Arab youth find a ‘safe space’ on invite-only app

Arab youth find a ‘safe space’ on invite-only app
A 2019 Arab Youth Survey found that 50 percent of respondents in 15 Arab countries believe that mental illness carries a stigma. (Shutterstock)
Short Url
Updated 12 June 2021

Arab youth find a ‘safe space’ on invite-only app

Arab youth find a ‘safe space’ on invite-only app
  • Mental health, identity and politics are favorite topics in Clubhouse’s virtual chat ‘rooms’

BANGALORE, India: Pia Abou Antoun, a 19-year-old Clubhouse moderator based in Beirut, still remembers  the heartfelt moment she experienced during an early session on the invitation-only audio app.
“A young woman from Egypt shared her story for the first time — she had always struggled with her weight and appearance. After being bullied through her childhood, she developed anxiety and depression,” Antoun said.
“She started crying and it was a very emotional moment for all of us in the room. It really touched my heart, as I could relate to her.”
Antoun is the founder of Dare Female, an online platform that encourages discussion on mental health, and also hosts regular sessions on Clubhouse, the social networking app that allows users to join virtual “rooms” on discussions that interest them.
Users can moderate, actively engage or simply sit in on these conversations. Rooms provide privacy options ranging from open to invitation-only, closed rooms. Much like a Zoom conference, users have to raise their “hand” to be allowed to speak.
Clubhouse was initially launched as a niche app catering to San Francisco’s tech and venture capitalist community but has found immense popularity in the Middle East. In February this year, the app had more than 4 million downloads in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
According to a Carnegie Melon University analysis, a wide range of political, social and cultural topics have already been discussed in Arabic-language Clubhouse chat rooms, including “politics, identity, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.”
Initially, Antoun sat in on rooms with nearly 100 members and quickly realized that people wanted to discuss mental health.
“We lack mental health awareness,” she said.
Recent research in the Arab Gulf countries reveals that there are high levels of stigma, negative beliefs and inappropriate practices associated with mental illness.
A 2019 Arab Youth Survey found that 50 percent of respondents in 15 Arab countries believe that mental illness carries a stigma.
Dr. Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Center in Dubai, said that while mental health has become prominent in public discussions in the past few years, particularly with the millennial and Gen Z demographic, it still carries a level of stigma. In this demographic, some of the issues she sees in her practice are work-life balance, procrastination and burnout.
“One of the most important things we can do to combat stigma is to normalize the conversation around mental health,” Rasmi sid. “By normalizing the conversation, we also encourage people to seek help at an earlier stage.”
As Antoun began hosting Clubhouse discussions, she found the voice-only aspect of the app immensely liberating. “People tend to speak freely, without fear of being judged. This authenticity and vulnerability really unite people.”
The community aspect of Clubhouse can be likened to a virtual support group. If individuals are uncomfortable talking about mental health within their inner circle, a support group can help normalize the experience and make people feel less lonely.
“Particularly in societies where seeking mental health support is still stigmatized, individuals find support groups a safe place to share, process and bond with people who are living through a similar experience,” Rasmi said.
Ally Salama, 24, founder of the mental health and wellness magazine EMPWR has moderated several therapeutic and powerful sessions on Clubhouse. 
Given that social media is frequently criticized for filtering reality and diminishing authentic human connection, Clubhouse, in some ways, brings back the connection.
“Audio platforms are not only more intimate, but also allow for enhanced connectivity, space for discourse, and a deeper, more meaningful conversation,” Salama says.
The Dubai-based mental health advocate believes that the Clubhouse audience is much more intentional. “You don’t just stumble into a room or end up swiping or seeing a story on your feed,” he said. “They actually come into your room and commit to the discussion.”
As attention has become a valuable commodity, the topic of mental health has grown more urgent. Citing statistics from the region, Salama said Clubhouse reflects society. He describes young people seeking an outlet on Clubhouse rooms for anxieties and worries compounded by the pandemic crisis, as well as turmoil in Lebanon and Palestine.
Clubhouse can offer more nuanced and meaningful discussions compared with other social media platforms, but 24-year old Mahmoud Khedr doesn’t attribute this solely to the app, adding that purposefully designing and clearly defining the objectives of the room can benefit discussions.
As the co-founder of
FloraMind, a platform that works with schools and government organizations to address mental health issues among youth, Khedr hosts frequent rooms on Clubhouse.
However, his sessions are much more targeted and specific to particular communities, such as Arab youth in the US or mental health support groups for men. He brings in both mental health experts and people with particular experiences to offer fresh and interesting perspectives.
While the term “safe space” has become a catchall for any new platform, mental health advocates are mindful of how they define this phrase within Clubhouse. Khedr includes a trigger warning since content can include difficult conversations, such as suicide attempts.
“Confidentiality is a priority and we hope people respect that by not recording or sharing content discussed in the session,” he said.
Other ground rules include being empathetic, giving space for people to share, and refraining from offering unsolicited advice on mental health.
Salama also works with psychologists to ensure that the vocabulary and language are inclusive and safe for everyone.
“The important thing to remember is that anything we see on social media does not substitute for therapy,” Rasmi added.
She suggested that social media users be mindful of disclaimers and consume content from a credible source. As the next best step and if needed, she recommends individuals contact qualified professionals.


