Good Monday morning. It’s August 31st. Wednesday is the 75th anniversary of American and Japanese leaders meeting to sign the papers ending World War II aboard the USS Missouri docked in Tokyo Bay. There are still veterans of that war alive today. Here is more info at the History Channel.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,675 words, about a 6 minute read. That will have to tide you over for a while because we’re off next week for Labor Day.

Breaking Sunday: Twitter removed a post retweeted by President Donald Trump that contained inaccurate information about coronavirus death statistics. The original post was made by a QAnon conspiracy theorist and then amplified by the president.

The information inaccurately quoted CDC information. Later in the day, the Trump campaign tweeted the link to an article with the inaccurate information, and that had not yet been removed by Sunday evening.

1. News to Know Now

a.  Apple and Facebook’s fight over online privacy in the new iOS spilled into public last week.  Short version: every iOS and Android device has a unique id number. That number allows individual users to be tracked for everything from law enforcement to advertising. Apple’s next operating system will be released this fall and block that ability. In a public post, Facebook said the move will hurt small developers and cut Facebook’s revenue by $500 million. Apple countered with their own post doubling down on user privacy.

Apple is also being assailed by Fortnite software developer Epic which sued Apple over the company’s 30 percent commission charged on in-app sales after the companies publicly fought for weeks. Apple launched another salvo in the war on Friday when it terminated Epic’s software developer license, effectively removing all of its products from the App Store.

Worth noting is that Epic created a scathing parody of Apple’s sacred “1984” commercial two weeks ago. The parody is based on a Ridley Scott directed commercial often referred to as one of advertising’s most significant creative pieces. Epic reimagined the spot as Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite.

b. Amazon announced a new wellness product called Halo that is a wearable band and companion app. Halo monitors heart rate, steps walked, body fat percentage, and the user’s mood by analyzing their voice. The data for those last two measurements come from photos that users take with the app and from recording a user’s voice. Priced at $100, Halo has a continuing $3.99 monthly charge. Here is the Amazon announcement.

c.Google and Facebook blocking functions that allowed targeting advertisements by race, marital status, gender, age, and other protected demographics are beginning to reach the market. Last week I confirmed that Facebook political ads can no longer be targeted by race. Meanwhile, Google said that its prohibitions on this data targeting housing, employment, and credit ads will be in effect on October 19. While it is already illegal to selectively advertise for employment using age and other criteria, it was possible to do so using the online consoles at both companies.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations — the gold standard
COVID-19 Forecast Hub – Collects multiple models

NEW: Google Mobility Reports – county level info on people locations in broad categories like businesses, parks, and grocery stores

Tech News
Boston Library branches offer internet outdoors – Mass Live
Calif makes tablets available to nearly 1 million children – EdSource
Closing the digital divide is more critical than ever – CNET podcast
College students are scrambling for housing, Wi-Fi – USA Today
Doctors battle another scourge: misinformation – NY Times
How WeChat Censored the Coronavirus Pandemic – Wired
Online child predators more dangerous during pandemic –
Your tween has been on this gaming site – NY Times

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Google My Business continues to be a prime source for the company to help fuel search requests related to local businesses. The average profile includes a lot of data according to reporting by Search Engine Land.

  • 73 reviews averaging 4.1 stars
  • 45 photos
  • 5 posts

Two studies suggest that one-third to one-half of businesses do not maintain their GMB profile.

We’ve also learned a lot lately from Google about how it views links to and from your website. Google exec John Mueller shared that website managers should ” … focus on the basics instead of worrying about [links] … Make a better site … Links are definitely not the most important SEO factor.” 

When asked if links were important, just not the most important factor, he responded, “We use lots of factors with it comes to search crawling, indexing, and ranking.”

Muller was even more specific last week, writing on Reddit, “Randomly dropping a link into Wikipedia has no SEO value and will do nothing for your site. All you’re doing is creating extra work for the Wikipedia maintainers who will remove your link drops. It’s a waste of your time and theirs. Do something that’s useful in the long term for your site instead, build something of persistent value.” 

Finally, Mueller weighed in on the use of keywords in an URL, writing on Twitter that “the SEO effect … is minimal once the content is indexed.” That important caveat jibes with what we know about Google using cues on a website page to determine or confirm the page’s topic.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Facebook Moderation

Facebook is facing inner turmoil and external criticism after a companywide meeting on Thursday. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg discussed the company’s failure to remove a group calling itself “Kenosha Guard” posted a “call to arms” that remained visible even after two protesters were killed in Kenosha Tuesday night.

