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.”


Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed. (File/AFP)
Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 September 2021

Navalny allies accuse YouTube, Telegram of censorship in Russian election

Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed. (File/AFP)
  • Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure
  • Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet

MOSCOW: Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s allies accused YouTube and Telegram of censorship on Saturday after the video platform and messaging app restricted access to their anti-government voting recommendations for Russia’s parliamentary election.
Navalny’s allies already accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of buckling under Kremlin pressure on Friday after the companies removed an app from their stores that the activists had hoped to use against the ruling party at the election.
Voting began on Friday and runs until late on Sunday.
The app gives detailed recommendations on who to vote for in an effort to challenge the party that backs President Vladimir Putin. It is one of the few levers Navalny’s allies have left after a sweeping crackdown this year.
Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, who has carved out a libertarian image and resisted past censorship, said the platform would block election campaign services, including one used by Navalny’s allies to give voter recommendations.
He said the decision had been taken because of a Russian ban on campaigning once polls are open, which he considered legitimate and is similar to bans in many other countries.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh condemned the move.
“It’s a real disgrace when the censorship is imposed by private companies that allegedly defend the ideas of freedom,” she wrote on Twitter.
Ivan Zhdanov, a political ally of Navalny, said he did not believe Telegram’s justification and that the move looked to have been agreed somehow with Russia’s authorities.
Late on Saturday, Navalny’s camp said YouTube had also taken down one of their videos that contained the names of 225 candidates they had endorsed.
“The video presentation of the smart voting recommendations for the constituencies with the nastiest (United Russia candidates) has also been removed,” they wrote.
Navalny’s camp said it was not a knockout blow as their voting recommendations were available elsewhere on social media.
But it is seen as a possible milestone in Russia’s crackdown on the Internet and its standoff with US tech firms.
Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet, where anti-Kremlin politicians have followings and media critical of Putin operate.
Navalny’s team uses Google’s YouTube widely to air anti-corruption videos and to stream coverage and commentary of anti-Kremlin protests they have staged.
’Dangerous precedent’
The ruling United Russia Party is widely expected to win the election despite a ratings slump. The voting, which opened on Friday and runs through Sunday, follows the biggest crackdown on the Kremlin’s domestic opponents in years.
The Navalny team’s Telegram feed continued to function normally on Saturday, and included links to voter recommendations available in Russia via Google Docs.
On a separate Telegram feed also used by the team, activists said Russia had told Google to remove the recommendations in Google Docs and that the US company had in turn asked Navalny’s team to take them down.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his statement, Durov said Google and Apple’s restrictions of the Navalny app had set a dangerous precedent and meant Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, was more vulnerable to government pressure.
He said Telegram depends on Apple and Google to operate because of their dominant position in the mobile operating system market and his platform would not have been able to resist a Russian ban from 2018 to 2020 without them.
Russia tried to block Telegram in April 2018 but lifted the ban more than two years later after ostensibly failing to block it.
“The app block by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of expression in Russia and the whole world,” Durov said in a post on Telegram.


South African Muslim woman becomes head of oldest media watchdog

South African Muslim woman becomes head of oldest media watchdog
Updated 18 September 2021

South African Muslim woman becomes head of oldest media watchdog

South African Muslim woman becomes head of oldest media watchdog
  • Khadija Patel, an investigative journalist and fourth-generation Muslim of Asian background, is the first female Chair of the International Press Institute (IPI)
  • Patel was editor in chief of South African’s Mail & Guardian and is now active in mentoring young journalists

VIENNA: South Africa’s leading media figure has been elected as the 35th chairperson of the International Press Institute, the world’s oldest media watchdog.

Khadija Patel, an investigative journalist and fourth-generation Muslim of Asian background, became the first woman, first non-European/American and first Muslim to ever become chair of the prestigious organization.

Set up in 1950 in New York City by 34 male editors and publishers and one female editor, the Vienna-based press institute has, in addition to Khadija, two other women in leadership positions: Italian Barbara Trionfi as executive director and Jordanian Etaf Roudan as an executive board member.

Speaking at the Vienna City Hall, Patel related her upbringing in South Africa where Muslim women were not encouraged to enter the media field. 

“I was 12 when I told my English teacher that I wanted to become a journalist,” Patel told fellow journalists from around the world. “After a long pause, my teacher said journalism is not an appropriate career for Muslim women.”

In addition to becoming an investigative journalist, Patel was editor in chief of South African’s Mail & Guardian and is now active in supporting young journalists in her position as head of programs for South Africa’s International Fund for Public Interest Media.

Speaking about the profession, Khadija said being a journalist is the best job in the world. “The pay is not great, but it brings joy to its practitioners. Stories about repression, stories about abuse of power, stories about corruption need also to exist. 

“We are complex beings. Our experiences are complex because there is no singular Hungarian or South African or Belarusian experience. Despite the complexity, journalism does allow us to understand each other better to bring joy to each other. 

“For me, it is a bridge to inform, and at its most basic level, it is a bridge for each other. In a time when hatred abounds, journalism allows us to be nice to each other and to bring joy to each other.”

