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Inspirational passion or paid-for promotion: can BookTok be taken on face value? | Books




BookTok, the nickname for TikTok videos in which books are discussed, analysed, cried about and turned into “aesthetic” moodboards, began as a small group of the app’s users who wanted a place to talk about books. It has since grown into a hugely influential community that has the power to pluck authors out of relative obscurity and propel them into the bestsellers charts.

Earlier this month it was named FutureBook Person of the Year, an accolade which recognises digital innovation and excellence across the book trade. According to James Stafford, Head of Partnerships and Community at TikTok, BookTok is a community of “creative people around the world with a shared passion for literature”. Publishers, creators and writers have generally agreed that this corner of the platform has had an overwhelmingly positive effect, having led to huge increases in book sales and the discovery of new writers. The Bookseller even recently called it “the last safe place on the internet”.

But BookTok hasn’t always been a force for good. Many of the app’s users had been promoting the piracy of digital books via Z-Library, a popular “shadow library”, before it was taken down by the FBI earlier this month. And not everyone in the books industry agrees that BookTok is “safe”.

Stephanie Tubbritt, a bookseller based in London, noted in a Twitter thread last week that the way in which books are recommended on the platform leaves young readers vulnerable to graphic, inappropriate content. “More needs to be done to ensure that minors and their caregivers are aware of the content in popular books,” she tweeted. Tubbritt believes that “no place on the Internet is a safe place,” and thinks that calling BookTok a “safe place” fails to acknowledge “the inherent problems” it causes.

Meanwhile, as publishers make deals with both TikTok and its creators, many BookTok users feel as if their “safe” space is becoming too industry-led. For example, this summer, some of the app’s reviewers received advance reading copies of Alex Aster’s Lightlark, a novel picked up by publishers following the success of a homemade book trailer posted by the author on TikTok. As BuzzFeed reported at the time, reviews were mixed, with readers accusing Aster of, among other things, being an industry plant and misrepresenting the contents of the book via her videos.

Then, in September, TikTok announced a collaboration with Penguin Random House. The new feature on the app allows creators to link to books in their videos, automatically creating dedicated playlists highlighting other videos about the book. The response in the community varied. While British content creator and writer Dakota Warren thinks “the way they’ve gone about it is really clever”, because it “provides an easy, accessible way to quickly learn more about the books people are interested in reading”, another anonymous creator described the feature as “free marketing”.

“Where’s the commission for the creators?” they asked. Stafford contends that the feature “rewards creators who are having an impact on real-world book sales” and provides “great visibility”. Penguin Random House was not available for comment.

BookTok began as “a properly authentic movement,” says Anna Boatman, publisher at Little, Brown. Has the attention – and the money being funnelled into the platform – changed that? Among creators, opinion is divided. Madi Lim, a creator from the US with 59,700 followers, says that “the base of it is still the same,” but she notes that creators are now aware that they can make money from their content. She says this can “put you in a weird position, where [some creators] promote books they’ve never read.”

Shae’Loren Deering, a creator with a smaller following, disagrees. “I haven’t noticed a shift in BookTok. I hope that if there is a shift, it results in more authors from marginalised backgrounds getting more attention,” she says.

Paid partnerships are increasingly common among larger creators. “When I started BookTok, I never saw sponsored posts from book creators,” recalls BookToker Kevin T Norman. Another creator, who wished to remain anonymous, says they received £300-400 per video less than two years ago, and are now charging up to £8,000 for two videos.

Norman is pleased that “book influencers are getting compensated and taken seriously”. But Sana Goyal, reviews editor at Wasafiri magazine, is sceptical. “Publishers offering creators [money] is like publishers offering critics the same,” she says. “Reviews backed by monetary power, pressure and influence surely can’t be authentic.”

At Little, Brown, Boatman says the aim is to be “thoughtful and curated” when engaging in paid partnerships or sending books out to creators. “Authenticity is the bedrock of what has made [BookTok] so special,” she says. Norman agrees: he says he “mostly” has “a lot of creative freedom” when putting paid content together.

