Posts with «personal investing ideas & strategies» label

NVIDIA helps bring more lifelike avatars to chatbots and games

NVIDIA is no stranger to making realistic AI avatars, but now it's making them more practical. The GPU maker has introduced a toolkit, the Omniverse Avatar Cloud Engine (ACE), that makes it easier for companies to put digital humans into chatbots, games and other apps. The combination of AI models and services helps developers quickly create virtual people that don't depend on a massive amount of in-house computing power — a startup can produce an avatar as convincing as one from a giant corporation.

ACE revolves around several existing software kits and frameworks. Its namesake Omniverse is used for AI-driven animation. Metropolis handles computer vision tasks (such as object recognition). Merlin helps with recommenders, while NeMo Megatron and Riva respectively help with natural language models and AI speech.

It will take time before you're speaking to an ACE-based avatar in a role-playing game or at your next hotel stay. And while NVIDIA claims its AI is "on a path" to pass the Turing test, it's clearly short of that goal at the moment. It's still obvious that you're talking to a computer, as you can see in the demo video. With that said, this could still be a welcome upgrade from the cruder avatars and basic text bots you typically deal with today.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 4 hands-on: A design that works

Samsung’s first foldable phone might have been the Galaxy Z Fold, but most of us want the Galaxy Z Flip. The company said as much itself, announcing that 70 percent of its foldable customers picked the clamshell option. Compared to the Galaxy Z Fold series, the Z Flip phones are not as thick, not as big and not as expensive. While Google’s Android team is still getting to grips with the bigger-screened foldables, when it comes to the Galaxy Z Flip 3, Samsung took the smartphone interface as we know it, and, well, folded it.

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 4 isn’t a major departure from what last year’s Z Flip 3 offered. Unlike the Fold series, which has seen a few design changes for 2022, it’s a little trickier to discern the differences here. However, Samsung has focused on making the most of the Flip series’ unique form factor.

Let’s start with the 1.9-inch AMOLED front display. It’s the same size as the one on last year’s Z Flip 3, but Samsung has added more controls and widget customization and the color theme can be paired with your Samsung wearable, if you have one. You can still add your own photos to the screen, but there’s more control over what else shows up here.

Engadget / Mat Smith

In addition to widgets offering weather and calendar information, there’s a quick settings widget and quick-dial options for your closest contacts. Unlike the last-gen Z Flip, you can now delete whichever widgets you don’t want, saving on swipes. You can also access Samsung wallet functions to make contactless payments without flipping the device open — something that was missing from its predecessors. On the Z Flip 3, you could answer incoming calls, but now you can call and text without opening your phone. Is it as useful? Not hugely, but it’s at least possible now. Hopefully, software updates will add some of these features to older Z Flip devices.

The experience of using the outer display as a camera viewfinder has also been improved. You’re no longer constrained to shooting your selfies in a square-ish format, and you can tap through to the same selfie view you’d get from shooting it on a typical smartphone – just with (probably better) cameras. There’s also a decent portrait mode, and you can record video directly from the outer display, too. The screens will auto-rotate as you manipulate camera angles, which means you can kinda hold it like a ‘90s camcorder. It’s cute.

Flex mode has been improved further, too. This includes interface upgrades for video streaming and calling, beyond Google’s own Android apps like Meet. It should work with Instagram (both Reels and Stories) Facebook, Zoom, WhatsApp and YouTube, among others.

There’s also a new floating touchpad to control apps not yet supported on the Z Flip 4, when you’re running them on half of the display. It adds a pointer to navigate the app, as well as the ability to tap through, and you can interact and scroll through content too. While the Z Flip 4 isn’t the multitasking foldable – that's the Z Fold 4’s purview – you can split the screen in half in Flex Mode, launching secondary apps with a two-finger swipe from the bottom. Of course, there’s still the usual dividing line icon between the two apps if you’re looking to swap around app placement or maximize one of them.

Engadget / Mat Smith

With an even faster chip, the Snapdragon 8+ Gen 1, the Z Flip 4 handled everything I was able to throw at it during my short time with it. Another notable upgrade is battery capacity, up from 3,300mAh on the Z Flip 3 to 3,700mAh. Given that battery life was one of our biggest complaints with last year’s Z Flip, hopefully we can expect a foldable that runs a little longer. Samsung's Super Fast Charging is now supported on Z Flip4, which should charge the foldable up to 50 percent in around 30 minutes.