Patel told Arab News: “I’m humbled by the volume of support that has greeted the news of my election to this position. I hope that I can repay that support by ensuring the IPI is led well during a particularly trying time for journalists around the world. And I hope we can inspire new generations of journalists around the world to do the same.”

Trionfi said: “We are thrilled to welcome Khadija Patel as IPI’s new board chair and greatly look forward to working with her to address the challenges facing independent journalism across the globe. 

“It is no surprise that Khadija earned the trust of her fellow board members to take over the chair position, and her deep experience as a journalist and editor make her perfectly suited to this role.”

Separately, the IPI General Assembly elected 10 new executive board members, including three journalists from the Arab region: 

Raheem Adedoyin, chairman, editorial board, Herald Newspapers, Nigeria. 

Walid Batrawi, media and communications expert, Palestine.

John Daniszewskivice president, Standards, editor at large, The Associated Press, US.  

Mбrton Gergely, editor in chief, HVG, Hungary. 

Emre Kızılkaya, project editor of journo.com.tr, Turkey. 

Elizaveta Osetinskaya, journalist and media manager, founder of The Bell, Russia.  

Etaf Roudan, Radio Al-Balad manager, Community Media Network, Jordan. 

Hiroki Sugita, columnist and associate executive director, Kyodo News, Japan. 

Jussi Tuulensuusenior editor in chief, Aamulehti, Finland. 

Sami Zeidan, principal presenter, Al Jazeera Media Network, Qatar.


‘Wall of Grief’ project by Indian journalists documents hidden toll of pandemic

 A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2021

‘Wall of Grief’ project by Indian journalists documents hidden toll of pandemic

 A health worker inoculates a man with a dose of Covishield vaccine against the Covid-19 coronavirus at a vaccination centre in Srinagar on September 17, 2021. (AFP)
  • “The projection of Gujarat itself after extrapolating the data is 218,000 — far higher that what the government claims”

NEW DELHI: A group of Indian journalists are documenting the everyday information of their dead compatriots in the wake of a devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the subcontinent earlier this year.
The online memorial project, “Wall of Grief,” aims to show the reality of the situation, which saw hundreds of thousands of Indians killed, according to official data. However, some suspect that the true number could be much higher.
Wall of Grief was launched in late August by The Reporters’ Collective, which says its aim is to “visualize the scale” of casualties amid the pandemic.
The project is supported by independent news agency 101Reporters and the Delhi-based National Foundation for India, an independent grant organization for public welfare and social transformation.
It functions as a database and a public depository containing the name, age, gender, occupation, and place of, and date of death, of each COVID-19 victim.
“We want to document all the deaths that have gone unacknowledged and unaccounted for,” one of the project’s coordinators, Tapasya, told Arab News on Friday.
The idea emerged when the collective went to work on a story about underreported COVID-19 deaths in the western Indian state of Gujarat. When reporters analyzed excess deaths data from a few dozen municipalities that covered only 6 percent of the state’s population, the number of deaths was about 16,000, compared with the 10,000 that the government had cited as Gujarat’s total coronavirus death toll.
“The data from Gujarat was quite shocking for me,” Tapasya said. “The projection of Gujarat itself after extrapolating the data is 218,000 — far higher that what the government claims.”

FASTFACTS

• Database shows name, age, gender and occupation of ‘untold’ COVID-19 victims.

• Official figures say disease has killed 440k people in India, but many say real number could be up to 11 times higher.

According to official figures, the pandemic has claimed more than 440,000 lives in India, most of them during the deadly second wave between March and June this year.
While their own count is still ongoing, the TRC have so far recorded death statistics in 13 of India’s 28 states.
“If from only one state you have almost half of the national figure of 440,000, then the overall result is going to be very shocking,” Tapasya warned.
Their expectations are supported by a study released earlier this week by the University of Michigan, the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata and Delhi School of Economics, which projected the country’s actual death toll to be between four and 11 times higher than official number.
Led by epidemiologist Bhramar Mukherjee, the study warned that India could have lost up to 4.9 million people to the disease.
Despite requests by Arab News, Indian Health Ministry officials and representatives of the government-run Indian Council for Medical Research declined to comment on COVID-19 death figures.
“Everyone knows that no matter what the official figures are, the actual number is much more,” Mayank Aggarwal, who leads Wall of Grief with Tapasya, told Arab News.
But for Aggarwal, the purpose of the project is not only formal documentation.
“This project should trigger conversations and bring people together to question the system and make it more accountable,” he said.
It is also meant to help open spaces for those who are grieving lost family members and friends, he added.
“We wanted to have a common space where people can come together and share their grief — a space that does not allow us to forget what happened to us.”


Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?
Updated 17 September 2021

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?

Who streams the most content in Saudi Arabia?
  • YouGov’s latest research sheds light on streamers’ content consumption and habits 

DUBAI: The last two years have seen an unprecedented rise in the popularity of streaming services, and Saudi Arabia is no exception.

