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ICYMI: Google Faces Congress, YouTube Ad & Paywall Changes, VidCon Hires CMO & More

Report Exposes Reach of Russian Campaign to Influence 2016 U.S. Election

A U.S. Senate report exposing the wide reach of the Russian disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 election said that its reach was far beyond Facebook, Google, search results and Twitter. The Senate’s report, which was put together by the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project and the social media analysis firm, Graphika, indicate that YouTube, Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ and PayPal were also used to spread propaganda and encourage divisiveness.

Instagram, in particular, was used far more extensively than initial reports indicated to spread propaganda and lies.

The research is the first thorough analysis of millions of social media posts, which came from material provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Facebook, Google, and Twitter. The report criticizes the lateness and lack of coordination by the tech companies in response to the crisis. It further states that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda group, used and adapted digital marketing techniques to target audiences across many channels, making the campaigns seem more legitimate. Russia was especially focusing on conservatives through posts on immigration, race and gun laws, though they also targeted centrist and liberal voters with different campaigns.

The Senate also released a report by New Knowledge, a research firm, that highlights how Russia targeted African-Americans, both to stage protest rallies and to convince some that they should boycott the election. They also spread false information about the voting process to interfere while encouraging conservatives to be more confrontational.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically Donald Trump,” said the report.

Both reports show how the campaigns exploited and encouraged divisiveness in America.

The New Knowledge report also details how one Russian troll farm encouraged U.S. secessionist movements in California and Texas. The report demonstrates how the tech companies could have noticed the interference earlier, such as the use of Russian currency to buy ads on topics relating to American gun laws.

The reports also indicate that the Russian disinformation campaigns are still continuing and are currently working to erode trust in U.S. democratic institutions and investigative agencies.

The IRA was indicted earlier this year along with 12 of its employees as part of Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Various news agencies have asked the Russian embassies in the U.S. and the UK for comment but have not received a response.

More details on the reports can be found via CNN’s summary or from NPR’s coverage. Axios has also uploaded both reports if you want to read them in their entirety.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai Testifies Before Congress

ICYMI Pichai
Via CNN

Despite previously refusing to send a representative to Congress earlier this year to answer questions for the investigation into election meddling, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally appeared before lawmakers to answer questions on a variety of issues including potential political bias in search results and the company’s plans for a censored search app in China.

The official title of the hearing was “Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and Its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.” Republican lawmakers have accused Google of being biased against and possibly stifling conservative viewpoints. Pichai denied that, insisting that Google’s search algorithm is impartial in regard to ideology and instead responds to what is relevant based on the user’s search history and geography.

Pichai was also asked about Google plans for a censored search engine in China. Pichai denied that Google had any plans to launch search in China but this past summer The Intercept reported that it had obtained leaked documents on Project Dragonfly, which would be a search engine that would block search results for queries like “human rights” and “student protest” and link the users’ search queries to their personal phone numbers.

Google employees have spoken out about the project, refuting Pichai’s denials of the project. More than 730 Google employees have recently signed an open letter demanding that the company cancel the project. Human rights groups have done the same.

You can watch the C-SPAN video of Pichai’s testimony by clicking here.

Facebook Is Testing Ads in Search Results

With search as one of the few Facebook locations without ads, allowing ads in primary search results and Marketplace search results makes sense, especially since businesses have been redirecting Facebook ad dollars to Instagram this year. Facebook previously tested search ads in 2012 but dropped it in 2013.

Facebook declined to show screenshots of the ad test, saying that the design is still evolving. The ads will be repurposed News Feed ads with a deadline, image, copy text and link to an external website. Ads will have a “Sponsored” tag and must conform to the search results by topic.

The test begins with a limited number of automotive and retail advertisers but will expand if the test goes well. Ads from this test will only be viewable by those in the United States and Canada. If the test goes well, Facebook is likely to roll out the option to more companies.

Learn more in AdWeek’s article on the new ad placement.

Australian Regulator Calls for Increased Google, Facebook Oversight

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued a preliminary report making recommendations to curb Facebook and Google’s influence, to prevent abuse of power,  and to change merger laws to guard smaller tech firms from being squeezed out of the marketplace. It also recommends more consumer browsing options.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tasked the commission last year with analyzing the impact of tech platforms on the decline of advertising money to traditional media and the decline of journalism jobs. The ACCC report criticizes Google and Facebook’s lack of algorithm transparency and recommending a watchdog to prevent abuses of power.

The Australian report is just the latest blow to major tech firms. A British Parliament member recently released a mass of internal Facebook documents that show that Facebook gave some third party candidates special access to user data without the users’ consent.

The final report is due in May after a national election in Australia.

YouTube Tests a New Ad Pod Delivery Experience

YouTube has announced a new “ad pod” plan that shows two skippable pre-roll or mid-roll ads in a row, creating a TV-like experience. The new ad delivery system is being tested on desktop with a roll out to mobile and smart TVs to follow.

YouTube’s research indicates that users react better to fewer ad breaks so combining multiple ads into a “pod” leads to less abandonment than one ad before the video and one in the middle. By switching to this delivery method, YouTube is hoping that viewers won’t abandon videos when an ad appears.

Ad pods will be used based on the length of the video, not placed on every video. For more information, see Google’s official announcement.

Quora Confirms Breach

Quora, the site that allows people to crowdsource answers to their questions, confirmed that it had a data breach that affected as many as 100 million user accounts.  The hackers gained access to user names, email addresses, passwords, usage history and data from linked social media accounts. Those who used Quora anonymously were not affected. Quora said it has contacted users that were affected.

