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Fake ‘Likes’ Remain Just a Few Dollars Away, Researchers Say

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“A very #MerryChristmas⁠ ⁠to all,” Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s top antitrust enforcer, wrote on Facebook last December. Her post attracted 144 “likes.”

A few months later, as an experiment, researchers paid a company a few dollars to attract attention to her well wishes. In 30 minutes, the post had 100 more likes. The researchers had similar results on a holiday post on Ms. Vestager’s Instagram account and on a Christmas tweet from Vera Jourova, the European Union’s justice commissioner.

Companies like Facebook and Twitter are poorly policing automated bots and other methods for manipulating social media platforms, according to a report released on Friday by researchers from the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. With a small amount of money, the researchers found, virtually anyone can hire a company to get more likes, comments and clicks.

The group, an independent organization that advises the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, tested the tech companies’ ability to stop paid influence campaigns by turning to 11 Russian and five European companies that sell fake social media engagement. For 300 euros, or about $330, the researchers bought over 3,500 comments, 25,000 likes, 20,000 views and 5,000 followers, including on posts from prominent politicians like Ms. Vestager and Ms. Jourova.

After four weeks, about 80 percent of the fake clicks remained, the researchers said. And virtually all of the accounts that had been used to generate the clicks remained active three weeks after researchers reported them to the companies.

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The report spotlights the continuing challenges for Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as they try to combat online disinformation and other forms of online manipulation. After Russia interfered in the United States’ 2016 presidential election, the companies made numerous changes to reduce the spread of online disinformation and foreign interference. In recent months, the platforms have announced takedowns of accounts in China, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Africa, where Russia was testing new tactics.

But the report also brings renewed attention to an often overlooked vulnerability for internet platforms: companies that sell clicks, likes and comments on social media networks. Many of the companies are in Russia, according to the researchers. Because the social networks’ software ranks posts in part by the amount of engagement they generate, the paid activity can lead to more prominent positions.

“We spend so much time thinking about how to regulate the social media companies — but not so much about how to regulate the social media manipulation industry,” said Sebastian Bay, one of the researchers who worked on the report. “We need to consider if this is something which should be allowed but, perhaps more, to be very aware that this is so widely available.”

From May to August, the researchers tested the ability of the social networks to handle the for-hire manipulation industry. The researchers said they had found hundreds of providers of social media manipulation with significant revenue. They signed up with 16.

“The openness of this industry is striking,” the report says. “In fact, manipulation service providers advertise openly on major platforms.”

The researchers bought engagements on about a hundred posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. They saw “little to no resistance,” Mr. Bay said.

After their purchase, the researchers identified nearly 20,000 accounts that were used to manipulate the social media platforms, and reported a sample of them to the internet companies. Three weeks later, more than 95 percent of the reported accounts were still active online.

The researchers directed most of the clicks to posts on social media accounts they had made for the experiment. But they also tested some verified accounts, like Ms. Vestager’s, to see if they were better protected. They were not, the researchers said.

The researchers said that to limit their influence on real conversations, they had bought engagement on posts from politicians that were at least six months old and contained apolitical messages.

Researchers found that the big tech companies were not equally bad in removing manipulation. Twitter identified and removed more than the others, the researchers found; on average, half the likes and retweets bought on Twitter were eventually removed, they said.

Facebook, the world’s largest social network, was best at blocking the creation of accounts under false pretenses, but it rarely took content down.

Instagram, which Facebook owns, was the easiest and cheapest to manipulate. The researchers found YouTube the worst at removing inauthentic accounts and the most expensive to manipulate. The researchers reported 100 accounts used for manipulation in their test to each of the social media companies, and YouTube was the only one that did not suspend any and provided no explanation.

Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, said easy social media manipulation could have implications for European elections this year and the 2020 presidential election in the United States.

“Fake engagement — whether generated by automated or real accounts — can skew the perceived popularity of a candidate or issue,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “If these strategies are used to amplify disinformation, conspiracy and intolerance, social media could exacerbate the polarization and distrust that exist within society.”

Ms. Bradshaw, who reviewed the report independently, said the reason accounts might have not been taken down was that “they could belong to real people, where individuals are paid a small amount of money for liking or sharing posts.” This strategy, she pointed out, makes it much harder for the platforms to take action.

Still, she said the companies could do more to track and monitor accounts associated with manipulation services. And the companies could suspend or remove the accounts after several instances of suspicious activity to diminish inauthentic behavior.

“Examining fake engagement is important because accounts don’t have to be fake to pollute the information environment,” Ms. Bradshaw said. “Real people can use real accounts to produce inauthentic behavior that skews online discourse and generates virality.”



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Colleges Clamored for Seesaw. That Was once the Just right Information, and the Unhealthy Information.

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And it’s been a yr. In February, Mr. Sjogreen was once mapping out long-term initiatives from Seesaw’s downtown San Francisco workplace. Come March, he was once running from his Noe Valley area, juggling home-school tasks for his 9- and 12-year-old youngsters, identical to most of the staff, and Seesaw was once in “rapid-response mode,” as he put it.

