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The ‘bots’ at heart of Twitter buyout row

Elon Musk’s pausing of his bid to buy Twitter due to questions over “bots” has put the artificially-operated accounts at the heart of the proposed deal’s latest controversy.

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Software 'bots' posing as people can spread misinformation and foment division while making social media audiences seem larger than they really are.
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Elon Musk’s pausing of his bid to buy Twitter due to questions over “bots” has put the artificially-operated accounts at the heart of the proposed deal’s latest controversy.

The software is so commonplace and can be such a problem that tech giants such as Meta, Google and Twitter have teams devoted to banishing bots and cybersecurity firms sell defenses against them.

Here’s a closer look at bots:

– Human or software? –

At a basic level, “bots” are software programs that interact with online platforms, or their users, pretending to be real people, said Tamer Hassan, co-founder and chief of cybersecurity firm HUMAN.

Malicious bots have become sophisticated and are among this decade’s top cyber threats, said Hassan, whose firm specializes in distinguishing people from software online.

The term bots at Twitter is often used to describe fake accounts, powered by some version of artificial intelligence, that can fire off posts and even react to what is posted by others, said independent analyst Rob Enderle.

– Tickets and turmoil –

Bots are used in more than three quarters of security and fraud incidents that happen online, from spreading socially divisive posts to snapping up hot concert tickets and hacking, Hassan told AFP.

“The question is, what would you do if you could look like a million humans?” Hassan asked rhetorically.

“Across all social media platforms, bots can be used to spread content to influence people’s opinions, garner reactions and can even result in cybercrime.”

Bots can be used on social media to widely spread false news, direct users to misinformation, steer people to specious websites and make bogus posts seem popular using shares or “likes.”

Bots on social media can also sucker people into financial scams, Hassan added.

“Social media platforms have had bots for a long time,” analyst Enderle said. “Bots have been connected to attempts to influence the US election and shape opinions about Russia’s war on Ukraine.”

– The deal with Twitter –

Twitter makes its money from ads, and marketers pay for reaching people, not software.

“Advertising to bots isn’t going to have a good close rate because bots don’t buy products,” Enderle noted.

If advertisers are paying Twitter fees based on how many people see ads, and those numbers are inflated due to bots in the online audience, they are being overcharged, Enderle added.

If Twitter has way more bots than it is letting on, its revenue could plunge when those accounts are exposed and closed.

Twitter chief executive Parag Agrawal has said that fewer than five percent of accounts active on any given day at Twitter are bots, but that analysis cannot be replicated externally due to the need to keep user data private.

Musk posted that the real number of bots may be four times higher and has said he would make getting rid of them a priority if he owned the platform.

Twitter has rules about automated actions by accounts, including barring software from posting about hot topics, firing off spam, attempting to influence online conversations, and operating across multiple accounts.

Bots are a known social media problem, and having Musk make it a sticking point this late in the acquisition process appears to likely be “a vehicle to escape the purchase or get a lower price,” Enderle said.

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Russian farmers seek to ride out Western sanctions

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Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine has devastated crops and farming in the pro-Western nation and disrupted crucial deliveries from Ukraine
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Yevgeny Shifanov, co-owner of an organic farm, says his business has felt the sting of Western sanctions and he is no longer able to sell his grain to Europe. 

But the 42-year-old puts on a brave face, saying he is pivoting to ex-Soviet countries such as Belarus as well as domestic clients.

“We are more interested in our internal market, our economy,” the co-owner of Chyorny Khleb (“Black Bread”) told AFP.

Shifanov’s business — located in the village of Khatmanovo, some 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of Moscow on the banks of the Oka River — is one of numerous small farms that have mushroomed in Russia over the past decade. 

Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine has devastated crops and farming in the pro-Western nation and disrupted crucial deliveries from Ukraine fuelling concern about hunger and food prices worldwide.

The military campaign also put a major focus on Russia’s own agriculture sector.

The country is the largest wheat exporter in the world and has been accused by the West of using grain as a geopolitical tool. 

