Good Monday morning. It’s August 3rd. Thursday marks the 75th anniversary of the U.S. nuclear weapon bombing of Hiroshima. I recommend the Hiroshima for Global Peace website as you consider that event.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,438 words, about a 5 minute read.

Didja see what happened last week after we wrote about online political bias?

Mere hours after we sent your copy of Spotlight, the internet exploded with reactions to the misleading “frontline doctors” video that the president and his oldest son recommended. For this week’s trick, well, stay tuned.

1. News to Know Now

a. Facebook Messenger has introduced a new app lock feature for iOS users. When activated, the setting requires you to unlock the app with your fingerprint or face ID. Android devices are next. 

b. Amazon spent just under $7 billion on U.S. advertising in 2019. That’s about 9% more than previous leader Comcast. Those two companies and AT&T are the only three U.S. companies to spend $5 billion or more. (Statista)

c. Ten members of Congress have signed a letter sent to the FTC requesting an investigation of data brokers who may have engaged in “unfair and deceptive” business practices. The letter includes examples of people having their mobile location data captured when they attended Black Lives Matter protests and of religious profiles being created from similar data when people attended houses of worship as early as 2017. (See a PDF of the signed letter)

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Johns Hopkins — the gold standard
Event Risk Assessment from Georgia Tech
School Reopening Plan Tracker from Johns Hopkins
College Crisis Initiative (Open or Hybrid) from Davidson College
NEW: Covid Tracking Project — useful for its annotations

Tech News
Facebook suspends anti-mask group for spreading misinformation – The Verge
Google Promises Privacy With Virus App, Can Still Collect Location – NY Times
Uber offers COVID-19 contact tracing help amid chaotic U.S. response – Reuters
UK Government admits breaking law with NHS test and trace – The Guardian

An important article that deserves your attention:
How to Understand COVID-19 Numbers – ProPublica

3. Search Engine Optimization News

A new study of Google search results suggests that Google’s strategy of displaying non-text items in search results can siphon off nearly half the clicks when showing users images, maps, or recipes. Even in specific subject areas like news, up to 30% of the clicks won’t be made. This is the effect that we describe when we write about Google’s “zero-click” search results page.

One other extreme example: displaying a knowledge panel of boxed data often found on the right side of a Google results page reduces the click rate of that page 42%.

Website owners complain that the data is often siphoned from their properties and shown in piecemeal fashion while mixed with data from other organizations.

Google often works with data providers to gather this information and has recently announced a new deal with Uber. That deal calls for Uber to pay Google for Maps usage over the next four years. Uber also bought Routematch this month and now owns a platform that has 500 transit agency partners.

Another data deal example on Google Maps: Android users in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago now see traffic light detail on their maps according to Droid LIfe.

Google continues adding structured data functions so that it can show even more information in search results without generating a click. Google is now recommending that businesses offering remote or telecommuting jobs use special codes in their website so that a flag can be shown in search results.

This is all new and continues to worry organizations we speak with that rely on publishing replicable data to attract potential customers.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Just What is TikTok?

We last took you on a deep dive through TikTok in mid-December and suggested then that you think of the app as a YouTube and Snapchat hybrid. Users post videos ranging from 6 to 60 seconds although 15 seconds is the norm. Those videos are then shared with others who can react with likes or comments or even a short video of their own.

There is little time for elaborate setup or exposition in this app that grew to prominence because of its quirky dance and lip syncing memes. The culture is similar to internet meme culture but with a dialect and style of its own. Despite the brief content, users spend about 45 minutes on the site each day, making it one of the most sticky of the social media sites.

Like Facebook and Snapchat before it, TikTok dominates usage among teens and people in their early twenties with about half of its users between the ages of 18 and 24. The site is a global phenomenon with huge user bases in the U.S., India, Brazil, and China. The number of U.S. users nearly doubled between January and April, when it reached 52 million. 

So what happened?

U.S. politicians and corporate interests have long been suspicious of TikTok’s parent company in China. Race-baiting actions by the Trump administration over the COVID-19 pandemic have also vilified the company. For months, a stream of NGOs, corporate offices, and government agencies have prohibited the app on their devices. Wells Fargo, the U.S. military, TSA, and the Biden campaign have all banned the app from phones that they own. Amazon made news in July when it sent its employees an email banning the app and then almost immediately rescinded that directive.