Most of the other significant specs are unchanged. The main screen is a 6.7-inch FHD+ (2,640 x 1,080) AMOLED screen capable of up to 120Hz refresh rates, with three storage options (128GB, 256GB, 512GB), all of which come with 8GB of RAM. The screen is bright and vivid, but if you’re hoping for a life without creases, it’s not here just yet, even on these early demo devices.

Samsung says it has enhanced the durability of its foldables, with improved super thin glass across the main display and an enhanced panel strip that supports the display during your pokes, prods and swipes. Yet again, the Z Flip 4 is IPX8 waterproof as well. If you're a Z Flip 3 owner, you might notice the thinner hinge.

Engadget / Mat Smith

When it comes to cameras, it gets a little more complicated. On paper, the Z Flip 4 appears to have the same array as its predecessors (read: two 12-megapixel sensors). However, these are improved cameras. The 12-megapixel ultrawide camera has an f/2.2 lens, while the 12MP wide camera has an f/1.8 lens and bigger 1.8-micron pixels. Samsung says these bigger pixels translate to better low-light performance and sharper shots, and the company claims it will capture 65 percent more light. The new Z Flip has also improved stabilization and subject tracking for stills and video. During my brief testing, the cameras seemed more responsive and capable than when I used the Z Flip 3’s camera. That said, the Z Flip series was never at the cutting edge of smartphone photography, which is likely to continue.

The Galaxy Z Flip 4 will start at $1,000 with 128GB of storage. It’ll launch in four color options: Blue, Pink Gold, Black and Bora Purple. (Bora means purple, so that’s... Purple Purple.) If those aren’t quite to your tastes, the Z Flip 4 will also arrive alongside a Bespoke customization service offering 75 different color permutations. Samsung plans to share more information during its livestream today. You’ll be able to preorder the device starting today, with a launch set for August 26th. Stay tuned for our full review very soon.

Follow all of the news from Samsung's Unpacked event right here!

Sennheiser promises 60 hours of listening with its new Momentum headphones

Sennheiser hasn't refreshed its over-hear Momentum noise-canceling headphones since 2019, but that changes today. The company has announced the Momentum 4, a new take on its flagship headphones that includes an exterior redesign, new features and a whopping 60 hours of battery life. What's more, Sennheiser is offering this host of updates for $50 less than the Momentum 3 at its debut. 

First, the design Sennheiser had carried through much of the Momentum line since its introduction is gone. The mix of metal and leather with visible cables has been traded for a more simplified, more plastic affair. The new look is decidedly less premium than previous Momentum models. However, what the Momentum 4 may lack in aesthetics is offset by increased comfort. The company notes the new hinge easily adjusts and doesn't exert too much pressure on your head. Earcups also rotate flat now, which makes storage a bit easier. Another big change is the on-board controls: most of the physical buttons have been replaced with a touch panel on the right side.

Sennheiser

Inside, Sennheiser says it opted for an "audiophile-inspired acoustic system" that relies on 42mm transducers for the sound. The company explains the setup creates "brilliant dynamics, clarity and musicality," plus you can use an EQ, presets and a new Sound Personalization feature to further adjust the tuning. Sound Personalization takes into account your personal preferences and adjusts "the listening experience" accordingly. 

Of course, these are flagship headphones so active noise cancellation (ANC) is on board. The company says its updated adaptive ANC works to maintain sound quality even in the noisiest of surroundings. Transparency Mode is available as well and there's a slider control between it and ANC in Sennheiser's app. In other words, you're not just left with one or the other, so you can mix in a dash of environmental noise if needed. This model can automatically change sound settings based on your location too, a feature Sennheiser first debuted in March.

Sennheiser also offers a feature called Sidetone, which allows you to adjust how much of your voice comes through during calls. It's a tool that helps you feel less shouty and it works on top of automatic wind noise suppression for the Momentum 4's beamforming microphones during voice and video chats. 

Sennheiser

Sennheiser says you can expect up to 60 hours of battery life on a charge, and that's with ANC turned on. A quick-charge feature gives you six hours of use in 10 minutes. To help you conserve battery, the Momentum 4 is equipped with both automatic pausing and automatic on/off. The company says the headphones will power off when you leave them unattended and turn back on when you pick them up.