Jailed Belarus journalist needs urgent hospital care

Andrei Skurko, EIC of the prominent Nasha Niva newspaper, was arrested three weeks ago and is in a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. (AP)
Andrei Skurko, EIC of the prominent Nasha Niva newspaper, was arrested three weeks ago and is in a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. (AP)
Updated 3 min 14 sec ago

Jailed Belarus journalist needs urgent hospital care

Andrei Skurko, EIC of the prominent Nasha Niva newspaper, was arrested three weeks ago and is in a pre-trial detention center in Minsk. (AP)
  • The association said it filed a request with the Interior Ministry’s penitentiary department and the Health Ministry to urgently hospitalize Andrei Skurko
  • A total of 28 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody either awaiting trial or serving their sentences

KYIV: The Belarusian Association of Journalists on Thursday called on authorities in Belarus to transfer a jailed journalist to a civilian hospital so he could get treatment for a coronavirus-induced pneumonia he has reportedly developed in detention.
The association said it filed a request with the Interior Ministry’s penitentiary department and the Health Ministry to urgently hospitalize Andrei Skurko, head of the advertising and marketing department of the prominent Nasha Niva newspaper. Skurko, who used to be the paper’s chief editor from 2006 to 2017, was arrested three weeks ago and is in a pre-trial detention center in Minsk, the capital.
Nasha Niva reported this week that Skurko has been transferred to the facility’s medical ward with “structural changes in his lungs,” and his cellmates were placed in quarantine because Skurko was suspected to have been infected with COVID-19.
The newspaper said before Skurko, 43, was moved to the detention facility he is in now, he had spent 13 days in another detention center that is notorious for its harsh conditions, without a bed or a mattress and lacking access to his diabetes medications.
“Andrei Skurko is an insulin-dependent diabetic. For people like him, coronavirus can be deadly,” the Belarusian Association of Journalists said.
Belarusian authorities raided the offices of Nasha Niva, the country’s oldest and most well-respected independent newspaper, on July 8 along with the homes of some staff members. Skurko was detained that day along with the paper’s editor, Yahor Martsinovich, and two other employees of Nasha Niva, who were later released.
Martsinovich and Skurko remain in custody and are facing charges over incorrect payments of utility bills, charges that carry punishment of up to five years in prison.
Belarusian authorities have ramped up the pressure against non-governmental organizations and independent media, conducting more than 200 raids of offices and apartments of activists and journalists so far this month alone, according to the Viasna human rights center.
Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has vowed to continue what he called a “mopping-up operation” against civil society activists whom he has denounced as “bandits and foreign agents.”
Lukashenko faced months of protests triggered by his being awarded a sixth term in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West saw as rigged. He responded to demonstrations with a massive crackdown that saw more than 35,000 people arrested and thousands beaten by police.
According to Viasna, Belarus authorities are deliberately creating unbearable conditions for political prisoners behind bars, including by placing them into “coronavirus cells.”
Raids targeting journalists and more detentions took place Thursday in Minsk and other cities, the Belarusian Association of Journalists said.
Earlier this week, Belarusian authorities declared the Polish-funded Belsat TV channel an extremist group.
A total of 28 Belarusian journalists — including those working with Nasha Niva, Belsat and the popular independent news site Tut.by — remain in custody either awaiting trial or serving their sentences.
In a statement Thursday, the International Federation of Journalists condemned the government crackdown on Belarusian media.
“We call on the international community to denounce the situation in Belarus. Each day, the authorities violate the media’s and citizens’ freedoms with impunity,” said the Federation’s general secretary, Anthony Bellanger.