The latest research from analytics firm YouGov shows that Generation Z audiences are the most regular users of streaming services in KSA, with 72 percent claiming to use any catch-up or streaming service on a regular basis.

The study found that there is an inverse relationship between age and on-demand streaming, which means that younger audiences stream the most content. After Gen Z, millennials are the most regular consumers of streaming services (69 percent), followed by Generation X (61 percent) and baby boomers (45 percent).

Despite the growth of regional streaming services, Netflix appears to be the most popular streaming service in Saudi Arabia, with 37 percent of residents using it.

The global streaming giant is widely favored by younger audiences. Compared to the overall online population in the country, nearly three in five (59 percent) Gen Z streamers claim to use Netflix, followed by 56 percent of millennials.

Consumption of other streaming platforms is also much higher among these young adults. Compared to the overall online population, millennial streamers are heavier consumers of Amazon Prime (19 percent) and Shahid (24 percent).

When looking closely at the attitudes of streamers, the study found that streaming has massively affected how these audiences consume TV.

Fifty percent of Gen Z streamers and 46 percent of millennials agree with the statement, “Live TV is a thing of the past,” while 48 percent of millennial streamers said that streaming services have changed TV watching for them, versus 43 percent of Gen Z streamers. The latter, however, have been raised in the digital age, with streaming more native to them than TV watching.

Nearly half of Gen Z streamers (49 percent) claim people reach out to them regarding suggestions for new music, movies and TV shows. When it comes to attitudes toward watching films, nearly a quarter of Gen Z streamers say they prefer to watch movies via pay-to-own or pay-to-view streaming services, even though watching films in cinemas or theatres is their top preference.

It is fairly evident that the younger generation is used to having media “on-demand,” suggested the report, presenting a huge opportunity for streaming services in the Kingdom.


Reporter refused entry to Lebanon’s presidential palace to cover cabinet meeting

Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
Updated 17 September 2021

Reporter refused entry to Lebanon’s presidential palace to cover cabinet meeting

Al Jadeed correspondent Layal Saad during her live broadcast minutes after she was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover the Lebanese cabinet's meeting. (Al Jadeed)
  • Layal Saad said she was barred because of a previous incident in which she was verbally abused for referring to the president as ‘Aoun’ and not ‘his excellency President Aoun’
  • Al-Jadeed TV said it will take legal action because Baabda Palace is ‘the people’s palace’ and ‘the law doesn’t prohibit any citizen from entering any public facility’

BEIRUT: A Lebanese journalist was denied entry to Baabda Presidential Palace to cover a cabinet meeting on Thursday because of an incident that happened there last month.

In a live report, Al-Jadeed TV reporter Layal Saad said she was told by a representative of the palace’s press office that she could not enter the building. She added that she “was not allowed to do her journalistic duty” because of the previous confrontation.

Saad, who has covered events at the palace for five years, was reportedly subjected to verbal abuse by a security officer on Aug. 21. At the time she said that while the podium was being prepared for speeches, the officer overheard her asking colleagues, in reference to President Michel Aoun, ‘Is Aoun giving a speech?’ The man came up to her, she added, stood very close and spoke to her angrily and abusively, telling her: “You address him by saying ‘his excellency the president, General Michel Aoun,’ and not just ‘Aoun.’”

Saad said this incident was the reason why she was denied entry to the palace on Thursday. In a live broadcast she said: “Some of the palace’s staff and presidential advisors called me after August’s incident and apologized, saying it was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.”

She added that was told the officer should not have spoken to her because only press office staff should deal with journalists.

“The employee (who refused to let Saad into the palace on Thursday) told me that the previous incident remains unresolved,” she said. “The president’s media advisor, Rafic Chlala, is the one who asked him to notify me that I could not enter the palace to cover the meeting … they didn’t want anyone from the security staff to speak to me.”

Saad added that she was told to ask her employers to send another correspondent.

Al-Jadeed TV responded to the palace by firmly stating it “will not assign any colleague to replace Layal Saad. It is not a matter of alternatives anymore but rather it has become about the core of freedoms and the transformation of Baabda palace into a tool of suppressing words and existence.”

Saying “Layal Saad or nobody,” it added: “Facing this ban, the channel finds itself compelled to file a lawsuit against the pertinent authorities at Baabda Palace, which is the people’s palace. The law doesn’t prohibit any citizen from entering any public facility.”

Saad told Arab News that palace staff must not be allowed to treat the building as “their own private house because it’s a public facility and any citizen can enter.”

She added that although she is not personally taking legal action against palace authorities, her employers intend to.

“The lawsuit will be lodged against any staff and advisors involved in issuing the ban and I am not sure if that includes the presidency … that’s up to the lawyers to talk about it,” she said.

The president’s press office said the management of Al-Jadeed had been asked to replace Saad with another reporter, and that other journalists had been assigned to cover the palace recently without any problems.

It added that Al-Jadeed was reminded that the same restriction continued to apply as a result of the incident in August, but this time the channel sent Saad anyway to cover the cabinet session and she was asked to leave.