The Momentum 4 will be available for preorder in black and white color options on August 9th before shipping on August 23rd. The headphones are priced at $349.95, which is $50 less than the Momentum 3 when it debuted in 2019. 

Instagram is expanding NFT features to more than 100 countries

The non-fungible token (NFT) market has fallen off a cliff, but that's not stopping Instagram from doubling down on digital collectibles. After a test launch in May, the app is expanding its NFT features to more than 100 countries across Africa, Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and the Americas.

Instagram users can include NFTs in their feed and messages, as well as in augmented reality stickers in Stories. NFT creators and collectors are automatically tagged for attribution. You can't buy or sell NFTs on Instagram just yet, but Meta has strongly hinted it's working on a marketplace.

As of today, Instagram now supports third-party wallets from Coinbase and Dapper, in addition to Rainbow, MetaMask and Trust Wallet. On top of the Ethereum and Polygon blockchains, it will also support Flow.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the expansion in (where else?) an Instagram post. He included photos of a Little League baseball card he had made of himself as a kid. A young Zuckerberg gifted it to his favorite camp counselor, Allie Tarantino, who now plans to sell both the signed card and an associated NFT. "On the back of his card, he put a .920 batting average — which is like impossible in baseball," Tarantino told the Associated Press. "So even as a little kid, he was aiming big.”

Blizzard may have canceled a 'World of Warcraft' mobile spinoff

Arclight Rumble wasn't going to be the only upcoming Warcraft mobile game, according to a report. Bloombergsources claim Blizzard and NetEase have canceled a World of Warcraft spinoff mobile title that had been in development for three years. Nicknamed Neptune, it would have been a massively multiplayer game set in a different era of the fantasy universe. It wouldn't simply have been a WoW phone port, to put it another way.

While the exact reasons for the cancelation weren't mentioned, one of the insiders said Blizzard and NetEase "disagreed over terms" and ultimately decided to scrap the unannounced game. NetEase supposedly had over 100 developers attached to the project. The two were rumored to have previously canceled another Warcraft mobile release, a Pokémon Go-style augmented reality game, after four years of effort.

Spokespeople from both companies declined to comment. If the rumor is accurate, it suggests Blizzard is struggling to adapt to the rise of mobile gaming. While Diablo Immortal appears to be a success and is joining the well-established Hearthstone, the developers will still have sunk massive resources into other games that never reached players.

There are strong incentives to take these risks, however. Mobile games can be highly lucrative, particularly in countries like China — Genshin Impact has pulled in $3 billion since release, according to Sensor Tower estimates. A hit could easily boost Blizzard's bottom line, not to mention spur demand for its existing computer- and console-bound games.

The best Xbox games for 2022

A series of missteps put Microsoft in second place before the Xbox One even came out. With the launch of the Xbox Series X and S, though, Microsoft is in a great position to compete. Both are well-priced, well-specced consoles with a huge library of games spanning two decades.

Microsoft’s console strategy is unique. Someone with a 7-year old Xbox One has access to an almost-identical library of games as the owner of a brand-new Xbox Series X. That makes it difficult to maintain meaningfully different lists for its various consoles — at least for now. But while “next-gen” exclusives may be few and far between, with PS4 outselling Xbox One by a reported two-to-one, there are a lot of gamers who simply haven’t experienced much of what Microsoft has had to offer since the mid ‘10s.

It’s with that frame of mind that we approach this list: What games would we recommend to someone picking up an Xbox today — whether it’s a Series X, a Series S, One X or One S — after an extended break from Microsoft’s consoles?

This list then, is a mixture of games exclusive to Microsoft’s consoles and cross-platform showstoppers that play best on Xbox. We’ve done our best to explain the benefits Microsoft’s systems bring to the table where appropriate. Oh, and while we understand some may have an aversion to subscription services, it’s definitely worth considering Game Pass Ultimate, which will allow you to play many of the games on this list for a monthly fee.

Control

505 Games

Take the weird Twin Peaks narrative of Alan Wake, smash it together with Quantum Break's frenetic powers and gunplay, and you've got Control. Playing as a woman searching for her missing brother, you quickly learn there's a thin line between reality and the fantastical. It's catnip for anyone who grew up loving The X-Files and the supernatural. It's also a prime example of a studio working at their creative heights, both refining and evolving the open-world formula that's dominated games for the past decade.