Lecturers like Sharmeen Moosa, a first-grade trainer at a global college in Bahrain, determined Seesaw could be their remote-learning platform.

“Previous to Covid, I used it as only a virtual portfolio for children,” an internet choice of their drawings and recordings, Ms. Moosa mentioned, but if her college closed in February, her use “remodeled vastly.” She used the app for morning messages and day by day courses, including audio or video clips, posting further assets, and developing scholar assignments along side speaking with households.

Many different academics used the app in an identical techniques, exposing shortfalls that the corporate needed to race to mend.

The app, designed to paintings with iPads and Chromebooks, had hardly ever been used with Android pills. However now oldsters have been going online with Amazon Fireplace or Samsung units operating Android. A large number of scholars didn’t have e-mail addresses and wanted a unique option to log in from domestic. Lecturers, who may just not glance over scholars’ shoulders whilst they labored on an project, sought after to touch upon stored drafts sooner than scholars submitted a last model. Notification delays grew from a few seconds to hours. The corporate’s servers every so often slowed to a move slowly.

The ones problems supposed academics, households and colleges all fired questions at Seesaw for lend a hand. Mr. Sjogreen, who prided himself on getting again to shoppers nearly in an instant, discovered that simply wasn’t conceivable.

“I’m unhappy that throughout a time the place they have been so wired, we weren’t as responsive as we wish to be,” he mentioned.



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With Holiday Leases Empty, Ecu Towns See a Likelihood to Reclaim Housing

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LISBON — Lengthy prior to the coronavirus swept throughout Europe this spring, many towns have been complaining {that a} proliferation of temporary condo leases geared toward vacationers thru platforms like Airbnb used to be using up housing prices for locals and destroying the nature of ancient districts.

Now that the pandemic has all however bring to a halt the stable drift of tourists, many Ecu towns are seizing a possibility to push temporary leases again onto the long-term housing marketplace.

In Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, town govt is turning into a landlord itself through renting empty residences and subletting them as sponsored housing. In Barcelona, Spain, the housing division is threatening to take ownership of empty homes and do the similar.

Different town governments are enacting or making plans new regulations to curb the explosive expansion of leases aimed in large part at vacationers. Amsterdam has banned holiday leases within the middle of the previous town; a Berlin reliable warned of a crackdown on temporary leasing platforms “seeking to evade law and the enforcement of legislation”; and Paris is making plans a referendum on Airbnb-type listings.

For years, homes rented out for temporary remains have put power at the housing markets in different Ecu towns. Lisbon has greater than 22,000 Airbnb listings, in line with Within Airbnb, which tracks listings in towns all over the world. Barcelona has 18,000, and Paris — some of the platform’s biggest markets — has just about 60,000.

When vacationers are abundant, renting a belongings on a temporary foundation can also be extra profitable for house owners than a long-term tenant, one thing that town governments say has distorted housing markets in towns the place provide is already tight. In addition they accuse on-line platforms of circumventing regulations installed position to give protection to native markets.

“We can’t tolerate that lodging which may be rented to Parisians at the moment are rented all 12 months to vacationers,” the deputy mayor of Paris, Ian Brossat, mentioned in a telephone interview. Mr. Brossat additionally mentioned he used to be hoping to chop the choice of days in line with 12 months {that a} belongings can also be rented thru platforms like Airbnb — recently 120. He accused the corporate of breaching even that rule.

“Airbnb pretends to recognize the legislation, nevertheless it’s now not the case,” mentioned Mr. Brossat, who has written a guide important of Airbnb and its have an effect on on towns.

Airbnb denies any wrongdoing, in Paris or in different places. “They’ve set the principles, and we’re following the principles,” mentioned Patrick Robinson, Airbnb’s director of public coverage for Europe, the Center East and Africa. “The place there’s a lively dialogue about the correct laws, we’re a part of that dialog, and in the long run that’s for native politicians to come to a decision.”

He mentioned that Airbnb equipped registration main points and different information to the government in main tourism hubs like Lisbon, Paris and Barcelona to assist town officers put into effect their regulations. “We if truth be told assume that higher get admission to to information is the answer right here.” In September, the corporate offered Town Portal, which it says will permit governments get admission to to information that may assist establish listings that don’t agree to native laws, akin to unregistered listings.

Probably the most formidable initiative is arguably the only in Lisbon, which has began signing five-year rentals for empty temporary condominium residences. Those homes are then sublet at decrease costs to other folks eligible for sponsored housing. The town govt has put aside Four million euros, or about $4.7 million, for the primary 12 months of subsidies.

“We entered the pandemic with an enormous power on our housing marketplace, and we can’t manage to pay for to go out the pandemic with the similar set of issues,” mentioned town’s mayor, Fernando Medina. “This program isn’t a magic wand, however it may be a part of the answer when it comes to elevating the provision of reasonably priced housing.”

This system is aiming to draw 1,000 condo house owners this 12 months, and has drawn 200 thus far. Mr. Medina mentioned he used to be assured that the plan would meets its function, since a rebound in tourism anytime quickly turns out increasingly more not going because the pandemic drags on.

