Snapchat is preparing to launch a big new feature that uses your selfies to replace the faces of people in videos you can then share. It’s essentially a simplified way to Deepfake you into GIFs. Snapchat Cameos are an alternative to Bitmoji for quickly conveying an emotion, reaction, or silly situation in Snapchat messages.
Some French users received a test version of the feature today, as spotted by Snap enthusiast @Mtatsis. TechCrunch reached out to Snap, which confirmed existence of Cameos, and that the feature is currently testing in limited availability in some international markets. The company provided this statement: “Cameos aren’t ready to take the stage yet, but stay tuned for their global debut soon!”
[Update 12/9/19: Following TechCrunch’s story, Snap announced today that it will launch “SnapchaCameos” on December 18th with a global roll out on iOS and Android. We’ve updated this article with some more details from Snap.]
Snapchat is preparing to launch a big new feature that uses your selfies to replace the faces of people in videos you can then share. It’s essentially a simplified way to Deepfake you into GIFs. Cameos are an alternative to Bitmoji for quickly conveying an emotion, reaction, or silly situation in Snapchat messages.
Some French users received a test version of the feature today, as spotted by Snap enthusiast @Mtatsis.
TechCrunch reached out to Snap, which confirmed Cameo’s existence, and that it’s currently testing in limited availability in some international markets. The company provided this statement: “Cameos aren’t ready to take the stage yet, but stay tuned for their global debut soon!”
Reddit has linked account activity involving the leak and amplification of sensitive UK-US trade talks on its platform during the ongoing UK election campaign to a suspected Russian political influence operation.
Or, to put it more plainly, the social network suspects that Russian operatives are behind the leak of sensitive trade data — likely with the intention of impacting the UK’s General Election campaign.
The country goes to the polls next week, on December 12.
The UK has been politically deadlocked since mid 2016 over how to implement the result of the referendum to leave the European Union . The minority Conservative government has struggled to negotiate a brexit deal that parliament backs. Another hung parliament or minority government would likely result in continued uncertainty.
In a post discussing the “Suspected campaign from Russia”, Reddit writes:
We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK. We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.
Earlier this year Facebook discovered a Russian campaign on its platform, which was further analyzed by the Atlantic Council and dubbed “Secondary Infektion.” Suspect accounts on Reddit were recently reported to us, along with indicators from law enforcement, and we were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination. We were then able to use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit. This group provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics.
Reddit says that an account, called gregoratior, originally posted the leaked trade talks document. Later a second account, ostermaxnn, reposted it. The platform also found a “pocket of accounts” that worked together to manipulate votes on the original post in an attempt to amplify it. Though fairly fruitlessly, as it turned out; the leak gained little attention on Reddit, per the company.
As a result of the investigation Reddit says it has banned 1 subreddit and 61 accounts — under policies against vote manipulation and misuse of its platform.
The story doesn’t end there, though, because whoever was behind the trade talk leak appears to have resorted to additional tactics to draw attention to it — including emailing campaign groups and political activists directly.
This activity did bear fruit this month when the opposition Labour party got hold of the leak and made it into a major campaign issue, claiming the 451-page document shows the Conservative party, led by Boris Johnson, is plotting to sell off the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use National Health Service (NHS) to US private health insurance firms and drug companies.
Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, showed a heavily redacted version of the document during a TV leaders debate earlier this month, later calling a press conference to reveal a fully un-redacted version of the data — arguing the document proves the NHS is in grave danger if the Conservatives are re-elected.
Johnson has denied Labour’s accusation that the NHS will be carved up as the price of a Trump trade deal. But the leaked document itself is genuine.
It details preliminary meetings between UK and US trade negotiators, which took place between July 2017 and July 2019, in which discussion of the NHS does take place, in addition to other issues such as food standards.
Although the document does not confirm what position the UK might seek to adopt in any future trade talks with the US.
The source of the heavily redacted version of the document appears to be a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by campaigning organisation, Global Justice Now — which told Vice it made an FOI request to the UK’s Department for International Trade around 18 months ago.
The group said it was subsequently emailed a fully unredacted version of the document by an unknown source which also appears to have sent the data directly to the Labour party. So while the influence operation looks to have originated on Reddit, the agents behind it seem to have resorted to more direct means of data dissemination in order for the leak to gain the required attention to become an election-influencing issue.
Experts in online influence operations had already suggested similarities between the trade talks leak and an earlier Russian operation, dubbed Secondary Infektion, which involved the leak of fake documents on multiple online platforms. Facebook identified and took down that operation in May.
In a report analysing the most recent leak, social network mapping and analysis firm Graphika says the key question is how the trade document came to be disseminated online a few weeks before the election.
