Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa

Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.

The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.

Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.

Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.

“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.

Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”

Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”

“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”

“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”

Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.

Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.

Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.

The first big tech antitrust bill lumbers toward reality

A major Senate bill that would prevent tech companies from giving preference to their own products and services just passed a significant hurdle in Congress, bringing it one step closer to becoming law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted today on the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, moving the prominent antitrust bill toward a vote before the full Senate. The bill passed its committee vote 16-6 Thursday, with five Republicans joining Senate Democrats to press forward with the legislation.

The bill would prohibit tech platforms from “favoring their own products or services, disadvantaging rivals, or discriminating among businesses that use their platforms in a manner that would materially harm competition on the platform.” It would also forbid dominant platforms from preventing interoperability with other services and from leveraging another company’s data on the platform to compete against them.

To accomplish its goals, the American Innovation and Choice Online Act would empower antitrust enforcers with “strong, flexible tools,” including “civil penalties, authority to seek broad injunctions, emergency interim relief, and potential forfeiture of executive compensation.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, hailed the legislation as the first major tech competition bill to head toward the Senate floor “since the dawn of the internet.” The bill could still see changes from a handful of amendments that didn’t impede its progress Thursday but may still impact its final language.

While it still has an uphill slog to make it into a crowded and mostly stalled out legislative agenda, the bill’s momentum was significant enough to prompt Google and Apple to both weigh in with comments earlier this week.

“Every day, millions of Americans use online services like Google Search, Maps and Gmail to find new information and get things done,” Alphabet Global Affairs President and Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker wrote in a blog post. “…Legislation being debated in the House and Senate could break these and other popular online services, making them less helpful and less secure, and damaging American competitiveness.”

Apple also sought to intervene, penning a letter to Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, the committee’s ranking Republican Chuck Grassley as well as Antitrust Subcommittee Chair Amy Klobuchar that subcommittee’s ranking member Mike Lee.

“After a tumultuous year that witnessed multiple controversies regarding social media, whistle-blower allegations of long-ignored risks to children, and ransomware attacks that hobbled critical infrastructure, it would be ironic if Congress responds by making it much harder to protect the privacy and security of Americans’ personal devices,” Apple Senior Director of Government Affairs Tim Powderly wrote. “Unfortunately, that is what these bills would do.”

Both companies argued that the bill along with another piece of legislation, the Open App Markets Act, would be a detriment to consumer security. The latter bill would force companies that control operating systems to allow third-party apps and app stores and allow developers to tell consumers where they could find the same software at better prices.

 

A group of tech companies that included Yelp, DuckDuckGo, Sonos, Spotify, Proton, Match Group and the startup accelerator Y Combinator along with the venture capital firm Initialized Capital spoke out in favor of the anti-self preferencing legislation earlier this week.

“Findings from the United States and governments around the world reveal the many anticompetitive self-preferencing tactics dominant technology companies use to attain and entrench their gatekeeper status in the market to the detriment of competition, consumers, and innovation,” the companies wrote. “The American Innovation and Choice Online Act… targets self-preferencing to help restore competition in the digital marketplace and remove barriers for consumers to choose the services they want.”

Regulating the tech industry is a rare issue that inspires bipartisan cooperation in Congress — another sign that the tech industry should expect new restrictions on its business, even if those proposals still progress at a crawl.

The bill was introduced by by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and is co-sponsored by Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), John Kennedy (R-LA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Mark Warner (D-VA), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Josh Hawley (R-MO), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Steve Daines (R-MT).

The House version of the bill, led by House Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and Ranking Member Ken Buck (R-CO), is already out of committee and ready for a vote.

TikTok begins testing support for paid subscriptions

TikTok is testing support for paid subscriptions, the company confirmed to TechCrunch on Thursday. As first reported by The Information, the popular short-form video app is exploring the option for creators to charge subscriptions for their content. The feature is part of a limited test for the time being and is not broadly available. TikTok declined to elaborate on the feature or share additional details.

“We’re always thinking about new ways to bring value to our community and enrich the TikTok experience,” a TikTok spokesperson told TechCrunch in an email, when reached for comment.