The timing was especially bad for Facebook, which had published a detailed data science paper on Tuesday, explaining how it would use its data to help guard against fakes and misinformation. Called the TIES system, Facebook believes that it will help detect some of the millions of fake accounts and their activity by using machine learning to detect trends beyond the capability of human analysts. 

One week earlier, Facebook removed 790 QAnon groups and 10,000 accounts to fight conspiracy theory misinformation on its Facebook and Instagram sites as well as top apps Messenger and WhatsApp. 

The action seemed big but came weeks after an op-ed by influential digital writer Abby Ohlheiser, now a senior editor at MIT Technology Review,” wrote that “Twitter and Facebook won’t be able to deal with the “omniconspiracy” without “rethinking the entire information ecosystem.” Ohlheiser quoted anonymous sources that tipped her off to Facebook’s similar ban weeks later.

Facebook and Twitter aren’t alone, and QAnon isn’t their only problem requiring constant content moderation. Online sites face a blizzard of pornography, violence including streamed suicides and murders, and hate speech. Anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists led by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. filed a lawsuit last week arguing that Facebook didn’t have the right to fact check its information.

And then there is outright disinformation, the act of deliberately using misinformation, plaguing all sites. NBC News reported last week that Twitter stopped a spam operation that pushed messages from fake accounts about Black people abandoning the Democratic Party.

Anti-Vaxxers Are Suing Facebook: Fact-Checking is “Censorship” — Gizmodo
Facebook chose not to act on militia complaints — The Verge
Facebook employees outraged — BuzzFeed News
Facebook System for Detecting Fakes & Misinformation — Social Media Today
Facebook Removes 790 QAnon Groups to Fight Conspiracy Theory — NY Times
It’s too late to stop QAnon with fact checks & account bans — MIT Tech Review
Leveraging online social interactions for enhancing integrity — Facebook
Viral pro-Trump tweets by fake African American spam accounts — NBC

5. Following Up: TikTok 

We’ve been writing about TikTok every week because it’s important and has millions of U.S. users. We thought the biggest news of the week was Walmart potentially working with Microsoft to acquire the U.S. operations of the company. That was until Sunday afternoon when China announced that TikTok owner ByteDance will require Chinese government approval to sell any assets.

Here is Bloomberg’s coverage of the tech company as proxy cold war.

6. Debugging: Fake Meme about Police Injuries

A meme purportedly showing four different Seattle and Portland police officers injured with bloody uniforms and dazed expressions actually shows police from four different incidents in Australia dating back as long as fourteen years ago.

The Associated Press has a fact check.

7. ProTip: See AR Museum Exhibits on Google

The Google Arts & Culture app includes lots of neat augmented reality museum content, which is awfully convenient during a pandemic. 

TNW shows you how to use the app on your phone.

8. Great Data: Animate a Shocking Data Point

You know that the best way to tell a story is to engage as many senses as possible. You might think that’s hard to do online, but check out this animation of global temperature trends from data scientist Bob Gregory. The smooth cadence in the initial data leads to a shocking conclusion that is then held as the final frame in another color. 

Elevate your storytelling to a wow level.

Screening Room: Amazon Web Services

Amazon Web Services is the company’s IT infrastructure that generates annual revenue of more than $25 billion (with a B). Consumers don’t directly interact with the platform, but here Amazon shows how it helps the world through a pandemic by powering big consumer brands.

10. Coffee Break:  The Great Pea Debate

Guerrilla marketing is beautiful when it works. Kraft used a simple ASCII drawing and, erm, controversial opinion, to spark conversation about its brand. I noticed it online as people argued for one side or another so I began copying it to casual groups. The same thing happened, sometimes at a very passionate level. But almost no one said, “I hate this brand or this food.” 

The tweet reinforced nostalgic feelings about the brand. You can do the same thing. Try it this week.

