Facebook Says That All of its Spark AR Reviewers will Soon not be Operating

Facebook has announced another impact of required staffing changes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the company sending more staff home to reduce the potential spread of the virus, Facebook says that all of its Spark AR reviewers will soon not be operating. As a result, no user-submitted AR effects, for either Facebook Stories or Instagram, will be approved until further notice.

Facebook sent out a notification to Spark users and posted the update on the Spark AR Instagram Story.

It’s the latest in Facebook’s staffing shifts to accommodate the unprecedented changes in response to the COVID-9 outbreak. Earlier this week, Facebook also noted that it will be putting more reliance on automated tools to detect and remove posts that violate its platform rules, while it also warned that there could be delays in ad approvals due to reduced staff capacity.

The impacts here are significant and will have a direct impact on Facebook’s bottom line, but they’re also, of course, necessary given the massive changes across the board being implemented as a result of the spread of coronavirus.

Providing users with the ability to create their own AR effects for Instagram has proven to be a significant win for Facebook in recent months, with the more recent trend of user-created ‘which character are you?’ effects gaining significant traction, and boosting usage.

But it has also, even more recently, lead to some concerns. Last week, Instagram was forced to ban searches for COVID-19 related AR effects because users had raised concerns around them being insensitive, with some even spreading misinformation about the virus.

Yet, even taking into account these concerns, the decision to halt all approvals is a significant step.

It’s another impact of the ongoing crisis – a lesser one, in the broader scheme, but a further reminder of the major, evolving changes across the board.

Instagram is testing the Capability to Add Hashtags and Location to Stories Highlights

This is interesting – according to a new discovery by reverse engineering expert Jane Manchun Wong, Instagram is testing out the capability to add up to four hashtags and a location to your Instagram Stories highlights.

Stories Highlights are collections of Stories that you opt to keep active on your profile after the regular 24-hour expiry. And up till now, Highlights content has not appeared in Instagram searches, or in the Explore listings, but given this test, maybe that’s about to change.

The only reason, of course, that Instagram would be looking to add searchable elements like hashtags and/or location is to enable people to search for them. Maybe, then, we’re close to seeing Highlights content in relevant search surfaces, which could give Stories Highlights increased value in a discoverability sense.

That could prompt more business, in particular, to use Stories highlights, while it could also change your approach to the same.

It’s only in test mode at this stage, but it’s worth considering the implications of such an update, and what that might mean for your Instagram strategy.


US Government Looking to Use Cell Phone Location Data to Halt the Spread of COVID-19

This will no doubt be a concern to privacy advocates.

According to a report in The Washington Post, the US Government is currently in talks with several tech companies, including both Facebook and Google, as to how it might be able to use location data from cell phones to better track and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic across the nation.

As per WaPo:

“The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.”

What action, exactly, would stem from that info is another consideration altogether (punishments for those who fail to maintain adequate distance?), but the idea is that by accessing specific location marker info from the tech giants, the Government would be in a better position to understand how the disease might spread, and how communities could be impacted by the same.

The approach has solid foundations – both China and South Korea have effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19 by using smartphone location data to track the movement of their citizens.

Singapore, too, has seen a high rate of success with its anti-coronavirus measures; with just 96 cases of the virus in the nation thus far – and crucially, zero deaths. COVID-19 recoveries in Singapore are also now outpacing the rate of infection, and a key element within its response measures has been tracking the location of people placed under home quarantine via their phone GPS.

But such initiatives have also, reportedly, overstepped the mark at times.

As explained by Wired:

“In South Korea, the authorities have sent out texts detailing the movements of specific people infected with COVID-19, stirring up public shaming and rumor-mongering. The government is also using a smartphone app to ensure that people stay home when they’ve been ordered to quarantine themselves. The ubiquitous Chinese apps WeChat and AliPay have been used to assign people “color codes” to determine whether they should quarantine themselves or may move around freely. But some citizens say the codes appear to be applied arbitrarily or based on which province they are in. There is also evidence the apps feed data back to the authorities.”

It’s not perfect, and in the hands of more authoritarian governments, such information is prone to abuse. But then again, we are in extraordinary times, and as such, maybe extraordinary measures like this are required to enable us to get back to normal life and limit the impacts of the pandemic.

If the US Government were to access such insight, a key parameter would be anonymity and ensuring that the information provided did not also provide individual insight. The current proposals also make specific note that any such effort cannot lead to the establishment of a government database of movement info. The aim of any such initiative would be to better understand the spread of COVID-19, and nothing else.

But of course, it’s very difficult to maintain the lines between acceptable uses of such data and overreach.

Is the risk worth it in this sense? Could the potential of such a system outweigh the privacy concerns, as we all work to establish a way forward in the months ahead without a COVID-19 vaccine in place?

Facebook has previously provided anonymized location tracking data for various purposes, including, most recently, in tracking citizen movements during the Australian bushfires to better manage resources and understand key shifts.

And while not everyone enables apps to track their location, the majorities of people do, which means that these types of tracking tools are highly accurate – and at the least, are indicative of key shifts and trends.