“The mysterious [Reddit] user seemingly originated the leak of a diplomatic document by posting it around online, just six weeks before the UK elections. This raises the question of how the user got hold of the document in the first place,” it writes. “This is the single most pressing question that arises from this report.”
Graphika’s analysis concludes that the manner of leaking and amplifying the trade talks data “closely resembles” the known Russian information operation, Secondary Infektion.
“The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it,” it adds.
Internet-enabled Russian influence operations that feature hacking and strategically timed data dumps of confidential/sensitive information, as well as the seeding and amplification of political disinformation which is intended to polarize, confuse and/or disengage voters, have become a regular feature of Western elections in recent years.
The most high profile example of Russian election interference remains the 2016 hack of documents and emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee — which went on to be confirmed by US investigators as an operation by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.
In 2017 emails were also leaked from French president Emmanuel Macron’s campaign shortly before his election — although with apparently minimal impact in that case. (Attribution is also less clear-cut.)
Russian activity targeting UK elections and referendums remains a matter of intense interest and investigation — and had been raised publicly as a concern by former prime minister, Theresa May, in 2017.
Although her government failed to act on recommendations to strengthen UK election and data laws to respond to the risks posed by Internet-enabled interference. She also did nothing to investigate questions over the extent of foreign interference in the 2016 brexit referendum.
May was finally unseated by the ongoing political turmoil around brexit this summer, when Johnson took over as prime minister. But he has also turned a wilfully blind eye to the risks around foreign election interference — while fully availing himself of data-fuelled digital campaign methods whose ethics have been questioned by multiple UK oversight bodies.
A report into Russian interference in UK politics which was compiled by the UK’s intelligence and security parliamentary committee — and had been due to be published ahead of the general election — was also personally blocked from publication by the prime minister.
Voters won’t now get to see that information until after the election. Or, well, barring another strategic leak…
A network of scammers used a ring of established right-wing Facebook pages to stoke Islamophobia and make a quick buck in the process, a new report from the Guardian reveals. But it’s less a vast international conspiracy and more simply that Facebook is unable to police its platform to prevent even the most elementary scams — with serious consequences.
The Guardian’s multi-part report depicts the events like a scheme of grand proportions executed for the express purpose of harassing Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MI), Rashida Tlaib (D-MN) and other prominent Muslims. But the facts it uncovered point towards this being a run-of-the-mill money-making operation that used tawdry, hateful clickbait and evaded Facebook’s apparently negligible protections against this kind of thing.
The scam basically went like this: an administrator of a popular right-wing Facebook page would get a message from a person claiming to share their values that asked if they could be made an editor. Once granted access, this person would publish clickbait stories — frequently targeting Muslims, and often Rep. Omar, since they reliably led to high engagement. The stories appeared on a handful of ad-saturated websites that were presumably owned by the scammers.
That appears to be the extent of the vast conspiracy, or at least its operations — duping credulous conservatives into clicking through to an ad farm.
Its human cost, however, whether incidental or deliberate, is something else entirely. Rep. Omar is already the target of many coordinated attacks, some from self-proclaimed patriots within this country; just last month, an Islamophobic Trump supporter pleaded guilty in federal court to making death threats against her.
Social media is asymmetric warfare in that a single person can be the focal point for the firepower — figurative but often with the threat of literal — of thousands or millions. That a Member of Congress can be the target of such continuous abuse makes one question the utility of the platform on which that abuse is enabled.
In a searing statement offered to the Guardian, Rep. Omar took Facebook to task:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Facebook’s complacency is a threat to our democracy. It has become clear that they do not take seriously the degree to which they provide a platform for white nationalist hate and dangerous misinformation in this country and around the world. And there is a clear reason for this: they profit off it. I believe their inaction is a grave threat to people’s lives, to our democracy and to democracy around the world.
Despite the scale of its effect on Rep. Omar and other targets, it’s possible and even likely that this entire thing was carried out by a handful of people. The operation was based in Israel, the report repeatedly mentions, but it isn’t a room of state-sponsored hackers feverishly tapping their keyboards — the guy they tracked down is a jewelry retailer and amateur SEO hustler living in a suburb of Tel Aviv who answered the door in sweatpants and nonchalantly denied all involvement.
The funny thing is that, in a way, this does amount to a vast international conspiracy. On one hand, it’s a guy in sweatpants worming his way into some trashy Facebook pages and mass-posting links to his bunk news sites. But on the other, it’s a coordinated effort to promote Islamophobic, right-wing content that produced millions of interactions and doubtless further fanned the flames of hatred.