“Mark Zuckerberg” by Alessio Jacona is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Good Monday morning. It’s August 24th. Friday is the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march in Washington, D.C., the morning after the close of the Republican National Convention there. The protest is led by Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III on the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963. Read more.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,316 words, about a 5 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. While universities struggle with fall semester scheduling, they’re also coping with continued ransomware attacks. The University of Utah disclosed last week that they paid $457,000 in July to prevent hackers from releasing files including student and employee data stolen during a ransomware attack. This followed news in June that UC San Francisco paid $1.14 million over a similar attack. Bleeping Computer has coverage.

b. November’s presidential election is also a ripe target for malevolent activities, according to a Yahoo News scoop. The Department of Homeland Security has warned election officials that there are dozens of websites online that look like official websites providing voting information. The information on those sites can be changed in minutes to provide inaccurate information and share similar domain names with the official sites.

c.In related news Twitter announced Sunday that it had hidden one of President Donald Trump’s messages behind a warning notice “for violating our Civic Integrity Policy for making misleading health claims that could potentially dissuade people from participation in voting.” The president falsely claimed without evidence that drop boxes used to collect ballots “are not Covid sanitized.” The inaccurate message is accessible to anyone who clicks a link in the warning notice.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations
Johns Hopkins Dashboard or Animations — the gold standard
NEW:  COVID-19 Forecast Hub – Collects multiple models

Tech News
14 States Make Contact Tracing Data Public. Here’s What They’re Learning – NPR
A Michigan college is tracking its students with a flawed app – TechCrunch
Apps We’re Not Using Anymore Because of the Pandemic – PC Magazine
Nevada Launches Contact Tracing App – Nevada Independent
Scared of going back to the office? Companies hope these apps will help – CNN

3. Search Engine Optimization News

You may have seen a Google screenshot of searches for “white American doctor” and “white American nurse” showing images of non-Caucasian people.Roger Montti at Search Engine Journal does a nice job deconstructing what happened, but let’s go higher level than that. Here are the images: 

Examining the code behind one image identifies the subject as “African American doctor … isolated on white [background].” As Google’s Danny Sullivan pointed out last year, “As it turns out, when people post images of white couples, they tend to say only “couples” & not provide a race. But when there are mixed couples, then “white” gets mentioned. Our image search depends on heavily words [sic] — so when we don’t get the words, this can happen.”

Mark that clause: “our image search depends [heavily] on words” because it’s important. 

Words and links are how we translate what a page is about for search engines. This should be a key insight that you use to explain to others how search works. That makes items like the alternate attribute on an image critical to a search engine’s understanding of what your page is about. 

Google isn’t broken. The way that we use language to describe things needs an inclusivity overhaul.

Google announced last week that its Chrome browser will begin highlighting webpages that pass its tests for core vital statistics. Chrome will display the words “fast page” in search results. About 85% of website pages do not pass all tests. You’ll need to hurry if you want that designation to show for your website because the option is already in use on the next beta version of the Chrome browser.

Bing also confirmed that Microsoft considers user engagement a ranking signal. Bing execs Fabrice Canal and Christi Olson told Search Engine Land’s Barry Schwartz that ” … it doesn’t matter the content’s amazing, if users aren’t staying on that site, maybe they’ve put a pop-up in. There’s something going on there, that is a signal that regardless of what content is on the page, the users are saying it does not add value.” 

Google continues to deny that it uses engagement data to rank websites although its Google Analytics product is found on 84% of all websites.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Video Conferencing

Zoom saw Amazon, Google, and Facebook come for it when the pandemic hit and Zoom became a de facto video conferencing standard. The company’s stock has surged more than threefold this year and now has a market cap of $81 billion. That makes it about the size of CVS or Mondelez, makers of Oreos, Ritz, and Cadbury. 

Zoom has been lagging behind bigger tech companies and sought to catch up last week with its announcements that users will soon be able to participate in Zoom conferences while using Amazon Echo, Facebook Portal, and Google Nest video conferencing products. The Verge reports that the Zoom-Facebook Portal solution will be available in September. 

Google, meanwhile, has broadened its competing Meet product to work with its Chromecast to project video to your television. Google has been pushing Meet video conferencing hard, finally giving it space in the Gmail app and announcing education features that allow teachers to create breakout groups, polling, Q & As, and attendance tracking.

Facebook countered Google’s accessibility by adding screen sharing to its Messenger Group rooms and making those rooms very visible in its new user interface. Messenger Rooms also have received the ability to broadcast via Facebook Live. Facebook now reaches three billion people on the planet and is merging its Facebook Messenger chats with Instagram chats, making it an even more formidable video conferencing competitor.

5. Following Up: TikTok & A Weird College Project

We broke down all the hullabaloo about TikTok a couple of weeks ago. The company confirmed this weekend that it will sue the Trump administration over the president’s executive order forbidding it to engage in U.S. commerce and ordering its divestment to a U.S. based company.