LinkedIn allows employees to work fully remote, removes in-office expectation

LinkedIn is reopening its global offices based on COVID-19 infection rates in each location. (File/AFP)
LinkedIn is reopening its global offices based on COVID-19 infection rates in each location. (File/AFP)
Updated 30 July 2021

LinkedIn allows employees to work fully remote, removes in-office expectation

LinkedIn is reopening its global offices based on COVID-19 infection rates in each location. (File/AFP)
  • inkedIn will allow employees to opt for full-time remote work or a hybrid option as offices gradually reopen
  • The new policy will apply to LinkedIn's global workforce of more than 16,000 employees

NEW YORK: LinkedIn will allow employees to opt for full-time remote work or a hybrid option as offices gradually reopen, Chief People Officer Teuila Hanson told Reuters.

This new policy is a shift from the initial indication last October that Microsoft Corp's professional social networking site would expect employees to work from an office 50% of the time when COVID-19 pandemic restrictions lift.

The updated policy, offering the flexibility to work remotely full-time or work at an office part-time, will apply to LinkedIn's global workforce of more than 16,000 employees.

“We anticipate that we'll definitely see more remote employees than what we saw prior to the pandemic,” Hanson said in a Wednesday interview ahead of the announcement, adding that some jobs would require in-office work.

Hanson said LinkedIn is not currently requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to return to the office, in contrast to tech companies such as Facebook and Google that have responded to a rise in U.S. COVID-19 cases by requiring shots. Twitter Inc is closing its recently reopened offices due to the surge in cases.

LinkedIn employees who move locations could see their pay adjusted based on the local market where they're based, said Greg Snapper, director of corporate communications.

The tech industry was among the first to allow employees to work from home when COVID-19 hit the US last year. But the extent to which tech companies are embracing permanent remote work is now diverging.

Apple Inc will require most employees to work from the office three days per week starting in October, while Zillow Group Inc and Reddit Inc will allow most employees to work remotely. Alphabet Inc's Google expects 60 percent of its workforce to return to the office at least part-time.

LinkedIn is reopening its global offices based on COVID-19 infection rates in each location.


From Facebook to Twitter, Big Tech sees social commerce driving sales growth

The success of social commerce stems in part from product targeting based on user interests, with sales generating more data. (File/Facebook)
The success of social commerce stems in part from product targeting based on user interests, with sales generating more data. (File/Facebook)
Updated 30 July 2021

From Facebook to Twitter, Big Tech sees social commerce driving sales growth

The success of social commerce stems in part from product targeting based on user interests, with sales generating more data. (File/Facebook)
  • Social media platforms, including Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat and Twitter, ramp up investment in shopping features to drive revenue growth
  • This move comes despite the lifting of restrictions, with analysts predicting that the demand for shopping online is unlikely to retreat

LONDON: Led by Facebook, social media platforms from Alphabet’s YouTube to Snap Inc. and Twitter are investing heavily in shopping features to drive revenue growth, a major theme that emerged during second-quarter results over the past week.
The companies are vying for a piece of the so-called social commerce industry, which relies on users’ ability to discover and buy products through social media apps and is expected to balloon to $50 billion from $36 billion in annual sales by 2023 in the United States according to research firm eMarketer.
The success of social commerce stems in part from product targeting based on user interests, with sales generating more data that can be used for future advertising and merchandise placements.
Facebook, widely considered the leader in social commerce, and Google helped retailers bring in sales in the last quarter, with ecommerce player Shopify saying the growth rate of products sold through the two tech companies’ platforms was “several times that” of websites run by the merchants themselves.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that enabling commerce and making it easier for businesses to communicate with customers through its Messenger and WhatsApp apps was “the right long-term bet.”
Retailers are increasingly hopping on to the trend as COVID-19 restrictions weigh on brick-and-mortar sales.
Brands ranging from luxury fashion house Burberry to fast fashion giant H&M have signed up celebrities and influencers to get millions of their followers to make purchases off ephemeral stories or posts by asking them to “swipe up to purchase.”
While the business is small for now, the social media giants are eyeing the data generated from users’ shopping and browsing habits for targeted advertising.
The scramble for user data has become even more crucial as recent privacy changes from Apple Inc. limit tech companies’ ability to track iPhone users and serve personalized advertising, ad experts have said.