Why not both? After all, they represent different ways that Facebook fails as a platform to protect its users. “We don’t allow people to misrepresent themselves on Facebook,” the company wrote in a statement to the Guardian. Obviously, that isn’t true. Or rather, perhaps it’s true in the way that running at the pool isn’t allowed. People just do it anyway, because the lifeguards and Facebook don’t do their job.
“Airbnb’s unit economics are quite legendary — the S-1 is going to be MOST disrupted FASTEST in the next 3 YEARS? Caps for effect.”
No, it was Parrot.VC, a new Twitter account and website dedicated to making light of VC Twitter. Brother-sister duo Samantha and Nick Loui, the creators of the new tool, fed 65,000 tweets written by some 50 venture capitalists to a machine learning bot. The result is an automated tweet generator ready to spew somewhat nonsensical (or entirely nonsensical) <280-character statements.
According to Hacker News, where co-creator Nick Loui shared information about their project, the bot uses predictive text to generate “amazing, new startup advice,” adding “Gavin Belson – hit me up, this is the perfect acquisition for Hooli,” referencing the popular satirical TV show, “Silicon Valley.”
This isn’t the first time someone has leveraged artificial intelligence to make fun of the tech community. One of my personal favorites, BodegaBot, inspired by the Bodega fiasco of late 2017, satirizes Silicon Valley’s unhinged desire to replace domestic service with technology.
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Melee, the company’s first app beyond its flagship product, lets users subscribe to the games from which they love to get memes and gameplay clips. You also can scroll through a popular post’s feed if you’re curious about unfamiliar games.
If you’re worried about the risk that gaming communities might turn toxic, Imgur says Melee has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content and won’t tolerate bullying.
SpaceX is keeping relatively close to schedule on one of the bold timelines pronounced by its CEO Elon Musk. Specifically, the company notes that it has now completed seven system tests of the latest, upgraded version of the parachutes it plans to use with its Crew Dragon capsule when it launches with astronauts on-board.
Shadowfax operates a business-to-business logistics network in more than 300 cities in India. The startup works with neighborhood stores to use their real estate to store inventory, and with a large network of freelancers for delivery.
A contractor working for cell giant Sprint stored hundreds of thousands of cell phone bills for AT&T, Verizon (which owns TechCrunch) and T-Mobile subscribers on an unprotected cloud server.
Qualified Small Business Stock (QSBS) presents a significant tax savings opportunity for people who create and invest in small businesses. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
Apex.AI is working on developing a robotic operating system qualified for use in production automobiles. Its offerings include a set of simple-to-integrate APIs that can give automakers and others access to fully certified autonomous mobility technology.
One team gets $5,000, but we’ve got additional prizes from a range of sponsors. Also: This is next week!
Chirp, a Twitter client preferred by hundreds of thousands of Apple Watch users, is getting its biggest upgrade since its arrival last year. Now redesigned for watchOS 6, the new version of Chirp includes a rebuilt timeline feature that allows you to endlessly scroll through tweets much more quickly than before, along with other enhancements like support for iOS 13’s dark mode and a way to add colors to your Twitter username.
The app was first introduced to fill the void created when Twitter pulled its own Apple Watch app back in 2017 in favor of using Apple Watch’s notifications platform instead.
Chirp, meanwhile, lets users access a real Twitter client from their Watch’s small screen, which included a way to view your Home Timeline, Twitter Trends, @ Mentions, Direct Messages, and more. Some features — like the ability to Direct Message or compose tweets from your Apple Watch — are only available to Chirp Pro paying users, though.
Chirp Pro is a user-friendly “pay what you want” feature that lets you chip in at either $4.99, $5.99 or $7.99 to upgrade the app and doesn’t require a subscription. To date, Chirp has 294,000 downloads and only around 5% conversions.
The new version, Chirp 2.0, hopes to encourage more upgrades as it enhances the Twitter-on-your-wrist experience with a redesigned timeline that endlessly scrolls faster and more reliably than before, and includes an improved video player, image grids, and more.
“The inspiration for rewriting the timeline came from when I was fortunate enough to attend WWDC 2019 as a scholar,” explains Chirp developer Will Bishop. “During the keynote, Apple announced SwiftUI, a new framework that allowed developers to develop their user interfaces much faster than ever before. However, not only did it increase the speed, it opened up a whole new way to create apps for the Apple Watch,” he explains.
“Prior to SwiftUI, all user interface on Apple Watch was drag-and-drop which, while convenient, has some major drawbacks. So feeling inspired from this announcement, I left the keynote hall and immediately began working on reimplementing the timeline with SwiftUI,” he says.
Direct messages were updated, too, and now include images and tweets that were shared through the private messaging feature.
