Whistleblower Haugen says Facebook making online hate worse

An installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surfing on a wave of cash and surrounded by distressed teenagers. (AFP)
An installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surfing on a wave of cash and surrounded by distressed teenagers. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 25 October 2021

Whistleblower Haugen says Facebook making online hate worse

An installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surfing on a wave of cash and surrounded by distressed teenagers. (AFP)
  • Haugen told UK lawmakers how Facebook Groups amplifies online hate, saying algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes

LONDON: Former Facebook data scientist turned whistleblower Frances Haugen on Monday told lawmakers in the United Kingdom working on legislation to rein in social media companies that the company is making online hate and extremism worse and outlined how it could improve online safety.
Haugen appeared before a parliamentary committee scrutinizing the British government’s draft legislation to crack down on harmful online content, and her comments could help lawmakers beef up the rules. She’s testifying the same day that Facebook is set to release its latest earnings and that The Associated Press and other news organizations started publishing stories based on thousands of pages of internal company documents she obtained.
Haugen told UK lawmakers how Facebook Groups amplifies online hate, saying algorithms that prioritize engagement take people with mainstream interests and push them to the extremes. She said the company could add moderators to prevent groups from being used to spread extremist views.
“Unquestionably, it’s making hate worse,” she said.
Haugen added that she was “shocked to hear recently that Facebook wants to double down on the metaverse and that they’re gonna hire 10,000 engineers in Europe to work on the metaverse,” Haugen said, referring to the company’s plans for an immersive online world it believes will be the next big Internet trend.
“I was like, ‘Wow, do you know what we could have done with safety if we had 10,000 more engineers?’ It would be amazing,” she said.
It’s her second appearance before lawmakers after she testified in the US Senate earlier this month about the danger she says the company poses, from harming children to inciting political violence and fueling misinformation. Haugen cited internal research documents she secretly copied before leaving her job in Facebook’s civic integrity unit.
The documents, which Haugen provided to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, allege Facebook prioritized profits over safety and hid its own research from investors and the public. Some stories based on the files have already been published, exposing internal turmoil after Facebook was blindsided by the Jan. 6 US Capitol riot and how it dithered over curbing divisive content in India, and more is to come.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has disputed Haugen’s portrayal of the company as one that puts profit over the well-being of its users or that pushes divisive content, saying a false picture is being painted. But he does agree on the need for updated Internet regulations, saying lawmakers are best able to assess the tradeoffs.
Haugen has told US lawmakers that she thinks a federal regulator is needed to oversee digital giants like Facebook, something that officials in Britain and the European Union are already working on.
The UK government’s online safety bill calls for setting up a regulator that would hold companies to account when it comes to removing harmful or illegal content from their platforms, such as terrorist material or child sex abuse images.
“This is quite a big moment,” Damian Collins, the lawmaker who chairs the committee, said ahead of the hearing. “This is a moment, sort of like Cambridge Analytica, but possibly bigger in that I think it provides a real window into the soul of these companies.”
Collins was referring to the 2018 debacle involving data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, which gathered details on as many as 87 million Facebook users without their permission.
Representatives from Facebook and other social media companies plan to speak to the committee Thursday.
Ahead of the hearing, Haugen met the father of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl who killed herself in 2017 after viewing disturbing content on Facebook-owned Instagram. In a chat filmed by the BBC, Ian Russell told Haugen that after Molly’s death, her family found notes she wrote about being addicted to Instagram.
Haugen also is scheduled to meet next month with European Union officials in Brussels, where the bloc’s executive commission is updating its digital rulebook to better protect Internet users by holding online companies more responsible for illegal or dangerous content.
Under the UK rules, expected to take effect next year, Silicon Valley giants face an ultimate penalty of up to 10 percent of their global revenue for any violations. The EU is proposing a similar penalty.
The UK committee will be hoping to hear more from Haugen about the data that tech companies have gathered. Collins said the internal files that Haugen has turned over to US authorities are important because it shows the kind of information that Facebook holds — and what regulators should be asking when they investigate these companies.
The committee has already heard from another Facebook whistleblower, Sophie Zhang, who raised the alarm after finding evidence of online political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan before she was fired.