Author Alex Aster.
Author Alex Aster, who was accused by some readers of misrepresenting her book, Lightlark, through TikTok videos. Photograph: Jennifer Trahan

It’s the way that books are talked about – or marketed – on the platform which is both the cause of the community’s success and, according to some, its pitfall. Aster’s viral video followed a typical trend where images meant to connote the “aesthetic” of the novel flash up on screen. When the initial reviews came in, it was this video which was criticised as misleading. “I was promised a POC hunger games [sic] dark fantasy. I got NONE of that” was one verdict.

Aster denies these accusations. “The early scenes I shared are all in the series in some capacity – either exactly as I posted or with edited wording,” she says. Aster also said she felt it was important “to bring [her] followers along [on her] journey to publishing [the] book.”

Her presence on the platform as a creator, though, has divided opinion. Deering says she enjoys seeing authors active on TikTok, but Lim thinks there is a “weird sense that the author has a direct link to any opinion you have of them”.

Boatman says that Little, Brown is often asked by authors whether it should be on TikTok. “I tend to say only if it’s something you feel completely comfortable doing,” she says, noting that there are authors whose books have been “incredibly successful” on the platform without having a presence themselves.

As for whether publishers are indeed “planting” certain authors on the app, Boatman thinks it’s very unlikely. “We’re quite busy,” she laughs. An industry plant “would require some serious long-term planning”.

Despite the controversies surrounding it, however, BookTok is still, at its core, a place for people who love reading and books. Stafford at TikTok praises the community’s “unapologetic passion”, and creators like Lim, Norman, and Deering note that BookTok has allowed them to read more widely while feeling represented.

Boatman sees BookTokers as “discerning” critics. “There are always books as an editor that you love, but that you don’t have as much support as you wish they did,” she says. “And it’s been a joy to see books suddenly ‘zoom’ anyway.”

“The more people share and talk, the more that individuals from groups that weren’t – and aren’t – represented can be represented,” says Deering. “Younger me would be absolutely in love.”

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Singapore pulls plug on COVID tracking program • The Register




Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) announced on Thursday that it was finally pulling the plug on its COVID tracking program.

On February 13, the city-state’s TraceTogether (TT) program, which uses the Bluetooth radios in mobile phones to track movements, and its business check-in system SafeEntry (SE) will come to a halt.

According to the ministry’s announcement, the government had already begun stepping down TT and SE, and would no longer require infected persons to submit TraceTogether data.

“SE data is no longer being collected, and MOH has deleted all identifiable TT and SE data from its servers and databases,” said the department.

The exception is data that was controversially used off-label in a murder investigation.

The systems will remain intact – as well as registration details including name, business registration, and mobile phone number – in case there is a need for reactivation. One example given is if a more dangerous COVID-19 variant were to spread. Apps will also remain available.

The ministry told members of the public, who haven’t been required to have them since last year, that they may “uninstall their TT App, and enterprises may do the same for the SE (Business) App.”

Furthermore, those with a physical TT token, which came in handy for the non-tech savvy as a device that exchanges anonymized identifiers, were asked to return the dongle for recycling.

Singapore began developing the open source TraceTogether at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. The app constantly sought out other Bluetooth-enabled devices that ran the app and logged when they were in close proximity. The country required users to register and inform authorities if they contracted COVID-19 and used the app to draw up lists of contacts who were then isolated.

Other countries, including Australia, based their apps on the technology. While many nations seemed to flop at COVID tracking, Singapore fared somewhat better, even with similar technology. That success has been attributed to a culture willing to comply, combined with a government that modified behavior through other strict rules to keep the virus from spreading.

One example of the additional measures was tracking devices issued to travelers during a required one-week isolation after arriving.