Chrip 2.0 also introduces support for live complications on Apple Watch. That means you can see recent tweets right on the watch face, and tap on them to be redirected back to the Chirp app to reply, like or retweet. This feature is also available only to Pro users.
Another enhancement lets you add a little flair to your Twitter username by making it colorful — a feature that was inspired by a user’s request. Included as a one-off in-app purchase, it’s $1 for Pro users or $2 for non-Pro users to take advantage of this option. Bishop attributes the pricing decision to the backend work required to implement the feature on his part. It also makes for an additional revenue stream, by being available to those who don’t want to pay for the pro version of the app.
However, Bishop notes that the option will be available for free during Pride month (June) so everyone can make their username rainbow-colored, if they choose.
In addition, Chirp 2.0 is now available in a number of languages, besides English, including Chinese (simplified), Danish, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish (Latin America.)
The app itself is a free download from the iOS or Apple Watch App Store.
10 years after debut, 300 million monthly user Imgur is one of the last massively popular yet unpersonalized home pages on the internet. Since everyone sees the same upvoted posts when they open Imgur, it creates a shared experience full of inside jokes and running gags. But while you can switch to a feed of topics and creators your follow, Imgur has focused on a one-size-fits-all approach over catering to niche audiences.
The gaming community deserved better, and Imgur needed to seize this opportunity. Video and board game tags were the most popular on Imgur, with 46% of users following them. Esports, Twitch, and streaming stars like Ninja have gone mainstream. And there’s a whole world of esoteric memes about absurd in-game moments, highlights from epic wins, and commentary about the industry. That stuff gets diluted and buried on cross-functional apps like Imgur, is tough to easily browse on Reddit, and often times content about all games is mashed together even though you might only play certain ones.
That’s why today, Imgur is launching Melee, the company’s first app beyond its flagship product. Melee lets users subscribe to the games they love to get a feed of memes and gameplay clips. It’s an elegant way to prevent you from seeing jokes you don’t understand or feats of skill you don’t care about. You can also scroll through a popular posts feed if you’re curious about unfamiliar games. Melee debuts today on iOS with an Android version coming in Q1 2020 and a desktop version down the road.
“Gamers are constantly taking recordings and screenshots of the games they’re playing” Imgur founder and CEO Alan Schaaf tells me. “But we found that there’s no place for gamers to share those clips. We want to give these highlights a home.” If 92% of surveyed Imgurians consider themselves ‘gamers’, and the average one already spends 30 minutes per day on Imgur despite it being a general purpose image sharing network, there was clearly room to build something just for them. Schaaf says “Imgur is interested in building things that the Internet wants.”
There’s an immediate in-group feel when you play with Melee. Whether you’re into Fortnite, Smash Bros, or Dungeons & Dragons, you can find your people to geek out with. There’s certainly already forums on Reddit, Memedroid, and elsewhere dedicated to specific games, but those can get a bit exhausting. Melee keeps things spicy by combining content about your picks in one feed. It’s actually a savvy way to browse any genre of memes. I could see Melee expanding into letting you follow your favorite TV shows, movies, and bands…or someone else might with a copy of its format.
I was glad to hear that Imgur took safety seriously with Melee after stumbling into building messaging into its main app without proper protections in 2016. It has multiple layers of community and staff moderation, will remove obscene content, and won’t tolerate bullying. That’s critical in the gaming space that has a nasty habit of turning toxic. If Imgur can keep things on the rails, it plans to monetize Melee with the company’s expertise in display ads.
Eventually, Schaaf hopes Melee can also help up-and-coming game streaming stars find a following, since on Twitch and YouTube they’re often overshadowed by the biggest stars. “If you start a stream today, you have virtually no chance of attracting an audience and competing in this market. Streamers need a place to post their gameplay in order to grow their audience on streaming platforms” Schaaf tells me. “Melee is that place.” He plans to add more robust profiles and ways for broadcasters to promote their streams in 2020. Viewers will benefit as Melee lets them bypass watching a multi-hour stream just for the best parts.
Imgur remains one of the biggest internet communities no one talks about, despite being a top 15 most popular site in the US according to Alexa. Schaaf bootstrapped the company from his bedroom and beyond for the first 5 years before taking a $40 million Series A in 2014 from Andreessen Horowitz. Now it’s focusing on becoming a more lucrative business. The startup took a $20 million funding round from strategic partner Coil which is going to help Imgur launch a premium subscription tier to its free site.
Imgur started at the end of the web era, and took years to build a full-fledged mobile app. Melee is truly mobile first, and offers a lifeboat to Imgur in case its original tribe disperses. It’s a smart way to harness the massive untapped energy of gamers, the way Instagram harnessed our newfound phone cameras. Finally, meme culture is getting purpose-built social networks.