Detractors claim that the video sharing app is a way for China to spy on other countries although waiting for the daily news of which company has had its data breached seems to undercut that argument. The app’s supporters say that an anti-establishment bias makes it an enemy of powerful governments. A rallying cry over the last few days has asked why the U.S. government would ban an entertainment app before it bans extremist hate groups like the KKK.

What’s next: Microsoft might still purchase the entire U.S. operation and run it  operate it domestically alongside versions for Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The app has been downloaded more than two billion times worldwide. No news regarding a sale or government action had been reported by late Sunday night.

Here is a cute interactive test about TikTok from the good folks at Emerging Tech Brew. 


Everything to Know About Social Media Usage in July — TNW
Facebook Readies TikTok Competitor — Dow Jones MarketWatch
How the U.S. Government Could Ban TikTok — CNBC
See the list of Where TikTok is Already Banned — Business Insider
TikTok — Statistics & Facts — Statista
U.S. Consumers Flocking to TikTok -eMarketer (way back in April!)

5. Following Up: That Facebook Ad Boycott

Much has been made of the Stop Hate for Profit Facebook ad boycott we’ve told you about in the past. 

We’ve learned that not all of the one thousand participating organizations stopped advertising on all their brands. We applaud the awareness generated by the program, but also acknowledge that the financial impact was minimal.

Here’s a CNBC report suggesting that Facebook’s YOY July revenue will stay consistent.

5. Following Up: That Facebook Ad Boycott

Much has been made of the Stop Hate for Profit Facebook ad boycott we’ve told you about in the past. 

We’ve learned that not all of the one thousand participating organizations stopped advertising on all their brands. We applaud the awareness generated by the program, but also acknowledge that the financial impact was minimal.

Here’s a CNBC report suggesting that Facebook’s YOY July revenue will stay consistent.

7. ProTip: Dinosaurs in Your House

We could tell you about the Google Easter Egg honoring the Cha Cha Slide, but dinosaurs are way more fun. We’ve seen this type of augmented reality before with animals and rocket launches.

Follow along as Lifehacker shows you how to create dinosaurs in a mobile view of your house.

8. Great Data: Atlas of Surveillance

The privacy stalwarts at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have published an interactive map that shows more than 5,300 programs of citizen surveillance operated by law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

Check it out for yourself. It’s why TikTok didn’t seem so scary to us.

Screening Room: Open Like Never Before

I began messaging people while watching this brand new Coke spot that addresses the way life changed during the pandemic. There are still only 5,000 total views on the official YouTube post on Sunday evening so consider this your early screening of Coke’s “Open Like Never Before” ad  featuring George the Poet.

10. Coffee Break: Time Warp Trailer

While sipping your hot beverage of choice, enjoy this fan-made trailer for the 1986 Batman movie re-imagined if it was released in 1945. This is so much fun that it deserves your attention a year after it was released. It’s still relatively unknown with under 50,000 views.

Good Monday morning. It’s July 27th. The leaders of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple make a rare public appearance before a House Judiciary subcommittee about antitrust matters beginning Wednesday at noon. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is the world’s wealthiest person and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the fourth. Joining them are Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,569 words, about a 6 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. Facebook has agreed to pay each Illinois user between $200 and $400 to settle claims that it violated the state’s facial recognition law. The $650 million plan still needs Judge James Donato’s approval.  Donato previously rejected Facebook’s $550 million offer, saying, “That’s a lot. But the question is, is it really a lot?  That is a significant reduction from the $1,000 that the Illinois legislature set as the baseline.” (Recode)

b. Title insurance giant First American Financial is also in legal hot water according to new reporting by Krebs on SecurityNew York officials have charged the company for exposing millions of mortgage data records covering a sixteen year period. A hearing is set for October 26.

c. The U.S. Army has been accused of offering fake contests on video game streaming platform Twitch and has agreed to stop recruiting efforts there. It’s not the Army’s first foray into video gaming. They publish their own series of games called America’s Army. And don’t sleep on Twitch as a platform that attracts nearly 40 million monthly active users. (The Guardian)

d.  William Safire prepared a contingency speech for then-President Nixon if the first moonwalk had ended in tragedy. MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality has made a film of an AI-powered Nixon giving that speech. This growing availability of deepfake technology terrifies futurists. Here is the project’s trailer.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Johns Hopkins — the gold standard
Florida data — Unofficial, but great data and presentation
Event Risk Assessment from Georgia Tech
School Reopening Plan Tracker from Johns Hopkins
NEW: College Crisis Initiative (Open or Hybrid) from Davidson College

Tech News

5 charts illustrating economic trends during the pandemic — CNBC
COVID-19 data collection offers benefits, poses hazards — Johns Hopkins
Expanded payment capability for more online SNAP purchases — Governing
No end to COVID-19 webcam shortage — BBC 
Pandemic purchases lead to record reports of unreceived goods — FTC

Some videoconferencing fun: Bored with video call bingo?  There is a new Chrome extension that turns your Google Meet video conference into a game of 1970s-era Space Invaders using the faces of your unsuspecting co-workers. Here’s the trailer for their extension and here’s the link to their extension

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Google Shopping continues improving its feature set and integrating it within search results.

