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Putin and Xi’s evolving disinformation playbooks pose new threats

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Putin and Xi’s evolving disinformation playbooks pose new threats

The TechCrunch Global Affairs Project examines the increasingly intertwined relationship between the tech sector and global politics.

As the information domain becomes an increasingly active and consequential realm of state competition, two countries have gone all in. Both China and Russia have developed sophisticated information strategies to advance their geopolitical interests, and their playbooks are evolving. No longer primarily relying on proxy troll farms to generate large quantities of polarizing content, the Kremlin has turned to military intelligence assets to carry out more targeted information operations designed to circumvent platform-detection mechanisms. And motivated by concern that it might be blamed for a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than five million people worldwide, Beijing has become considerably less risk-averse in its use of “wolf warrior” diplomats to push conspiracy theories online. To sustain its vision of a free and open internet, Washington must develop a strategy to push back.

Moscow’s information manipulation playbook is evolving

Russia, a declining power by many measures, seeks to compensate for its relative weakness through asymmetric means, by disrupting the institutions, alliances and domestic politics of its neighbors and geopolitical competitors in the near term. With little to lose and much to gain from public awareness of its activities, the Kremlin is not particularly sensitive to attribution or concerned about repercussions. And so, in order to keep the transatlantic community distracted, divided and unable to carry out a confident, coordinated foreign policy that could be detrimental to its interests, the Kremlin uses disinformation to stoke chaos and promote disorder.

To accomplish this, Moscow uses at least two techniques that represent a maturation of its playbook since its “sweeping and systematic” campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. First, it regularly co-opts domestic voices and institutions within target societies in order to cast information operations as authentic advocacy, often by hiding trolls within a target population, renting the social media accounts of local citizens or recruiting real activists to stoke protests. It does so partly to evade increasingly sophisticated platform-detection mechanisms and partly to exacerbate the politicization of content moderation debates within the United States.

Second, the Kremlin‘s disinformers recognize that they do not need to perpetuate an operation at scale in order to create the impression that they or others have, and that the impression alone is enough to sow doubt about the legitimacy of election results and exacerbate partisan discord. Moscow can thus leverage widespread concern about the potential for manipulation, particularly in an election context, to achieve its goals by claiming that manipulation has happened — even in the absence of a successful operation.

Beijing is taking a page from Moscow’s playbook — and writing some of its own plays

China, meanwhile, is a rising power with little to gain and much to lose from public awareness of its interference activities. Unlike Russia, it prefers a stable international order, but one that is more conducive to its interests than the current U.S.-led framework. As a result, its activities in the information domain are primarily geared toward promoting China’s image as a responsible global superpower and stifling criticism that would tarnish its prestige, while denting the appeal of democracy by casting the United States and its partners as ineffective and hypocritical.

For Beijing, pursuing these interests has entailed a three-pronged strategy of piggybacking on the propaganda networks of other strongmen, manufacturing the appearance of popular support and co-opting conversations on its rights record. Lacking an influencer network of its own, China regularly relies on the constellation of alternative thinkers, many of them Western, that are a fixture of Russian propaganda. Highlighting the difficulty of generating support for pro-China positions on a platform Beijing has banned at home, China’s wolf warrior diplomats regularly engage with false personas on Twitter. And in order to push back on criticisms of its rights record, it attempts to co-opt discussions on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang using hashtag campaigns and slick videos.

Autocrats align — but only sometimes

Despite important differences in their long-term goals, Moscow and Beijing share multiple immediate objectives: denting the global prestige of democracy, weakening multilateral institutions and undermining democratic alliances. As a result, the two countries deploy several of the same tactics.

Both use “whataboutism” to paint the United States as hypocritical, particularly on issues of race. Both use clickbait content to generate large followings on Twitter, recognizing that an audience is a strategic asset. Both regularly traffic in multiple, often conflicting, conspiracy theories to cast doubt on official accounts of political events, evade blame for their activities and create the impression that there is no such thing as objective reality. Both operate extensive propaganda apparatuses that spread their preferred narratives.

They also deploy many of the same narratives. Both countries have worked to diminish confidence in the safety record of certain Western COVID-19 vaccines and portray the United States and its allies as ineffective. That said, Russia is primarily focused on pushing divisive content that deepens polarization and diminishes trust in institutions and elites, all while pushing back on what it characterizes as anti-Russian bias in established media. China, for its part, is primarily interested in highlighting the benefits of its governance model, while painting critiques of its rights abuses as hypocritical. Kremlin state media almost never cover Russian domestic politics. Moscow’s goal is to drive audiences away from the political West, not pull them toward Russia. For China, the opposite is true.

Much has been made about the state of cooperation between Russia and China in various domains of their respective competitions with the United States. Evidence suggests there is very little formal coordination of their information activities beyond largely symbolic agreements to distribute one another’s content. That is not entirely a surprise. Beijing doesn’t need to formally cooperate with Moscow in order to amplify Kremlin-promoted narratives or to emulate other successful elements of the Kremlin’s information strategy.