We also wrote about OpenAI’s GPT-3 project that was impressing a lot of technologists. UC Berkeley computer science student Liam Porr used GPT-3 to create a completely fake blog using a fake name. The project was fun, MIT Technology Review points out, until one of the AI-authored posts reached the top of Hacker News. Porr’s final post was “What I would do with GPT-3 if I had no ethics.”

6. Debugging: False Plandemic Sequel Released

There is a new sequel to the conspiracy theory “Plandemic” video that is almost universally denounced by scientists and media organizations. The 75 minute video released last week “…offers a more far-reaching conspiratorial take on the pandemic, with an underlying theme that the media can’t be trusted. It suggests without proof that the novel coronavirus was man-made and intentionally released,” writes Annenberg’s

Read the rest of their findings here..or send it to that special someone.

7. ProTip: Get Your Gmail Space Back 

We told you above that Google’s Meet product shoehorned its way into the left sidebar of Gmail on Android and iOS, but it doesn’t have to stay there.

Read The Verge on how to “get rid of that irritating Meet tab.”

8. Great Data: Six Degrees is Too Many

Facebook did a lot of number crunching on more than 1.5 billion accounts to learn our level of connectedness.  Good news–we’re getting closer.

These data scientists say 3.57 degrees and slightly less in the U.S.

Screening Room – Cafe Rio Gets Real

More great authenticity from Cafe Rio Mexican Grill. They know you’ve had a goofy six months, and they’ll immortalize that in 60 seconds.

10. Coffee Break:  Cake or not a cake?

You don’t have to be the judge in this fun BuzzFeed video because they have pictures.

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Good Monday morning. It’s August 10th. Breaking last night from the Wall Street Journal is news that Twitter is reportedly interesting in acquiring TikTok. Expect to hear lots more until this deal is done. Size-wise it’s as if Colgate-Palmolive or Goldman Sachs were being acquired, but the complicated political environment magnifies the transaction even more for this three year old service. Here’s Reuters’ coverage.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,525 words, a bit over a 5 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. Walmart has delayed its Amazon Prime competitor again. Walmart+ was supposed to finally launch last month with a $98 annual price tag. Amazon is now valued at three times more than Walmart, and the gap is growing. (Recode-Vox)

b. More retail news ahead of Friday’s retail sales report: Rite Aid deployed facial recognition in two hundred stores located in low income neighborhoods of major cities. A match would alert the store’s loss prevention employees via a smartphone alert. This is a riveting story that Reuters broke about the unregulated use of facial recognition.

c. Ancestry is facing a class action lawsuit over a claim that the company violated California law regarding subscriptions. At least one legal analyst suggests that the company may have mostly complied but not included “the level of clarity required by law.” Remember that if you’re making a social media disclosure, an affiliate program disclosure, or describing your terms and conditions that many laws include requirements regarding font size and placement. (Ad Law Access)

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations
Johns Hopkins — the gold standard
School Reopening Plan Tracker from Johns Hopkins
College Crisis Initiative (Open or Hybrid) from Davidson College
NEW: Cases by Metro Area – Factbase
NEW: Johns Hopkins Data Animated – JHU

Tech News
Facebook & Twitter remove Trump posts over misinformation – NBC News
Facebook extends work from home policy until July 2021 – Techcrunch
How to Understand COVID-19 Numbers – ProPublica
PayPal will enable contactless payments at 8,000+ CVS Stores – Retail Brew
Virginia Launches COVIDwise App Using Google-Apple System – Slate

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Google purchased nearly seven percent of home alarm company ADT last week. That ordinarily would be for another discussion, but it’s important to note that Google and not parent Alphabet is the investor. The two are on the record talking about smart home appliances and monitoring, but there is also now a remote Google workforce in place. Apple, Amazon, and (once) Microsoft might have stores, but Google will have the ability to load the data from smart home technology to its shopping and search results. 

Google is also cleaning up its advertising categories.  A video ad showing police officers beating, pushing, and tasing protesters over the president speaking about law and order was rejected for violating the company’s prohibitions against graphic violence in ads. Google also banned all ads for stalkerware and remote surveillance equipment and software. Finally, Google banned ads from companies posing as news organizations and any ads mentioning illegally obtained documents such as from Wikileaks.

We’ve been telling you that Google is constantly changing the business profiles it shows in search engine results. One new trend spotted by Search Engine Land is that Google will now specify when a company’s business hours were updated. This allows anyone visiting your business to know whether the information has been updated during the pandemic. 