The company’s latest moves are seen as a challenge for Amazon’s third-party sellers that are coping with new rules. After first announcing free product listings, Google has now enabled commission-free Buy on Google checkout via PayPal or Shopify, according to Search Engine Land. That means that visitors will be able to buy products directly from Google Shopping search results, which are just a click away from the main search results. 

Google Shopping is also making Amazon-like use of product feeds. In a follow-up SEL article, T-shirts were shown in Google’s main search results with data pulled from the product feed to show the type of material that was used. If you’re already using Google Shopping, you should be reading Ginny Marvin’s coverage. You should talk with us if you’re interested in starting to sell products on Google. Just press your reply key and let us know your thoughts.

Google is also helping future mortgage buyers by showing a mortgage explainer article and mortgage tools from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on related searches. The tools include mortgage calculators and rate tracking. 9 to 5 Google has details.

Google Guaranteed status that includes a green check mark in Google My Business listings, is available to more businesses. Local search expert Greg Sterling reports that businesses advertising locally can apply for the mark and “guaranteed” language for $50/month.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Political Bias Online

A majority of Americans think social media companies have too much influence in politics according to a new Pew study. Researchers say that Democratic and Republican supporters feel the same way, but the feeling is much more prevalent among Republican voters. 

In the spotlight: few acknowledge that political bias online works on them. And the time to have this discussion is now when tech company leaders are scheduled to appear before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

The companies are expected to testify that they’ve tried to protect users from inaccurate claims made by politicians and their supporters. Twitter and Facebook have labeled inaccurate statements the president has made, but there is no way to effectively police the content posted by one third of the humans on the planet without also putting everyone’s content through onerous filters, false positives, and long wait times for approval.

No single platform is to blame. Instagram has emerged as a news platform that equals Twitter’s popularity among news seekers, according to a twelve country study released earlier this month. And researchers at Northeastern University report that after accounting for ” the prevalence of hate speech and misinformation, they found no differences between comment moderation on right- and left-leaning videos” after studying more than 84,000 comments on YouTube. 

Months ago, the president’s reelection campaign preemptively purchased the advertising masthead area on YouTube for the days leading up to Election Day. The campaign has also purchased hundreds of Facebook ads that accuse Twitter of silencing the president.

As George Mason marketing professor Shaun Dakin showed me when I sent him an archive of the Facebook ad library database, the Trump campaign also used aggressive tactics in promoting the same ads via accounts owned by the president, the vice president, and then-campaign manager. Dakin challenged me to figure out what they were doing, and it took a yeoman’s effort by The New York Times several days later to figure it out.

We have no answers for you regarding political bias online and recommend you watch Eli Pariser’s short TED talk about filter bubbles. The premise is still sound even though the details have changed slightly. We also recommend reading the twelve page Northeastern study, “Bias Misperceived”, and checking out the rest of our Smartlinks.

Beware online filter bubbles by Eli Pariser — TED
Bias Misperceived (PDF) — Northeastern University

Americans: Social Media Companies Have Too Much Power — Pew Research
Instagram on Pace to Overtake Twitter as News Source — eMarketer
Researchers Have Already Tested YouTube for Bias — Ars Technica
Roger Stone Removed from Instagram, Linked to Fake Accounts — CNN
Trump Ads Take Over YouTube’s Homepage on Election Day — Bloomberg
Trump: $325K on Facebook Ads featuring Parscale’s Page — NY Times

5. Following Up: Amazon Robots & Twitter Hackers

Those Twitter hackers who gained access to the personal accounts of famous people two weeks ago apparently also read some of their private messages. Twitter reported that the crooks accessed the direct messages of 36 well-known account holders and downloaded the archived data of eight other users who don’t have “verified accounts.”

We also told you almost one year ago about Amazon Scout, the company’s delivery robots that were first tested in suburban areas of Los Angeles and Seattle. Amazon announced last week that the test is broadening to suburban communities near Atlanta and Nashville.