Young Arabs’ heavy reliance on social media seen as a double-edged sword 

Young Arabs’ heavy reliance on social media seen as a double-edged sword 
Updated 04 December 2021

Young Arabs’ heavy reliance on social media seen as a double-edged sword 

Young Arabs’ heavy reliance on social media seen as a double-edged sword 
  • From social change to extremism, the Arab obsession with social media is regarded as a Catch-22
  • Arab experts weigh the pros and cons of young people’s massive dependence on social media

DUBAI: Social media is no longer a mere secondary method of communication. In recent years, it has become a powerful tool that can influence public opinion and educate and influence the youth — facets demonstrated over the last decade by the impact of networks on major political and social events in the Middle East.

In the early years of the Arab Spring, even before Instagram was as widespread as it is today, activists resorted to Facebook and Twitter to amplify their demands.

During the Beirut blast of Aug. 4, 2020, Lebanese at home and abroad resorted to social media to depict the aftermath of destruction and cry to the world for help, as well as to mobilize their community at home and abroad to assist those in need.

One could argue that the violence that took place in Palestine, the Gaza Strip and Israel in May gained more visibility internationally due to social media. The pleas were heard, the violence was seen and even experienced vicariously thanks to widespread sharing on social networks.

During such events, critical and verified information was shared just as much as news that misinformed and relayed falsified data — the double-edged sword of social networks.

Global social media dependency has continued to rise in recent years, particularly during the coronavirus disease pandemic. According to Hootsuite’s July 2020 report on Global Digital Growth, since COVID-19 there has been a 10 percent increase in digital adoption compared with 12 months earlier. Almost 51 percent of the global population currently uses social media, with a rate of 1 million new users per day, according to Simon Kemp. 

As for the Arab world, the 2021 Arab Barometer report on the digital divide in the region confirmed an increase in internet usage for all countries in the Middle East and North Africa during the pandemic, which Daniella Raz argues in The Arab World’s Digital Divide has fostered “a digital divide that is affected by the economic status of the country and education level of its citizens.”

According to the Arab Youth Survey 2021, 61 percent of Arab youth use social media as a news source, compared with 34 percent who consume news online and 9 percent through newspapers — making social media the number one source of news for young people.

The MENA region’s youth population is increasingly dependent on social media platforms to access information, particularly video and visually driven social networks, says Fares Akkad, director of media partnerships for news in growth markets across Asia Pacific, Latin America, Middle East Africa, and Turkey at Meta.

A man wearing a facemask as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 virus rides a bicycle in front of a mural. (AFP/File Photo)

“This is a trend that has raised its bar overtime and has been boosted especially during the pandemic and it is likely to grow at a larger and faster pace,” he tells Arab News.

“We have seen the strength and scale of the digital world, giving a platform and voice to millions who may otherwise not have it, providing an open and accessible venue through which regular people—can connect, access a plethora of information from politics to lifestyle and fashion.”

During COVID-19 there was a noticeable shift in how the Arab public retrieves information, from traditional media to new media, particularly social media. This led many Arab governments to redefine how they use networking platforms as ways to communicate critical information with their populations.

The World Health Organization also launched its official pages on social media platforms, including WhatsApp — an action that acknowledged how, during the pandemic, social media became a primary source through which official information and data was disseminated.

However, the same Arab Youth Survey conducted in 2019 showed how 80 percent of Arab youth use social media as a source of information, compared with online (61 percent) and newspapers (27 percent).

The drop in using social media as a news source — from 80 percent in 2019 and 79 percent in 2020 to 61 percent in 2021 — highlights the rise in hesitation from using these platforms to get information.

“From most of the surveys I have done it is shown clearly that much of the younger generation today is relying on social media for news,” Jad Melki, associate professor and journalism and media studies director at the Institute of Media Research and Training at the Lebanese American University, told Arab News.

“A lot of the youth don’t follow news to start with — they are more interested in entertainment than following news.”

