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Arab media development is lost in translation

Brainstorming sessions at the WEF meeting Dubai over the weekend, which heard how the region is being held back by a shortage of Arabic-language content. (Photo courtesy of WEF)
LONDON: The Middle East is being held back by a drought of Arabic language content, a major gathering of global thought leaders in Dubai heard this week.
But technology exists not only to help reverse that situation, but also to curb the spread of fake news throughout the Arab world.
An Arabic content crisis was addressed at the Global Future Councils in Dubai, which helps to set the agenda of the main World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in the Swiss alpine town of Davos in January.
More than 700 experts attended the two-day event, which was described as “the biggest brainstorming on the future” by WEF founder Klaus Schwab.
Most people living in the Arab world have limited access to the knowledge available on the Internet because so little of it is produced in the Arabic language, the event heard.
Just 3 percent of all web content is in the Arabic script, said Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia ­foundation.
The web’s bias toward English material, she said, posed “a really significant challenge” for the region as it seeks to progress and develop.
However the answer may not be in teaching English to Arabic speakers — but rather in finding solutions to achieve “a meaningful representation across different languages,” she said.
The web’s marked English bent has crimped development in the Arabic-speaking world, leading to a “big gap in knowledge and ability,” said Abdulsalam Haykal, the CEO of Haykal Group, which includes media and publishing operations.
“You feel sometimes in parts of our region that you are at a disadvantage when you are competing with the world instead of strengthening your local communities — and language is at the heart of that,” Haykal said.
In order for the region to progress, Arabic-speaking students, entrepreneurs, and scientists must have access to the Internet’s trove of resour­ces, Haykal said. “If we really want this region to make that leap, then information has to be available,” he added.
Translating English-language content into Arabic, Haykal said, was only part of the solution.
“Translation is the starting point,” he said.
“The most important thing is to give communities the skills to produce in their own languages.”
Several speakers at the Dubai event, which concluded on Sunday, highlighted how technology can be harnessed to help disseminate knowledge and information more equitably across the globe.
Haykal’s company had worked on a project that created algorithms to track the use of both Modern Standard Arabic and local dialects across the Internet.
The information could be used, he said, to create a “content industry, a knowledge creation industry” in Arabic that remains largely absent from the region.
“Equipping ourselves to produce in Arabic,” he added, would open new doors for economic and social development across the Middle East and North Africa.
Catherine Mulligan, who researches cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin at Imperial College in London, said that emerging technologies could be used to help verify sources, potentially preventing the spread of fake news.
Blockchain, a technology that uses cryptography to verify and document pieces of data, could be used to “track and trace” the provenance of information being disseminated to the public across social media platforms.
The issue of fake news has come to the fore recently as investigators in the US continue to probe the role that Russian operatives may have played in spreading propaganda favorable to Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential election.
Fake news poses particular problems in the Arab world, where the region’s youthful demographic ensures that most young people get their news from social media.
Networks such as Twitter and Facebook have come under fire for failing to do more to flag bogus information circulated on their platforms.