Posts with «social & online media» label

YouTube deactivates two Oath Keepers channels after seditious conspiracy charges

Two YouTube channels linked to the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers have been deactivated by the website, the Google subsidiary told Axios. It wasn't exactly due to the content of their videos, however, but because some of the group's members were charged with seditious conspiracy over their role in the January 6th, 2021 US Capitol breach. One of the deactivated channels was named "Oath Keepers" and had fewer than 45,000 subscribers, while the other belonged to group leader Stewart Rhodes and had fewer than 20 subscribers. Rhodes (pictured above) was arrested for his role in the attack and was one of the members who were charged.

YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi told Axios that the channels broke the platform's creator responsibility guidelines. According to those guidelines, YouTube may terminate a channel if there's "significant evidence presented in a court of law against a creator for a very egregious crime" and that channel's "YouTube comment is closely related to the crime." YouTube said that the termination "follows evidence presented in federal indictments against the Oath Keepers and the charges against them and their role in the Jan. 6 attacks."

According to the Justice Department, the Oath Keepers discussed their plans to seize the Capitol building using encrypted messaging apps and social networks. The group has long used online platforms to disseminate information, including COVID-19 conspiracy theories with QAnon hashtags and threats of violence. Twitter banned the group back in 2020 for violating its policies on violent extremist groups. In addition to removing two channels, YouTube will no longer allow the Oath Keepers to create, use or own any other channel. Further, it will remove re-uploads of its old videos and will even delete new channels that try to reuse content from the deleted accounts. 

Twitter brings NFTs to profile photos, but only for Twitter Blue subscribers

Twitter is giving NFT enthusiasts a new reason to pay for a Twitter Blue subscription. The company is testing a new feature that allows NFT owners to authenticate NFTs displayed in their profile photos.

The feature, which is being offered as an early stage “Labs” feature for Twitter Blue subscribers, allows NFT owners to connect their crypto wallet to their Twitter account and display an NFT as their profile photo. While many NFT owners already use the art in their profile photos, the Twitter Blue feature will also add an icon indicating that the NFT has been authenticated and that person behind the account is the official owner of the piece.

Though only Twitter Blue subscribers can access the feature, the authentication symbol will be visible to everyone on Twitter. And other users will be able to tap on the hexagon symbol in order to learn more about the NFT in the image.

Twitter

While Twitter has previously indicated that it was working on an NFT authentication service, it’s notable that it would choose to offer the feature to Twitter Blue subscribers first, The company debuted the $3/month subscription service in November, in a bid to appeal to power users who might pay for specialized features. The NFT feature is “still under active development,” according to the company, and it’s not clear if it plans to launch it more widely. Twitter has previously said that early-stage “labs” features are experiments that could become available outside of Twitter Blue, kept around for subscribers, or killed off entirely.

Facebook takes down fake Iranian accounts that posed as Scottish locals

Facebook disabled a network of fake accounts that posed as English and Scottish locals, but were actually an Iran-based influence operation. The company detailed the takedowns in its latest report on coordinated inauthentic behavior on its platform.

The network was relatively small — eight accounts on Facebook and 126 on Instagram — though it had amassed about 77,000 followers, according to the company. Facebook’s security researchers didn’t indicate exactly who in Iran was behind the effort, or what their motives were, but said some of the people involved had a “background in teaching English as a foreign language.”

“This network posted photos and memes in English about current events in the UK, including supportive commentary about Scottish independence and criticism of the UK government,” Facebook writes in its report. In a call with reporters, Facebook’s Director of Threat Disruption, David Agranovich, said that it’s not the first time the company has caught Iran-linked fake accounts targeting Scotland, but that the latest network stood out for its “artisanal” approach to the fake personas.

“What was unique about this case was the effort that the operators took to make their fakes look like real people,” Agranovich said. He noted the accounts spent considerable time posting about their “side interests,” like football, in an attempt to boost their credibility. Some of the accounts also lifted profile photos from real celebrities or media personalities, and regularly updated the images in order to appear more real. Other accounts used fake photos generated by AI programs.

