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Inflatable Angry Emoji Looms Over Facebook’s Annual Shareholder Meeting

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Protesters carrying an inflatable angry emoji greeted Facebook shareholders as they gathered for the company’s annual meeting on Thursday, the latest sign of its struggle to shake off privacy scandals and rein in fake news and hate speech.

The social media giant again faced demands for reform at Thursday’s meeting, including shareholder proposals that called for revamping the company’s voting structure and ousting Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg as chairman.

The measures had little chance of succeeding, as a dual-class share structure gives Zuckerberg and other insiders control of about 58% of the votes. Many investors have shrugged off the scandals swirling around the company, as it has beaten Wall Street’s estimates for revenue growth and continues to add users globally.

Zuckerberg declined to answer a shareholder question on why he would not agree to create an independent board chair, instead restating his view that regulators should set the rules for companies around privacy and content.

But even though the votes are largely symbolic, they are still seen as a useful barometer of investor sentiment about how well the social media icon is coping with unprecedented challenges to its hands-off approach to content.

Last year, about 83% of shares held by outside investors voted for a proposal that would have the company move to a structure of one vote per share and do away with the supermajority shares.

A coalition of activist groups have urged big investors to reject Zuckerberg’s nomination to the board this year, saying Facebook has failed to protect users, especially racial and religious minorities.

Outside the hotel, a small group of protesters filmed themselves hoisting the 8-foot (2.5-meter) red emoji balloon, saying the company failed to protect its users, particularly minorities, from hate speech and other abuses.

“Zuckerberg has said that he wants to protect people from white supremacy but there’s still a ton of white supremacists organising on Facebook,” said Leila Deen, program director for SumOfUs, the group in the coalition responsible for the balloon.

Nearby, an opposing protester in a red hat stamped with “Make America Great Again,” a slogan of US President Donald Trump, used a loudspeaker to accuse Facebook of censoring conservatives.

The coalition, led by consumer group Majority Action and civil rights advocate Color of Change, said they had gathered 125,000 signatures on a petition targeting BlackRock, one of Facebook’s biggest outside investors.

BlackRock’s funds backed all of Facebook’s director nominees last year, but also voted for two shareholder proposals that would have reorganized Facebook’s governance structure.

It declined to comment on the petition, with a spokesman saying it did not preview votes or comment on specific companies.

Other shareholders in the meeting said the company created a “hostile work environment” for people with conservative views and pressed for a diversity report reflecting its public policy positions.

Under scrutiny
Facebook has been under scrutiny from regulators and shareholders since last year, when reporting revealed that the data of some 87 million users had been shared with now-defunct political data firm Cambridge Analytica.

The company has also come under fire over Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, which used social media to spread disinformation, and its frequently shifting policies around which content is permitted on its platform.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi criticised the company on Wednesday, saying she was no longer willing to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt on Russia after it refused to remove a heavily edited video that attempted to make her look incoherent.

“I thought it was unwittingly, but clearly they wittingly were accomplices and enablers of false information to go across Facebook,” she said.

The comments raise the spectre of harsher action in Congress against Facebook. Pelosi has previously warned that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields tech companies from legal liability for content created by their users, was a “gift” that had been abused and could be reconsidered.

Investors do not seem worried.

The company’s stock jumped 10 percent after its last earnings report, even as it announced it was setting aside up to $5 billion for what could be the largest civil penalty ever paid to the Federal Trade Commission, which has been investigating Facebook over alleged privacy violations.

One of Facebook’s largest fund investors, William Danoff of the $123 billion Fidelity Contrafund, did not mention any of Facebook’s privacy issues in his most in his most recent quarterly commentary to investors.

He wrote only that, as his portfolio’s second-largest holding, Facebook “appeals to us based on growth in its various apps and revenue from advertisers that want to reach the firm’s enormous base of daily active users.”

Danoff has been a long-time backer of Facebook and previously indicated he was satisfied with the company’s reform efforts to date.

Among other top Facebook investors, last year Vanguard Group Inc withheld support from Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and backed a measure to reform Facebook’s voting structure.

© Thomson Reuters 2019

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Facebook is expanding Spotify partnership with new ‘Boombox’ project – TechCrunch

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Facebook is deepening its relationship with music company Spotify and will allow users to listen to music hosted on Spotify while browsing through its apps as part of a new initiative called “Project Boombox,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Monday.

