Twitter’s director of AR/VR leaves the company


The head of Twitter’s AR/VR team announced today via a tweet that he is leaving the social media site after 18 months.

Twitter hasn’t always been the quickest in its product development and the AR/VR scene (which is very much in its infancy still) hasn’t seen the company make too many daring moves. While Apple, Facebook, Snap and Google have shown off AR or VR developer platforms, there’s been little movement from Twitter in the arena.

The company has been slower to approach AR content creation features like selfie masks which have been on full display in competing products from both Snapchat and Facebook. The company’s biggest foray into virtual reality during the past couple years was likely the team’s work on Live 360 video in Periscope.

This has, more generally, been a period of a lot of movement in the AR/VR space largely as a result of companies reshaping their visions for how they see product and feature developments. Last week, Facebook brought on a new director of AR who previously worked at Google.

Featured Image: Kevin Quennesson/Twitter

Facebook and Twitter face a short deadline on Russian bot #ReleaseTheMemo reports for Congress


Two leading Democrats in Congress are calling for new disclosures from Facebook and Twitter about Russian disinformation campaigns on their platforms.

In a letter, Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, minority leads on the House Intel and Senate Judiciary committees respectively, called for the two tech companies to release any information that have about Russian ties to the recent social media campaign around a controversial memo written by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes. The pair argues that there is evidence that Russian bots promoted Nunes’ political agenda and the public deserves to know about it, citing last week’s Business Insider story “Russia-linked Twitter accounts are working overtime to help Devin Nunes and WikiLeaks.”

The new Russian bot debate surrounds a hashtag known as #releasethememo. #Releasethememo sprung up to call on Congress to declassify the Nunes memo, which is either a damning account of corruption in the investigation into Russia’s efforts to undermine the 2016 election or a craven gesture to create political cover for a doomed president, depending on who you ask.

As Feinstein and Schiff’s letter argues, #releasethememo is tainted by Russian influence:

Specifically, on Thursday, January 18, 2018, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Majority voted to allow Members of the U.S. House of Representatives to review a misleading talking points “memo” authored by Republican staff that selectively references and distorts highly classified information.  The rushed decision to make this document available to the full House of Representatives was followed quickly by calls from some quarters to release the document to the public.

Several Twitter hashtags, including #ReleaseTheMemo, calling for release of these talking points attacking the Mueller investigation were born in the hours after the Committee vote. According to the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, this effort gained the immediate attention and assistance of social media accounts linked to Russian influence operations.

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Richard Blumenthal also published a similar letter on Tuesday calling on Twitter specifically to answer questions about Russian disinformation campaigns and related political hashtags.

The letter goes on to request that Twitter and Facebook examine these links to “Russian influence operations,” including “the frequency and volume of their postings on this topic” and “how many legitimate Twitter and Facebook account holders have been exposed to this campaign.” With a request for this information by January 26, the members of Congress give the two companies a deadline they’re unlikely to meet, assuming they choose to cooperate. If the companies do conduct an investigation and issue reports on #releasethememo, Feinstein and Schiff’s play could easily backfire. We should know by now that 1) these companies aren’t particularly good at conducting comprehensive internal analyses on foreign disinformation campaigns and 2) tons of fake news and political propaganda is generated domestically too. Still, the more info on this kind of stuff that Congress can wring out of Facebook and Twitter, the better.

Nunes, who serves as the chairman of the House Intel Committee, is a controversial figure. That committee, along with considerably less chaotic Senate counterpart, is investigating Russian interference in the U.S. election. Last year, Nunes created a lot of attention for himself by amplifying misleading claims that the Obama administration had “wiretapped” President Trump (for clarification on this bit, read a little about how a FISA warrant is obtained. Hint: It doesn’t involve the White House). His memo purports to provide evidence, or at least talking points, around the claim that the FBI somehow abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in its effort to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Given his proven track record of partisanship and pandering to the White House, it’s difficult to take something authored by Nunes that seriously, regardless of what it claims to prove. Still, a broader Republican effort to release the memo suggests that a chunk of Congress thinks (or hopes) it might cause a stir. Oddly enough, many of those same Republican members of Congress just voted overwhelmingly to support Section 702, a portion of FISA that would appear to contradict the position of outrage over recent “wiretapping” claims.

Whatever ends up coming of the potentially Russia-influenced effort to #releasethememo, it’s clear that after dragging Facebook and Twitter over the coals on Russia, some members of Congress are happy to casually knock on tech’s door for evidence that might undermine their political opposition. Whether that’s good (transparency!) or bad (partisanship!), it’s definitely strange, and we can expect tech’s relationship with Congress to get even stranger in 2018.

The full letter is embedded below.

Featured Image: Matt McClain/Getty Images

Twitter asserts that it won’t ban Trump because he’s a world leader


Just days after President Trump’s tweets antagonized a foreign adversary over who would be first to start nuclear war, Twitter has addressed calls for the company to ban the chatty, often bellicose U.S. president.

In a vague post called “World Leaders on Twitter,” Twitter awkwardly sidestepped the controversy over whether Trump’s Twitter account violates its terms of service altogether, instead asserting that it doesn’t matter if a world leader violates its terms of service  — they should have a home on the platform nonetheless. The post never names Trump.

Their words:

There’s been a lot of discussion about political figures and world leaders on Twitter, and we want to share our stance.

Twitter is here to serve and help advance the global, public conversation. Elected world leaders play a critical role in that conversation because of their outsized impact on our society.

Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.

We review Tweets by leaders within the political context that defines them, and enforce our rules accordingly. No one person’s account drives Twitter’s growth, or influences these decisions. We work hard to remain unbiased with the public interest in mind.

We are working to make Twitter the best place to see and freely discuss everything that matters. We believe that’s the best way to help our society make progress.

Whether Trump has in fact violated Twitter’s policies on user behavior is an open debate. Most users can’t back up their casual threats with a nuclear arsenal, so it’s safe to say that the Trump Twitter situation poses some uniquely weighty questions. Some even argue that Trump’s Twitter threats are an exercise in nuclear deterrence and can be categorized more as bizarrely articulated military policy than the kind of tweet that might violate Twitter’s rules banning “specific threats of violence.”

While plenty of Trump’s older tweets dabble in online harassment, it sounds like anything goes for world leaders so long as they’re elected. But lots of despots are “elected.” Would Rodrigo Duterte get the same pass were he to threaten state-sponsored brutality in specific terms? Would Kim Jong-un? According to this, it sounds like yes.

If you’re still using Twitter, you probably won’t be surprised by the fact that the company retains its right to impose its own rules selectively — after all, it’s been doing so for years. Calling for Twitter to take an ideological stand in order to prevent a social media-spurred international nuclear conflict is a nice thought, but considering how deeply committed tech companies are to the illusion of neutrality — which happens to dovetail nicely with the spineless art of self-preservation — it’s not a very realistic one.

Featured Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images