Control on the last-gen Xbox is a mixed affair, with the One S struggling a little, but the One X being head-and-shoulders above the PS4 Pro when it comes to fidelity and smoothness. With the launch of the next-gen consoles, an ‘Ultimate Edition’ emerged which brought the ray-tracing and higher frame rates that PC gamers enjoyed to console players. Although you’ll only get those benefits as a next-gen owner, it also includes all the released DLC and is the edition we recommend buying, even if you’re not planning to immediately upgrade.

Buy Control at Amazon - $30

Halo Infinite

343 Industries / Microsoft

Master Chief's latest adventure may not make much sense narratively, but it sure is fun to play. After the middle efforts from 343 Industries over the last decade, Halo Infinite manages to breathe new life into Microsoft's flagship franchise, while also staying true to elements fans love. The main campaign is more open than ever, while also giving you a new freedom of movement with the trusty grappling hook. And the multiplayer mode is wonderfully addictive (though 343 still needs to speed up experience progression), with a bevy of maps and game modes to keep things from getting too stale. The only thing keeping it from greatness is its baffling and disjointed story, but it's not like Xbox fans have many options when it comes to huge exclusives right now.

Buy Halo Infinite at Amazon - $60

Forza Horizon 5

Playground Games/Xbox Game Studios

Forza Horizon 5 deftly walks a fine line by being an extremely deep and complex racing game that almost anyone can just pick up and play. The game has hundreds of cars that you can tweak endlessly to fit your driving style, and dozens of courses spread all over a gorgeous fictional corner of Mexico. If you crank up the difficulty, one mistake will sink your entire race, and the competition online can be just as fierce.

But if you’re new to racing games, Forza Horizon 5 does an excellent job at getting you up and running. The introduction to the game quickly gives you a taste at the four main race types you’ll come across (street racing, cross-country, etc.), and features like the rewind button mean that you can quickly erase mistakes if you try and take a turn too fast without having to restart your run. Quite simply, Forza Horizon 5 is a beautiful and fun game that works for just about any skill level. It’s easy to pick up and play a few races and move on with your day, or you can sink hours into it trying to become the best driver you can possibly be.

Buy Forza Horizon 5 at Amazon - $60

Gears 5

Microsoft

Gears 5 tries to be a lot of things, and doesn't succeed at them all. If you're a Gears of War fan, though, there's a lot to love here. The cover-shooter gameplay the series helped pioneer feels great, and the campaign, while not narratively ambitious, is well-paced and full of bombastic set pieces to keep you interested. As they stand, the various multiplayer modes are not great, but Gears 5 is worth it for the campaign alone.

It’s also a true graphical showcase, among the best-looking console games around. Microsoft did a great job optimizing for all platforms and use-cases, with high-resolution and ultra-high (up to 120fps on series consoles) frame rates.

Buy Gears 5 at Amazon - $30

Nier: Automata

Square Enix

It took more than a while to get here, but Nier: Automata finally arrived on Xbox One in the summer of 2018. And boy, was it worth the almost-18-month wait. Nier takes the razor-sharp combat of a Platinum Games title and puts it in a world crafted by everyone's favorite weirdo, Yoko Taro. Don't worry, you can mostly just run, gun and slash your way through the game, but as you finish, and finish and finish this one, you'll find yourself pulled into a truly special narrative, one that's never been done before and will probably never be done again. It’s an unmissable experience, and one that feels all the more unique on Xbox, which has never had the best levels of support from Japanese developers.

On Xbox One X and Series X, you effectively have the best version of Nier: Automata available, short of a fan-patched PC game. On Series S and One S... not so much, but you do at least get consistent framerates on the Series S and a passable experience on the One S. 

Buy Nier: Automata at Amazon - $40

Ori and the Blind Forest

Microsoft

Arriving at a time when "Gears Halo Forza" seemed to be the beginning, middle and end of Microsoft's publishing plans, Ori and the Blind Forest was a triumph. It's a confident mash of the pixel-perfect platforming popularized by Super Meat Boy, and the rich, unfolding worlds of Metroidvania games. You'll die hundreds of times exploring the titular forest, unlocking skills that allow you to reach new areas. It looks and sounds great — like, Disney great — and its story, while fairly secondary to the experience, is interesting. Ori might not do much to push the boundaries of its genres, but everything it does, it does so right. Its sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, is very much “more of everything,” so if you like Blind Forest, it’s well worth checking out too.