Facebook is building an in-line audio player that will allow users to listen to songs or playlists being shared on the platforms without being externally linked to Spotify’s app or website. Zuckerberg highlighted the feature as another product designed to improve the experience of creators on its platforms, specifically the ability of musicians to share their work, “basically making audio a first-class type of media,” he said.

We understand from sources familiar with the Spotify integration that this player will support both music and podcasts. It has already been tested in non-U.S. markets, including Mexico and Thailand, and it’s expected to arrive in about a week.

The news was revealed in a wide-ranging interview with reporter Casey Newton on the company’s future pursuits in the audio world as Facebook aims to keep pace with upstart efforts like Clubhouse and increased activity in the podcasting world. 

“We think that audio is going to be a first-class medium and that there are all these different products to be built across this whole spectrum,” said Zuckerberg. “Of course, it includes some areas that, that have been, you know, popular recently like podcasting and kind of live audio rooms like this, but I also think that there’s some interesting things that are under-explored in the area overall.”

Spotify has already supported a fairly productive relationship with the Facebook and Instagram platforms. In recent years the music and podcasts platform has been integrated more deeply into Instagram Stories where users can share content from the service, a feature that’s also been available in Facebook Stories.

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Clubhouse closes an undisclosed $4B valuation Series C round, as tech giants’ clones circle – TechCrunch

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Buzzy “social audio” app Clubhouse has raised a Series C funding round, reportedly valuing the company at $4 billion. Clubhouse said the new round of financing was led by Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, with participation from DST Global, Tiger Global and Elad Gil. This round means Clubhouse has tripled the valuation it attained in January when Andreessen Horowitz led its Series B funding round.

The funding comes as Twitter, Spotify, Facebook, Telegram, Discord and LinkedIn are all prepping similar features to Clubhouse’s live audio streaming rooms, which has attracted attention for hosting live chats with the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Indeed, Vox reported that Facebook will announce a series of “social audio” products only today.

But, unusually for such a late stage of funding, the company has not revealed the amount raised. Industry sources say that this is probably because the Series C funding round is “multi-stage” and therefore not officially closed. Alternatively, the company is “hyping” itself ahead of a sale, as is often the case with “hot” startups. Twitter reportedly broke off talks to acquire the startup at a $4 billion valuation, according to Bloomberg.

And despite appearances that this funding round has been timed to coincide with the launch this week of Facebook’s Clubhouse clone, one well-placed source told me “this funding round has been in the works for the last 1.5 months” and that some offers have been “above 2x” the $4 billion valuation. In other words, there are some investors out there who think Clubhouse is worth more than $8 billion.

So far Clubhouse is demurring on all this, and declining to comment more directly to the media. The company disclosed the news about the funding during its weekly “town hall” chat last Sunday night and in a blog post, the company said the fundraising will support a fresh burst of growth for the app.

“While we’ve quadrupled the size of our team this year, stabilized our infrastructure, launched Payments in beta to help creators monetize, and readied Android for launch, there is so much more to do as we work to bring Clubhouse to more people around the world. It’s no secret that our servers have struggled a bit these past few months, and that our growth has outpaced the early discovery algorithms our small team originally built,” said the post.

Noting that “it’s important to us to be building all of this with people who are invested in the community and who represent a diverse set of backgrounds and voices,” Clubhouse has, however, been struck by a wave of problems in the last few days, when anti-Semitic audio rooms seemed to proliferate on the platform. Clubhouse has previously been criticized for its seeming inability to moderate extremism on the app.

The year-old platform, which has reported 10 million weekly active users, has thrived during the pandemic while people were locked down and therefore unable to chat easily in person.

Tech news site The Information first reported details on the Clubhouse funding on Friday.

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Facebook invests in audio with short-form Soundbites feature, podcast support, and a Clubhouse clone – TechCrunch

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Facebook today officially announced a suite of new audio products — an indication that it’s taking the threat from Clubhouse and other audio platforms more seriously. The company is doing more than just building its own take on Clubhouse, however, it’s also announcing tools that allow podcast creators to share long-form audio, a new Spotify integration for music, and a brand-new short-form experience called Sound Bites.

The Clubhouse clone was probably the most-discussed of the new products ahead of today’s announcement, given the increased interest in the audio networking market.

Like Clubhouse, the Facebook experience will also involve live audio rooms, where users can engage in topical discussions.

