that operates in more than 100 cities across 3 continents, said Wednesday it is going public by merging with special purpose acquisition company Switchback II with an implied valuation of $2.3 billion. The announcement confirms earlier reports, including one this week from dot.la, that Bird intended to go public via a SPAC.

Bird said it was able to raise $106 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, by institutional investor Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, and others. Apollo Investment Corp. and MidCap Financial Trust provided an additional $40 million asset financing.

The transaction will enable the combined entity to retain net proceeds of up to $428 million of cash, according to Switchback, which brings $316 million cash-in-trust to the table. The announcement also provided new information about a previously undisclosed $208 million, which Bird raised privately as part of an April 2021 Senior Preferred Convertible equity offering led by Bracket Capital, Sequoia Capital and Valor Equity Partners.

When and how Bird would go public has been an item of speculation after Bloomberg reported last November that the company received “inbound interest” from SPACs.

Bird’s ride has been bumpy at times. In 2020, revenue dropped to $95 million, or 37% from the previous year. That year the company also laid off around 30% of its workforce – 406 people – for cost-saving reasons. The company may use this new access to cash to expand its European operations and pay off debt.

Most importantly, the new injection of cash may help the company finally achieve profitability. It’s a rarity amongst scooter startups, who face notoriously high overhead.

Special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs, have become a popular route for going public amongst transportation startups. Already this year, scooter company Helbiz, which is based in Europe and the U.S., went public via SPAC in a merger with GreenVision Acquisition Corp. SPAC shell corporations allow companies to list on the NASDAQ without doing a traditional initial public offering.

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Only three days left to buy $99 passes to TC Disrupt 2021

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The countdown clock keeps on ticking, and you have just three days to secure your $99 pass to TechCrunch Disrupt 2021. You read that right — $99 is all that you’ll pay, $99 is all (everybody sing)!

Silly Minions aside, you’ll snag serious savings if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before the deadline expires on May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

TechCrunch Disrupt is a massive gathering of the tech startup world’s top leaders, innovators, makers, investors, founders and ground breakers. The all-virtual platform means more global participation and exposure. It’s all designed to help early-stage founders — and the people who invest in them — build a thriving business.

The Disrupt stage features in-depth interviews and panel discussions with a who’s-who of tech talent. The Extra Crunch stage is where you’ll find a deep bench of subject-matter experts sharing practical how-to content. You’ll take away actionable insights you can put into practice now — when you need it most. Check out our roster of speakers — we’re adding more every week.

Granted, we might be a tad biased about Disrupt — of course we think it’s awesome. But your contemporaries recognize its value, too. Here’s what a few of them told us about their experience at Disrupt 2020.

There was always something interesting going on in one of the breakout rooms, and I was impressed by the quality of the people participating. Partners in well-known VC firms spoke, they were accessible, and they shared smart, insightful nuggets. You will not find this level of people accessible and in one place anywhere else. — Michael McCarthy, CEO, Repositax.

I loved the variety of topics and learning about recent technology trends as they’re happening. Disrupt gave me a whole new perspective on the ways innovation happens in big companies. — Anirudh Murali, co-founder and CEO, Economize.

Watching the Startup Battlefield was fantastic. You could see the ingenuity and innovation happening in different technology spaces. Just looking at the sheer number of other pitch decks and hearing the judges tear them down and give feedback was very helpful. — Jessica McLean, Director of Marketing and Communications, Infinite-Compute.

If watching Startup Battlefield is thrilling (and it is), imagine what it would feel like to compete — or to win. We’re still accepting applications but not for long. Want to take a shot at winning $100,000? Apply to compete in Startup Battlefield before May 13 at 11:59 pm (PT).

There’s so much more opportunity waiting for you at Disrupt 2021. Explore Startup Alley, our expo area. Better yet, exhibit there yourself and, in addition to a bunch of other perks, you might be one of only 50 exhibiting startups chosen to participate in the Startup Alley+ VIP experience. Read more about Startup Alley+ here. TechCrunch will notify selected startups at the end of June.

Time is running out, and $99 is all that you’ll pay — if you buy your Disrupt 2021 pass before Friday, May 14 at 11:59 pm (PT).

Is your company interested in sponsoring or exhibiting at Disrupt 2021? Contact our sponsorship sales team by filling out this form.


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