6. Debugging: That Eagle Carrying the Shark

The video making the rounds last month of a big bird carrying a shark over a beach was the perfect metaphor for 2020.  Except it wasn’t a shark.  Or an eagle. has the scoop because of course they do.

7. ProTip: How to Tell You’ve Been Hacked

We mean really hacked, not the “someone on Facebook copied my profile picture and is using my name” stuff, but had an account taken over by someone.

Wired has a nice common sense explainer with tips.

8. Great Data: Google Search Trends by State…for a Decade… and Animated

Search engine logs are the most boring reading imaginable. Top Search on Google? Facebook.  Don’t snicker. Google came in at #5 overall on its own search engine. It’s the same in every search of every database regardless of size.

But the folks at V1 Analytics did something smart by grabbing the top trending search on Google in every state for every day of the last decade.

Groupthink creeps in sometimes when all fifty states have the same top trending search. That happened on February 4, 2011 for Adele the week before her second romp through the Grammy Awards when she won all four major trophies. And it happened again for two weeks when Game of Thrones’ first season ended.

See all the trends for all the states here.

Screening Room: A Burger King Christmas

Burger King thinks that we need some Christmas in July after 2020’s crazy start. They broke a big ad barrier by making light of how tough things are, and it works in a we’re all in this together way.

10. Coffee Break: The Loneliest Wave

The Phillie Phanatic was at the ballpark this weekend to cheer on the ball club but it was awfully hard starting The Wave, as seen in this bite-sized video

It’s the highest form of flattery to have you read Spotlight. Thank you for starting your week here and please tell a friend that they can also get a free copy each week. This is the link that they need.

Good Monday morning. It’s July 20th. Workers around the world plan to walk off their jobs today in the Strike for Black Lives. Organizers ask workers to leave and for all people to kneel or pause for eight minutes and forty-six seconds of silence at noon local time.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,385 words, about a 5 minute read.

1. News to Know Now

a. Twitter was hacked the old fashioned way last week according to investigative reporting by Motherboard. Criminals were able to pay a Twitter employee to provide access to Twitter internal software that allowed them to change the email addresses associated with famous account holders. The crooks were then able to tweet out get rich quick schemes from verified accounts owned by Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and even corporate accounts at Uber and Amazon. There was no flashy or new technology, merely an employee who provided internal access to crooks. Read the rest of the story here.

b. Google’s Project Loon is now actively providing internet connectivity to Kenya. The project includes 35 balloons that are similar to floating cell towers with 200 times the reach. Quartz has more details here.

c. T-Mobile, fresh from acquiring tens of millions of former Sprint customers, announced that it would provide free software that blocks robocalls and spam texts. The company announced other changes like free identity theft protection, free telephone number changes each year, and scam shield software that replaces your outgoing phone number with a proxy (fake) number. Read their announcement here.

2. COVID-19 Online Resources and News

Great Trackers
Johns Hopkins — the gold standard
Florida data — Unofficial, but great data and presentation
NEW: Event Risk Assessment – from Georgia Tech
NEW: School Reopening Plan Tracker from Johns Hopkins

Tech News
Amazon Dash Cart to Allow Cashierless Checkout In Stores – TechCrunch
Facebook to Launch Section Debunking Coronavirus Myths – CNBC
Snap Out Of Doomscrolling – New York Times
Stuck in Lockdown Rut – Wired UK
Surveillance Company Palantir Signs NHS Contract in UK – TNW

CountryTime Has Whimsical (But Real) Bailout Program

Our favorite COVID-19 marketing this week comes from the folks at Kraft subsidiary County Time who announced “The Littlest Bailout” that will provide up to one thousand $100 awards to kids and parents who operate a lemonade stand. This promotion is so on brand that we think it should win awards even before award season. Check out their video below.

3. Search Engine Optimization News

Another COVID-19 change is coming to Google search results regarding business hours. You probably remember that Google encouraged businesses to update their listings on Google My Business to let searchers know if and when they’re open. With the pandemic reaching new heights and localities perhaps initiating lockdowns again, Google will now display the date when the business hours were last changed. Search Engine Journal put together the story from Twitter.

The auto retail industry usually doesn’t do well online, and search is no exception. Local search company Whitespark examined data in 200 top markets in North America and reported that most listings were sparse. Among their findings:

  • One-third have not claimed their listing at all.
  • More than 60% have never made a post on Google.
  • More than 90% don’t have a free link for appointments
  • And nearly 25% don’t even have a link to their website.
  • Staying with our theme of availability, 13% don’t have any hours listed.