It’s unclear how the paid subscription model will be implemented in the app. For context, TikTok’s popular algorithmic “For You” page surfaces videos from creators that users don’t follow. If a creator chooses to charge a subscription for their content, it’s likely that their videos won’t appear on users’ For You pages. However, it’s also possible that the subscription will apply to additional content that’s exclusive to paid users, as opposed to being applied to the entirety of a creator’s account.

News of the test comes a day after Instagram launched subscriptions in the U.S. The feature is now in early testing with a small group of creators who are able to offer their followers paid access to exclusive Instagram Live videos and Stories. Creators can choose their own price point for access to their exclusive content. Paid subscribers will be marked with a special badge, differentiating them from unpaid users in the sea of comments.

TikTok’s paid subscriptions test follows recent confirmation that it’s testing an in-app tipping feature on its platform that allows creators to accept money from fans outside of TikTok LIVE streams, where gifting is already supported. Creators who are part of the limited test can apply for the feature if they have at least 100,000 followers and are in good standing. Those who have been approved are given a Tips button on their profiles, which their followers are able to use to send them direct payments.

The company’s newest test is its latest push toward monetization and helping creators earn a living through its platform. Last year, the company introduced a $200 million fund aimed at helping creators in the U.S. supplement their earnings. TikTok also helps creators sign brand partnerships and sponsorship deals and also provides monetization for livestreams. Considering TikTok’s focus on monetization efforts, it’s no surprise that the company is experimenting with a way for creators to offer paid subscriptions for their content.

TikTok and Instagram’s tests follow Twitter’s launch of “Super Follows,” a paid subscription offering that launched in September 2021. The feature allows users to subscribe to accounts they like for a monthly subscription fee in exchange for exclusive content. Eligible accounts can set the price for Super Follow subscriptions, with the option of charging $2.99, $4.99 or $9.99 per month. Similar to Instagram’s model, subscribers are marked with a special Super Follower badge, differentiating them from unpaid followers.

TikTok, Instagram and Twitter’s paid subscription offerings outline the companies’ efforts to court creator communities. The offerings are also a way for the companies to compete with each other, along with other digital platforms such as YouTube, which offers lucrative ways for creators to make money.

Twitter is rolling out its Communities feature to all Android users

Twitter is bringing its Communities feature to Android four months after it launched on iOS and the web. The social media giant says Android users can now engage in Communities via the Twitter app as long as they’ve updated to the latest version. Once users join their first community, a new Communities tab will appear in their navigation bar.

The feature is designed to make it easier to connect with other users based on shared interests. Users are able to join social hubs and tweet directly to other people with shared interests rather than their regular group of followers. Although those tweets are public, replies are limited to other community members. There are numerous popular communities based on countless topics such as dogs, weather, sneakers, cryptocurrency, astrology and more.

Earlier this month, Twitter detailed its plans to update and expand Communities. The company said that right now, all Communities are either invite-only or open to all. However, Twitter is exploring a “request to join” option where admins and moderators can approve or deny requests. It’s also going to test a “Ranked Timeline” where users will see the top tweets happening in their Communities first, but users will also still have the option to see their timeline in chronological order.

Lastly, Twitter also says it’s working on ways for users to express themselves in their Communities. It’s going to explore a way for moderators to highlight notable content in the communities. Twitter’s also going to test ways for users and moderators to have Q&As with one another.

Twitter’s Communities feature pairs well with its efforts to court creator communities. Over the past year, the company has rolled out its paid subscription feature called Super Follows, Ticketed Spaces for its audio rooms and a one-time payment feature called Tip Jar.

Instagram now allows creators to ‘remix’ any public videos, not just reels

Instagram announced today it will allow users to remix any video content on the app, not just short-form reels videos. The company officially launched Remix, its version of TikTok Duets, last March. The feature lets users record their reels video alongside a video from another user, as a means of interacting, reacting, collaborating, or highlighting other content on the Instagram Reels platform. Now Instagram says any public video on the app is fair game for a remix. But this only applies to videos published publicly from this point forward — the feature won’t work on older content.

The company said the expansion made sense as it’s watched as Remix has been embraced by Reels users. It wanted to offer more ways for creators to “reinvent their content” and collaborate with others. When remixing a non-Reels video, creators will still have access to Reels’ set of creative tools, including Collabs, Voiceover, Effects and Audio Tools.

