15 years on, has Twitter done more harm than good in the Middle East?

Twitter has arguably become a toxic breeding ground for hate speech it has become, especially in the Arab world. (File/AFP)
Twitter has arguably become a toxic breeding ground for hate speech it has become, especially in the Arab world. (File/AFP)
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Updated 28 March 2021

15 years on, has Twitter done more harm than good in the Middle East?

Twitter has arguably become a toxic breeding ground for hate speech it has become, especially in the Arab world. (File/AFP)
  • Despite Twitter’s updated policy against hate speech, accounts that do just that are still present on the platform

LONDON: One week ago, Twitter’s staff worldwide were awarded a day off in celebration of the social networking platform’s 15th anniversary.

However, while they enjoyed the spoils of the company’s success, the same can’t be said for the many who have suffered from the barrage of negativity and harmful content the microblogging site has failed to counter time and again.

“They (Twitter) don’t dedicate as much effort to see that their own content is actually violating their own policies in Arabic, as they would in English, which is a big issue,” media researcher Azza Masri told Arab News.

Indeed, the platform has arguably become a toxic breeding ground for hate speech it has become, especially in the Arab world.

Despite Twitter’s updated policy on hate speech, which clearly states that users must “not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin,” accounts that do just that are still present on the platform.

“There is a definite laissez-faire attitude with the application or the enforcement of these community standards on Arabic language content, but also, any kind of non-English, or non-European language. That is an issue,” Masri said.

Accounts in the Arab world, such as those of exiled Egyptian cleric Yusuf Al-Qaradawi and terrorist-designated Qais Al-Khazali – both of whom have featured in Arab News’ Preachers of Hate series – remain active.

“Throughout history, God has imposed upon them (the Jews) people who would punish them for their corruption,” Al-Qaradawi said in one of many hate-filled fatwas.

“The last punishment was that of Hitler. This was a divine punishment for them. Next time, God willing, it will be done at the hands of the faithful believers,” he added.

Even accounts belonging to regular users with not a big following have been found to harass and abuse others online without having their tweets taken down immediately or soon enough.

In one instance highlighted by Masri, content doxing – revealing identity information about someone online – of a Lebanese individual from October 2019 still remained on Twitter despite repeated flags to the company’s policy teams.

Meanwhile a Twitter spokesperson told Arab News that “Increasing the health of the public conversation has been an essential focus area for years. If people don’t feel their conversations are safe from abuse and harassment, we know they won’t feel comfortable participating in the public conversation.”

“Our focus is in three key areas - product, policies and enforcement. We’ve simplified our rules, we’ve expanded our policy and enforcement to address the rise of misinformation around the world, and we’ve focused on enforcing our rules proactively.”

Not just Twitter, not just Arab world

The problem is not unique to accounts in the Arab world. In India, for example, social media platforms, including Facebook, have been continuously criticized for fostering space that allows users to spread hate speech.

“These platforms and these companies don’t take the measures to protect people or users – all of its users – from harm, then the work starts at the platform level, not at the user level,” Masri added.

BBC journalist and author, Gavin Esler, told Arab News: “If you have something on your platform, you in some way must be accountable for it.

“We’ve got these very, very big organizations who somehow claim that they are not responsible for the things that we get from them, which is just logically unacceptable to me,” he said.




This image posted by the office of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei on Twitter shows a figure of former US President Donald Trump playing golf under the shadow of a warplane alongside a pledge to avenge a deadly 2020 drone strike the former president ordered. (Twitter photo)

In early January, Twitter took measures and banned then-outgoing US President Donald Trump following the Capitol Hill riots for his tweets that were alleged to have incited violence from a mob of far-right protesters.

Although Twitter has a specific mandate for dealing with the accounts of world leaders, it insists they are not immune to its enforcement policies. Yet some continue to tweet and post comments considered objectionable – and even dangerous – by many.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for example, cannot be compared to Trump in terms of number of followers or reach on Twitter, but his activity on the platform follows a similarly dangerous pattern.