Buy Ori and the Blind Forest at Amazon - $40

Red Dead Redemption 2

Rockstar Games

Red Dead Redemption 2 is the kind of game no one but Rockstar, the team behind the GTA series, could make. Only when a studio is this successful can it pour millions of dollars and development hours into a game. Rockstar's simulation of a crumbling frontier world is enthralling and serves as a perfect backdrop to an uncharacteristically measured story. While the studio's gameplay may not have moved massively forward, the writing and characters of RDR2 will stay with you.

While Rockstar hasn’t deemed fit to properly upgrade Red Dead Redemption 2 for the next-gen yet, Series X owners will at least benefit from the best last-gen (Xbox One X) experience with the addition of improved loading times. The Series S, on the other hand, gets the One S version, but with an improved 30 fps lock and swifter loading.

Buy Red Dead Redemption 2 at Amazon - $27

Resident Evil Village

Capcom

Resident Evil Village is delightful. It’s a gothic fairy tale masquerading as a survival-horror game, and while this represents a fresh vibe for the franchise, it’s not an unwelcome evolution. The characters and enemies in Village are full of life — even when they’re decidedly undead — and Capcom has put a delicious twist on the idea of vampires, werewolves, sea creatures, giants and creepy dolls. The game retains its horror, puzzle and action roots, and it has Umbrella Corporation’s fingerprints all over it. It simply feels like developers had fun with this one, and so will you.

A word of caution before you run to buy it, though: This game doesn’t play great on every Xbox. On Series X, things are great: There's the option to turn on ray-tracing with the occasional frame rate issue, or to keep it off and have perfect 4K/60 presentation. With the Series S, while there is a ray-tracing mode, it’s almost unplayable. With ray-tracing off, the Series S does a decent job, though. The One X’s 1080p/60 mode is also fantastic, although its quality mode feels very juddery. If you own a base Xbox One or One S, though, there’s really no mode that actually feels enjoyable to play.

Buy Resident Evil Village at Amazon - $31

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Activision

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice isn't just another Dark Souls game. FromSoftware's samurai adventure is a departure from that well-established formula, replacing slow, weighty combat and gothic despair for stealth, grappling hooks and swift swordplay. Oh, and while it's still a difficult game, it's a lot more accessible than Souls games — you can even pause it! The result of all these changes is something that's still instantly recognizable as a FromSoftware title, but it's its own thing, and it's very good.

This is one game that’s really not had a lot of love from its developer or publisher, as, despite the fact next-gen consoles should be easily able to run this game at 60 fps, the Series S is locked to an inconsistently paced 30 fps, while the Series X doesn’t quite hold to 60 either. With that said, it’s more than playable.

Buy Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice at Amazon - $43

Lost Judgement

Microsoft

This is private eye Takayuki Yagami’s second adventure; a spin-off of Sega’s popular, pulpy and convoluted Yakuza saga. He lives in the same Kamurocho area, the same yakuza gangs roam the streets, and there’s the very occasional crossover of side-story characters and, well, weirdos. But instead of punching punks in the face in the name of justice or honor, which was the style of Yakuza protagonist Kazuya Kiryu, Yagami fights with the power of his lawyer badge, drone evidence and… sometimes (read: often) he kicks the bad guys in the face.

The sequel skates even closer to some sort of serialized TV drama, punctuated by fights, chases and melodrama. For anyone that’s played the series before, it treads familiar ground, but with a more serious (realistic) story that centers on bullying and suicide problems in Japanese high schools, which is tied into myriad plots encompassing the legal system, politics and organized crime.

Yagami has multiple fighting styles to master, while there are love interests, batting cages, mahjong, skate parks and more activities to sink even more hours into. On the PS5, Lost Judgment looks great. Fights are fluid and the recreated areas in Tokyo and Yokohama are usually full of pedestrians, stores and points of interest. While Yakuza Like a Dragon takes the franchise in a new (turn-based, more ridiculous) direction, Lost Judgment retains the brawling playstyle of the Yakuza series, with a new hero who has, eventually, charmed us.

