New York, Mar 18 (AP/UNB) — Facebook's effort to establish a service that provides its users with local news and information is being hindered by the lack of outlets where the company's technicians can find original reporting.
The service, launched last year, is currently available in some 400 cities in the United States. But the social media giant said it has found that 40 percent of Americans live in places where there weren't enough local news stories to support it.
Facebook announced Monday it would share its research with academics at Duke, Harvard, Minnesota and North Carolina who are studying the extent of news deserts created by newspaper closures and staff downsizing.
Some 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States over the last 15 years, according to the University of North Carolina. Newsroom employment has declined by 45 percent as the industry struggles with a broken business model partly caused by the success of companies on the Internet, including Facebook.
The Facebook service, called "Today In ," collects news stories from various local outlets, along with government and community groups. The company deems a community unsuitable for "Today In" if it cannot find a single day in a month with at least five news items available to share.
There's not a wide geographical disparity. For example, the percentage of news deserts is higher in the Northeast and Midwest, at 43 percent, Facebook said. In the South and West, the figure is 38 percent.
"It affirms the fact that we have a real lack of original local reporting," said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies the topic. She said she hopes the data helps pinpoint areas where the need is greatest, eventually leading to some ideas for solutions.
Facebook doesn't necessarily have the answers. "Everyone can learn from working together," said Ann Kornblut, director of news initiatives at the company.
The company plans to award some 100 grants, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, to people with ideas for making more news available, said Jimmy O'Keefe, product marketing manager for "Today In."
That comes on top of $300 million in grants Facebook announced in January to help programs and partnerships designed to boost local news.
The company doesn't plan to launch newsgathering efforts of its own, Kornblut said.
"Our history has been — and we will probably stick to it — to let journalists do what they do well and let us support them and let them do their work," she said.
London, Mar 16 (AP/UNB) — Internet companies scrambled Friday to remove graphic video filmed by a gunman in the New Zealand mosque shootings that was widely available on social media for hours after the horrific attack.
Facebook said it took down a livestream of the shootings and removed the shooter's Facebook and Instagram accounts after being alerted by police. At least 49 people were killed at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand's third-largest city.
Using what appeared to be a helmet-mounted camera, the gunman livestreamed in horrifying detail 17 minutes of the attack on worshippers at the Al Noor Mosque, where at least 41 people died. Several more worshippers were killed at a second mosque a short time later.
The shooter also left a 74-page manifesto that he posted on social media under the name Brenton Tarrant, identifying himself as a 28-year-old Australian and white nationalist who was out to avenge attacks in Europe perpetrated by Muslims.
"Our hearts go out to the victims, their families and the community affected by this horrendous act," Facebook New Zealand spokeswoman Mia Garlick said in a statement.
Facebook is "removing any praise or support for the crime and the shooter or shooters as soon as we're aware," she said. "We will continue working directly with New Zealand Police as their response and investigation continues."
Twitter, YouTube owner Google and Reddit also were working to remove the footage from their sites.
The furor highlights once again the speed at which graphic and disturbing content from a tragedy can spread around the world and how Silicon Valley tech giants are still grappling with how to prevent that from happening.
British tabloid newspapers such as The Daily Mail and The Sun posted screenshots and video snippets on their websites.
One journalist tweeted that several people sent her the video via the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging app.
New Zealand police urged people not to share the footage, and many internet users called for tech companies and news sites to take the material down.
Some people expressed outrage on Twitter that the videos were still circulating hours after the attack.
"Google is actively inciting violence," tweeted British journalist Carole Cadwalladr with a screen grab of search results of the video.
The video's spread underscores the challenge for Facebook even after stepping up efforts to keep inappropriate and violent content off its platform. In 2017 it said it would hire 3,000 people to review videos and other posts, on top of the 4,500 people Facebook already tasks with identifying criminal and other questionable material for removal.
But that's just a drop in the bucket of what is needed to police the social media platform, said Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of "Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy."
If Facebook wanted to monitor every livestream to prevent disturbing content from making it out in the first place, "they would have to hire millions of people," something it's not willing to do, said Vaidhyanathan, who teaches media studies at the University of Virginia.
"We have certain companies that have built systems that have inadvertently served the cause of violent hatred around the world," Vaidhyanathan said.
Facebook and YouTube were designed to share pictures of babies, puppies and other wholesome things, he said, "but they were expanded at such a scale and built with no safeguards such that they were easy to hijack by the worst elements of humanity."
With billions of users, Facebook and YouTube are "ungovernable" at this point, said Vaidhyanathan, who called Facebook's livestreaming service a "profoundly stupid idea."
In footage that at times resembled scenes from a first-person shooter video game, the mosque shooter was seen spraying terrified worshippers with bullets, sometimes re-firing at people he had already cut down.