In April, TT and SE became largely superfluous as their use was no longer mandatory except for select events. The efficacy of such systems relied on mass compliance so if some people weren’t using them, they were less effective anyway.

However, job postings for positions related to the program near that time sparked speculation that the system would remain in some form in the island nation, unlike in most other countries. Singapore’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) told The Register in late March 2022 the job listings were merely for replacing existing employees.

Australia quit its app in August after it was deemed a massive failure. Japan followed in September, and China discontinued use of its tracking app in December. ®

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Irish biotech Ovagen raises €1.1m for germ-free egg production




Based in Co Mayo, Ovagen now plans to add 65 jobs over the next five years and hopes to see its revenue reach €42m by the end of 2027.

Irish biotech start-up Ovagen has raised €1.1m in an oversubscribed funding round led by the Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN) for its germ-free egg production business.

Ovagen, based in Ballina, Co Mayo, is a biotech company that has developed a process of producing germ-free chicken eggs intended for use in the pharmaceutical industry for products such as vaccines.

According to Ovagen, up to 20pc – or one in five – egg-based vaccine batches are destroyed because of contamination.

Overall, more than 1bn eggs are used every year as ‘bio reactors’ to develop vaccines. Viruses are injected into the eggs to propagate the virus, which vaccine manufacturers can then use to develop vaccines for diseases including the flu, yellow fever, mumps and measles.

Dr Catherine Caulfield, CEO and co-founder of Ovagen, said that current vaccines are developed using specific pathogen free eggs, which are free of many bacteria and viruses, but they are not germ-free and a significant portion become contaminated.

“Our funders have been instrumental in supporting us on our long journey to make a concept a reality,” she said.

“At critical stages in our development, our angel investors have not only provided us with their financial backing, but they have also introduced us to other potential investors, as well as their highly influential industry contacts.”

Ovagen now aims to go to market with the “world’s first germ-free egg” in what is potentially a multimillion euro industry.

“The global potential of the company’s technology is vast and that is why this is the second time HBAN syndicates have backed Ovagen,” said Declan MacFadden, an HBAN spokesperson.

“Ovagen is now in prime position to launch its product and we are excited to see the impact that this ground-breaking development has in a highly lucrative global market.”

Following the latest investment, in which the Western Development Commission and an existing shareholder also participated, the company expects to add 65 jobs (it currently has 12 staff) over the next five years, with revenues reaching €42m by the end of 2027.

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Republicans grill ex-Twitter executives over handling of Hunter Biden story | House of Representatives




US lawmakers held a combative hearing on Wednesday with former senior staffers at Twitter over the social media platform’s handling of reporting on Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden.

The proceedings set the stage for the agenda of a newly Republican-controlled House, underscoring its intention to hone in on longstanding and unsubstantiated allegations that big tech platforms have an anti-conservative bias.

The House oversight committee called for questioning recently departed Twitter employees including Vijaya Gadde, the social network’s former chief legal officer, former deputy general counsel James Baker, former head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth and former safety leader Anika Collier Navaroli.

The hearing centered on a question that has long dogged Republicans – why Twitter decided to temporarily restrict the sharing of a story about Hunter Biden in the New York Post, released in October 2020, the month before the US presidential election. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle used the opportunity to interrogate moderation practices at Twitter and other tech firms.

“The government doesn’t have any role in suppressing speech,” said Republican committee chairman James Comer, hammering the former employees for censoring the Post story.

people sit at table in congressional chamber
James Baker, former deputy general counsel at Twitter; Vijaya Gadde; former chief legal officer at Twitter; Yoel Roth, former global head of trust and safety; and the former employee Anika Collier Navaroli attend the hearing. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

In that report, the Post said it received a copy of a laptop hard drive from Donald Trump’s then-personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, that Hunter Biden had dropped off 18 months earlier at a Delaware computer repair shop and never retrieved. Twitter initially blocked people from sharing links to the article for several days, citing concerns over misinformation and spreading a report containing potentially hacked materials.