For more information on the breach, see the FAQ that Quora has set up to answer questions and concerns.

Proposed U.S. Privacy Law Could Send Executives to Jail

RonWydenSenator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) released a draft of federal privacy legislation he is proposing to match Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Wyden’s Consumer Data Protection Act parallels GDPR in many ways, including imposing penalties of up to 4 percent of a company’s gross revenue or $20 million – whichever is greater.

However, Wyden’s bill goes further than GDPR by also proposing a penalty of 10-20 years in jail for senior executives who break the proposed law. It also requires that a company’s algorithm be assessed for data processing in regard to fairness, accuracy, bias, privacy, discrimination, and security.

While consumers are concerned about data privacy, consumer data laws can impact businesses and the data they use for marketing and advertising targeting. Like GDPR, Wyden’s bill has strong penalties to force compliance. The bill would add 175 new staffers to help the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforce the new law and would provide consumers with a centralized Do Not Track list to opt out of data sharing between companies.

Additionally, companies with more than $1 billion in revenue would be required to submit data compliance reports to the FTC on a regular basis. Mirroring GDPR, the public will have a clear system through which they can request, review, and challenge their data record.

Read Senator Wyden’s full statement about the Consumer Data Protection Act and the proposed bill’s language. It also has an email address through which you can submit feedback on the bill.

Google+ Closing Early Due to API Bug

Google announced that it found another bug in its API for Google+ and as a result of the security vulnerability will close Google+ in April instead of the previously announced August 2019.  While Google+ started out strong, interest in it gradually faded and with it, usage. Google has been gradually spinning off Google+ features as a result of the diminishment of the surface.

This most recent bug affected 52.5 million users. The first bug that led to the original closing announcement was discovered by Google in March but not publicly announced until October, leading to complaints. Google discovered the second bug as part of a standard testing procedure and claims it was only open for six days – November 7-13. Google says there is no evidence that app developers discovered or misused the bug.

Read Google’s official statement on the change of plans for closing Google+.

YouTube Removing Paywall for Originals

YouTube is dropping the paywall from its Originals line of programming. Some programs will become ad-supported while the details are being determined and some will stay subscription based. Others may become available on Google Preferred, an advertising program that allows marketers to buy ads on YouTube’s best performing channels.

YouTube launched more than 50 original shows in 2018.  A YouTube spokesperson says they will continue to invest in scripted programming but sources told The Hollywood Reporter that the channel was already planning to scale back scripted programming in 2019.

VidCon Hires Sarah Tortoreti as Its First Marketing VP

vidcon marketing vp sarah tortoreti
Via Variety

VidCon, the multi-genre online video conference, which is held annually in Southern California, has hired Sarah Tortoreti as its first vice-president of marketing to manage its promotional strategies worldwide.

Tortoreti was the director of marketing and brand strategy for Viacom’s Nickelodeon since April 2016. Viacom acquired VidCon in early 2018 from veteran YouTube creators Hank Green and John Green.

Tortoreti will oversee development and management of all aspects of the VidCon brand, including global marketing strategy, which also entails outreach to industry executives and creators for VidCon’s live events in the United States, the U.K. and Australia. Vidcon will present the first VidCon in London February 14-17, 2019 at ExCeL London.

Variety has a more in-depth look at Tortoreti’s career and VidCon that can be viewed here.

11 European Search Engines Challenging Google Over Privacy

Between the implementation of GDPR and the backlash over the collection of personal data by tech giants, a number of European search engines are rising to promise user privacy. Europe has been increasingly concerned about Google’s dominance of internet searches, providing opportunities for search engines like Mojeek and Oscobo from Britain, Qwant from France, Swisscows, Startpage from The Netherlands, and Unbubble from Germany.

A more detailed look at European alternatives to Google search can be found here.

FB Tests Keyword Notifications for Group Owners

Facebook appears to be testing alerts for keyword mentions within Groups. Jane Manchun Wong, who is known as “the app whisperer” for her ability to reverse engineer apps and figure out what makes them popular, found the change. It could help Group owners, especially businesses, better monitor conversations. Keyword alerts would ensure that Group owners don’t miss relevant mentions.

Facebook hasn’t officially commented on the feature but Wong posted a screenshot of the interface.

A Friendship Ensured Google’s Growth – and It Wasn’t Brin and Page

While not news, The New Yorker did a very interesting profile of Google engineers Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat. Employees since 1999, the two solved a problem that could have choked Google’s growth long before it became the dominant search engine and rewrote code using knowledge gathered at the level of bits to make sweeping changes that sped up search results while ensuring system stability. By rewriting Google core code, Dean and Ghemawat expanded the system’s capacity by orders of magnitude and guaranteed that if a physical component failed, the system as a whole would be unaffected.

Dean and Ghemawat’s work earned them a rarified place in Google’s history and hierarchy. Google engineers are ranked by level with Level 1’s being basic support staff and Level 2’s being fresh out of college. Level 8 engineers are associated with major projects. Level 9’s are known as “Distinguished Engineers” and Level 10’s are a “Google Fellow” and the world’s leading experts in their field. Dean and Ghemawat are the first and only Level 11’s and Google Senior Fellows.

The insight to their unusual work process and how it impacts Google to this day is a fascinating read. The full profile is at the New Yorker website.

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