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Outage highlights how vital Facebook has become worldwide

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Outage highlights how vital Facebook has become worldwide

The six-hour outage at Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp was a headache for many casual users but far more serious for the millions of people worldwide who rely on the social media sites to run their businesses or communicate with relatives, fellow parents, teachers or neighbors.

When all three services went dark Monday, it was a stark reminder of the power and reach of Facebook, which owns the photo-sharing and messaging apps.

Around the world, the breakdown at WhatsApp left many at a loss. In Brazil, the messaging service is by far the most widely used app in the country, installed on 99% of smartphones, according to tech pollster Mobile Time.

WhatsApp has become essential in Brazil to communicate with friends and family, as well as for a variety of other tasks, such as ordering food. Offices, various services and even the courts had trouble making appointments, and phone lines became overwhelmed.

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians in their homeland and abroad fretted over the WhatsApp outage.

Many of the country’s more than 11 million people depend it to alert one another about gang violence in particular neighborhoods or to talk to relatives in the U.S. about money transfers and other important matters. Haitian migrants traveling to the U.S. rely on it to find each other or share key information such as safe places to sleep.

Nelzy Mireille, a 35-year-old unemployed woman who depends on money sent from relatives abroad, said she stopped at a repair shop in the capital of Port-au-Prince because she thought her phone was malfunctioning.

“I was waiting on confirmation on a money transfer from my cousin,” she said. “I was so frustrated.”

“I was not able to hear from my love,” complained 28-year-old Wilkens Bourgogne, referring to his partner, who was in the neighboring Dominican Republic, buying goods to bring back to Haiti. He said he was concerned about her safety because of the violence in their homeland.

“Insecurity makes everyone worry,” he said.

In rebel-held Syria, where the telecommunication infrastructure has been disrupted by war, residents and emergency workers rely mostly on internet communication.

Naser AlMuhawish, a Turkey-based Syrian doctor who monitors coronavirus cases in rebel-held territory in Syria, said WhatsApp is the main communication method used with over 500 workers in the field.

They switched to Skype, but WhatsApp works better when internet service is shaky, he said. If there had been an emergency such as shelling that he needed to warn field workers about, there could have been major problems, he said.

“Luckily this didn’t happen yesterday during the outage,” he said.

But hospitals treating COVID-19 patients in the region were thrown into panic. They lost contact with oxygen suppliers who have no fixed location and are normally reached via WhatsApp. One hospital sent staff member searching for oxygen at nearly two dozen facilities, said Dr. Fadi Hakim of the Syrian American Medical Society.

In Lima, Peru, the breakdown complicated dental technician Mary Mejia’s job. Like most Peruvian medical workers, she uses WhatsApp for a multitude of tasks, including scheduling appointments and ordering crowns.

“Sometimes the doctor will be working on a patient and I need to contact a technician for job,” she said. “To have to step away and make a phone call? It trips us up. We’ve become so accustomed to this tool.”

Millions of Africans use WhatsApp for all their voice calls, so “people felt they were cut off from the world,” said Mark Tinka, a Ugandan who heads engineering at SEACOM, a South Africa-based internet infrastructure company.

Many Africans also use WhatsApp to connect with relatives in other countries. Tinka’s stepdaughter lives in Caldwell, Idaho, and lost her father on Sunday, but could not speak with her family back in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, to arrange travel for the funeral.

“It’s amazing just how little folks understand the impact of three or four content companies on the utility of the Internet,” Tinka said.

Facebook said the outage was due to an internal error related to a “configuration change” but gave no details.

The outage came amid a crisis at Facebook, accused by a whistleblower on “60 Minutes” and on Capitol Hill of profiting from hate and division and suppressing research showing that Instagram contributes to body-image problems, eating disorders and thoughts of suicide in young women.

For small businesses, the outages meant hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

Andrawos Bassous is a Palestinian photographer in the Israeli-occupied West Bank whose Facebook page has more than 1 million followers. He has worked with companies including Samsung and Turkish Airlines to create social media content. He said the social media blackout meant he was unable to book appointments or share videos online for companies that employ him.

“Imagine if you promised one of the companies you work for to share their product at a specific time and there is a blackout,” Bassous said.

Sarah Murdoch runs a small Seattle-based travel company called Adventures with Sarah and relies on Facebook Live videos to promote her tours. She estimated the breakdown cost her thousands of dollars in bookings.

“I’ve tried other platforms because I am wary of Facebook, but none of them are as powerful for the type of content I create,” Murdoch said. As for her losses, “it may only be a few people, but we are small enough that it hurts.”

Heather Rader runs How Charming Photography in Linton, Indiana. She takes photographs for schools and sports teams and makes yard signs with the photos. She has her own website but said parents and other customers mostly try to reach her through social media.

She said she might have lost three or four bookings for photo sessions at $200 a client.

“A lot of people only have a specific window when they can do ordering and booking and things like that,” she said. “If they can’t get a direct answer, they go to someone else.”

Tarita Carnduff of Alberta, Canada, said she connects with other parents on Facebook just about every day, and the outage drove home for her how crucial that support is.