In opening statements on Wednesday, the former Twitter staffers described the process by which the story was blocked. While the company explicitly allowed “reporting on a hack, or sharing press coverage of hacking”, it blocked stories that shared “personal and private information – like email addresses and phone numbers” – which the Post story appeared to include. The platform amended these rules following the Biden controversy, and the then CEO, Jack Dorsey, later called the company’s communications about the Post article “not great”.

Roth, the former head of safety and integrity, said on Wednesday that Twitter acknowledged that censoring the story was a mistake.

“Defending free expression and maintaining the health of the platform required difficult judgment calls,” he said. “There is no easy way to run a global communications platform that satisfies business and revenue goals, individual customer expectations, local laws and cultural norms and get it right every time.”

men in congressional chamber
Yoel Roth prepares to testify. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Elon Musk, who purchased the company last year, has since shared a series of internal records, known as the Twitter Files, showing how the company initially stopped the story being shared, citing concerns from the Biden campaign, among other factors.

Republican theories that Democrats are colluding with big tech to suppress conservative speech have become a hot button issue in Washington, with congress members using various tech hearings to grill executives. But experts say claims of anti-conservative bias have been disproven by independent researchers.

“What we’ve seen time and again is that companies are de-platforming people who are spreading racism and conspiracy theories in violation of the company’s rule,” said Jessica J González, co-chief executive officer of the civil rights group Free Press.

“The fact that those people are disproportionately Republicans has nothing to do with it,” she added. “This is about right or wrong, not left or right.”

Musk’s decision to release information about the laptop story comes after he allowed the return of high-profile figures banned for spreading misinformation and engaging in hate speech, including the former president. The executive has shared and engaged with conspiracy theories on his personal account.

Republican lawmakers seem to have found an ally in Musk, and repeatedly praised him during Wednesday’s proceedings. The rightwing congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene used her time on the floor to personally attack the former Twitter employees and complain about her own account, which was suspended for violating the platform’s policies on coronavirus misinformation.

“I’m so glad you’ve lost your jobs,” she said. “I am so glad Elon Musk bought Twitter.”

man in front of image of new york post with headline 'biden secret emails'
The oversight committee chairman, James Comer, a Republican, makes opening remarks. Photograph: Jemal Countess/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

But Democrats on Wednesday used their time in the House to explore how the Trump administration engaged with Twitter, revealing that the former president himself tried to interfere with content decisions.

In response to questioning from the new representative Maxwell Frost of Florida, the former Twitter content moderation executive Navaroli confirmed that in 2019 Trump tried to have an insulting tweet from internet personality Chrissy Teigen removed from the platform. In the tweet, which was read for the record, Teigen referred to Trump as a “pussy ass bitch”. Twitter denied the White House’s request, and it remains online today.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further sought to disprove bias against conservative speech on Twitter when she asked about an instance in 2019, when a tweet from Trump including hate speech was kept online despite violating platform policies.

The former president told Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to their countries, a clear violation of Twitter’s policies regarding abuse against immigrants, but was not penalized, Navaroli confirmed, and the rules were changed.

“So Twitter changed their own policy after Trump violated it to accommodate his tweets?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “So much for bias against the rightwing on Twitter.”

The White House has sought to discredit the Republican investigation into Hunter Biden, calling them “divorced-from-reality political stunts”. Nonetheless, Republicans now hold subpoena power in the House, giving them the authority to compel testimony and conduct an aggressive investigation.

In opening statements at Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland expressed frustration that the first tech-focused panel of the session is focused on the Hunter Biden story, which he called a “faux scandal”. He said private companies under the first amendment are free to decide what is allowed on their platforms.

“Silly does not even begin to capture this obsession,” he said of the laptop story. “What’s more, Twitter’s editorial decision has been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. Some people think it was the right decision. Some people think it was the wrong decision. But the key point here is that it was Twitter’s decision.”

The Associated Press contributed reporting

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