Instagram is done playing dumb about users’ ages. After nine years, Instagram is finally embracing more responsibility to protect underage kids from the problems with social media. It will now ask new users to input their birth date and bar users younger than 13 from joining. However, it won’t be asking existing users their age, so Instagram will turn a blind eye to any underage kids already amongst its 1 billion members.
Instagram will later start using age info to offer education about settings and new privacy controls for younger users. It’s also adding the option to only allow people you follow to message you, add you to a group or reply to your Story.
Yesterday we published an opinion piece noting that “Instagram still doesn’t age-check kids. That must change.” after receiving no-comments from Instagram after mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram prototyping an age-check feature. As the code she found indicated, Instagram will keep your birthday and date private, and sync it with your Facebook profile if you link your accounts.
Instagram had fallen far behind in protecting underage users. It’s relied on ignorance about users’ ages to avoid a $40,000 fine per violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act that bans services from collecting personal info from children younger than 13. “Asking for this information will help prevent underage people from joining Instagram, help us keep young people safer and enable more age-appropriate experiences overall,” Instagram notes.
Facebook, Snapchat and TikTok already require users to enter their birth date as soon as they start the signup process. TikTok built a whole separate section of its app where kids can watch videos but not post or comment, after it was fined $5.7 million by the FTC for violating COPPA.
As for why it took so long, an Instagram spokesperson tells TechCrunch, “Historically, we didn’t require people to tell us their age because we wanted Instagram to be a place where everyone can express themselves fully — irrespective of their identity.” That seems like a pretty thin excuse.
Adding the age check is a good first step for Instagram. But it should consider how it can do more to verify the ages users enter and keep out those who don’t belong exposed to strangers across the app. Moving in line with industry standards is attaining minimum viable responsibility. But an app so appealing to younger users and that deals in such sensitive data should be leading on safety, not just following the herd.
In a year-end retrospective released this morning, Reddit says its user base grew 30% this year to reach 430 million monthly active users, as of the end of October. Its users also contributed 199 million posts, 1.7 billion comments and 32 billion upvotes, the company says.
Monthly comments and monthly views were also up on an annual basis in 2019, with increases of 37% and 54%, respectively.
The most-upvoted post this year referenced Reddit’s fundraise led by China’s Tencent, which in February led Reddit’s $300 million Series D, valuing the site at $3 billion. Users were concerned at the time the investment would lead to Chinese censorship, which led them to flood the site with images that would be forbidden in China. One of these, a photo of “tank man” at Tienanmen Square, then became the most-upvoted post, with 228,000 upvotes.
Meanwhile, the most upvoted AMA (Ask Me Anything) post on the site was with Bill Gates, which received 110,000 upvotes.
Reddit also noted a number of trends across its more than 100,000 active communities, including sizable increases in its top 50 beauty and style communities, which grew 63+% and 52%+ year-over-year, respectively. To some extent, these increases were driven by the blogger beauty feuds — for example, the r/beautyguruchatter community jumped up by 87% year-over-year. The r/skincareaddiction community was the most popular beauty community, reaching over 1 million subscribers, Reddit says.
Wedding-focused Reddit communities also grew, with r/weddingsunder10k up by 109% and r/bridezillas up by 852%, year-over-year. Family and parenting communities grew by 87% year-over-year.
The top 50 food communities grew 35% year-over-year, and several spirits-focused communities grew — like r/tequila (+99%), r/whiskey (+52%), r/vodka (+44%), r/bourbon (+27%) and r/winemaking (+16%). The top 50 fitness/wellness communities grew by 30%.
News was also a big focus on Reddit this year, with the top 50 news communities growing by 17% year-over-year. The company in 2018 first introduced its “news” tab to drive more traffic to timely articles. This appears to have worked, given the increases. This year, top stories included Robert Mueller’s hearings, the current impeachment inquiry, the Hong Kong protests, climate change and more; r/politics remained the top news community.
Elsewhere on the site, the top 50 entertainment communities grew by 27%, the top 50 sports communities grew 34%, and the top 50 gaming communities grew 42%.
The full report has even more data and details.
One thing Reddit’s year-end review didn’t delve into, however, was its hard numbers around page views or revenue. Reddit was said to be on track to reach $119 million in U.S. ad revenues this year, according to a forecast from eMarketer, which would give it a 0.1% share of the U.S. digital ad market. By 2021, the analysts estimated it would more than double those revenues, to $261.7 million, to claim a 0.2% share. Mobile is expected to account for 57% of revenues in 2019.