In January, Khamenei posted false claims across his multiple accounts – in English, Spanish, Farsi, Arabic, and Russian – that coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines developed in the US and the UK were “completely untrustworthy,” that France had “HIV-tainted blood supplies,” and it was “not unlikely that they (Western countries) would want to contaminate other nations.”

This followed years of similarly dangerous and damaging tweets in which Khamenei incited violence against other nations. In May last year, he said that Iran would “support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime.”

And the list goes on. Lebanon’s deputy speaker of parliament, Elie Ferzli, recently used offensive language to respond to a tweet criticizing him.

Even in the US, the platform has become a space for company leaders to indirectly threaten employees, with the country’s National Labor Relations Board on Friday finding that a 2018 tweet from Tesla CEO Elon Musk unlawfully threatened workers with loss of stock options if they chose to be represented by the United Auto Workers union.

Way forward?

Regardless of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms’ claims that they only act as content aggregators rather than content producers, the problem remains.

“That’s like saying any kind of news organization is just an aggregator of all the stuff that various journalists happen to want to have (on their sites). Facebook makes it sound as if it is some kind of urinal, in which case people pee in every so often,” Esler added.

Russia recently acted and threatened to block Twitter for one month if the social media giant failed to remove banned content, which included the suicide of minors and indecent images of children, as well as information on drug use.

While the platform has complied and started taking down the content, Russia’s state regulator Roskomnadzor argued that the speed of removal was “unsatisfactory,” given that two-thirds of all demands were still being ignored.

In a statement, the regulator said: “Roskomnadzor reported that, after the adoption of measures to slow Twitter traffic on March 10, the social network began work on removing content banned in Russia, but only one-third. The rate at which the social network deletes banned information is unsatisfactory.

“We regret that only the use of technical enforcement measures to enforce Russian laws forced the American social network to recognize the existence of information that is absolutely evil in all countries of the world, and to take measures to remove it.”

Actions such as these, as well as Australia’s bitter standoff with Facebook over a proposed law that would force it to pay news publishers for content, have sparked fierce debate over the ethical standpoint of these platforms – namely when it comes to freedom of speech.

Esler said: “Nobody has the freedom of speech in a crowded theater to shout bomb or fire, that’s not freedom of speech.”


Israeli police assault Sky News Arabia reporter in Jerusalem

Israeli police assault Sky News Arabia reporter in Jerusalem
Updated 16 May 2021

Israeli police assault Sky News Arabia reporter in Jerusalem

Israeli police assault Sky News Arabia reporter in Jerusalem
  • Sky News Arabia crew were covering a car-ramming incident in Sheikh Jarrah
  • Israeli police officers were seen violently pushing Firas Lutfi

LONDON: Israeli police assaulted a reporter from Sky News Arabia on Sunday as he covered a car-ramming attack in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Israeli police killed a Palestinian youth after he ran over four police officers at a checkpoint in Sheikh Jarrah, which has been at the center of recent tensions.
The Sky News Arabia crew filming at the scene said police assaulted correspondent Firas Lutfi, and tried to break their camera.
“They beat me and tried to break the camera to prevent us from covering,” Lutfi said, adding the crew was able to transmit direct images of the incident and complete the coverage.
Shortly after, police officers were seen violently pushing Lutfi and one officer tried to block the camera with his hand.
Israeli police said four officers were injured in the attack and that the neighborhood has been sealed off.
Clashes erupted in the area between Palestinians and Israeli forces last month after Israel planned to evict Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Israeli settlers.
Those protests spread to Al-Aqsa mosque and sparked the exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.