Buy Lost Judgement at Amazon - $60

Game Pass Ultimate

Engadget

We already mentioned this one but it's difficult to overemphasize how good a deal Game Pass is for Xbox owners. For $15 a month you get access to a shifting and growing library of games. The company does a good job explaining what games are coming and going in advance, so you won't get caught out by a game disappearing from the subscription service just as you're reaching a final boss. There are 11 games mentioned in this guide, and seven of them are currently available with Game Pass. The full library is broad, and, while still Microsoft's cloud service is still just in beta, you'll have access to many of the games on your tablet, phone or browser through xCloud at no extra fee.

Subscribe to Game Pass Ultimate at MicrosoftBuy Game Pass Ultimate gift card at Amazon starting at $15

AMD accidentally reveals its first Ryzen 7000 desktop processors

You don't have to wait until the fall to have an idea of what AMD's Ryzen 7000 desktop CPUs will be like — the company has unintentionally provided clues of its own. Videocardz and Gizmodo note AMD's resource page contained a since-removed list of early Ryzen 7000 processor models. The focus is primarily on higher-end chips, including two Ryzen 9 variants (the 7900X and 7950X), one Ryzen 7 (the 7700X) and a Ryzen 5 model (the 7600X). There's no Ryzen 3 chips, although that last part isn't shocking when AMD has historically focused on enthusiast parts in the early stages of CPU rollouts.

The list didn't include technical details. In its Computex demo, however, AMD showed a 16-core CPU that reached a 5.5GHz clock speed. That might represent the Ryzen 9 7950X. All of the 7000 series will be based on a new Zen 4 architecture that delivers twice the Level 2 cache per core, maximum boost speeds above 5GHz, AI acceleration and support for technologies like DDR5 memory and PCIe 5.0. You'll need an AM5-compatible motherboard to make the leap, but AMD is promising a 15 percent or higher increase in single-threaded performance.

It's still unclear when the Ryzen 7000 desktop line will ship, or how much it will cost. You'll also have to wait longer if you're hoping for high-end laptop CPUs, as AMD won't deliver Dragon Range until 2023. Even so, the teaser gives you an idea of what to expect when Zen 4 finally reaches stores. AMD isn't reinventing its product strategy, so you can plan your PC upgrade accordingly.

Instagram backpedals on full-screen feed and recommended posts

Following a significant backlash from its users, Instagram is walking back some of major changes. Last month, Instagram started testing a full-screen display for photos and videos. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri told Platformer that test will be wound down over the next couple of weeks. “For the new feed designs, people are frustrated and the usage data isn’t great,” Mosseri said. “So there I think that we need to take a big step back, regroup and figure out how we want to move forward.”

Along with getting rid of the full-screen feed, the app will reduce the level of recommended content that you see, at least temporarily. Mosseri suggested that Instagram will improve its algorithms before increasing the volume of recommendations again.

On Tuesday, Mosseri said the full-screen design was "not yet good" and needed more work before Instagram rolled it out to everyone. However, he noted that Instagram would become more video-focused over time, since that's the kind of content people are sharing these days.

Mosseri also tried to justify the prevalence of recommended posts in the app, noting that they're important to help creators build their audiences — whether or not you care about seeing content from them in your feed or Stories. You have the option to switch off all recommendations for a month, he noted 

In an earnings call on Wednesday, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said around 15 percent of the posts people see on Facebook and more on Instagram are recommended by algorithms. He expected the volume of recommended posts to double over the next year or so.

Instagram brought in the full-screen feed and larger number of recommended posts in a bid to compete with TikTok and to contend with the pivot from photos to videos. Many revolted against the changes, including high-profile users like Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian who wanted Meta to “Make Instagram Instagram again.” 

Mosseri said Instagram's data showed that users weren't on board with the changes. 

Developing...

TikTok owner ByteDance reportedly pushed pro-China messages in defunct news app

ByteDance, TikTok's parent company based in China, used its now-defunct news app called TopBuzz to spread pro-China messages, according to BuzzFeed News. Former employees who worked at the English-language news aggregator told the publication that ByteDance ordered staff members to "pin" content that showed China in a positive light or content that promoted the country to the top of the app. They were even reportedly required to provide proof, such as screenshots of the live content, to show that they had complied with the company's orders. TopBuzz managed to reach 40 million monthly active users by 2018.

