Data analytics firm warns online threats have ‘changed substantially’ due to pandemic

·3-min read
Moonshot founders Vidhya Ramalingam (left) and Ross Frenett. Photo: Moonshot
Moonshot founders Vidhya Ramalingam (left) and Ross Frenett. Photo: Moonshot

Moonshot, a UK-based data analytics firm that tackles online threats ranging from white supremacy to child trafficking, has said the pandemic has “substantially changed” the nature of these menaces.

“In the last year, as we spent more time online than ever before, we have seen a very worrying blending of various ideologies that previously used to be separate,” Vidhya Ramalingam, founder and CEO of Moonshot, told Yahoo Finance UK.

For example, anti-vaccinators were entirely different from white supremacists – and anti-maskers didn’t exist at all. But in the last year there has been “this merging” that makes it difficult for governments and tech companies to separate them into silos and deal with them differently.

As the threats increase, Moonshot thought now was the perfect time to scale up, which it did via a Series A fundraising round in which it raised $7m (£4.9m) from venture capitalists Beringea and Mercia.

The company plans to use the money to build a much more sophisticated piece of technology, a product that can be used by partners to better understand the scale of online harms.

It also wants to expand on its mission: "We started by focusing on terrorism an extremism… but as we started to test and refine our methods we realised the tech we were building had a lot of applications for issues like human trafficking and child sex exploitation," said Ramalingam.

Moonshot has delivered threat monitoring and analysis, digital campaigns, tailored interventions, and a range of other services in over 57 countries and 33 languages for governments and tech companies.

Its clients include the US Department of Homeland Security and the UK Home Office as well as Facebook and Google.

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Its work with the US Department of Homeland Security includes partnering with Life After Hate – an organisation set up by former white supremacists with the mission to help others leave far-right groups.

“Our role is to provide a conduit between online audiences and a real-life service they can access,” said Ramalingam.

The company’s work running crisis campaigns across the US to deal with armed groups, white supremacist, election-related disinformation and QAnon has found that approaching people with messaging such as "anger and grief can be isolating" to tackle such threats and offering one-on-one counselling, rather than challenging their ideology, has proved to be much more successful, Ramalingam explained.

Going forward, one of its main priorities will be to tackle disinformation around the coronavirus and vaccination.

Moonshot’s work with Big Tech

Moonshot has worked with the likes of Facebook and Google, and Ramalingam is of the opinion that they are far too focused on “moderation as the solution to limit the spread of online harm”.

While she believes this is important and such work must continue, she thinks Big Tech “needs to recognise their power as very sophisticated companies that hold a lot of data” which can help them actively connect people in their time of crisis with the right resources.

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She said a vast majority of disinformation is not eligible to be taken down according to these companies' terms and services; and even when content is removed, it will pop up somewhere else, whether on mainstream platforms or fringe ones.

What's more, deleting an account or banning a post doesn't change the fact that the person behind them still exists. Moonshot wants Big Tech to proactively reach out to these people and over time change their behaviour.

"Big Tech has a huge challenge in front of it but I am optimistic about the role it can play."

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