Overall, Facebook says that the fake accounts weren’t particularly successful as the most popular account had only reached about 4,000 followers, about half of whom were actually located in the UK. “In a way, this is more like an old fashioned pre-internet influence operation, creating detailed fake personas and trying not to be noticed,” Agranovich said.

Instagram now lets you create TikTok-like remixes using any video

You no longer need to dive into Reels to create TikTok-style collaborative videos on Instagram. The social network has expanded its remix feature to let you make collaborations and similar reworks from any video on Instagram. So long as the video was released after the update, you can choose "remix this video" from the three-dot menu to create your response to the clip. You'll still need to share the result through Reels, but you'll also have the same editing tools to create collaborations, voiceovers and effects.

Instagram is also doing more to court livestreamers. You now have the option of highlighting your next Instagram Live broadcast on your profile, giving viewers an easy way to set a reminder. You won't need to attach a regular feed post to the scheduled stream, either. While you can't yet tease later streams, this could help you build hype for an interview or ask-me-anything session.

The expanded remix feature could be important. Instagram hasn't been shy about wanting to counter TikTok, and the Duet feature is a significant factor in that rival's success. The option to remix any video potentially gives Instagram users a wider pool of videos to choose from than TikTok, including footage that wasn't originally meant for that short-but-sweet format.

Twitter Communities hits Android four months after its debut

Twitter Communities, a topic-based groups feature that landed on iOS and the web last year, has arrived on Android. In the latest version of Twitter's Android app, you'll be able to find groups related to your interests and chat with like-minded people.

Android is HERE!

if you’re on Android, you can now engage in Communities via the Twitter app (make sure to update to the latest version!) pic.twitter.com/jHIhngixKD

— Twitter Communities (@HiCommunities) January 19, 2022

There are communities for interests as varied as plants, skincare, space, design, fashion, Xbox and R&B. There's even one where you can share your Wordle scores if you want to be part of that conversation without annoying your followers.

Although users can't set up their own community as easily as they might with say, a Facebook Group or subreddit, they can suggest a new one that they'd like to create and moderate. Twitter says it will keep them in mind as it adds more communities.

Twitter has laid out some of its other plans for Communities in 2022. For one thing, it's looking into a third type of membership beyond invite-only and open-to-all formats, in which users could request to join. Admins and mods would be able to let them in or deny the request. Also in the pipeline are a ranked timeline (though the chronological timeline will still be available), Q&As and ways for mods to highlight some of a community's best content.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit subpoenaed by Jan. 6 committee

Facebook, Google, Twitter and Reddit have been subpoenaed by the Congressional select committee investigating the Jan. 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In a statement, the committee said the companies’ responses so far have been “inadequate.”

“Two key questions for the Select Committee are how the spread of misinformation and violent extremism contributed to the violent attack on our democracy, and what steps—if any—social media companies took to prevent their platforms from being breeding grounds for radicalizing people to violence,” committee chair Bennie Thompson (D-MS) said.

“It’s disappointing that after months of engagement, we still do not have the documents and information necessary to answer those basic questions. The Select Committee is working to get answers for the American people and help ensure nothing like January 6th ever happens again. We cannot allow our important work to be delayed any further.”

We've reached out to Meta, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube for comment. 

Developing…

Twitter is testing TikTok-style reaction videos

It’s only been a few months since Twitter killed Fleets, but the company is already experimenting with a new video format. The company is testing a new “Tweet Take” feature that allows users to share reaction videos alongside a Quote Tweet.

With the test, Twitter users can opt to send a “Quote Tweet with reaction” instead of the typical retweet or Quote Tweet. These “Tweet Takes” as the company is calling them can be either a photo or a video, and the original tweet will be embedded as a card overtop.

The concept is similar to a feature in Twitter’s short-lived Fleets feature, which enabled users to share tweets with their own commentary in a full-screen format. Fleets, of course, never really gained traction and the company pulled the feature less than a month after its launch.

Tweet reaction videos can now start on Twitter!

