All posts by MTechnology

Students Build Program That Sniffs Out Twitter ‘Bots’

For months, university students Ash Bhat and Rohan Phadte had been tracking about 1,500 political propaganda accounts on Twitter that appeared to have been generated by computers when they noticed something odd.

In the hours after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the bots, short for robots, shifted into high gear, jumping into the debate about gun control.

The hashtag #guncontrol gained traction among the bot network. In fact, all of the top hashtags among the bots were about the Parkland shooting, Bhat and Phadte noticed.

Explainer: What Is a Twitter Bot?

Twitter under fire

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, technology companies have come under fire for how their services were used by foreign-backed operations to sow discord among Americans before and after the election.

Twitter, in particular, has been called out repeatedly for the sheer number of computerized accounts that tweet about controversial topics. The company itself has said 50,000 accounts on its service were linked to Russian propaganda efforts, and the company recently announced plans to curtail automated, computer-generated accounts.

On Monday, executives from Twitter are expected to be on Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Commerce committee about how the service was manipulated in the wake of the Parkland shooting.

For Bhat and Phadte, students at the University of California, Berkeley, the growing public scrutiny on bots couldn’t come fast enough.

Figuring out Twitter fakes

Childhood friends from San Jose, Calif., the two work out of their shared apartment in Berkeley on ways to figure out what is real and fake on the internet and how to arm people with tools to tell the difference.

“Everyone’s realizing how big of a problem this is becoming,” Bhat, co-founder of RoBhat Labs, said. “And I think we’re also at a weird inflection point. It’s like the calm before the storm. We’re building up our defenses before the real effects of misinformation hit.”

One of their projects is Botcheck.me, a way for Twitter users to check whether a person on Twitter is real or fake. To use botcheck.me, users can download a Google Chrome extension, which puts the blue button next to every Twitter account. Or users can run a Twitter account through the website botcheck.me.

Some of the characteristics of a fake Twitter persona? Hundreds of tweets over a 24-hour period is one. Another, mostly retweeting others. A third clue, thousands of followers even though the account may be relatively new.

Polarizing the debate

The result is a digital robot army ready to jump into a national debate, they say.

“The conversation around gun control was a lot more polarizing in terms of for and against gun control, as opposed to seeing in the Parkland shooting other issues, such as mental illness,” Bhat said.

The two do not speculate who may be behind the bots or what their motives may be. Their concern is to try to bring some authenticity back into online discussions.

“Instead of being aggravated and spending an hour tweeting and retweeting, or getting madder, you can find out it’s a bot and stop engaging,” Bhat said.

In recent months, the students say they have seen a lot of Twitter accounts they have been tracking suspended.

But as fast as Twitter can get rid of accounts, the students say new ones are popping back up. And suspicious accounts are starting to look more like humans. They may tweet about the weather or cars for awhile before switching over into political content.

“You can sort of see these bots evolve,” Bhat said. “And the scary thing for us is that if we aren’t keeping up on their technological progress, it’s going to be impossible to tell the difference.”

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Vero a Hot Instagram Alternative, but Will It Last?

Instagram users fed up with the service becoming more and more like Facebook are flocking to a hot new app called Vero.

Vero lets you share photos and video just like Instagram, plus it lets you talk about music, movies or books you like or hate. Though Vero has been around since 2015, its popularity surged in recent days, thanks in part to sudden, word-of-mouth interest from the cosplay community — comic book fans who like to dress up as characters. That interest then spread to other online groups.

There’s also a growing frustration with Instagram, with a flood of ads, dearth of privacy options and a recent end to the chronological ordering of posts. Instagram users have been posting screenshots of Vero, asking their friends to join.

But don’t ring Instagram’s death knells just yet. Hot new apps pop up and fizzle by the dozen, so the odds are stacked against Vero. Remember Ello? Peach? Thought so.

“Young people are super fickle and nothing has caught on in the way that Snapchat or Instagram has,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an eMarketer analyst who specializes in social media.

From 2015 until this past week, Vero was little known, with fewer than 200,000 users, according to CEO Ayman Hariri. Then cosplay members started posting photos of elaborate costumes and makeup. Photographers, tattoo artists and others followed. As of Thursday, Vero was approaching 3 million users, Hariri said.

A fee, eventually

Vero has gotten so popular in recent days that some users have reported widespread outages and error messages. Vero says it’s working to keep up in response “a large wave of new users.”

Vero works on Apple or Android mobile devices and is free, at least for now. The company eventually wants to charge a subscription fee.

There are no ads, and the service promises “no data mining. Ever.” That means it won’t try to sell you stuff based on your interests and habits, as revealed through your posts. Of course, Facebook started out without ads and “data mining,” and it’s now one of the top internet advertising companies. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 and started showing ads there the following year.

Instagram’s privacy settings are all or nothing: You either make everything available to everyone on Instagram, or make everything visible only to approved friends. Vero lets you set the privacy level of individual posts. If you don’t want something available to all users, you can choose just close friends, friends or acquaintances.

Another big difference: Vero shows friends’ posts in chronological order rather than tailored to your perceived tastes, as determined by software. Instagram got rid of chronological presentations in 2016, a change that hasn’t gone well with many users.