To use the new feature, users can tap the three-dot menu in the upper-right corner of any public Instagram video published after this update goes live. From there, you’ll choose “Remix this video” and record your answer or upload a video from your phone’s camera roll. Creators are able to remix either all or part of the other person’s video, and download it as part of the remix. The resulting remixed video will then be visible anywhere you share your reels.

Though the feature’s expansion could certainly inspire more remixing, resulting in more content for Instagram Reels, it’s not clear that all Instagram creators will be open to the idea of having their video content repurposed in this way. Those who don’t want to participate will need to opt out of having their videos remixed from their account settings, Instagram says. This is available under the “Reels and Remix Controls” setting, which now allows you to toggle on or off remixes for both reels and feed videos. All users are being defaulted to “on” for the new feature, however.

Alternately, creators who want to allow some videos to be remixed and others not, will be able to disable remixes on a per-video basis if they chose to leave the setting on.

Image Credits: Instagram

With the launch of remixes for public videos, Instagram seems to assume that everyone with a public account intends to be a “creator” and is open to the idea of having their content repurposed by other users. That’s not necessarily the case. A number of Instagram users may have simply allowed their accounts to default to public during their initial sign-up, without realizing that doing so would later expose their content to a potentially much wider audience.

Unfortunately, Instagram isn’t the first to automatically opt-in users to having their content repurposed in order to better compete with TikTok. When YouTube launched its own TikTok rival, YouTube Shorts, it did so by allowing creators to sample audio from other people’s videos for use in their own. Instagram has just taken things a step further.

Image Credits: Instagram

Unrelated to the remix changes, Instagram also announced it would now allow users to highlight the topic, date and time of a scheduled Live on their profiles. This will give users an easier way to view and sign up for Lives and creators won’t necessarily have to create a feed post to promote the event.

The new features are rolling out to all Instagram users now.

Facebook and Instagram may help you create and sell NFTs

Meta might be the next to hop on the NFT bandwagon. The Financial Times’ sources claim Meta is developing ways to create, display and sell NFTs on Facebook and Instagram. The company’s Novi wallet technology would power much of the “supporting functionality,” one tipster said. Instagram is reportedly testing a way to showcase NFTs, while Meta is also said to be discussing a marketplace that would help you buy or sell these digital collectibles.

The company has already declined to comment, and the sources cautioned the effort was still early and could change.However, Instagram leader Adam Mosseri said in December that his social network was “actively exploring” NFTs. The technology is on the company’s mind, at least.

A dip into NFTs would make sense. While companies sometimes abuse the link between NFTs and the metaverse (merely offering NFTs doesn’t mean you’re creating a metaverse, folks), Meta might want a framework for them so that residents of its virtual worlds can sell unique digital goods. This could also help Meta prevent third-party platforms like OpenSea’s market from gaining too strong a hold if NFTs prove to be more than a short-lived trend.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Engadget.

Meta’s Workplace will integrate with WhatsApp later this year to expand communication with frontline employees

Workplace, the app owned and originally built by Facebook (now Meta) as a version of the social network for enterprise employees to communicate with each other, has signed up upwards of 7 million users, finding traction in particular among multinational organizations with a mix of front-line, deskless and desk-based workers, as a way for management to stay connected to all of them, and for those employees to chat about work with each other. Now, it is gearing up to add in more functionality to enhance that usefulness: Workplace will soon be adding in an integration with WhatsApp, the popular messaging app with billions of users and also owned by Meta, so that Workplace customers can cross-post announcements and share other data with employees using the messaging app.

WhatsApp functionality is expected to go live sometime later this year. It sounds like messaging communication will be part of that initial launch, but the company is also working on ways of integrating other kinds of Workplace and productivity functionality into WhatsApp, such as integrating Shift Cover — a way for shift workers to swap shifts with each other other and keep managers and their planning systems in the loop, which was initially launched on Workplace back in November 2020.

Ujjwal Singh, the head of Workplace, would not be specific about the exact timing, explaining that there are still “working through the details” of how it will function, with some decisions still being made, the focus being how best to leverage what is in its DNA a consumer app as an enterprise service.

“This is something we’d been working on for a while,” he said in an interview, noting that even though the two have been a part of the same stable under Facebook, the different business announcements that WhatsApp has been making, for example expanding the WhatsApp API last year, needed to be in place first. It’s also been working with customers to build the feature. “We want to be careful about what goes out to a consumer app. We wanted to do this in a way that was safe for companies to use.”