Testing on iOS: when you tap the Retweet icon, choose “Quote Tweet with reaction” to create and customize your very own Tweet Take –– a reaction video (or photo) with the Tweet embedded. pic.twitter.com/1E30F8rKYh

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) January 6, 2022

Unlike Fleets, these reaction videos will appear in the main timeline just like any other tweet, though the videos will look noticeably different than the typical retweet. (While users can record a reaction in full-screen, it’s not clear what format they appear in the timeline. We’ve reached out to Twitter for more info.)

But these “takes” are perhaps even more similar to TikTok-style reaction videos, which often feature a comment or another users’ clip as the source. While Twitter hasn’t necessarily encouraged these types of interaction in the past, the company has been taking steps to build more creator-friendly features so it’s not necessarily surprising to see this kind of experiment.

Of course, just as Twitter users raised concerns about whether Fleets could be used to target people for harassment, tailored reaction videos also feels like the kind of feature that could be ripe for abuse. Quote Tweets are already a major source of dunking and bullying — which Twitter has at times tried to discourage — so it’s not difficult to imagine that these “Tweet Takes” could also become problematic. It’s also not clear just how big the initial experiment will be — Twitter often previews new ideas and features in early stages, but not all make it past the testing phase.

Facebook suspends Marjorie Taylor Greene's account for a day

Marjorie Taylor Greene says she also lost access to Facebook, a day after Twitter banned her personal account. Unlike Twitter's suspension, which is permanent, Facebook's penalty will only last for 24 hours. According to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NBC News and other sources, Greene shared a screenshot on Telegram and Gettr (a social media platform for conservatives) showing a Facebook notification telling her that can't post or comment on the website for 24 hours. 

A spokesperson has confirmed to the publications that the social network removed one of her posts for violating its policies, but that "removing her account for this violation is beyond the scope of [its] policies." In particular, her post violated the Meta-owned platform's COVID-19 misinformation rules. It's worth noting that Facebook and Twitter have only suspended her personal accounts. Her verified government accounts remain active.

Greene reportedly posted about "extremely high amounts of COVID vaccine deaths" with unverified raw data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS. The system is a government database managed by the CDC and the FDA, but it relies on individuals to send in reports of their experience. VAERS' website states that it's "not designed to determine if a vaccine caused a health problem" and that "additional work and evaluation [of its data] is necessary to further assess a possible safety concern." Facebook started taking a tougher stance against misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and vaccines in general in early 2021.

Greene is known for questioning the public health measures put into place to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. In addition to opposing vaccine mandates, she also famously refuses to wear a mask on the House floor and has racked up tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Talking about her Facebook suspension on Telegram and Gettr, Greene wrote:

"Facebook has joined Twitter in censoring me... Who appointed Twitter and Facebook to be the authorities of information and misinformation? When Big Tech decides what political speech of elected Members is accepted and what’s not then they are working against our government and against the interest of our people."

Conservative politicians have long complained about being censored by the biggest social media platforms. Back in October, former President Donald Trump announced that he's planning to launch his own social network this year as part of his camp's efforts to fight back against "the Big Tech companies of Silicon Valley, which have used their unilateral power to silence opposing voices in America." 

The tech industry's accessibility report card for 2021

In spite of all the advancements we’ve seen in tech, the industry as a whole has consistently neglected people with disabilities. There have been some improvements, including video call apps like FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and more adding better support for sign language interpreters and closed captioning. And, this year, Instagram and TikTok finally added stickers that enable automated captioning for speech in videos, too. But major organizations continued to make decisions that exclude people with disabilities. The organizer of E3 2021, for example, failed its deaf and hard of hearing viewers during its live streamed show.

There are too many individual transgressions and improvements to exhaustively detail here. Due to their sheer size, though, tech’s largest companies wield the greatest influence over what the rest of the industry does. By holding them accountable, we have a better chance of seeing widespread change in the way tech thinks about inclusive design. Here’s how Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta (formerly Facebook) and more did to improve the accessibility of their products and services in 2021.

Apple

Apple has led the way in inclusive design for years, and in 2021 the company continued to launch new features that made its products easier for those with disabilities to use. In addition to updating its screen reader, VoiceOver, to enable better descriptions of images for the visually impaired, Apple also launched several new products. In May, it rolled out a service called SignTime, which allowed customers to engage sign language interpreters on demand when communicating with customer service representatives (via their browsers at least). The feature is available in the US, UK and France and supports American, British or French sign languages in their respective countries.

