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Facebook’s Instagram ‘failed self-harm responsibilities’

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Children’s charity the NSPCC has said a drop in Facebook’s removal of harmful content was a “significant failure in corporate responsibility”.

Facebook’s own records show its Instagram app removed almost 80% less graphic content about suicide and self-harm between April and June this year than in the previous quarter.

Covid restrictions meant most of its content moderators were sent home.

Facebook said it prioritised the removal of the most harmful content.

Figures published on Thursday showed that as restrictions were lifted and moderators started to go back to work, the number of removals went back up to pre-Covid levels.

“We want to do everything we can to keep people safe on Instagram and we can report that from July to September we took action on 1.3m pieces of suicide and self-harm content, over 95% of which we found proactively,” said Instagram’s head of public policy Tara Hopkins in a statement.

“We’ve been clear about the impact of Covid-19 on our content-review capacity, so we’re encouraged that these latest numbers show we’re now taking action on even more content, thanks to improvements in our technology.

“We’re continuing to work with experts to improve our policies and we are in discussions with regulators and governments about how we can bring full use of our technology to the UK and EU so we can proactively find and remove more harmful suicide and self-harm posts.”

‘Not surprised’

After the death of the teenager Molly Russell, Facebook committed itself to taking down more graphic posts, pictures and even cartoons about self-harm and suicide.

But the NSPCC said the reduction in takedowns had “exposed young users to even greater risk of avoidable harm during the pandemic”.

The social network has responded by saying “despite this decrease we prioritised and took action on the most harmful content within this category”.

Chris Gray is an ex-Facebook moderator who is now involved in a legal dispute with the company.

“I’m not surprised at all,” he told the BBC.

“You take everybody out of the office and send them home, well who’s going to do the work?”

That leaves the automatic systems in charge.

But they still miss posts, in some cases even when the creators themselves have added trigger warnings flagging that the images featured contain blood, scars and other forms of self-harm.

Mr Gray says it is clear that the technology cannot cope.

“It’s chaos, as soon as the humans are out, we can see… there’s just way, way more self-harm, child exploitation, this kind of stuff on the platforms because there’s nobody there to deal with it.”

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Facebook is also at odds with moderators about their working conditions.

The staff claimed the firm was “needlessly risking” their lives. Facebook has said many are still working from home, and it has “exceeded health guidance on keeping facilities safe” for those who do need to come in.

The figures published on Thursday in Facebook’s latest community standards enforcement report again raise questions about the need for greater external regulation.

The UK government’s promised Online Harms Bill would impose a statutory duty of care on social media providers and create a new regulator.

But it has been much delayed and it is thought legislation won’t be introduced until next year.

‘Let down’

Ian Russell, Molly’s father, said there was a need for urgent action.

“I think everyone has a responsibility to young and vulnerable people, it’s really hard,” he explained.

“I don’t think the social media companies set up their platforms to be purveyors of dangerous, harmful content but we know that they are and so there’s a responsibility at that level for the tech companies to do what they can to make sure their platforms are as safe as is possible.”

The NSPCC is more forthright.

“Sadly, young people who needed protection from damaging content were let down by Instagram’s steep reduction in takedowns of harmful suicide and self-harm posts,” said Andy Burrows, the charity’s head of child safety online policy.

“Although Instagram’s performance is returning to pre-pandemic levels, young people continue to be exposed to unacceptable levels of harm.

“The government has a chance to fix this by ensuring the Online Harms Bill gives a regulator the tools and sanctions necessary to hold big tech to account.”

Last week, Instagram announced it was deploying new software tools across the EU that would lead to more automatic removals of the worst kind of content.

Facebook said “our proactive detection rates for violating content are up from the second quarter across most policies”.

It put this down to the development of AI tools that have helped it detect offending posts in a wider range of languages.

For information and support on mental health and suicide, access the BBC Action Line

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Buzzfeed to take over online news site HuffPost

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Online news and lifestyle site Buzzfeed is taking over HuffPost in a deal that brings together two of the most high-profile digital media firms.

Seller Verizon Media will become a minority shareholder in Buzzfeed as part of the deal and invest in the combined company.

The two firms will also join up for advertising and sharing content, a partnership they said would “create new revenue opportunities”.

Buzzfeed chief executive Jonah Peretti will lead the combined business. He co-founded HuffPost, formerly known as the Huffington Post, in 2005 with publisher Arianna Huffington and started Buzzfeed a year later.

HuffPost rose to prominence during the George W Bush presidency as a site for liberal bloggers, many of whom contributed for free.

Buzzfeed made its name creating content like listicles and quizzes, which drew young audiences. It also brought on reporters for its news site.