He then walked outside, shooting at people on a sidewalk. Children's screams could be heard in the distance as he strode to his car to get another rifle, then returned to the mosque, where at least two dozen people could be seen lying in pools of blood.
He walked back outside, shot a woman, got back in his car, and drove away.
The livestream video was reminiscent of violent first-person shooter video games such as "Counter-Strike" or "Doom" as the gunman went around corners and calmly entered rooms firing at helpless victims. Many shooting games allow players to toggle between close-range and long-range weapons, and the gunman switched from a shotgun to a rifle during the video, reloading as he moved around.
At one point, the shooter even paused to give a shout-out to one of YouTube's top personalities, known as PewDiePie, with tens of millions of followers, who has made jokes criticized as anti-Semitic and posted Nazi imagery in his videos.
"Remember, lads, subscribe to PewDiePie," the gunman said.
The seemingly incongruous reference to the Swedish vlogger known for his video game commentaries as well as his racist references was instantly recognizable to many of his 86 million followers.
The YouTube sensation has been engaged in an online battle over which channel is the most subscribed to, and his followers have taken to posting messages encouraging others to "subscribe to PewDiePie."
PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, said on Twitter he felt "absolutely sickened" that the alleged gunman referred to him during the livestream. "My heart and thoughts go out to the victims, families and everyone affected," he said.
The hours it took to take the violent video and manifesto down are "another major black eye" for social media platforms, said Dan Ives, managing director of Wedbush Securities.
The rampage's broadcast "highlights the urgent need for media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to use more artificial intelligence as well as security teams to spot these events before it's too late," Ives said.
Hours after the shooting, Reddit took down two subreddits known for sharing video and pictures of people being killed or injured —R/WatchPeopleDie and R/Gore — apparently because users were sharing the mosque attack video.
"We are very clear in our site terms of service that posting content that incites or glorifies violence will get users and communities banned from Reddit," it said in a statement. "Subreddits that fail to adhere to those site-wide rules will be banned."
Videos and posts that glorify violence are against Facebook's rules, but Facebook has drawn criticism for responding slowly to such items, including video of a slaying in Cleveland and a live-streamed killing of a baby in Thailand. The latter was up for 24 hours before it was removed.
In most cases, such material gets reviewed for possible removal only if users complain. News reports and posts that condemn violence are allowed. This makes for a tricky balancing act for the company. Facebook says it does not want to act as a censor, as videos of violence, such as those documenting police brutality or the horrors of war, can serve an important purpose.
San Francisco, Mar 14 (AP/UNB) — The New York Times reports that federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal investigation into Facebook's data deals with major electronics manufacturers.
The newspaper says a grand jury in New York has subpoenaed information from at least two companies known for making smartphones and other devices, citing two unnamed people familiar with the request. It reports that both companies had data partnerships with Facebook that gave them access to the personal information of hundreds of millions of users.
Facebook describes those data deals as innocuous efforts to help smartphone makers provide Facebook features to users before the social network had its own app.
The Times reports that it is not clear when the inquiry began or exactly what it is focusing on. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
New York, Mar 14 (AP/UNB) — Facebook says it is aware of outages on its platforms including Facebook, Messenger and Instagram and is working to resolve the issue.
According to Facebook's status page , the outages started around 11 a.m. EDT on Wednesday. That page, which calls the problem a "partial outage," states that Facebook has experienced "increased error rates" since that time.
Downdetector.com, a site that monitors site outages, said the Facebook problem affected parts of the U.S., including the East and West Coast; parts of Europe and elsewhere. Both Facebook's desktop site and app appeared to be affected. Some users saw a message that said Facebook was down for "required maintenance."
Facebook did not say what was causing the outages.
Via its Twitter account, Facebook said the outage was not due to a "distributed denial of service" or DDoS attack, a type of attack that hackers use to interrupt service to a site.
New York, Mar 13 (AP/UNB)- Facebook, already the leader in enabling you to share photos, videos and links, now wants to be a force in messaging, commerce, payments and just about everything else you do online.
The company's ambitions harken to how WeChat has become the centerpiece of digital life in China, where people use it to order movie tickets, subway passes, food delivery and rides. If Facebook succeeds in turning its own messaging services into a platform for everything, it could ultimately threaten established services such as Snapchat, Yelp, Venmo, eBay and even Apple and Amazon.
"It's clear that Facebook does have very broad ambitions here," said Bob O'Donnell, president and chief analyst at Technalysis Research. "Their goal is to be the WeChat of everywhere but China."
But Facebook faces numerous hurdles. A key one is restoring user trust, following a string of privacy failures that includes the sharing of personal information from as many as 87 million users with a consulting firm affiliated with Donald Trump's campaign. And any change may cause users to rethink their relationship with Facebook.
"Facebook has a lot of momentum but it's not completely invincible," said Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. "People came to Facebook for a particular thing. Offer them a different thing, and they're likely to re-evaluate whether they want to be there at all."