Apple also introduced Assistive Touch for the Watch this year, allowing for touch-free interaction with its wearable. The idea is that users can clench their fists or pinch their fingers together to navigate the smartwatch. In practice, Assistive Touch took some learning, and it still may not be feasible for those who don’t have the dexterity or strength to clench their fists to trigger the “double clench” action. But it’s a start, and one that few other smartwatches offer.

For those with very limited range of motion, this year also saw the launch of the first medically certified eye-controlled iPad by Tobii Dynavox. Called the TD Pilot, it’s a case for iPads as large as the 12.9-inch Pro model and comes with Tobii’s powerful eye-tracking sensor, large speakers, additional batteries and a wheelchair mount. Together with iPadOS 15, this will allow those with cerebral palsy, for example, to interact not only with the tablet, but also communicate with others more easily. A window on the other side of the case can display words to show what the user is saying.

Apple also added improvements for hearing aid users with iPhones this year, allowing for bi-directional communication. This means that those who connect compatible hearing aids to their iPhones no longer have to use their handset’s mic to be heard by their callers — the hearing aid can pick up the speaker’s voice, too. So far, Starkey and ReSound have released compatible “made for iPhone” devices.

On macOS, Apple also made it possible to customize the outline and fill color of the cursor so those with visual impairments can more easily tell when the mouse moves or changes shape. The company also expanded its keyboard shortcuts to allow users to control everything on a Mac with a keyboard (no need for a mouse or trackpad).

Finally, Apple added tools for developers using SwiftUI to make their apps more accessible. With this simplified workflow, there are now fewer obstacles in the way when trying to make more inclusive products.

Unfortunately, when Apple released iOS 15, it removed some features from Siri that were “used by many individuals for accessibility purposes,” according to Clark Rachfal. He’s the director of advocacy and governmental affairs for the American Council of the Blind. Rachfal told Engadget that users “could no longer access their calling history, voicemails, emails and messages through Siri” when the OS was updated. The council and its members alerted Apple of these issues, he said, adding that the company said it’s working on “restoring this functionality to Siri.”

Google

Google continued to add tools for people with disabilities across its broad portfolio of products and services in 2021. One highlight was the launch of Project Relate, an Android app that would generate custom voice recognition models for people with severe speech impairments. Then, the app can transcribe, display and read out what the user said. Project Relate is currently in beta, with Google inviting those with atypical speech to sign up as testers.

The company did plenty to improve its existing products, too. In February, it revamped its Talkback screen reader to offer new gestures and voice commands. In March, it announced that the Chrome browser could transcribe audio from the web for users who are deaf or hard of hearing. That transcription would be performed on-device, meaning you could get your captions without worrying about connecting to the cloud.

Later in the year, Google also added 10 languages to its auto-generated image descriptions tool, brought more natural-sounding voices to the “Select to speak” feature in Chromebooks and made it easier to interact with Android devices using facial expressions.

In addition to improving its existing products, Google also explored accessible experiences that could produce learnings for the industry at large. It teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and The Guardian on Auditorial, which it describes as an experiment in storytelling that “adapts to suit the reader.” It’s a fully customizable experience that Google said will “offer those with visual disabilities an experience that is as comfortable, rich and creative as any other reader.”

According to the company, Auditorial “is intended to pose a question about how much more accessible the world’s information could be, if you could simply tailor every website to suit your personal sensory needs and preferences.” The hope is that this triggers a discussion on how the web could become more inclusive instead of “a one-size-fits-all approach.” Google published its findings in an “Auditorial Accessibility Notebook,” in order to help other publishers learn tips on how to “open up online storytelling to millions of blind and low vision users.”

Google also launched a browser-based game this year called SignTown, which uses your camera to teach you sign language and assess your progress. The game is just “one component of a broader effort to push the boundaries of technology for sign language and Deaf culture.” The company said it’s also exploring building “a more comprehensive dictionary across more sign and written languages, as well as collaborating with the Google Search team on surfacing these results to improve search quality for sign languages.”