The content the former employees helped promote included panda videos, along with videos endorsing travel to China. At least one staff member also remember pinning a video featuring a white man talking about the benefits of moving his startup to the country. As one of the former employees put it, the content ByteDance wanted them to promote wasn't anything overtly political and took more of a soft sell approach. However, they added: "Let’s be real, this was not something you could say no to." 

In addition to promoting pro-China content, former staff members claimed that TopBuzz had a review system that would flag reports on the Chinese government for removal. They said the flagged content included coverage of Hong Kong protests, pieces that mention President Xi Jinping and even those that reference Winnie the Pooh. Some employees also said that content depicting openly LGBTQ+ people were removed at times.

A ByteDance spokesperson denied the former employees' claims and called them "false and ridiculous." In a statement sent to BuzzFeed, they said:

"The claim that TopBuzz — which was discontinued years ago — pinned pro-Chinese government content to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous. TopBuzz had over two dozen top tier US and UK media publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, which clearly did not find anything of concern when performing due diligence."

While TopBuzz was shut down back in June 2020, TikTok is very much alive and well. Authorities and critics have long been worried that ByteDance would use TikTok to spread pro-China propaganda in the US, and we're guessing that these new claims won't be assuaging anybody's fears. Another BuzzFeed News report published in June shed light on how ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed private information on TikTok users in the US. The company quickly migrated US user traffic to a new Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, but FCC commissioner Brendan Carr called on Apple and Google to ban the app "for its pattern of surreptitious data practices" anyway.

CNN's Brian Stelter previously asked TikTok's head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, on whether the app could be used to influence politics and culture in the US. Beckerman replied that TikTok is "not the go-to place for politics" and that "the primary thing that people are coming and using TikTok for is entertainment and joyful and fun content." As BuzzFeed News notes, though, a lot of young people now use TikTok as their primary source of information, including politics and breaking news.

Meta asks Oversight Board if it should soften COVID-19 misinformation policies

Meta started removing COVID-19 misinformation early into the pandemic, but it's now wondering if it should take a gentler approach. The Facebook owner has asked the Oversight Board for advice on whether or not it should continue its existing coronavirus policies now that the pandemic has "evolved." The company provided multiple options for the Board's consideration, ranging from the status quo through to significantly softer approaches.

The social media giant suggested that it might temporarily stop the immediate removal of false COVID-19 claims and either limit its distribution, submit it to independent fact-checkers or apply labels steering users toward accurate information. Meta was also willing to continue removing at least some misinformation, but said it would stop pulling content when it no longer represents an "imminent risk of harm." The Board would provide guidance on how Meta would make that decision.

Global Affairs President Nick Clegg characterized the advice request as an attempt to strike a balance between "free expression" and safety. The Board's decision would not only help shape that balance, but would aid Meta in responding to future health crises. Clegg noted that Meta had removed 25 million instances of bogus COVID-19 content since the pandemic began, and that it now had resources including its own virus information center as well as guidance from public health authorities.

The Board is also tackling multiple potentially important cases in other areas. A transgender non-binary couple is appealing Instagram's decision to remove two images of (covered-up) nudity despite some moderators determining that the convent didn't violate the site's pornography policies. Meta stood behind its decisions to remove the posts, but the couple said the company didn't provide an adequate answer and shouldn't censor transgender bodies at a time when trans rights and healthcare are under threat.

Another dispute challenges Instagram's decision to remove a video playing a snippet of Chinx (OS)' drill music tune "Secrets Not Safe" after UK law enforcement claimed the rap song's lyrics (referencing a past shooting) could promote real-world harm. A fourth case, meanwhile, concerns an appeal from a Latvian user who allegedly promoted violence with a post accusing Russia of fascism and referencing a poem that called on people to kill fascists.

While all of the cases could have a significant effect on Meta's policies, the possible changes to the firm's COVID-19 misinformation response may draw the most attention. Critics have repeatedly argued that Meta wasn't doing enough to fight misinformation, pointing to evidence that people who lean heavily on Facebook for news are more likely to believe false claims about vaccines and the coronavirus. Meta's request for advice runs counter to that criticism, and could raise fears that misinformation will spread rapidly.