The plan has been welcomed through some group associations that had criticized native politicians for permitting town to transform a playground for vacationers and rich traders, a lot of them interested in Portugal through residency lets in and tax breaks presented to foreigners after the 2007-Eight monetary disaster.

“The coronavirus has helped divulge the unfavourable sides of Portugal’s restoration from the monetary disaster, which used to be pushed through actual property and tourism quite than a focal point at the fundamental wishes of native other folks,” mentioned Luís Mendes, an city geographer who’s a member of a electorate’ platform known as Residing in Lisbon.

Above all, Mr. Mendes mentioned, the lockdown restrictions used to comprise the coronavirus put the highlight at the housing imbalances in Lisbon. “How are you able to quarantine for those who don’t have a good space?” he mentioned. “We’ve a town corridor that has put ahead a fascinating scheme and is no less than conscious that having a roof is a elementary human proper.”

Then again, some house owners don’t believe town govt a competent tenant. Portugal, they are saying, has a historical past of prison uncertainty and unexpected rule adjustments every time a brand new management takes workplace.

“When you take a look at the monitor document of the politicians in Lisbon, it’s a fully hopeless one, of incompetence and frequently corruption,” mentioned Rita Alves Machado, who owns 3 empty temporary residences round Lisbon. “The town owes cash far and wide, and I simply don’t consider they’re going to pay on time or stick with their very own regulations.”

The law of temporary leases has been a drawnout affair in Europe.

In September, the Court docket of Justice of the Ecu Union subsidized towns making an attempt to crack down on temporary leases, after supporting a French court docket ruling in opposition to two belongings house owners illegally renting out 2d properties on Airbnb. The court docket had issued a ruling in Airbnb’s prefer remaining 12 months, announcing that it used to be an on-line platform quite than an actual property corporate, which might have required it to agree to housing regulations. The Ecu Fee is taking additional steps to keep watch over the platform and others thru a brand new Virtual Services and products Act, which objectives to modernize the prison framework for such services and products around the Ecu Union.

The longer the pandemic hinders shuttle, the much more likely tasks like Lisbon’s are to realize traction, town officers and native belongings professionals say. Within the period in-between, Airbnb has discovered itself on moving flooring.

In Lisbon, occupancy charges for Airbnb and Vrbo, a short-rental reserving web site that used to be as soon as referred to as HomeAway, dropped 50 p.c in Would possibly from a 12 months previous, in line with AirDNA, which collects holiday condominium information.

Miguel Tilli, the co-founder of HomeLovers, a Portuguese actual property company, mentioned he have been record as many as 60 new homes a month in Lisbon — virtually all of which had prior to now been rented thru Airbnb however have been now open to long-term tenants.

Apartment costs within the town have dropped 10 p.c because the get started of the pandemic, however landlords who had prior to now let homes thru Airbnb have been nonetheless immune to decreasing rents.

“Many landlords are performing as though Covid is any person’s else downside,” Mr. Tilli mentioned. “That can’t remaining without end.”

Raphael Minder reported from Lisbon, and Geneva Abdul from Paris.



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Apple, Google and a Deal That Controls the Web

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A former Google government, who requested to not be known as a result of he was once no longer authorized to speak about the deal, stated the possibility of shedding Apple’s site visitors was once “terrifying” to the corporate.

The Justice Division, which is calling for a court docket injunction combating Google from getting into into offers like the only it made with Apple, argues that the association has unfairly helped make Google, which handles 92 p.c of the arena’s web searches, the middle of customers’ on-line lives.

On-line companies like Yelp and Expedia, in addition to firms starting from noodle stores to information organizations, frequently whinge that Google’s seek domination permits it to fee promoting charges when other people merely glance up their names, in addition to to persuade customers towards its personal merchandise, like Google Maps. Microsoft, which had its personal antitrust combat 20 years in the past, has instructed British regulators that if it had been the default possibility on iPhones and iPads, it will make extra promoting cash for each seek on its rival seek engine, Bing.

What’s extra, competition like DuckDuckGo, a small seek engine that sells itself as a privacy-focused choice to Google, may by no means fit Google’s tab with Apple.

Apple now receives an estimated $eight billion to $12 billion in annual bills — up from $1 billion a yr in 2014 — in trade for construction Google’s seek engine into its merchandise. It’s most definitely the one largest fee that Google makes to any person and accounts for 14 to 21 p.c of Apple’s annual earnings. That’s no longer cash Apple can be keen to stroll clear of.

If truth be told, Mr. Cook dinner and Mr. Pichai met once more in 2018 to speak about how they might building up earnings from seek. After the assembly, a senior Apple worker wrote to a Google counterpart that “our imaginative and prescient is that we paintings as though we’re one corporate,” in step with the Justice Division’s grievance.

A compelled breakup may imply the lack of simple cash to Apple. However it will be a extra important danger to Google, which might haven’t any obtrusive technique to change the misplaced site visitors. It would additionally push Apple to obtain or construct its personal seek engine. Inside Google, other people consider that Apple is among the few firms on the planet that might be offering an impressive choice, in step with one former government. Google has additionally frightened that with out the settlement, Apple may make it harder for iPhone customers to get to the Google seek engine.



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