Reluctance to use the platforms stems from negative attributes — as critical information is shared to the public for the greater good, so too are false rumors and misinformation, which have contributed to a rise in fear and panic among among people. This is true particularly among the youth — many of whom do not yet have the experience to fact-check information or turn to other sources.

A case in point is Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s testimony before the US Congress in October, where she stated that Facebook’s products “harm children, stoke division and weaken our democracy.” She claimed the company should declare “moral bankruptcy” if it is to move forward.

Haugen also accused the company of sowing divisions and fueling ethnic violence, placing — as she said in Washington — “astronomical profits before people.”

A woman looks at the Instagram page of Saudi influencer Ragda Bakhorji, in Dubai on April 7, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Haugen came forward as the source of a series of revelations in the Wall Street Journal based on internal Facebook (now Meta) documents that revealed the company knew how harmful Instagram was to teenagers’ mental health, and how changes to Facebook’s News Feed feature had also made the platform more divisive among young people.

Haugen’s testimony suggests social media is no longer a secondary method of communication, but a powerful tool that influences public opinion, and there are positives and negatives in its use.

It can educate just as much as it can misinform; bring people and cultures together as well as fuel terrorism and extremism. In many cases, social media is also overtaking mainstream media outlets as the preferred method of choice for how to obtain information.

Akkad affirms that Meta’s house of apps has prioritized making sure “everyone can access credible and accurate information.” He says Meta  removes false claims about vaccines, conspiracy theories, and misinformation that could lead to physical harm.

Currently, Akkad says, Meta removes content that violates its community standards, including more than 20 million pieces of false COVID-19 and vaccine content.

The platform has built a global network of over 80 independent fact-checking partners who rate the accuracy of posts covering more than 60 languages across its apps, with its partners in the Arab region including AFP, Reuters and Fatabyyano. 

It has also displayed warnings on more than 190 million pieces of COVID-related content on Facebook that Meta’s fact-checking partners rated as false, partly false, altered, or missing context. 

Jordanian make-up artist Alaa Bliha, 27, speaks to a journalist in the basement apartment where she lives with her mother and young brother in the capital Amman, on February 2, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

On the positive side, Meta has helped, says Akkad, over 2 billion people find credible COVID-19 information through its COVID-19 Information Center and News Feed pop-ups.

Yet is this enough to diminish the spread of false information?

Arpi Berberian, a social media manager at Create Media Group in Dubai, believes that to protect Arab youth, or any people at that, social media must be regulated.

While it is the primary source for young people in terms of receiving and processing news, “it should also be up to the receiver to fact check and source check what they read online. Especially when it comes to political news,” she told Arab News. 

“It is hard to generalize across Arab countries given the different political systems, educational levels and cultures,” said Melki.

“Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq or what we call Western Asia, has been the most in turmoil outside Yemen and Libya, and part of that turmoil is related to social media habits and obtaining information.”

Melki says that you can see, as the youth get older and the generation shifts, they become more and more interested in politics and following news. Moreover, as Melki points out, traditional news is now circulating largely online and through social media.

“However, a significant majority still watches television — TV remains king across all demographics, particularly when there is a conflict,” he says.

“We did a survey during the Lebanese protests in 2019 and television was the number one way to receive news followed by social media.”

A picture taken on February 4, 2013 in Riyadh shows a Saudi woman using a tablet computer. (AFP/File Photo)

Melki added that the survey found the same regarding Syrian refugees whether inside or outside of camps — television is the number one way to receive the news.

Can social media dependency in the Arab world be reversed and does it need to be?

“I don’t think it can be reversed. It can be improved though,” says Berberian. “There needs to be guidelines imposed by governments on social media outlets, especially on major outlets that have millions of users of all ages.

“It also doesn’t seem to be a good idea to allow some of the major social media platforms to be run by one entity without any balance. Accountability and the safety of its users needs to be at the forefront of social media’s outlets.”

If social media dependency cannot be reduced in the Arab world, and it has become, as analysts state, one, if not the, primary way for the youth and the general populace to receive critical information, then the way forward is for regulation and education. But then who is to regulate and educate and by what terms?