After all, Friendster and Myspace came and went as Facebook grew. Yahoo and AltaVista moved over for Google. And remember when AOL was popular, powerful and rich enough to buy the traditional media company Time Warner? Both AOL and Yahoo are now fading brands within Verizon.
After building an advertising-supported service that depends on vacuuming up data on your hobbies, interests and political views, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook will now emphasize ways for small groups to communicate in a truly private fashion.
This involves scrambling all messages in WhatsApp, Instagram Direct and Messenger so that even Facebook itself can't read them. Facebook will also let messages automatically disappear after a set amount of time, something rival Snapchat already does.
Facebook, Zuckerberg said, will "then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce, and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services."
Facebook declined to further elaborate on its ambitions, and a spokeswoman reinforced that it is early in the process. But there are clues in what Chinese tech giant Tencent has already done with WeChat in China. WeChat combines functions that are typically done by separate companies elsewhere — think of Facebook and its messaging services combined with PayPal and Uber. People use WeChat to buy goods in retail stores, split restaurant bills with friends, pay utility bills, donate to charities and hail rides from the Uber-like Didi Chuxing service.
Facebook already lets people send money to other individuals through Messenger in the U.S. and a few other countries and is testing payments through WhatsApp in India. The New York Times reported that Facebook is also developing its own digital currency to make it easier for users to send money to their messaging contacts.
Facebook didn't offer many details on its digital currency endeavors, but said a "new small team" was looking for ways to make use of the type of technology powering bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies.
While the current payment options require linking Facebook to bank accounts or services such as PayPal, a digital currency could potentially work without them. That could appeal to users, especially in Asia and Africa, with limited access to banking services, said Avivah Litan, a Gartner analyst who specializes in security and payments.
And it would solve a key challenge with commerce on phones. Litan said entering credit card details on a phone is cumbersome, and businesses often lose customers before they complete orders. If Facebook can integrate payments into messaging, it can keep users within Facebook and convince advertisers they're more likely to complete sales.
Facebook could also diversify revenue beyond advertising. For instance, it could take a commission, whether for newspaper subscriptions or food deliveries, much as Apple already does with a cut of up to 30 percent for app payments.
Kay said messaging could become one-stop shop for Yelp-like business reviews, OpenTable restaurant reservations, on-demand delivery similar to Uber and a marketplace akin to eBay — the latter being something Facebook already offers on its main app. Amazon might be tougher to challenge, he said, given the company's expertise in delivery logistics, but there might be pieces such as grocery delivery that Facebook can go after.
Nonetheless, potential Facebook rivals need not pack up yet. Zuckerberg's blog read as a manifesto, a list of things he wants to implement, and it's unclear how much will actually get executed, eMarketer analyst Debra Aho Williamson said. She said it's too soon for competitors to start drastically adapting.
"You cannot be blase about anything Facebook says or does," she said. "But I think there is certainly time to see how this all plays out."
There also might be room for Facebook to sit alongside existing services. Facebook might turn to OpenTable within messaging, for instance, rather than build its own service for dinner reservations.
"It depends on what exactly the product looks like and how differently useful it is for different kinds of audiences," said Brian Wieser, an executive at the advertising consultancy GroupM. "It's not necessarily a zero-sum game."
For now, analysts say, potential competitors need to pay attention and be ready to adapt once details are out. Businesses that ignore the threat do so at their own peril.
Potential rivals can also start emphasizing how they are different from Facebook — as Apple is doing by stressing privacy protections in its devices and services. O'Donnell added that those in payments need to make sure their services are compelling and easy to use so that they can compete with whatever Facebook brings.
Apple, Amazon, eBay and OpenTable didn't respond to messages for comment. Yelp, Snap and PayPal, which also owns Venmo, declined to comment.
The most immediate threat Facebook poses is to other messaging services. Apple's iMessage is popular on iPhones, but there's no version for Android. Facebook could look more appealing as it breaks down walls and makes its three discrete messaging services work together as though they were one.
Snapchat, meanwhile, has struggled since Facebook and its Instagram service copied a feature for posting temporary "stories" that disappear after 24 hours. Zuckerberg dedicated a section of his blog announcement to "reducing permanence," suggesting that Facebook will now take on Snapchat's core feature of letting photos "disappear" after a set number of seconds.
"It's yet another example of Facebook trying to attack Snapchat," BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield said.
But whether Facebook succeeds will depend on how many people are willing to move their conversations. Greenfield said Snapchat has a lock on its core, younger audience.
Facebook's plan may face external competition of its own. Unlike WeChat, Facebook faces new privacy regulation in Europe and calls for more controls in the U.S., Forrester analyst Jessica Liu wrote . Zuckerberg is trying to strike an "impossible balance" between capturing more of users' time, appealing to advertisers and appealing to regulators.
"Zuckerberg can't have his cake and eat it, too," she wrote.