“As a parent with special needs kids, it is the only space I found others in similar positions,” she said. “There’s a lot of us that would be lost without it.”

But for others, the breakdown led them to conclude they need less Facebook in their lives.

Anne Vydra said she realized she was spending too much free time scrolling and commenting on posts she disagreed with. She deleted the Facebook app on Tuesday.

“I didn’t want it to come back,” said Vydra, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and does voiceover work. She added: “I realized how much of my time was wasted.”


NEW YORK (AP)

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Facebook dithered in curbing divisive user content in India

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Facebook dithered in curbing divisive user content in India

Facebook in India has been selective in curbing hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content, according to leaked documents obtained by The Associated Press, even as the internet giant’s own employees cast doubt over its motivations and interests.

Based on research produced as recently as March of this year to company memos that date back to 2019, internal company documents on India highlight Facebook’s constant struggles in quashing abusive content on its platforms in the world’s biggest democracy and the company’s largest growth market. Communal and religious tensions in India have a history of boiling over on social media and stoking violence.

The files show that Facebook has been aware of the problems for years, raising questions over whether it has done enough to address the issues. Many critics and digital experts say it has failed to do so, especially in cases where members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are involved.

Across the world, Facebook has become increasingly important in politics, and India is no different.

Modi has been credited for leveraging the platform to his party’s advantage during elections, and reporting from The Wall Street Journal last year cast doubt over whether Facebook was selectively enforcing its policies on hate speech to avoid blowback from the BJP. Modi and Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have exuded bonhomie, memorialized by a 2015 image of the two hugging at the Facebook headquarters.

The leaked documents include a trove of internal company reports on hate speech and misinformation in India that in some cases appeared to have been intensified by its own “recommended” feature and algorithms. They also include the company staffers’ concerns over the mishandling of these issues and their discontent over the viral “malcontent” on the platform.

According to the documents, Facebook saw India as one of the most “at risk countries” in the world and identified both Hindi and Bengali languages as priorities for “automation on violating hostile speech.” Yet, Facebook didn’t have enough local language moderators or content-flagging in place to stop misinformation that at times led to real-world violence.

In a statement to the AP, Facebook said it has “invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali” which “reduced the amount of hate speech that people see by half” in 2021.

“Hate speech against marginalized groups, including Muslims, is on the rise globally. So we are improving enforcement and are committed to updating our policies as hate speech evolves online,” a company spokesperson said.

This AP story, along with others being published, is based on disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

Back in February 2019 and ahead of a general election when concerns of misinformation were running high, a Facebook employee wanted to understand what a new user in India saw on their news feed if all they did was follow pages and groups solely recommended by the platform itself.

The employee created a test user account and kept it live for three weeks, a period during which an extraordinary event shook India — a militant attack in disputed Kashmir had killed over 40 Indian soldiers, bringing the country close to war with rival Pakistan.

In the note, titled “An Indian Test User’s Descent into a Sea of Polarizing, Nationalistic Messages,” the employee whose name is redacted said they were “shocked” by the content flooding the news feed. The person described the content as having “become a near constant barrage of polarizing nationalist content, misinformation, and violence and gore.”

Seemingly benign and innocuous groups recommended by Facebook quickly morphed into something else altogether, where hate speech, unverified rumors and viral content ran rampant.

The recommended groups were inundated with fake news, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and Islamophobic content. Much of the content was extremely graphic.

One included a man holding the bloodied head of another man covered in a Pakistani flag, with an Indian flag partially covering it. Its “Popular Across Facebook” feature showed a slew of unverified content related to the retaliatory Indian strikes into Pakistan after the bombings, including an image of a napalm bomb from a video game clip debunked by one of Facebook’s fact-check partners.

“Following this test user’s News Feed, I’ve seen more images of dead people in the past three weeks than I’ve seen in my entire life total,” the researcher wrote.

The report sparked deep concerns over what such divisive content could lead to in the real world, where local news outlets at the time were reporting on Kashmiris being attacked in the fallout.

“Should we as a company have an extra responsibility for preventing integrity harms that result from recommended content?” the researcher asked in their conclusion.

The memo, circulated with other employees, did not answer that question. But it did expose how the platform’s own algorithms or default settings played a part in producing such objectionable content. The employee noted that there were clear “blind spots,” particularly in “local language content.” They said they hoped these findings would start conversations on how to avoid such “integrity harms,” especially for those who “differ significantly” from the typical U.S. user.

Even though the research was conducted during three weeks that weren’t an average representation, they acknowledged that it did show how such “unmoderated” and problematic content “could totally take over” during “a major crisis event.”

The Facebook spokesperson said the test study “inspired deeper, more rigorous analysis” of its recommendation systems and “contributed to product changes to improve them.”

“Separately, our work on curbing hate speech continues and we have further strengthened our hate classifiers, to include four Indian languages,” the spokesperson said.


NEW DELHI, India (AP)

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Microsoft and Etisalat coact to develop 5G enterprise

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Etisalat and Microsoft join forces to unleash its latest 5G enterprise by emerging Azure Multi-access Edge Compute, a power move to highlight the giant’s partnership with Emirate’s telco.