The move to bring more business usage to WhatsApp and more functionality into Workplace are both a long time coming but fit with the broader strategies for both products, and with Meta’s strategy as a whole.

On the Meta front, the company has been on a years-long mission to bring its various apps closer together both as customer-facing services and at the back end. That strategy has included integrating Messenger with Instagram’s messaging feature so that consumers could communicate across the apps; and it’s also had a business/commercial focus, giving companies that use WhatsApp for Business the ability to initiate contacts on, say, Facebook, and continue conversations more directly over WhatsApp. Those efforts have not been uncontroversial, although gradually they have been rolled out nevertheless.

This brings not just more activity to the different platforms, but creates more reasons to sway businesses to advertise, use premium products like WhatsApp for Business, and generally carry out more commercial activities across Meta. They are also potentially building out a bigger use case for Meta as more than just a consumer product that is based around advertising across its apps.

Workplace started out in its early days as essentially Facebook’s answer to the rise of Slack: why let an upstart eat our enterprise lunch, the thinking went, when so many people are already using Facebook for non-work interactions (and some work ones), and our own employees have proven that it’s possible to use Facebook for work chit-chat and planning?

Longer term, it seems that this original thesis didn’t quite carry out as Facebook had thought it would: initially it brought in a number of integrations, similar to those you might find on Slack, to position Workplace as a useful productivity hub, and to that it added a lot of native functionality around collaboration and communication for knowledge workers. But more recently, it seems to have shifted focus somewhat.

First of all, products like Slack and Teams from Microsoft continued to stick around and grow their reputations — a shift that Workplace has followed by working more closely with those platforms. (Most recently, with a Teams integration for video and other features.) Second of all, it’s found a new wave of users among those who are “deskless”, front-line and other customer-facing workers who are not sitting at computers all day, but on the go, with mobile phones being their primary way of interacting with their managers, colleagues and organizations overall.

“A lot of frontline workers outside the US are using consumer tools like WhatsApp to get work done,” Singh said. “We have data that says using WhatsApp for shift management is just part of it. The data shows that frontline workers feel disconnected from executives making decisions, and so that is the key point of this integration.” He’s referring here to new research the company is also releasing today that supports how Workplace is developing. If found that just over half (54%) of frontline workers said they felt connected to their organization’s HQ — one reason why it sees an opportunity to build out Workplace, and WhatsApp as a way to bridge that gap. 

Longer term, this WhatsApp integration, and the wider shift that the company is making to serve deskless workers, are positioning Workplace among a new wave of apps like Blink and Yoobic targeting front-line employees and their specific requirements and functions in the workplace. It will be interesting to see whether Facebook chooses to remain a simple messaging and communications tool in that mix or whether it starts to build more features to cater specifically to those users. It’s a crowded field, with others also vying for customers in this space including When I Work — which last year raised $200 million; Homebase, which raised $71 million; Workiz, which focuses on home services pros; WorkWhile; Crew (which Square acquired last year); and Justworks (which in September 2021 filed to go public).

Instagram launches early test of creator subscriptions in the U.S.

Instagram is giving creators more ways to make money with today’s launch of Instagram Subscriptions. The feature, which was spotted hitting the App Store back in November, is now officially in early testing with a small group of U.S. creators who will be able to offer their followers paid access to exclusive Instagram Live videos and Stories. Subscribers will also receive a special badge that will help them to stand out in the comments section and creators’ inboxes.

At launch, only 10 total U.S. creators have gained access to the new feature, as Instagram considers this an “alpha” test meant to allow for feedback from fans and creators alike which it will then iterate upon.

Currently, the list of alpha creators includes actor and influencer @alanchikinchow; basketball player @sedona._; astrologer @alizakelly; dancer/actress/model @kelseylynncook; digital creator @elliottnorris; Olympic silver medalist @jordanchiles; gymnast and creator @jackjerry; spiritual coach and artist @bunnymichael; XR creator @donalleniii; and digital creator @lonnieiiv.