“I think the areas where is where I’m most excited about it on Facebook are basically in the large number of communities and groups that exist. I think that you already have these communities that are organized around interests, and allowing people to come together and have rooms where they can talk is — I think it’d be a very useful thing,” said Zuckerberg, in a friendly interview with Platformer, timed alongside the official announcement. “When we launched video rooms earlier last year, groups and communities were one of the bigger areas where that took off. So, I think around audio, just given how much more accessible it is, that’ll be a pretty exciting area as well.”

Image Credits: Facebook

The Live Audio Rooms will be available across both Facebook and Messenger, Facebook says in an official blog post.

The company will first test Live Audio Rooms in Groups, reaching Groups’ 1.8 billion monthly users. They’ll also be made available to public figures and experts. Early adopters of the feature will include American football quarterback Russell Wilson, Grammy-nominated electronic music artist TOKiMONSTA, artist and director Elle Moxley, and five-time Olympic medalist and entrepreneur Nastia Liukin, Facebook says.

Live Audio Rooms will be available to everyone on Facebook this summer. Also this summer, Live Audio Rooms will be made available on Messenger, for an experience that allows friends to hang out, too.

In addition to products that rehash audio functionality available in tech products from other companies, Zuckerberg also revealed that the company was working on an audio-only version of its TikTok competitor Instagram Reels that allows users to quickly move through algorithmically-sorted short audio clips, a project being called Soundbites. In its blog post, Facebook detailed that they will be testing Soundbites over the next few months with a small group of creators before making it widely available.

Image Credits: Facebook

“The idea here is it’s short form audio clips, whether it’s people sharing things that they find funny… or kind of pithy things that people want to share that cover a bunch of different genres and topics,” Zuckerberg said.

For podcast creators, Zuckerberg said the company will build out tools for those who follow podcasts and creators through Facebook Pages, but don’t currently have a way to access podcast content via the social network. He noted that there are now 170 million Facebook users who are connected to a Page for a podcast, which it why it wants to ensure they have a way to access this audio content more easily.

Image Credits: Facebook

For these users, they’ll be able to discover the audio and start playing it, even in the background. Or they could choose to launch a second app to continue play it, Zuckerberg said. We understand that the experience will actually allow users to directly open Spotify, if they would prefer to listen to the music or audio there, instead.

The feature will also help users with new podcast discovery based on your interests, and users will be able to comment on podcasts and recommend them to friends.

Related to these audio efforts, Zuckerberg referenced Facebook’s partnership with Spotify, which is now being expanded with something it has internally referred to as “Project Boombox” — is an integration that would allow people to share content from their favorite artists, playlists and other types of audio in their feed. That content would then appear in a little, in-line player for others to click and play.

We understand from sources familiar with the Spotify integration that this player will support both music and podcasts. It has already been tested in non-U.S. markets, including Mexico and Thailand. It’s expected to arrive in about a week.

“Facebook’s interest in audio is further validation of the category and reinforces what we’ve known all along — the power and potential for audio is limitless,” a spokesperson for Spotify told TechCrunch. “Our ambition has always been to make Spotify ubiquitous across platforms and devices — bringing music and podcasts to more people — and our new integration with Facebook is another step in these efforts. We look forward to a continued partnership with Facebook, fueling audio discovery around the world,” they added.

Zuckerberg also referenced the need to serve the growing creator economy with its new products.

With Live Audio Rooms, fans will be able to support creators through Stars, Facebook’s existing in-app tipping feature, or donate to causes. Facebook says it will later offer other monetization tools like access to Live Audio Rooms on subscriptions. There’s also an Audio Creator Fund being made available to kick off the launch of Soundbites.

The exec also spoke about Facebook’s plans for a newsletters product, all under the umbrella of serving the creator community with a suite of tools — something Twitter is now doing, too, with its plans for Super Follow.

“I think a product where a journalist or a creator can basically create a subscription for people who want to follow them, that spans both a newsletter and a podcast, is going to be a really powerful thing,” said Zuckerberg. “So that’s a big part of what we’re going to enable with some of the monetization tools around podcasts. That dovetails with the work that we’re that we’re planning to do…our work on on our newsletters and giving tools for for independent journalists. I think enabling both of those things to come together on extremely favorable terms to journalists and creators, will be a pretty powerful thing,” he noted.

The product launches, which Vox scooped on Sunday, indicate how seriously Facebook considers the disruption to its dominance that could be attributed to the growing number of places where fans connect with creators. The threat for Facebook today is not just a new app like Clubhouse or Substack’s newsletters or even Patreon, but the fact that the creator economy, in general, isn’t being centralized and owned by Facebook itself.

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