US joins global push against violent extremism online

The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
Updated 16 May 2021

US joins global push against violent extremism online

The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. (File/AFP)
  • It was part of a global effort started by Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after deadly attacks in their countries were streamed or shared on social networks
  • Since its launch, governments and tech companies have cooperated in some cases in identifying violent extremist content online

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Two years after a white supremacist in New Zealand livestreamed the slaughter of 51 Muslim worshippers on Facebook, French President Emmanuel Macron says the Internet continues to be be used by terrorists as a weapon to propagate hate.
Macron and other leaders from tech giants and governments around the world — including the US for the first time — gathered virtually on Saturday to find better ways to stop extremist violence from spreading online, while also respecting freedom of expression.
It was part of a global effort started by Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after deadly attacks in their countries were streamed or shared on social networks.
The US government and four other countries joined the effort, known as the Christchurch Call, for the first time this year. It involves some 50 nations plus tech companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, and is named for the New Zealand city where the slaughter at the two mosques took place.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a prerecorded video that authorities in his country alone had taken down more than 300,000 pieces of terrorist material from the Internet over the past decade, which he described as a tsunami of hate.
“Terrorist content is like a metastasizing tumor within the Internet, or series of tumors,” Johnson said. “If we fail to excise it, it will inevitably spread into homes and high streets the world over.”
Since its launch, governments and tech companies have cooperated in some cases in identifying violent extremist content online. Ardern, however, said more tangible progress is needed to stop it from proliferating.
The meeting was aimed at revitalizing coordination efforts, notably since President Joe Biden entered office, and getting more tech companies involved. Macron and Ardern welcomed the US decision as a potential catalyst for stronger action.
Macron said the Internet had continued to be used as a tool in recent attacks in the US, Vienna, Germany and elsewhere. He said it cannot happen again, and that new European regulations against extremist content would help.
Ardern said that two years after the Christchurch Call was launched, momentum was strong. But she acknowledged the challenge in essentially playing whac-a-mole with different countries, Internet platforms and algorithms that can foster extremist content.
“The existence of algorithms themselves is not necessarily the problem, it’s whether or not they are being ethically used,” Ardern said. “And so that is probably the biggest focus for the Call community over the next year.”
She said part of the solution also came in better equipping a younger generation of Internet users to have the skills to deal with radical content or disinformation when they encounter it online.
Although the US only officially joined the Christchurch Call this year, it had been consistently contributing to the effort, Ardern said.
“Countering the use of the Internet by terrorists and violent extremists to radicalize and recruit is a significant priority for the United States,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. She also stressed the importance of protecting freedom of expression and “reasonable expectations of privacy.”


AP releases statement after Israeli attack on building housing media offices

AP releases statement after Israeli attack on building housing media offices
Updated 16 May 2021

AP releases statement after Israeli attack on building housing media offices

AP releases statement after Israeli attack on building housing media offices
  • We are horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau: Pruitt

NEW YORK:  An Israeli airstrike destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza City that housed offices of The Associated Press and other media outlets on Saturday. All AP employees and freelancers evacuated the building safely.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt has released the following statement:
We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP’s bureau and other news organizations in Gaza. They have long known the location of our bureau and knew journalists were there. We received a warning that the building would be hit.
We are seeking information from the Israeli government and are engaged with the US State Department to try to learn more.
This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life. A dozen AP journalists and freelancers were inside the building and thankfully we were able to evacuate them in time.
The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today.

The strike on the high-rise came nearly an hour after the military ordered people to evacuate the 12-story building, which also housed Al-Jazeera, other offices and residential apartments. 