Microsoft

In 2021, Microsoft surprised us by releasing Windows 11, which it called the “most inclusively designed version of Windows yet.” The new OS brings nicer-looking dark and high contrast themes, plus updated sounds that are more soothing and can be heard by more users. The company also renamed its “Ease of Access” section to “Accessibility” to make assistive tools easier to find. Windows Voice Typing also makes it easier to dictate your messages.

Prior to launching Windows 11, though, Microsoft announced a five-year commitment to “help bridge the ‘Disability Divide’.” It focuses on hiring and educating people with disabilities, as well as building more accessible products. That includes using AI in Word to detect and convert heading styles for blind and low-vision readers, a new navigation pane in Excel for screen readers and expanding Immersive Reader to better convey what’s on PowerPoint slides and notes. It added a new accessibility checker that works in the background and prompts users to fix issues across Microsoft Office apps and Outlook.

The company not only expanded live captioning and transcription capabilities in Teams, but also rolled out support for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) captions, as well as the ability to pin and spotlight multiple presenters. Auto-captioning is also available for LinkedIn Live broadcasts.

To make its hardware easier to use, the company launched a new Surface Adaptive Kit in September. The bundle includes tags, labels, keycaps and more to make PC parts and important buttons more identifiable. Like Apple, Microsoft also added sign language support (specifically ASL) to its Stores to assist deaf shoppers. Unlike Apple, however, Microsoft doesn’t appear to offer this for after-sales support yet.

Microsoft is one of few companies in tech that’s transparent about its efforts to improve training and hiring processes for people with disabilities. It made investments via its Urban Airband initiative “to provide affordable broadband, hardware and software to people with disabilities starting in Los Angeles and New York.” Following a pilot at the University of Illinois, Microsoft said it’s expanding to additional tertiary education institutes to “increase graduation rates of students with disabilities in STEM education.” It’s also working to “create best-in-class Universal Design Learning (UDL) environments in STEM education.”

To connect people with disabilities to employers, Microsoft announced that it’s adding new accessibility resources and features to LinkedIn, including a LinkedIn Learning course focusing on “accessibility in the modern workplace.” There were also LinkedIn Coaches events specifically aiming to help job seekers with disabilities find employment opportunities. The company also partnered with Be My Eyes, an app that connects blind and low vision users with sighted volunteers, to make LinkedIn staff available for visual assistance on video calls.

Microsoft also launched an AI for AccessibilityLow-Cost Assistive Technology Fund to make assistive technology reachable to those who can’t afford it. Considering how expensive assistive technology currently is, this is a promising step towards getting people the gear they need. Though it’s still limited in its reach, the Fund is at least an acknowledgement of the high price that people with disabilities continue to have to pay to be part of the world able-bodied people take for granted.

Amazon

Amazon’s accessibility efforts aren’t just aimed at people with disabilities. The company says it pays attention to aging individuals and helping them feel more confident living independently. This year, it introduced two programs as part of its Alexa Smart Properties service that enable administrators to offer voice-assisted experiences in places like senior living facilities and hospitals. The company also launched Alexa Together to keep caregivers and elderly individuals connected via an Alexa-enabled device. It would offer features like fall detection and remote assist to give loved ones peace of mind.

Amazon also updated the Alexa app to offer light and dark modes, as well as text scaling. It rolled out a new option to give people more time to finish speaking before Alexa gives a response, which it said is designed to help people with certain speech impediments. The company also included cards with braille text in the boxes for the Echo Frames 2nd gen, guiding users to a website with screen-reader-friendly setup instructions. On the Kindle app for iOS, Amazon launched a dictionary audio feature to read out individual selected words and help those with learning disabilities or foreign language speakers better understand pronunciations.

This year, the company introduced a new home robot called Astro that follows you around your home and provides easy access to helpful info via its display. It works with Alexa Together to help caregivers look out for loved ones remotely and keeps an eye on your home while you’re away. The robot features similar accessibility features to the Echo Show smart displays and has been trained “to work for customers who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes.” It will also play specialized driving sounds to stop it becoming a tripping hazard.