But digital media firms have struggled to draw online advertising dollars away from tech giants such as Facebook and Google. In recent years, Buzzfeed and HuffPost have both shed staff. In May, Buzzfeed closed its newsrooms in the UK and Australia and slashed staff pay.

Mr Peretti said the new deal would increase Buzzfeed’s heft, by adding HuffPost readers to its audience and allowing it to tap into Verizon’s ad network.

HuffPost is expected to remain a standalone brand, alongside other Buzzfeed sites, including Tasty and Buzzfeed News.

A spokeswoman for Buzzfeed declined to comment on the possibility of job losses triggered by the tie-up.

Verizon Media is part of a US telecom giant, which is known primarily for its pay-TV and mobile phone service. It acquired HuffPost in 2015 when it bought AOL for $4.4bn (£3.32bn), later combining it with Yahoo.

Just a few years later, it wrote down the value of the properties by nearly $5bn.

“While considering opportunities to work together, naturally, Jonah and I also discussed the property he co-founded, HuffPost,” said Verizon Media boss Guru Gowrappan.

“We quickly realised BuzzFeed’s strategy would complement HuffPost’s roadmap, injecting it with new energy and growing the brand into the future.

“We are deeply invested in the continued success of HuffPost and I couldn’t think of a better partner to take HuffPost to the next level.”

Tough times for new media

A few years ago companies like BuzzFeed and HuffPost were growing fast.

The business model was simple. Produce viral content aimed at younger, online savvy audiences and cash in on online advertising revenue.

That hasn’t been as lucrative as they would have hoped.

Ads on digital news stories can actually be quite a clunky way to advertise – less focussed than many advertisers would like.

So Facebook and Google, which offer incredibly bespoke targeting, mop up a massive percentage of online advertising. More than half of all the money spent on online advertising is with these two companies.

Many smaller digital media companies were laying off staff even before the pandemic. Covid-19 has inflamed these problems. People, stuck at home, are clicking more, but advertisers have been cautious.

That’s left companies that were seen as revolutionary only a few years ago trying to work out how to survive.

This takeover should be seen in this context – the latest attempt to find a better way of making digital media work financially.

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Virgin Hyperloop pod transport tests first passenger journey

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Virgin Hyperloop has trialled its first ever journey with passengers, in the desert of Nevada.

The futuristic transport concept involves pods inside vacuum tubes carrying passengers at high speeds.

In the trial, two passengers – both company staff – travelled the length of a 500m test track in 15 seconds, reaching 107mph (172km/h).

However, this is a fraction of Virgin’s ambitions for travel speeds of more than 1,000km/h.

Virgin Hyperloop is not the only firm developing the concept but nobody has carried passengers before.

Sara Luchian, director of customer experience, was one of the two on board and described the experience as “exhilarating both psychologically and physically” to the BBC shortly after the event.

She and chief technology officer Josh Giegel wore simple fleeces and jeans rather than flights suits for the event, which took place on Sunday afternoon outside of Las Vegas. Ms Luchian said the journey was smooth and “not at all like a rollercoaster” although the acceleration was “zippier” than it would be with a longer track. Neither of them felt sick, she added.

She said that their speed was hampered by the length of the track and acceleration required.

The concept, which has spent years in development, builds on a proposal by Tesla founder Elon Musk. Some critics have described it as science fiction.

It is based on the world’s fastest magnetic levitation (maglev) trains, then made faster by speeding along inside vacuum tubes.

The Maglev train speed world record was set in 2015 when a Japanese train reached 374mph in a test run near Mount Fuji.

Founded in 2014, Virgin Hyperloop received investment from the Virgin Group in 2017. It was previously known as Hyperloop One and Virgin Hyperloop One.

In a BBC interview in 2018, then Virgin Hyperloop One boss Rob Lloyd, who has since left the firm, said the speed would in theory enable people to travel between Gatwick and Heathrow airports, 45 miles apart on opposite sides of London, in four minutes.

Los Angeles-based Virgin Hyperloop is also exploring concepts in other countries, including a hypothetical 12 minute connection between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which takes more than an hour by existing public transport.

Critics have pointed out that Hyperloop travel systems would involve the considerable undertaking of both getting planning permission and then constructing vast networks of tubes for every travel path.

Ms Luchian acknowledges the potential difficulties, saying: “Of course there’s a lot of infrastructure to be built but I think we’ve mitigated a lot of risk that people didn’t think was possible.”

She added: “Infrastructure is such an important focus for so many people in government. We know people are looking for solutions. They’re looking for the transportation of the future. We can keep building today’s or yesterday’s transport systems and keep encountering the same problems they bring or we can really look to build something that solves those problems.”

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