What’s to come

Both Russian and Chinese information strategies are evolving. Russia’s disinformation activities are becoming more targeted and harder to detect, while China is taking a more assertive, less subtle approach than before. For Russia, these changes appear to be driven by growing awareness of its activities since 2016, which simultaneously prompted the implementation of new platform policies and detection mechanisms and ushered in an era of partisan debates over election legitimacy that reverberate today. For China, changes to its information strategy seem to be primarily motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a global crisis of unique salience to its geopolitical standing that will continue to create opportunities for Beijing to test new approaches.

Recognizing these consequential changes to the way Russia and China approach the information domain, the United States needs a playbook of its own. A robust strategy would include harnessing truthful information to highlight the failures of repressive rule, deploying American cyber capabilities to prevent or impose costs on those who would conduct destabilizing disinformation campaigns and implementing legislation that would make platform transparency, particularly with trusted researchers, the norm. Finally, because it is good for democratic societies and creates challenges for their authoritarian competitors, the United States should more forcefully defend freedom of information worldwide.

In the consequential contest between democratic and authoritarian societies, autocrats have seized the initiative. This collection of measures represents a starting point for bold and responsible action to ensure that the United States regains it. To succeed, the U.S. and its democratic partners must act quickly.

Source: Tech

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Dashworks is a search engine for your company’s sprawling internal knowledge

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As a company grows, the amount of important information employees need to keep track of inevitably grows right along with it. And, as your tech stack gets more complicated, that information ends up split up across more places — buried in Slack threads, tucked into Jira tickets, pushed as files on Dropbox, etc.

Dashworks is a startup aiming to be the go-to place for all of that internal knowledge. Part landing page and part search engine, it hooks into dozens of different enterprise services and gives you one hub to find what you need.

On the landing page front, Dashworks is built to be your work laptop’s homepage. It’s got support for broadcasting company wide announcements, building out FAQs, and sharing bookmarks for the things you often need and can never find — your handbooks, your OKRs, your org charts, etc.

More impressive, though, is its cross-tool search. With backgrounds in natural language processing at companies like Facebook and Cresta, co-founders Prasad Kawthekar and Praty Sharma are building a tool that allow you to ask Dashworks questions and have them answered from the knowledge it’s gathered across all of those aforementioned Slack threads, or Jira tickets, or Dropbox files. It’ll give you a search results page of relevant files across the services you’ve hooked in — but if it thinks it knows the answer to your question, it’ll just bubble that answer right to the top of the page, Google Snippets style.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Right now Dashworks can hook into over 30 different popular services, including Airtable, Asana, Confluence, Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, Intercom, Jira, Notion, Slack, Salesforce, Trello, and a whole bunch more — with more on the way, prioritized by demand.

Giving another company access to all of those services and the knowledge within might be unsettling — something the Dashworks team seems quite aware of. Kawthekar tells me that their product is SOC-2 certified, that all respective data is wiped from their servers if you choose to disconnect a service, and that, for teams that are equipped to host the tool themselves, they offer a fully on-prem version.

This week Dashworks is announcing that it raised a $4M round led by Point72 ventures, backed by South Park Commons, Combine Fund, Garuda Ventures, GOAT Capital, Unpopular Ventures, and Starling Ventures. Also backing the round is a number of angels, including Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear and Gusto co-founders Josh Reeves and Tomer London. The company was also a part of Y Combinator’s W20 class.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Source: Tech

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Daily Crunch: Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

Image Credits: Bet_Noire (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

TechCrunch Experts

Image Credits: SEAN GLADWELL / Getty Images

TechCrunch wants you to recommend growth marketers who have expertise in SEO, social, content writing and more! If you’re a growth marketer, pass this survey along to your clients; we’d like to hear about why they loved working with you.

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3 experiments for early-stage founders seeking product-market fit

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At Human Ventures, we have a fund for pre-seed and seed-stage investments, a venture studio and an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program.

Through this work, we’ve discovered a lot about how different founders fulfill their journey of customer discovery and product-market fit. One of the largest challenges for pre-seed and seed stage founders is determining where to start: There are a million things to do. What should you do at each stage?

We interviewed three founders from our portfolio, all of whom ran discovery experiments to find their product-market fit at different stages of their company’s development.

Here’s what they had to share:

Pre-MVP/customer discovery phase: Tiny Organics

Tiny Organics is a plant-based baby and toddler food company on a mission to shape childrens’ palates so they’ll choose and love vegetables from their earliest days. The company raised $11 million in their Series A in 2021 and is growing at over 500% annually.

Founders Sofia Laurell and Betsy Fore joined our venture studio as EIRs and went through a six-week discovery sprint. As Sofia explains, they knew they wanted to build something to make parents’ lives easier and threw a lot of initial ideas at the wall from the Finnish baby box 2.0 (Sofia is Finnish) to an easier way to create Instagrammable baby pictures.

They went through multiple exercises to test the viability of new parents’ most pressing and urgent needs:

  • Conduct a “Start with Why” exercise
  • Define the “Jobs to be Done”
  • Create a lean canvas for each (viable) concept
  • Define the user journeys
  • Conduct user surveys using platforms like pollfish.com and 1Q (instant survey tool)
  • Identify and define their customer personas
  • Conduct customer interviews and synthesize them
  • Construct concept prototypes

They also met prospective customers, conducting a focus group of 10-15 moms. When the founders asked them to text them what they were feeding their children along with pictures for a week, they realized the lack of healthy finger foods in the market, thus sparking the idea for Tiny Organics.

Source: Tech

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