On balance, considering the ongoing impacts we’re likely to face due to COVID-19, it seems logical that we should allow such usage, but again, maintaining separation between privacy and utility is challenging, and will no doubt cause some angst moving forward.

But if the Singapore example is anything to go by, we need to at least consider the options in this respect.


The Facebook-Owned Messaging Giant, WhatsApp, has Launched a New COVID-19 Info Hub

Amid concerns that WhatApp is being used to spread misinformation around the COVID-19 outbreak, the Facebook-owned messaging giant has launched a new COVID-19 info hub, where users will be able to access timely, accurate information related to the pandemic.

As explained by WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart:

“Today WhatsApp has launched a hub for health workers, educators, small businesses, and others that are using WhatsApp to support one another during this extraordinary crisis. We’re grateful to WHO, UNDP, and UNICEF for coordinating the response to this crisis, including using WhatsApp to do so. Already several ministries of health are providing updates to citizens on WhatsApp and we will expand these services together.”

The new info hub, which you can access here, includes tips on working remote, how to find reliable information and how to stop the spread of misinformation, along with specialized insights into how local businesses, health care workers, governments and educators can use WhatsApp to stay connected and maintain regular activity through the app.

In addition to this, Facebook says that it has almost doubled server capacity for WhatsApp in order to facilitate ongoing communication within the app. WhatsApp has seen big increases in usage in the last week and is expected to remain a key source of connectivity in many regions as the crisis rolls on across the globe.

But dispelling misinformation, and halting its spread through the app, maybe the biggest focus right now.

As noted, reports have emerged over the last week of various COVID-19 misinformation campaigns spreading through WhatsApp. The situation has gotten so bad in some regions, that even Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has issued a call on Twitter for people to stop using unverified chats on WhatsApp for COVID-19 information.

I am urging everyone to please stop sharing unverified info on WhatsApp groups. These messages are scaring and confusing people and causing real damage. Please get your info from official, trusted sources. Follow @HSELive @hpscireland @WHO @merrionstreet @dfatravelwise

Various security experts have warned that, while Facebook is working to address the flow of misinformation in its main app, many bad actors are now turning to WhatsApp instead, and using its more private, intimate, and encrypted messaging to spread false reports. And with 2 billion users, the potential scope and reach of WhatsApp is significant – people may not be able to post to a public News Feed within the messaging app, but it does provide reach to large sections of the community, which can be just as impactful when sharing fake reports.

Further acknowledging this issue, WhatsApp has also donated $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to help expand the presence of local fact-checkers on WhatsApp.

Again, this is a key area of concern, especially as COVID-19 takes hold in more regions where WhatsApp is the preferred method of communication – even the only method of communication in some places. The key to containing and managing the outbreak is ensuring that people are informed as to what they should do, how they should act, and what types of activities they should limit to reduce the risk of infection.

If the efforts to share this information are being undermined, that will only accelerate its spread.

Hopefully, these new steps will help to move WhatsApp forward in this respect.


Short-Form Video App, Likee, has announced its Intentions to make a Push into the US Market

Could this be another challenger in the short-form video space?

While TikTok continues to gain traction,  and face scrutiny over its various operating processes,  Singaporean video app Likee has announced its intentions to make a push into the US market.

As per the PR release:

“Likee, the fourth-most downloaded video app in the world, behind Facebook and Instagram, is making its move into the U.S. market. Offering short-form (15-second) videos – recorded and live-streamed – Likee is at the forefront of a revolution in how people consume and interact with content. Driven by its superior video creation suite, advanced Artificial Intelligence-based curation and 4D effects, extensive music library and over 1000 video effects including beauty and video filters and stickers, Likee has seen explosive growth since its launch in late 2017.”

Indeed, Likee has seen significant growth. The app is now up to 115 million monthly active users, after seeing a more than 200% jump in its audience in 2019. Likee also recently came out on top of the App Annie ‘Breakout Apps and Games’ listing for 2019, which is based on growth in downloads and/or consumer spend throughout the previous year.

So why is Likee so popular?

As noted above, Likee offers a range of video creation and editing tools, including effects, touch-up options, and “4D effects”.

As you can see in this video, the “4D” element relates to specialized, movie-style graphics which provide another creative consideration for your Likee clips. They don’t look significantly different to other filter options in other apps, but they do look impressive and have no doubt contributed to Likee’s popularity.

In addition to this, Likee also has live-streaming functionality and a face swap feature that it calls “FaceMagic“, which enables users to “be any superstar or movie role that you like instantly”.

Interestingly, TikTok is also experimenting with a similar ‘deepfake’ style tool or video clips, which comes with its own range of concerns.

Likee has seen most of its growth in Southeast Asia, though it’s also now growing in Russia and India as well. And now it’s looking to push into the US market – which could put the squeeze on TikTok, especially with so many people confined to their homes and looking for new ways to keep themselves engaged and active.

Definitely, it seems like it could have potential. Will it become the next big thing? Will it slow TikTok? You would think that with so many short-form video options, that has to have a broader impact on take-up – but eventually, one will rise above.

TikTok has a significant head start, but Likee could be well-worth keeping an eye on in the coming months.