Through the Subscriptions product, creators can choose their own price point for access to their exclusive content. There are eight different price points to choose from, starting at $0.99 per to month to as much as $99.99 per month, depending on how much a creator believes their content is worth. Most creators will likely start towards the bottom of that range, at price points like $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, $4.99, or maybe even $9.99 per month, before experimenting with higher pricing like $19.99, $49.99, or $99.99 per month.

Once subscribed, users will be able to access prior subscriber-only content, like Stories saved as Highlights, for example. They’ll be alerted to exclusive broadcasts, where they’ll be able to engage more deeply with the creators as the viewing audience will be, naturally, smaller. In subscriber-only Stories, indicated with a purple ring, creators may share things like behind-the-scenes content, special polls, and more. Subscriber badges, also purple, will help fans stand out in the comments of public content, and will help them to be identified in creators’ message request folders in the inbox.

Image Credits: Instagram

Although there had been reports that Instagram was developing technology that would prevent creators’ exclusive content from being screenshot, Instagram told us there isn’t any such technology available during this initial test phase. However, resharing the content is a violation of its terms and creators are being encouraged to report anyone screenshotting or recording their content.

There’s also no dedicated section for Subscriptions in creators’ analytics dashboards during the early tests. But creators will be able to access their total estimated earnings from subscriptions, total subscribers, new subscriptions, and cancellations from their Subscriptions Settings. They aren’t able to export subscriber lists, or any sort of data, but Instagram says it hopes to build tools that would allow creators to connect with subscribers “off-platform” in the future.

For fans, signing up for a subscription to their favorite creators’ content takes place via traditional in-app purchases across iOS and Android. And for now, Instagram is not taking a cut of the creators’ revenues.

“We are the same as all of Meta — we’re not taking any rev share until at least 2023,” noted Instagram Co-Head of Product, Ashley Yuki. “Our main goal here is that we help creators make a living…We’re trying to think of all the ways that we can build monetization products where that’s possible.”

Of course, Instagram isn’t just trying to help creators make a living. It’s also trying to shore up its platform against the threat of competition, namely from TikTok, which has attracted a growing number of creators looking to reach a younger, Gen Z following. It’s also seen other large tech rivals, like YouTube and Snapchat, try to appeal to TikTok users with similar short-form video products, like Instagram’s TikTok clone called Reels. Meanwhile, even Twitter has launched its own creator initiative with its Super Follow platform, and numerous startups are working on services that allow creators to consolidate, track and monetize their following in new ways.

The activity in this space is a reflection of the size of the market. The creator economy is estimated to be a little over $100 billion dollars, and growing. Even if Instagram (and Facebook) defer collecting their cut of creator transactions for a year, Meta sees it as a small investment in ensuring a larger piece of that pie going forward.

Despite the competitive landscape, Instagram believes its strength will come from the fact that it’s not a new product.

“One of the biggest differentiators here for creators and for fans is just the convenience of the fact that you actually know how to use all these things already. You’re already on Instagram. And we hear a lot [about] the friction of having to do the ‘click out.’ It might seem like a small thing. But in those moments, it can be the difference between having someone jump over your subscription or not,” explained Yuki. “The convenience of just having it all where the conversation and connection is already happening, we think is going to be one of the strongest points of this for both creators and for fans,” she said.

Instagram Subscriptions is only one way Meta has been working to help creators monetize. Last year, Facebook rebranded Facebook Fan Subscriptions to just “Subscriptions,” and allowed creators to download their subscribers’ emails. Facebook creators can also use personalized links to promote their subscriptions. And across Facebook and Instagram, creators can participate in Meta’s $1 billion bonus program.

In time, it seems likely that Facebook and Instagram Subscriptions could merge. If that came to be, fans would also be able to sign up on Facebook or Instagram — including via the websites, where no App Store commissions would need to be paid. And those subscriptions could carry over to the respective mobile apps. Yuki didn’t discount the idea, when asked.

“In this alpha, that’s not implemented yet. But that’s something that we could definitely consider for the future,” she said.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg also touted the launch on his Facebook profile today, noting Subscriptions would “help creators earn more by offering benefits to their most engaged followers like access to exclusive Lives and Stories.

“I’m excited to keep building tools for creators to make a living doing creative work and to put these tools in more creators’ hands soon,” he wrote.