Especially in nations that lack opportunities for youth available elsewhere, social media becomes a window to the world and one with endless social and business possibilities, and this is the double-edged sword of social media: Its pros and cons can almost be equally weighed.

Russia files court cases for fines on annual turnover of Google, Meta

Google, Twitter and Meta have significantly reduced the number of posts prohibited by Moscow on their platforms. (file/AFP)
Google, Twitter and Meta have significantly reduced the number of posts prohibited by Moscow on their platforms. (file/AFP)
Updated 03 December 2021

Russia files court cases for fines on annual turnover of Google, Meta

Google, Twitter and Meta have significantly reduced the number of posts prohibited by Moscow on their platforms. (file/AFP)
  • Russia files court case against Google and Meta for failure to delete content that Moscow deems illegal

MOSCOW: Russia’s state communications regulator Roskomnadzor has filed cases against US tech firms Google and Meta that could see fines imposed on their annual turnover in Russia, a Moscow court said on Friday.
Roskomnadzor in October threatened both Alphabet’s Google and Meta’s Facebook with fines based on a percentage of their annual turnover for a repeated failure to delete content that Moscow deems illegal.
Russian law allows for companies to be fined between 5 percent and 10 percent of annual turnover for repeated violations.
Moscow’s Tagansky District Court said court dates for both companies — neither of which immediately responded to a request for comment — were set for Dec. 24.
Russia has increased pressure on foreign tech companies as it seeks to assert greater control over the Internet, slowing down Twitter since March and routinely fining others for content violations.
Google has paid more than 32 million roubles in fines this year. Google, Twitter and Meta have significantly reduced the number of posts prohibited by Moscow on their platforms.
Russia last month demanded that 13 foreign and mostly US technology companies be officially represented on Russian soil by the end of 2021 or face possible restrictions or outright bans.

Google delays mandatory return to office beyond Jan. 10

Google in August had said it would expect workers to come in about three days a week from Jan. 10. (File/AFP)
Google in August had said it would expect workers to come in about three days a week from Jan. 10. (File/AFP)
Updated 03 December 2021

Google delays mandatory return to office beyond Jan. 10

Google in August had said it would expect workers to come in about three days a week from Jan. 10. (File/AFP)
  • Google delays return to office indefinitely amid growing concerns over COVID-19 variant

LONDON: Alphabet Inc’s Google said on Thursday it is indefinitely pushing back its January return-to-office plan globally amid growing concerns over the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and some resistance to company-mandated vaccinations.
Google in August had said it would expect workers to come in about three days a week from Jan. 10 at the earliest, ending its voluntary work-from-home policy.
On Thursday, Google executives told employees that the company would put off the deadline beyond that date. Insider first reported the news.
Google said the update was in line with its earlier guidance that a return to workplaces would begin no earlier than Jan. 10 and depend on local conditions.
Nearly 40 percent of US employees have come into an office in recent weeks, Google said, with higher percentages in other parts of the world.
But CNBC reported last week that hundreds of employees have protested the company’s vaccination mandate for those working on US government contracts.
Google was one of the first companies to ask its employees to work from home during the pandemic. It has about 85 offices across nearly 60 countries.
Europe has so far recorded 79 cases of the Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month, the European Union’s public health agency said earlier on Thursday.

INTERVIEW: Influencer marketing has matured a lot in the region

INTERVIEW: Influencer marketing has matured a lot in the region
Updated 03 December 2021

INTERVIEW: Influencer marketing has matured a lot in the region

INTERVIEW: Influencer marketing has matured a lot in the region
  • Maha Mahdy, head of AnyTag for AnyMind Group in MENA, discusses influencer marketing’s growth and evolution in the region

DUBAI: AnyMind Group, a brand enablement platform for influencers, marketers, publishers and businesses, recently announced new updates to its influencer marketing platform, AnyTag, which it launched at the beginning of this year.

Since launching the AnyTag platform for marketers and the AnyCreator mobile app for influencers in the Middle East and North Africa region, the company has seen significant growth with a current database of more than 5000 influencers across 11 countries, and agency partners and marketers including Pizza Hut and Talabat.