Finally, Microsoft Bing, rather than Google, has launched a new WordPress plugin that allows webmasters to automate submissions to the search engine. Remember that Bing gets about one billion-with-a-b visitors to its search engine every month.

4. Also in the Spotlight — GPT-3 is Ready to Learn

We last wrote about OPENAI in June. That’s the research lab founded by Elon Musk and Y Combinator’s Sam Altman. They put together an investment group and one billion dollars to advance artificial intelligence. Microsoft kicked in another one billion dollar investment last year.

After first saying in 2018 that they could not in good conscience release their latest machine learning software called GPT-3 that modeled text, the organization started looking for corporate buyers in June. And since what was once theoretical would now be commercial, the industry media got all breathless and fawning.

Neither Altman nor Musk are wallflowers, and Altman tweeted this two weeks ago:

You probably have the right image in mind if you see him collecting grubby dollar bills while standing outside a tent set apart from a local carny decades ago, but there is something inside the tent.

Did a Person Write this Headline, or a Machine?” poses a recent Wired article that went on to say that the software is “provoking chills across Silicon Valley” before relating the story of one tester writing a sample app to track a to-do list. The tester than uploaded the app to GPT-3 and the system, which has received coding tutorials, returned code for the app. 

But there are plenty of ghosts in this machine, not the least of which are the prejudices of the humans who build it. When prompted with words like “Holocaust” or “woman”, the system has opined with anti-Semitic and misogynistic language. Sometimes the words it creates seem profound, but other times, they are nonsensical. We’ll link below to a free app that lets you generate tweets written by GPT-3 so you experience this dichotomy. 

How do we know this is original? I’ve run a number of samples through Google and Bing, and none were exact matches. In other words, GPT-3 was providing new language, not parroting something that it had scanned.

Computer scientist Kevin Lacker gave GPT-3 a Turing test that is designed to establish if software output can be indistinguishable from a human’s output. Early in the testing process, Lacker writes, “Traditionally, artificial intelligence struggles at “common sense.” But GPT-3 can answer a lot of common sense questions … Ten years ago, if I had this conversation, I would have assumed the entity on the other end was a human.”

The iterative process is important as humans improve the software, but even GPT-3’s earlier version has shown the ability to create new images. The version using graphics instead of words is called iGPT and can create the rest of a graphic image if given the first half of an image. That’s not a big deal for any artist, but it is a very big deal for software.

Did a Person Write This Headline, or a Machine? — Wired
Giving GPT-3 a Turing Test —
Generate your own GPT-3 tweets — refresh the screen for each new one
GPT-3 Creative Fiction — Gwern
OpenAI’s fiction-spewing AI is learning to generate images — MIT Tech Review

5. Following Up: Twitter Bans

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Twitter seemed to take its first steps towards confronting disinformation on its platform. Remember that misinformation is often a mistake while disinformation is deliberate.

David Duke, who once won 43% of the vote in an election for Louisiana governor, is a white supremacist and former KKK leader. Twitter confirmed that they have joined YouTube in banning him for continued violations of the service’s hate speech rules.

Read more at The Washington Post.

6. Debugging: Yes there is a Google+ Class Action

The emails have been flying about a Google Plus data leak that exposed the information of 500,000 users. This one is real. 

You’ll only get $5-$12, but why not take it?

7. ProTip: The NSA Teaches You to Secure Your Phone

I love this outreach by the spy agency. In just a couple of pages of a free PDF you’ll learn what steps to take to limit your phone’s location data exposure.

There’s more at the PDF link, but remember that Location Services do not equal GPS.

8. Great Data: Online Gaming

This is a series of infographics that can each be shown as one-offs (timelines, revenue, company charts, etc.) but make a great story with very few words.

There are $150 billion in revenues now.

9. Screening Room: DSW Back to School

I’ve been a fan of DSW’s authenticity in recent spots, and their back to school ad featuring a mom and kid shopping while wearing masks is a great example of them leaning in to being real. 

It’s not on YouTube yet, but you can watch it here.

10. Coffee Break: Window Swap

I love this newish site that lets people submit a webcam view from their window. You can’t choose any particular vista, but as you refresh your screen, a new destination pops up. It was breezy in Lucerne, there was a cat sunning itself in Italy, and it was raining in Poland when I last visited.

Open up the windows here.