Please don’t be like these companies. We can help you set up this free Google program for your organization. You can write directly to me by clicking reply now.

4. Also in the Spotlight — Facebook Fact Checks Under Fire

Facebook fact checks are receiving new criticism from politicians and advocates. Last week, a group of four Democratic senators detailed their complaints in a letter to Facebook. They believe a loophole exists that allows opinion pieces to escape fact checks, including a widely publicized essay criticizing climate change studies.

Facebook fact checks have been under criticism since before the company’s botched handling of disinformation prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, and things may not have improved much since then. Using a third party contractor force to provide fact checks, Facebook faces shortages of resources and delays. One analysis earlier this year showed that there were only seven people doing Facebook fact checks in all of Australia.

Critics such as journalist Judd Legum have attacked the choice of Facebook fact check companies, specifically citing Tucker Carlson-founded Daily Caller as a Facebook contractor. Legum published multiple examples online including the Daily Caller citing information as fake that accurately said President Donald Trump told rallygoers that the coronavirus was “a hoax.” 

Hyperpartisan sites masquerading as local news sites are compounding the disinformation crisis. Some are benign and show a slight left or right bias. Others are unapologetic partisans. The Nieman Lab at Harvard identified 450 sites funded by politicians, political operatives, and PACs that appear to be organized into twelve networks owned by five corporate entities. 

As Facebook relaunches its news initiative, these sites pose a serious issue for an underresourced part of the company with a large impact on national and global affairs.


Australia Has 17 Million Facebook Users and Seven Facebook Fact Checkers — BuzzFeed
Hundreds of hyperpartisan sites are masquerading as local news (map) — Nieman Lab
Elizabeth Warren Wants Answers on Facebook Fact Checks Loophole — Recode
The Daily Caller uses status as Facebook fact-checker to boost Trump — Popular Info

5. Following Up: TurboTax and H & R Block Used “Unfair and Abusive Practices”

We’ve told you several times over the last year about growing discontent at the IRS and among consumer advocates regarding the free E-file Tax program’s administration at large for-profit companies including Intuit and H & R Block.

Now the New York Department of Financial Services found that the companies “undermined the [Free File] Program by creating and marketing their own ‘free’ products that directly competed with the Program, with the purpose of upselling customers to pay for their services.”

Read more at ProPublica, which broke the story and continues to provide great coverage.

6. Debugging: Sorry, Pepys Didn’t Write That

The meme marveling at serendipity claims that diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in 1665 that “the taverns are full of gadabouts making merry this eve. And though I may press my face against the window … a dram in exchange for the pox is an ill bargain indeed.”

Now, look, we’ve probably had similar literature reading lists in high school. We’ve slogged through Pepys, and we want some credit for doing that, darn it, so here’s a meme with some vintage looking guy and this quote.

Except he never wrote it. Here’s the Snopes story.

7. ProTip: 15 Best Mac Apps to Make Everyday Life Easier

Wired put together a nice list of free and inexpensive products to add to your Mac. Many are also available in Windows version so this is worth your time to check out. If you have Linux, I dunno, smarty-pants, go build your own apps.

Here’s the full list with links and descriptions

8. Great Data: One Million vs. One Billion

Nearly everyone has trouble conceptualizing one million of anything. Forget conceptualizing one billion by yourself. I often tell students or clients that one million seconds is equal to 12 days and that one billion seconds is about 32 years. 

See? It’s nearly impossible. 

YouTuber Tom Scott decided to try the visualization a different way. He starts by walking the distance that one million bills would take when horizontally stacked. Then he travels the distance for one billion bills. 

You won’t conceptualize better, but you’ll understand the scale better. Click below to watch.

Screening Room: Choptober at Lowes Foods

Look for more goofy and low budget local and regional spots as the pandemic bites into advertising budgets and technical availability. This chain of 80 grocery stores channels a little Crazy Eddies, a lot of Peoples Court, and some old school ambulance chasers for a lovely break from inspirational ads.

10. Coffee Break: Peacock’s Terms of Service

We told you last week about Peacock, the new streaming service from NBC. They’re following the whimsical rather than inspirational path too and embedded a cake recipe and an FAQ about peacock tails in their terms and conditions. 

Check out the screen shots on Twitter because we wouldn’t ask you to read the actual terms no matter how jokes are hidden in them.