The new features on AnyTag include automated recommendations of similar influencers through lookalike modeling of an influencer’s content, the detection of brands an influencer has worked with in the past, and the identification and visualization of hashtags an influencer frequently uses.

AnyTag also has a social media analytics module that enables users to track key statistics on a brand’s own social media channels, together with competitor analysis, hashtag analysis and interactions analysis to identify the performance of mentioned and tagged posts of a brand by social media users.

Arab News spoke to Maha Mahdy, head of AnyTag for AnyMind Group in MENA, to discuss the evolution of influencer marketing from the days of YouTube and Facebook to Snapchat and TikTok.

Maha Mahdy, head of AnyTag for AnyMind Group in MENA. (Supplied)

Influencer marketing has been around for a while. How has it changed and where is it at today?

Over the past two years, influencer marketing got a really big boost in popularity; in part, due to the fact that there were a lot of budgets to spend, which would otherwise have been spent on things like events and so on, which got canceled.

There was also a huge shift in how influencer marketing operated in the past two years because everybody was adapting to the new normal. So, we saw people trying out different platforms and topics. For example, travel influencers were no longer traveling so they would talk about other topics such as fitness.

With that shift in platforms, formats and topics, brands started to jump on to see if there were new ways to work with influencers that didn’t necessarily fit the brand before.

One of the most interesting things about influencer marketing in the region is that it has matured a lot — both from a client and influencer perspective.

What does that maturity look like for clients and how is it reflected in the marketing?

If the target audience wants something, you need to find a way to give it to them and put your brand in the messaging. And so brands have started to let go of the reins; they held on very tightly for the past five years because it’s very difficult to trust somebody from outside the organization to communicate on your behalf.

But, it’s about finding that sweet spot — how do I, as a brand, give them (influencers) guidelines but then let them create the content? That’s massive maturity for a brand.

As marketers maintain that balancing act between their own corporate guidelines and influencers’ creative freedom, what are the things that they need to keep in mind when working with influencers?

One of the key things is to let go of the reins a little bit. Another thing that you would think is quite basic, but is still so important, is choosing the right influencer — it’s so crucial to select the right influencer to work with.

A lot of brands are still looking at the number of followers an influencer has, and quite frankly that doesn’t give you much on what an influencer can do for you. That’s why we have a multi-point, data-driven approach through the AnyTag platform wherein we look at everything from influencers’ engagement metrics to demographics.

There also needs to be brand synergy. When people see this person talking about your brand, does it make sense or does it look forced? We also look at things like their collaboration history, which includes whether they have worked with competitors or have bad-mouthed the brand in the past.

Looking at the platform side of influencer marketing, how has that changed from it being predominantly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to now Snapchat and TikTok?

Selecting the right platform is one of the most important things when we’re planning out a campaign and that comes down to the target audience. We’re also looking at the category, so, for example, when it comes to fashion, we know Instagram is inspirational and aspirational; with gamers, it’s YouTube.

The target audience and category work hand in hand. So, if I’m looking to target Gen Z, instantly our first thought is exploring TikTok. However, if I want to communicate with Saudi moms, I have to integrate Snapchat, because these target groups live and breathe TikTok and Snapchat respectively.

Then there’s also the format. Using the same examples, Gen Z and Saudi moms both like quick content formats so TikTok and Snapchat make sense versus older millennials who would like a good 15-minute IGTV video on an interesting topic.

Is there any particular platform that outperforms others for influencer marketing?

Looking at the campaigns we have run on AnyTag, I can see a clear preference for Instagram in the MENA region. The reason for that is the ease of use of the platform, a very high level of data availability, and the numerous content formats. Instagram really won the game with content formats because it has everything from Stories, to photos, to different video formats like Reels, which is quick, and IGTV, which is long-form.

So, Instagram dominated the space but TikTok also cemented its position last year and YouTube will always be a strong player for the MENA region because there are really strong technology and gaming influencers, as well as children’s channels, on the platform. In Saudi Arabia, however, I would rank Snapchat as high as Instagram, but that’s only in KSA as we don’t see much demand for it outside the Kingdom.