While Russia appears to be calling the shots in the current grain standoff with the West, experts say that its own agricultural sector is also bracing for tough times.

At Chyorny Khleb, which cultivates cereals on just over 1,000 hectares of land, green wheat stalks are knee-high. The farmers are enjoying a relative lull before harvesting starts in late July.

“In March or April, we begin to prepare the land, then we plant. Soon we will reap the results of our work,” said Alexei Yershov, a 28-year-old tractor driver before climbing into his red-and-black tractor and setting off into a buckwheat field.

– New reality –

The outlook for the season is good, with the agriculture ministry forecasting a harvest of 130 million tonnes including a record 87 million tonnes of wheat.

But the farmers admit they have struggled since the onset of unprecedented Western sanctions. 

“We have faced logistical problems,” said Shifanov, adding that he has partners in Europe and Israel but the trucks carrying his farm’s produce abroad were blocked at the border.

“We have buyers abroad, but we can’t do anything, we can’t deliver there, now we can only make do with our domestic market,” he said.

He added that he was also searching for partners in Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

The farm is gradually adjusting to the new reality.

Like many other Russian businesses, the farm went on a “panic buying” spree in the first few weeks of the crisis, purchasing a year’s worth of packaging supplies that are now gathering dust.

One of Shifanov’s partners is now running out of glue needed to make labels. 

“It was imported from Europe,” said Shifanov, standing in a shed between mounds of wheat.

“They are trying to solve the problem via China but the logistics remain complicated,” he added.

In a nearby building, Roman Tikhonov, 40, works on an Austrian-made wooden milling machine. 

The miller said that the farm is learning to operate without foreign-made spare parts.

“Recently, something broke, we found the material and fixed it,” he said. 

“Before the spare parts arrived from Austria, we waited a long time, now we make them ourselves, it’s faster.”

The Ukrainian-made milling machine next-door has been receiving its spare parts via Belarus since the outbreak of hostilities between Ukrainian forces and Moscow-backed separatists in 2014.

Shifanov nevertheless says he is relieved that his tractors were mainly made in Russia or Belarus.

– Trading at a discount –

The grain market is also adjusting to the new conditions. 

Before Russia’s military campaign, the price of wheat was already high at around $300 per tonne but now it is more than $400. 

Andrey Sizov, the head of Sovecon, a Russian agriculture consultancy, said that Russia is now selling its grain — just like its oil — at a discount.

“The war discount for Russian grain is $20 per tonne,” he told AFP. 

“Russian grain has become cheaper than, for example French grain, because you have to reflect and price in those additional costs like freight, insurance, problems with payments.”

Sizov also pointed out that not only do farmers face higher production costs due to inflation, authorities in 2021 introduced strict export taxes that take about “30 percent of farmers revenue”.

“The irony is current record high wheat prices were driven mainly by the Russian war but at the same time Russian farmers are not benefiting from them.”

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Bank of Japan keeps easing despite global rate hikes

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The Bank of Japan is sticking to its ultra-loose monetary policy
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The Bank of Japan on Friday stuck to its monetary easing policy even as other central banks raise interest rates to tame inflation, but said it would “pay due attention” to forex markets as the yen struggles at a 24-year low.

The decision to hold rates at minus 0.1 percent — part of a decade-old plan to boost the world’s third-largest economy — bucks a tightening trend by central banks globally aimed at battling sky-high fuel and food prices linked to the Ukraine war.

The hikes have been led by the US Federal Reserve, which this week announced its most aggressive increase in nearly 30 years and signalled more were in the pipeline.

The European Central Bank also plans to start a series of rate increases next month, the first in more than a decade, while the Bank of England announced a fifth straight increase on Thursday and Switzerland surprised markets with its own rate hike, the first since 2007.

The widening chasm between Japanese and US monetary policy this week pushed the yen to its lowest level against the dollar since 1998, a cause for increasing concern that even the central bank made reference to after its meeting Friday.