THE FUTURE OF COMMERCE?
Facebook launched Shops in May 2020 during the height of the pandemic, luring brands with an easy way to sell items directly through Facebook and Instagram and consumers with a curated and personalized way to discover trendy clothes or home goods.
Facebook was the top social commerce platform according to a survey conducted by eMarketer in June 2020, with 18 percent of respondents saying they had purchased a product via Facebook. That compared with 11 percent for Facebook-owned Instagram and 3 percent for Pinterest.


Even as restrictions lift, analysts say the demand for shopping online is unlikely to retreat.
“People have gotten accustomed to buying online,” said Edward Jones analyst Dave Heger. “I don’t think that they’re going to go completely back to the level they were at before in terms of purchasing at brick and mortar stores.”
Snap Inc. is investing in augmented reality technology designed to help users virtually try on items like watches, jewelry and other apparel to cut down on returns, a major problem faced by online retailers.
Snapchat users can take a photo of a friend’s outfit with the app and find similar looks or product recommendations, Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel said last week during the company’s earnings conference call.
“The holy grail of advertising is to actually sell merchandise,” said Rich Greenfield, a partner at LightShed Partners, in a note on Snap last week.
“While these initiatives are still in the early stages, we believe an increasing number of brands want to be associated with where commerce is headed.”
Popular short-form video app TikTok is testing live-streamed shopping with select brands in the UK, allowing viewers purchase clothes as an influencer models the item in real time during a live video.
Twitter, a platform most known for following breaking news or current events, said on Wednesday that it will begin testing a shopping feature that lets users browse items for sale at the top of a brand’s profile page.
Streaming video site YouTube, known for “unboxing” videos in which YouTubers review toys or tech gadgets, wants to integrate shopping directly into the platform, said Google Chief Business Officer Philipp Schindler on Alphabet’s earnings call on Tuesday.


IMF sees “critical role” as world transitions to digital money

Digital money can make payments more accessible, faster and cheaper but policymakers must step up to key challenges. (File/AFP)
Digital money can make payments more accessible, faster and cheaper but policymakers must step up to key challenges. (File/AFP)
Updated 30 July 2021

IMF sees “critical role” as world transitions to digital money

Digital money can make payments more accessible, faster and cheaper but policymakers must step up to key challenges. (File/AFP)
  • IMF ramps up resources to monitor and manage the rapid but complex transition to digital money

NEW YORK: The International Monetary Fund must ramp up its resources as it seeks to “monitor, advise on, and help manage this far-reaching and complex transition” to digital money, according to an IMF paper published on Thursday.
Digital money can make payments more accessible, faster and cheaper, the paper said. But to make that happen, policymakers must step up to key challenges: digital cash must be trustworthy, must protect domestic economic and financial stability, and the stability of the international monetary system should remain.
“The Fund has a critical role to play to help its members harness the benefits and manage the risks of digital money,” the paper said.
Importantly, digital money “must be regulated, designed, and provided so countries maintain control over monetary policy, financial conditions, capital account openness, and foreign exchange regimes.”
The paper makes the distinction between central bank digital currencies, stablecoins and e-Money, on which it focuses, and cryptoassets including bitcoin. “While different types of digital money are considered, this paper does not take a stand on which form may predominate.”
The paper, dated March, discussed by the IMF board in April and published on Thursday, offers a vision for the evolution of the Fund and how it seeks to partner with other organizations like central banks, regulators and the World Bank.
“The Fund too must step up,” the paper said.
“The Fund must rapidly strengthen, widen, and deepen its well-established work on digital money, while coordinating and collaborating closely with other institutions within the confines of its mandate. The Fund must also rapidly ramp up its resources devoted to these topics.”
In a separate blog post earlier this week, the director of the IMF’s monetary and capital markets department and the director of its legal department said any attempt to use cryptoassets as national currencies would be risky.
Advantages “including the potential for cheaper and more inclusive financial services, should not be overlooked,” they said.
“Governments, however, need to step up to provide these services, and leverage new digital forms of money while preserving stability, efficiency, equality, and environmental sustainability. Attempting to make cryptoassets a national currency is an inadvisable shortcut.”