Cognixion

Amazon also invests in several accessibility-minded projects through its Alexa Fund, including Labrador Systems, which makes home robots to help people with limited mobility live more independently. The company has also worked with neural interface startup Cognixion to add Alexa support to its brain-computer interface headsets for easier smart home device control. Amazon and Voiceitt also released a new speech recognition app this year to help users with atypical speech converse with Alexa and other people.

Though its Alexa-focused products have received many updates to improve accessibility, Amazon’s Prime content appears to have been neglected. According to Rachfal, though Prime TV offers audio descriptions on a large amount of content, many titles use text to speech with synthetic voices. Rachfal added that these “lack the quality of human narrated audio description and the overall quality of the content suffers, making it less enjoyable for blind and low vision consumers.”

To Rachfal, this is an example of something that’s done for people with disabilities “without input, feedback and collaboration with the disability community.”

Meta / Facebook

Amid all the drama surrounding Facebook, its whistleblower and its rebrand this year, it’s easy to overlook the company’s accessibility-related updates. At the start of 2021, the company updated its Automatic Alt Text (AAT) system to recognize over 1,200 objects and concepts in photos on Instagram and Facebook. According to Meta, this represented a 10x increase since AAT’s debut in 2016. It also rolled out additional features to Facebook on iOS that provided more detailed descriptions like positions of objects in a picture and their relative sizes.

Unfortunately, as it pushed out these updates, Facebook may have broken some accessibility features along the way. Rachfal said that when the company turned off its facial recognition system this year, it led to less-informative descriptions for users who are blind or have low-vision. Rachfal said this change “was done due to privacy concerns,” and he believes these decisions were made without considering accessibility and the disability community. “Nor were they given the same weight and consideration as privacy concerns,” Rachfal added.

Facebook published a post addressing this issue in November. In it, the company’s vice president of artificial intelligence Jerome Pesenti wrote, “We need to weigh the positive use cases for facial recognition against growing societal concerns, especially as regulators have yet to provide clear rules.”

Meta

In the post, Pesenti acknowledges the critical role face recognition plays in AAT to help blind and low-vision users identify their friends in pictures. But while some facial recognition tools, like identity verification, will remain, for the most part features like alerting users to photos potentially including them or automatically labeling their friends are going away. That’s for both sighted and visually impaired users.

“We know the approach we’ve chosen involves some difficult tradeoffs,” Pesenti wrote, adding that “we will continue engaging in that conversation and working with the civil society groups and regulators who are leading this discussion.”

Elsewhere in Meta’s family of products, the company added an Accessibility tab to the Oculus Settings menu to make assistive features easier to find. It also brought Color Correction and Raise View tools to offer more legible palettes and enable a standing perspective for seated users respectively. Meta said it’s still iterating on Raise View, working with the Oculus community to improve the feature and will permanently add it to the Accessibility menu when ready.

Meta also collaborated with ZP Better Together, a company that makes technology for deaf and hard-of-hearing users, to bring sign language interpreters into video calls on Portal devices. As of December, people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can also apply on ZP’s website to get free Portals which will come with the ZP apps.

Handout . / reuters

Facebook launched Clubhouse-like audio rooms in the US this year and, notably, did so with live captioning included from the start. It also included a visual cue to indicate who’s speaking, and offers captions for other audio products like Soundbites and Podcasts on iOS and Android.

Let’s not forget the company’s renaming to Meta this year and its new focus on the metaverse. According to head of accessibility Mike Shebanek, “we're already working to bring the metaverse to life and are excited to explore the breakthrough possibilities it presents to make the digital world even more accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.”

We’ll have to wait and see if and how that comes true, but in the meantime, Meta must continue to engage with the accessibility community to make sure that its expansion of the metaverse is inclusive from the start.

Twitter

Twitter only set up its two accessibility teams last year, after an embarrassing launch of Voice Tweets that excluded its deaf and hard of hearing users due to a lack of captions. Since then, though, the company has shown noteworthy improvement. In 2021, Twitter introduced captions for voice tweets, added captions and accessibility labels in Spaces and brought automatic video captions. That last one is “available globally in most languages,” according to the company and supported on Android, iOS and the web.