“It is necessary to pay due attention to developments in financial and foreign exchange markets and their impact on Japan’s economic activity and prices,” the BoJ said, in an unusual reference to forex movements.

After the announcement, one dollar bought 134.63 yen, up from 133.41 yen earlier in the day.

A weaker yen helps Japanese exporters as it inflates repatriated profits, noted Yoshikiyo Shimamine, executive chief economist of Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

For the BoJ, it may be that “these benefits overwhelm the negative aspects of a cheaper yen — high prices for imported goods, which causes people to suffer without sufficient pay rises,” he told AFP.

The bank’s ultra-loose monetary policy aims to achieve two-percent inflation, a target that has been stubbornly out of reach during years of price stagnation.

In April, core consumer prices hit the target for the first time since 2015, but the BoJ has cautioned that it sees recent rising prices as a temporary and volatile trend.

Inflation has been rising for months in the United States and elsewhere as buoyant demand for homes, cars and other goods clashes with supply problems caused by Covid-19 lockdowns in China and other pandemic hold-ups.

The problem became dramatically worse after Russia invaded Ukraine in February and Western nations imposed steep sanctions on Moscow, sending food and fuel prices soaring, a particular problem in resource-poor Japan.

Stephen Innes at SPI Asset Management said the BoJ may have decided that a potential rout of Tokyo stocks caused by “a hawkish pivot… could see Japanese investors worse off than the current hit to purchasing power via a weaker currency.” 

The statement on forex is a nod to the government’s concerns over the yen’s weakness, but “does not, on its own, indicate an imminent change in policy”, he said.

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RIP Internet Explorer: South Korean engineer’s browser ‘grave’ goes viral

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South Korea, which has some of the world's fastest average internet speeds, remained bizarrely wedded to Microsoft's Internet Explorer
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A South Korean engineer who built a grave for Internet Explorer — photos of which quickly went viral — told AFP Friday that the now-defunct web browser had made his life a misery.

South Korea, which has some of the world’s fastest average internet speeds, remained bizarrely wedded to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which was retired by the company earlier this week after 27 years.

In honour of the browser’s “death”, a gravestone marked with its signature “e” logo was set up on the rooftop of a cafe in South Korea’s southern city of Gyeongju by engineer Kiyoung Jung, 38.

“He was a good tool to use to download other browsers,” the gravestone’s inscription reads. 

Images of Jung’s joke tombstone quickly spread online, with users of social media site Reddit upvoting it tens of thousands of times.

Once dominant globally, Internet Explorer was widely reviled in recent years due to its slowness and glitches.

But in South Korea, it was mandatory for online banking and shopping until about 2014, as all such online activities required sites to use ActiveX — a plugin created by Microsoft. 

It remained the default browser for many Seoul government sites until very recently, local reports said.

The websites of the Korea Water Resources Corporation and the Korea Expressway Corporation only functioned properly in IE until at least June 10, according to a report by the Maeil Economic Daily.

– ‘Suffering’ for IE –

As a software engineer and web developer, Jung told AFP he constantly “suffered” at work because of compatibility issues involving the now-defunct browser. 

“In South Korea, when you are doing web development work, the expectation was always that it should look good in Internet Explorer, rather than Chrome,” he said.

Websites that look good in other browsers, such as Safari or Chrome, can look very wrong in IE, which often forced him to spend many extra hours working to ensure compatibility.

Jung said that he was “overjoyed” by IE’s retirement.

But he also said he felt genuinely nostalgic and emotional about the browser’s demise, as he remembers its heyday — one of the reasons he was inspired to erect the grave stone.

He quoted Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki: “People are often relieved that machines don’t have souls, but we as human beings actually give our hearts to them,” Jung told AFP, explaining his feelings for IE.

He said he was pleased by the response to his joke grave and that he and his brother — who owns the cafe — plan to leave the monument on the rooftop in Gyeongju indefinitely.

“It’s been very exciting to make others laugh,” he said.

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