In a press release, Etisalat revealed that its recent collaboration with the Big Tech titan’s digital crime unit (DCU) will empower digital security in the Middle East to heighten security in the region against any cyber threats.

The union will harness both company’s capacities by partnering Etisalat Core Orchestration and Microsoft’s Azure ARM to develop a 5G driven edge computing plug-and-play framework for companies to leverage threat intelligence solutions.

“Azure MEC offers service providers and customers the same set of tools to build and manage their cloud infrastructure. Our customers can maximize their efforts by employing a ‘build once and deploy many’ strategy to optimize their investments,” regional director, Enterprise and Partner Group (EPG), Microsoft UAE, Naim Yazbeck, said in a statement.

Edge computing is a genre of computing created either on-site or in the vicinity of a specific data source, decreasing the necessity for data to be processed in a remote data center. The technology intends to optimize various industries, minimize latency, and support the complete hosting of applications to produce fast and safe 5G, Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI) applications.

“Etisalat Edge Computing solutions will help customers transform the way they operate, especially transportation, smart manufacturing, logistics, and Oil and Gas,” vice president Fixed and Mobile Core at Etisalat, Khaled Al Suwaidi, said in a statement.

“This drastically increases the value for traditional networks to transition into 5G to develop intelligent and autonomous next-generation technology that unlocks potential opportunities to our customers,” he added.

In reference to the press release, the partnership between the tech companies is an extension of last year’s promising collaboration.

Last year, Etisalat joined forces with the Big Tech mogul to create a public cloud-first plan via a digital transformation program that allowed the Emirati telco to develop a platform intertwined with automation and AI.   

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Facebook’s oversight board seeks details on VIPs’ treatment

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says the company has fallen short of full disclosure on its internal system that exempts high-profile users from some or all of its content rules.

Facebook “has not been fully forthcoming” with the overseers about its “XCheck,” or cross-check, system the board said in a report Thursday. It also said it will review the system and recommend how the social network giant could change it.

The board started looking into the XCheck system last month after The Wall Street Journal reported that many VIP users abuse it, posting material that would cause ordinary users to be sanctioned — including for harassment and incitement of violence. For certain elite users, Facebook’s rules reportedly don’t seem to apply. There were at least 5.8 million exempted users as of last year, according to the Journal article.

Facebook is generally not bound under the oversight board’s rules to follow its recommendations.

“We believe the board’s work has been impactful, which is why we asked the board for input into our cross-check system, and we will strive to be clearer in our explanations to them going forward,” Facebook said in a statement Thursday.

The report said Facebook wrongly failed to mention the XCheck system when it asked the board earlier this year to rule on its ban on former President Donald Trump’s accounts following the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

“Facebook only mentioned cross-check to the board when we asked whether Mr. Trump’s page or account had been subject to ordinary content-moderation processes,” the report said.

In May, the board upheld Facebook’s suspension of Trump’s accounts, which came out of concern that he incited violence leading to the Jan. 6 riot. But the overseers told Facebook to specify how long the suspension would last. Facebook later announced that Trump’s accounts would be suspended for two years, freezing his presence on the social network until early 2023, to be followed by a reassessment.

Trump announced Wednesday the launch of a new media company with its own social media platform. He said his goal is to create a rival to the Big Tech companies that have shut him out and denied him the megaphone that was paramount in his national rise.

Twitter, which was Trump’s platform of choice, banned him permanently after the Jan. 6 assault.

The oversight board said Thursday that for its review, Facebook agreed to provide the internal company documents on the XCheck system that were referenced in the Journal article. Facebook documents were leaked to the newspaper by Frances Haugen, a former product manager in the company’s civic integrity unit who also provided them to Congress and went public this month with a far-reaching condemnation of the company.

In a separate blog post, the board said Haugen has accepted its invitation for a meeting in coming weeks, to discuss her experiences “and gather information that can help push for greater transparency and accountability from Facebook through our case decisions and recommendations.”

Haugen’s accusations of possible serious harm to some young people from Facebook’s Instagram photo-sharing platform raised outrage among lawmakers and the public.

The board said in its report that in some cases, “Facebook failed to provide relevant information to the board, while in other instances, the information it did provide was incomplete.”

In a briefing to the board, “Facebook admitted it should not have said that (XCheck) only applied to a ‘small number of decisions,'” the report said. “Facebook noted that for teams operating at the scale of millions of content decisions a day, the numbers involved … seem relatively small, but recognized its phrasing could come across as misleading.”

Facebook created the oversight panel to rule on thorny content issues following widespread criticism of its problems responding swiftly and effectively to misinformation, hate speech and harmful influence campaigns. The board’s decisions have tended to favor free expression over the restriction of content. Its members include a former prime minister of Denmark and a former editor-in-chief of British newspaper the Guardian, along with legal scholars, human rights experts and journalists.

The board’s independence has been questioned by critics who say it’s a Facebook PR campaign intended to draw attention away from deeper problems of hate and misinformation that flourish on its platforms.


WASHINGTON (AP)

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