A couple months ago we rolled out video caption file upload. Starting today, all videos will be auto-captioned.

To see them, turn on captioning in your mobile device settings, or select the CC button on Web.

What do you think of the experience? https://t.co/fywdjC6yDI

— Twitter Accessibility (@TwitterA11y) December 14, 2021

Though this may seem like a small set of updates compared to the rest of the companies in this roundup, Twitter also has a smaller portfolio of products. Still, it has managed to make significant changes. Rachfal praised Twitter as being “the first social media platform to conspicuously prompt users to include alt text with images,” though he did note that filling out the field is still optional.

Other noteworthy developments in tech this year

Alt text and captioning continue to be tricky accessibility features for the industry. They’re labor-intensive processes that companies tend to delegate to AI, which can result in garbled, inaccurate results. This was especially evident at this year’s virtual E3 gaming convention, where illegible closed captions sometimes made the show incomprehensible for those who relied on subtitles to understand the announcements.

There are also large parts of the online world that are in dire need of accessibility-related upgrades. According to a February 2021 study by WebAIM (Web Accessibility In Mind), for example, a whopping 97.4 percent of websites had mistakes that failed the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2). The most common errors included missing alt text, low contrast text, missing form input labels and more.

It’s not just websites that need work: Other media formats also need to be more inclusively designed. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), for example, filed a lawsuit with Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) this year against three major podcast providers: SiriusXM, Stitcher and Pandora.

Spotify

According to the NAD, because the three defendants “do not make transcripts or captions available for any of the podcasts offered on their platforms, more than 48 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans are denied full and equal enjoyment of the content they offer their hearing users.” Meanwhile, Spotify announced this year that it will start offering automatically generated transcripts for podcasts, and Amazon Music launched synchronized transcripts in November.

Then there are entire industries that could use accessibility improvements. Rachfal notes that healthcare is a continually problematic area for people who are blind or have visual impairments. “This is still an entire sector that we hear about far too often from our members,” he said. Given that we are currently in the mires of the third wave of COVID-19, it’s inexcusable to continue excluding people with disabilities when it comes to things like scheduling vaccination or testing appointments.

In November this year, the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with Rite Aid to make COVID-19 testing and vaccination websites accessible. Rite Aid’s vaccine registration portal was not compatible with some screen readers and was not accessible to “those who have a hard time using a mouse.” The calendar on its website, for example, “did not show screen reader users any available appointment times,” while people relying on keyboard-based navigation instead of a mouse could not use the tab key to complete a consent form required to schedule an appointment.

The ACB also worked with CVS to offer accessible prescription information in all locations in the country. This includes a Spoken RX feature that would read out prescription labels via the CVS Pharmacy app.

Though there have been many transgressions in the past year, we also saw many promising developments in ensuring technology is inclusive. The FCC, for example, proposed rules in December to make emergency alerts more useful and informative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images

Meanwhile, HBO Max launched 1,500 hours of audio-described content starting in March 2021 and committed to including the descriptions to all newly produced original content as well as adding more to its back catalog. Also, in collaboration with the Coalition for Inclusive Fitness, Planet Fitness said it will buy and install accessible exercise equipment in its stores across the country.

I’ve only scratched the surface in this roundup of updates. What’s most encouraging, though, is the increasing willingness of companies to work with disability rights groups and advocates at the earliest stages of product design. Lizzie Sorkin, director of engagement for the NAD, said it’s “seeing more and more companies reach out to us in the beginning phases for input rather than late in the process.” Rachfal also noted a “growing commitment to accessible media and content” that’s “born out of the advocacy work of ACB and the Audio description Project through collaborative discussions with industry.”

How the pandemic supercharged the creator economy in 2021

The multibillion dollar industry of game streamers, beauty vloggers, podcast producers, fitness influencers, newsletter writers and other social media stars who make up the “creator economy,” began long before 2021. Yet 2021 saw more platforms throw more money and resources at independent content creators than ever before.

This year, companies that had previously shown little interest in courting “influencers” or building relationships with creators began to invest in building monetization tools for them. And even more established, creator-friendly companies significantly ramped up their investments with new funds and tools.