Google delays return to office, mandates vaccines

Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by other tech giants such as Apple. (File/AfP)
Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by other tech giants such as Apple. (File/AfP)
Updated 30 July 2021

Google delays return to office, mandates vaccines

Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by other tech giants such as Apple. (File/AfP)
  • Google delays return to the office until mid-October and requires all workers to be vaccinated prior to returning
  • Various US government agencies already have announced demands for all their employees to be vaccinated

SAN RAMON: Google is postponing a return to the office for most workers until mid-October and rolling out a policy that will eventually require everyone to be vaccinated once its sprawling campuses are fully reopened.
The more highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus is driving a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Google’s Wednesday announcement was shortly followed by Facebook, which also said it will make vaccines mandatory for US employees who work in offices. Exceptions will be made for medical and other reasons.
In an email sent to Google’s more than 130,000 employees worldwide, CEO Sundar Pichai said the company is now aiming to have most of its workforce back to its offices beginning Oct. 18 instead of its previous target date of Sept. 1.
The decision also affects tens of thousands of contractors who Google intends to continue to pay while access to its campuses remains limited.
“This extension will allow us time to ramp back into work while providing flexibility for those who need it,” Pichai wrote.
And Pichai disclosed that once offices are fully reopened, everyone working there will have to be vaccinated. The requirement will be first imposed at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters and other US offices, before being extended to the more than 40 other countries where Google operates.
“This is the stuff that needs to be done, because otherwise we are endangering workers and their families,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and a former health commissioner for the city of Baltimore. “It is not fair to parents to be expected to come back to work and sit shoulder-to-shoulder with unvaccinated people who could be carrying a potentially deadly virus.”
Because children under the age of 12 aren’t currently eligible to be vaccinated, parents can bring the virus home to them from the office if they are around unvaccinated colleagues, Wen said.
Various government agencies already have announced demands for all their employees to be vaccinated, but the corporate world so far has been taking a more measured approach, even though most lawyers believe the mandates are legal.
Delta and United airlines are requiring new employees to show proof of vaccination. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are requiring their employees to disclose their vaccination status, but are not requiring staffers to be vaccinated.
Less than 10 percent of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated, based on periodic surveys by the research firm Gartner.
While other major technology companies may follow suit now that Google and Facebook have taken stands on vaccines, employers in other industries still may be reluctant, predicted Brian Kropp, chief of research for Gartner’s human resources practice.
“Google is seen as being such a different kind of company that I think it’s going to take one or two more big employers to do something similar in terms of becoming a game changer,” Kropp said.
Google’s vaccine mandate will be adjusted to adhere to the laws and regulations of each location, Pichai wrote, and exceptions will be made for medical and other “protected” reasons.
“Getting vaccinated is one of the most important ways to keep ourselves and our communities healthy in the months ahead,” Pichai explained.
Google’s decision to require employees working in the office to be vaccinated comes on the heels of similar moves affecting hundreds of thousands government workers in California and New York as part of stepped-up measures to fight the delta variant. President Joe Biden also is considering mandating all federal government workers be vaccinated.
The rapid rise in cases during the past month has prompted more public health officials to urge stricter measures to help overcome vaccine skepticism and misinformation.
The vaccine requirement rolling out in California next month covers more than 240,000 government employees. The city and county of San Francisco is also requiring its roughly 35,000 workers to be vaccinated or risk disciplinary action after the Food and Drug Administration approves one of the vaccines now being distributed under an emergency order.
It’s unclear how many of Google’s workers still haven’t been vaccinated. In his email, Pichai described the vaccination rate at the company as high.
Google’s decision to extend its remote-work follows a similar move by another technology powerhouse, Apple, which recently moved its return-to-office plans from September to October, too.
The delays by Apple and Google could influence other major employers to take similar precautions, given that the technology industry has been at the forefront of the shift to remote work triggered by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Even before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March 2020, Google, Apple and many other prominent tech firms had been telling their employees to work from home. This marks the third time Google has pushed back the date for fully reopening its offices.
Google’s vaccine requirement also could embolden other employers to issue similar mandates to guard against outbreaks and minimize the need to wear masks in the office.
While most companies are planning to bring back their workers at least a few days a week, others in the tech industry have decided to let employees do their jobs from remote locations permanently.