Founder was already wealthy

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire after starting the service. Vero’s founder was already one.

Hariri is the son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and helped run the family’s now-defunct construction company in Saudi Arabia. He got a computer science degree from Georgetown and returned to Saudi Arabia after his father was assassinated in 2005. His half brother, Saad, is Lebanon’s current prime minister.

Hariri’s ties with the family business, Saudi Oger, have come into question. The company has been accused in recent years of failing to pay workers and stranding them with little food and access to medical care. Vero says Hariri hasn’t had any operational or financial involvement with the business since late 2013.

Hariri said he started the service not to replace Instagram but to give people “a more authentic social network.” Because Vero doesn’t sell ads, he said, it isn’t simply trying to get people to stay on longer. More important, he said, is “how you feel when you use [it] and how you feel it’s useful.”

Newcomers like Ello and Peach can quickly become popular as people fed up with bigger services itch for something new. But reality can set in when people realize that their friends are not on the new services or that these services aren’t all they promised to be.

Williamson, the eMarketer analyst, said it’s difficult for a new service to become something people use for more than a few weeks.

A rare exception is Snapchat, which was founded in 2010, the same year as Instagram. Unlike Instagram, it has remained an independent company and is still a popular service among younger people. But even Snapchat is having trouble growing more broadly.

EMarketer recently published a report that predicted 2 million people under 25 leaving Facebook for other apps this year. But that means going to Snapchat and the Facebook-owned Instagram, not necessarily emerging services like Vero.

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Facebook Ends Six-Country Test of Two Separate News Feeds

Facebook Inc on Thursday put an end to a test of splitting its signature News Feed into two, an idea that roiled how people consumed news in six countries where the test occurred and added to concern about Facebook’s power.

The test created two streaming series of posts. One was focused on photos and other updates from friends and family, and a second was called an “explore feed.” It was dedicated to material from Facebook pages that the user had liked, such as media outlets or sports teams.

The social media network decided to end the test and maintain one feed because people told the company in surveys they did not like the change, Adam Mosseri, head of the News Feed at Facebook, said in a statement.

“In surveys, people told us they were less satisfied with the posts they were seeing, and having two separate feeds didn’t actually help them connect more with friends and family,” Mosseri said.

The test began in October and took place in Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka, and it quickly affected website traffic for smaller media outlets.

Mosseri said the company had also “received feedback that we made it harder for people in the test countries to access important information, and that we didn’t communicate the test clearly.”

He said Facebook would, in response, revise how it tests product changes although he did not say how.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled other changes to the Facebook News Feed in the past two months to fight sensationalism and prioritize posts from friends and family.

The world’s largest social network and its competitors are under pressure from users and government authorities to make their services less addictive and to stem the spread of false news stories and hoaxes.

Reporting by David Ingram.

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Facebook Ends Six-Country Test of Two Separate News Feeds

Facebook Inc on Thursday put an end to a test of splitting its signature News Feed into two, an idea that roiled how people consumed news in six countries where the test occurred and added to concern about Facebook’s power.

The test created two streaming series of posts. One was focused on photos and other updates from friends and family, and a second was called an “explore feed.” It was dedicated to material from Facebook pages that the user had liked, such as media outlets or sports teams.

The social media network decided to end the test and maintain one feed because people told the company in surveys they did not like the change, Adam Mosseri, head of the News Feed at Facebook, said in a statement.

“In surveys, people told us they were less satisfied with the posts they were seeing, and having two separate feeds didn’t actually help them connect more with friends and family,” Mosseri said.

The test began in October and took place in Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka, and it quickly affected website traffic for smaller media outlets.

Mosseri said the company had also “received feedback that we made it harder for people in the test countries to access important information, and that we didn’t communicate the test clearly.”

He said Facebook would, in response, revise how it tests product changes although he did not say how.

Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled other changes to the Facebook News Feed in the past two months to fight sensationalism and prioritize posts from friends and family.

The world’s largest social network and its competitors are under pressure from users and government authorities to make their services less addictive and to stem the spread of false news stories and hoaxes.

Reporting by David Ingram.

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Equifax Finds Additional 2.4 Million Impacted by 2017 Breach

Equifax said Thursday that an additional 2.4 million Americans were impacted by last year’s data breach, however these newly disclosed consumers had significantly less personal information stolen.

The company says the additional consumers only had their names and a partial driver’s license number stolen by the attackers, unlike the original 145.5 million Americans who had their Social Security numbers impacted. Attackers were unable to get the state where the license was issued, the date of issuance or its expiration date.

In total, roughly 147.9 million Americans have been impacted by Equifax’s data breach. It remains the largest data breach of personal information in history.

The company says they were able to find the additional 2.4 million Americans by cross referencing names with partial driver’s license numbers using both internal and external data sources. These Americans were not found in the original breach because Equifax had focused its investigation on those with Social Security numbers impacted. Individuals with stolen Social Security numbers are generally more at risk for identity theft because of how prolific Social Security numbers are used in identity verification.

Equifax Inc. says it will reach out to all newly impacted consumers and will provide the same credit monitoring and identity theft protection services they have been offering to the original victims.

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