Twitter, which had previously only ever had a single monetization feature — a video centric tool used by publishers — opted to reorient its entire platform around creators. It built Super Follows, a Patreon-esque subscription service for influencers. It launched Ticketed Spaces, so people could make money from its burgeoning live audio feature. It launched in-app tripping, and started building a newsletter platform.

Snapchat, which at one time actively shunned the idea of influencers, just announced that it had funneled more than $250 million to creators via its Spotlight feature, which launched at the end of 2020. Some of the app’s biggest stars are even getting their own shows in Snapchat Discover.

Facebook also took a renewed interest in the influencers and content creators who had long asked for more opportunities from the platform. Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly labeled creators as one of the company's top priorities and announced a plan to invest $1 billion into tools for them by the end of 2022. Since then, Facebook and Instagram have launched a dizzying number of creator-focused updates and monetization features.

Platforms not traditionally associated with influencers also began throwing money at creators and monetization features. Pinterest launched a $500,000 creator fund and built its first monetization tools. LinkedIn — yes, that LinkedIn — announced a $25 million fund. Clubhouse added tipping. Tumblr, meanwhile, launched a subscription service for its bloggers.

Even YouTube, the most established platform for creators to make money, identified “growing the creator economy” as its top 2021 priority. It launched an all-new $100 million fund just for Shorts, its TikTok-like feature. TikTok itself, which started a $200 million fund in 2020, also launched new monetization features.

With all that money flowing in, it’s no surprise that the number of individual creators also boomed. One report from payments company Stripe, which powers payments for dozens of influencer platforms, found that the number of creators was up 48 percent in 2021, compared with 2020. And that’s just a “fraction” of the total ecosystem, according to the company.

“If the recent exponential growth of the creator economy keeps up, these 50 platforms could be supporting more than 15.5 million creators in five years,” the company wrote.

Stripe

Growth wasn’t limited just to the major platforms, either. Startups catering to content makers and their needs also surged, with more than $3.7 billion in funding going toward “startups focused on creators,” according to a report in The Information.

One of the main drivers of this surge in activity was the pandemic. While creators were making money long before the pandemic, the industry was almost perfectly primed to absorb many of the changes brought on by it.

“I think the pandemic definitely turbocharged the creator economy through both necessity and through choice,” Li Jin, founder of Atelier Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in the creator economy, said in an interview earlier this year.

“Necessity meaning a lot of people were left without offline alternatives for work and income and had to turn to online platforms in order to continue their creative careers. And choice in the sense that obviously we had a lot of free time during the pandemic where we were just kind of stuck at home. I think a lot of people took that time and they started creating content.”

At the same time, the pandemic also seems to have shifted the way that many people think about work itself. While this year was full of hand-wringing about labor shortages and whether or not people want to go back to work, it’s not difficult to understand why some, particularly younger people, might opt for a different path. Zuckerberg described the shift as “​​people being able to make a living by expressing their creativity and by doing things they want to do, rather than things they have to.” Creators, he has said, deserve to be “rewarded” for their work,

But as Jin and others have pointed out, major platforms aren’t suddenly embracing creators just because they care about helping them create sustainable independent businesses. The economics are ultimately weighted in their favor as well.

Creators are responsible for a significant amount of engagement on their platforms of choice. If enough of an app’s biggest stars leave, they could take large chunks of users with them. Revenue from creators could also one day help Facebook generate income beyond advertising. Zuckerberg has pledged not to take a cut of their earnings until 2023, but even a relatively small commission could eventually add up to a significant amount. Likewise, Twitter has said it plans to take a 20 percent cut of Super Follow subscriptions from its highest-earning creators, though it could still be some time before the feature makes serious cash for anyone.

Creators are also crucial to drawing in new users and keeping platforms’ existing ones entertained. For Facebook, they could help the company avoid, or at least dampen, the “existential threat” of declining teen users. Snapchat has touted Spotlight as a key source of growth. Even LinkedIn has said creators can help their users get “better at what they do.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the platforms that will benefit most from creators, according to Jin. “Nothing is done purely altruistically,” she said. “It's to strengthen the company and their profitability.”