Global advertising market grows 23.8% in 2021

Global advertising market grows 23.8% in 2021
Updated 02 December 2021

Global advertising market grows 23.8% in 2021

Global advertising market grows 23.8% in 2021
  • WARC data reveals the advertising market grew to $771 billion

DUBAI: New advertising spend forecasts for 100 markets worldwide show that the global ad market grew 23.8 percent in 2021 to reach $771 billion and is on course to reach a value of $1 trillion in 2025, according to marketing intelligence firm WARC.

This year marks the strongest growth in the last four decades, with advertising investment forecasted to rise 12.5 percent in 2022 and 8.3 percent in 2023.

Data reveals that more than half of advertising spend is going to just three companies: Alphabet, Meta, and Amazon. According to a recent WARC survey, two out of three marketers who have already committed budgets to Amazon are intending to increase that spend.

Social media platforms are also forecasted to see increased advertising investment with advertising professionals planning to increase spending on TikTok (66 percent), YouTube (61 percent), Instagram (60 percent), and Google (57 percent) next year.

“Despite potential headwinds, market data show that we are currently witnessing a boom in advertising trade like none seen before, led by increased demand for retail media and ancillary publishers such as Google and Instagram, which is now the world’s largest social platform,” said James McDonald, director of data, intelligence and forecasting at WARC. 

When it comes to digital media, e-commerce is expected to lead the growth with Amazon on course to amass over $57 billion in advertising revenue by 2023 — a massive 72 percent increase from this year.

Social media was the fastest-growing online sector in 2021 with advertising spend rising by 41.9 percent. Instagram grew to become the largest social media platform in 2021 after overtaking the core Facebook platform for the first time and is forecasted to control over one-third of the global social media market in the next two years. TikTok’s ad revenue increased 51.5 percent this year and is expected to record growth of 75.4 percent in 2022.

Premium online video platforms YouTube and Amazon Prime Video were worth a combined $63.7 billion to advertisers in 2021, up 41.6 percent from a year earlier.

Search advertising continues to grow, making Alphabet the world’s largest media owner and Google the largest individual platform. Google’s advertising revenue rose by 40.6 percent to $146.3 billion this year — taking 79.7 percent of all search spend and 19 percent of all advertising spend worldwide. Google’s growth is set to ease to 14.8 percent in 2022.

With podcasts and music streaming increasing in popularity, advertising spend on online audio rose by one-third to $5.4 billion in 2021, with podcast spend up 50.9 percent and streaming up 28.4 percent. Both formats are expected to continue to grow with the online audio sector’s worth increasing to $8.3 billion by 2023.

With regards to traditional media, advertiser spend on TV grew 5.5 percent this year and is projected to grow by 3.3 percent next year. Linear TV is set to remain larger than premium video services such as YouTube and Amazon Prime Video, though its share of global ad spend will dip below a fifth as broadcaster’s video-on-demand services attract incremental spend.

The out-of-home market recorded a recovery of 21.8 percent this year, but it was not enough to offset the 28.2 percent decline recorded in 2020 as the COVID-19 outbreak first brought the world to a standstill. 

The pandemic’s impact was also evident in the cinema advertising sector, as spend heavily declined in 2020 by 71.2 percent. However, this year, spending rebounded to record a rise of 149.9 percent as cinemas opened back up and big movie releases hit the theaters.

Investment in broadcast radio ads rose by 8.4 percent this year and is set to grow by 3.5 percent in 2022 and 1.5 percent in 2023, by when the market will be worth $34.3 billion. This makes it the only legacy medium set to record continuous growth over the forecast period.

Advertising spend on print and online news brands dipped by 4 percent this year, while the magazines market was down 6.6 percent.

“New coronavirus variants, such as omicron, may have a negative impact on our current outlook, and while our base scenario assumes that impact is muted, we will continue to review that position each quarter,” said McDonald.

That said, some companies will remain immune to the effects COVID-19. “Amazon is expected to finish the year with an ad business worth $12 billion more than the start of the outbreak, the newly anointed Meta will be $31 billion wealthier, and Alphabet drew an additional $59 billion from brands before costs,” he added.