Macron, Ardern hold talks in new push against online extremism

Macron, Ardern hold talks in new push against online extremism
Updated 14 May 2021

Macron, Ardern hold talks in new push against online extremism

Macron, Ardern hold talks in new push against online extremism
  • The campaign aims to bring together governments and top tech platforms
  • Christchurch Call’s participants are asked to commit to pledges to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern were to hold talks Friday by video conference to advance their two-year-old campaign to curb online extremism.
The talks will mark two years since the leaders launched the Christchurch Call, an initiative named after the New Zealand city where a far-right gunman massacred 51 people at two mosques on March 15, 2019 while broadcasting his rampage live on Facebook.
The campaign, which aims to bring together governments and top tech platforms, has been boosted by the decision of the administration of new US President Joe Biden to join the initiative after Donald Trump turned his back on the drive.
The aim of the talks, due to get underway at 1830 GMT, will be to “reaffirm strong, high-level political support, determine new goals for Christchurch Call signatories and maintain an open but demanding dialogue with digital platforms,” the French presidency said.
Participants in the Christchurch Call are asked to commit to pledges to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content on social media and other online platforms.
It was not immediately clear which tech chiefs and other leaders would be dialling into the virtual talks.
According to Macron’s office, this initiative now involves 52 states, the European Commission, 10 large companies and global Internet platforms and as well as dozen civil society associations.
The drive was launched to counter a growing use of social media by extremists, after the Christchurch attacker broadcast live footage on Facebook from a head-mounted camera.
The New Zealand leader earned huge international prominence and respect after the attacks by reaching out to Muslim communities at home and vowing a widescale crackdown on extremist content.
“Among the priorities I would like to see progressed is a strengthened collective ability to manage crises related to terrorist and violent extremist content online,” Ardern said in a statement released by the French presidency ahead of the talks.
Macron added: “The work of the Call is ongoing and it remains as important as when it was launched two years ago.”


Turkish tourism video taken down after online outcry

Turkish tourism video taken down after online outcry
Updated 14 May 2021

Turkish tourism video taken down after online outcry

Turkish tourism video taken down after online outcry
  • Opposition parties and critics on social media said the promotional video was an insult to Turks
  • The video, in English, was published Thursday on the social media accounts of official travel guide Go Turkiye

ISTANBUL: A video promoting tourism in Turkey amid the pandemic has caused an uproar on social media for showing tourism employees wearing masks that read “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated.”
The video, in English, was published Thursday on the social media accounts of official travel guide Go Turkiye linked to the country’s tourism ministry and was taken down later that day without explanation. It aimed to promote travel to Turkey as a “safe haven” for foreigners and showed unmasked tourists being served in hotels on the Turkish coast.
Opposition parties and critics on social media said the promotional video was an insult to Turks. A hashtag calling for the tourism minister to resign was trending on Twitter Friday. Users likened the masks to branding cattle and interpreted the ad’s message as Turks being subservient to foreigners.
“Sanitized resorts and vaccinated staff! We call it double safety for tourism. Our guests call it peace of mind” the video said.

 

 

Tourism workers have been prioritized to receive their vaccinations and the country’s foreign minister promised “we will vaccinate all people tourists may see by the end of May.” Many people are waiting for their turn. About 12.8 percent of Turkey’s nearly 84 million population has been fully vaccinated using China’s Sinovac or the US-German Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Turkey is in the final days of a full lockdown and the government has ordered people to stay home and businesses to close amid a huge surge in infections. But millions of workers are exempt and so are foreign tourists.
The restrictions, which began in late April, have brought daily infection numbers down from above 62,000 to around 11,500. Turkey’s president said the aim is to lower cases to below 5,000 in order for tourism to begin.
Turkey is courting international tourists during an economic downturn and needs the foreign currencies tourism brings to help industry and the economy as the Turkish lira continues to lose value. International tourists have been enjoying an empty Istanbul, Turkey’s famous beaches and other sites all to themselves, while Turks have been told to stay home and face expensive fines if they break rules.
Russia, however, has suspended flights to Turkey until June 1 and the UK and France recently warned their citizens not to travel to Turkey, introducing mandatory quarantines for travelers arriving from Turkey.
Starting May 17, Turkey is dropping the requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test result when arriving in Turkey for passengers arriving from Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Luxembourg, Ukraine and Estonia. Turkey requires mandatory quarantines for people who visited India, Brazil or South Africa, but other travelers can begin their vacations straightaway.