New privacy bill would put major limits on targeted advertising

A new bill seeks to dramatically reshape the online advertising landscape to the detriment of companies like Facebook, Google and data brokers that leverage deep stores of personal information to make money from targeted ads.

The bill, the Banning Surveillance Advertising Act, introduced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) in the House and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in the Senate, would dramatically limit the ways that tech companies serve ads to their users, banning the use of personal data altogether.

Any targeting based on “protected class information, such as race, gender, and religion, and personal data purchased from data brokers” would be off-limits were the bill to pass. Platforms could still target ads based on general location data at the city or state level and “contextual advertising” based on the content a user is interacting with would still be allowed.

The bill would empower the FTC and state attorneys general to enforce violations, with fines of up to $5,000 per incident for knowing violations.

“The ‘surveillance advertising’ business model is premised on the unseemly collection and hoarding of personal data to enable ad targeting,” Rep. Eshoo said. “This pernicious practice allows online platforms to chase user engagement at great cost to our society, and it fuels disinformation, discrimination, voter suppression, privacy abuses, and so many other harms.”

Sen. Booker called the targeted advertising model “predatory and invasive,” stressing how the practice exacerbates misinformation and extremism on social media platforms.

Privacy-minded companies including search engine maker DuckDuckGo and Proton, creator of ProtonMail, backed the legislation along with organizations including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Anti-Defamation League, Accountable Tech and Common Sense Media.

Snapchat says it’s getting better at finding illicit drug dealers before users do

Snapchat has faced increasing criticism in recent years as the opioid crisis plays out on social media, often with tragic results.

In October, an NBC investigation reported the stories of a number of young people aged 13 to 23 who died after purchasing fentanyl-laced pills on Snapchat. Snapchat parent company Snap responded by committing to improve its ability to detect and remove this kind of content and ushering users who search for drug-related content to an educational harm reduction portal.

Snapchat provided a glimpse at its progress against illicit drug sales on the platform, noting that 88 percent of the drug-related content it finds is now identified proactively by automated systems, with community reporting accounting for the other 12 percent. Snap says this number is up by a third since its October update, indicating that more of this content is being detected up front before being identified by users.

“Since this fall, we have also seen another important indicator of progress: a decline in community-reported content related to drug sales,” Snap wrote in a blog post. “In September, over 23% of drug-related reports from Snapchatters contained content specifically related to sales, and as a result of proactive detection work, we have driven that down to 16% as of this month. This marks a decline of 31% in drug-related reports. We will keep working to get this number as low as possible.”

The company says that it also recently introduced a new safeguard that prevents 13 to 17 year-old users from showing up in its Quick Add user search results unless they have friends in common with the person searching. That precaution is meant to discourage minors from connecting with users they don’t know, in this case to deter online drug transactions.

Snapchat is also adding information from the CDC on the dangers of fentanyl into its “Heads Up” harm reduction portal and partnering with the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), a global nonprofit working to “prevent substance misuse through collaborative community efforts.”

The company works with experts to identify new search terms that sellers use to get around its rules against selling illicit substances. Snapchat calls the work to keep its lexicon of drug sales jargon up to date “a constant, ongoing effort.”

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration published a warning last month about the dangers of pills purchased online that contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is deadlier in much smaller doses than heroin. Because fentanyl increasingly shows up in illicitly purchased drugs, including those purchased online, it can prove fatal to users who believed they were ingesting other substances.

In December, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram called Snapchat and other social media apps “haven[s] for drug traffickers” in a December interview with CBS. “Because drug traffickers are harnessing social media because it is accessible, they’re able to access millions of Americans and it is anonymous and they’re able to sell these fake pills that are not what they say they are,” Milgram said.

While social media platforms dragged their feet about investing in proactive, aggressive content moderation, online drug sales took root. Companies have sealed up some of the more obvious ways to find illicit drugs online (a few years ago it was as simple as searching #painpills on Instagram, for instance) but savvy sellers adapt their practices to get around new rules as they’re made.

The rise of fentanyl is a significant factor exacerbating the American opioid epidemic and the substance’s prevalence in online sales presents unique challenges. In an October hearing on children’s online safety, Snap called the issue the company’s “top priority,” but many lawmakers and families affected by online drug sales remain skeptical that social media companies are taking their role in the opioid crisis seriously.