The internet, social media, and the war in Ukraine

The internet, social media, and the war in Ukraine
Retroville Mall was hit after the Russians said it was being used to store military vehicles.
Short Url
Updated 29 April 2022

The internet, social media, and the war in Ukraine

The internet, social media, and the war in Ukraine
  • On the whole, online platforms are proving to be more helpful than harmful for Ukrainians during these distressing times

DUBAI: As the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, many around the world, and even in Ukraine, are experiencing it on the front lines of social media.

The use of the internet during this conflict has been unprecedented, from the Ukrainians who are using it to reveal the truth to the world and who depend on it for accurate information and even basic necessities such as food and shelter, to the Russians using it to spread propaganda and fake news.

“The internet has indeed become another battlefield between the warring countries, full of misinformation, fakes, deepfakes, cyberattacks taking place on both sides, online censorship, the disruptions to the internet in Ukrainian territories where missiles fall, and many more,” Vira Slyvinska, head of global business development at AIR Media-Tech, told Arab News.

On the other hand, she added, “social networks have become the fastest way to receive necessary information or help, even from unknown people, be it food deliveries for aged people who stay in their homes, finding transportation for evacuation from hot spots, finding shelters for refugees, collecting requests from hospitals, or crowdfunding the acquisition of drones and thermal imagers for the Ukrainian army, and so on.”

Moreover, Slyvinska said, the Ukrainian government and official organizations are making effective use of social media to keep the population informed about the latest developments, such as air raid alerts and curfew hours.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has overtaken British band Coldplay in terms of popularity on Instagram, racking up more than 16.5 million followers. His use of social media has brought him closer not only to his own citizens but people around the world.

On Instagram, the hashtags #zelensky and #zelenskyyy can be found on more than 100,000 posts. On TikTok, posts featuring the hashtags #zelensky and #zelenskiy have more than 1.6 billion and 1 billion views respectively.

Other Ukrainian political figures, including Oleksiy Arestovych, a presidential adviser, and Vitaly Kim, the governor of Mykolaiv regional administration, have also come to prominence on social media as they use it to keep their citizens informed and motivated.

Arestovych, for instance, has more than 1 million followers on Instagram. Kim’s personal channel on instant messaging service Telegram has more than 879,000 subscribers and his speeches have garnered more than 50 million mentions on TikTok, said Slyvinska.

Most city administrations and official organizations in Ukraine use social media to distribute critical information and have even created dedicated channels on Telegram. Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s minister of digital transformation, keeps citizens updated on Ukrainian victories through his Telegram channel, for example. The country’s armed forces also use Telegram to share updates on the situations in various parts of the country.

Closer to home, technology and social media have played a significant role in times of peril in the Middle East. During the Arab Spring, for instance, much of the traditional media in many countries was controlled by dictatorships that traditionally restrict access to information.

Platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook allow “people in these Arab countries to circumvent these dictatorships and their traditional means of controlling information,” said CNN journalist Ivan Watson, now a senior international correspondent, at an SXSW conference in 2012.

In Ukraine, it is not only the government and official organizations that are using social media to distribute the latest information about the war; citizens are joining in, too. Many have taken to platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to post videos of windowless bomb shelters or cities rocked by explosions — in stark contrast to the usual upbeat content of those platforms.

For example, this young girl from Mariupol posted a seven-minute video recording her “two weeks of hell.”

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by (@alena_zagreba)

“Civilian journalism is important, because receiving first-hand information on the situation from ordinary people helps to create sympathy for the plight of Ukrainians among people throughout the world,” said Slyvinska.

“On the other hand, such activities can pose a threat if the extra information goes public because the enemy can receive information about the location of the Ukrainian army and equipment, adjust their fire, and much more,” she cautioned.

Last month, a Ukrainian TikTok user was arrested after posting a video of military vehicles parked near a shopping mall, which was subsequently bombed by the Russians. The day after the attack, in which eight people were killed, the Security Service of Ukraine posted a video of the man apologizing.




Retroville Mall before the Russian attack, military vehicles appear to be parked.

Following the incident, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko urged residents not to share footage “of the movement of military equipment, checkpoints, strategic objects.”

“Therefore, in Ukraine, filming and publication of the movements of the military, weapons and equipment has been banned, causing criminal liability if violated,” said Slyvinska.

Meanwhile, social media influencers in the country have switched from posting their usual fashion and travel advice to uploading bleak images of themselves wrapped in blankets as they huddle in underground bunkers, and of army tanks trundling down residential streets, Reuters reported. Some have asked their followers to pray for Ukraine, donate to efforts to support the Ukrainian military, and called on Russian fans to join in anti-war protests.

AIR Media-Tech, which has offices around the world including one in Kyiv, has launched a campaign called #YellowForPeace in partnership with Instagram and TikTok influencers, local influencer marketing agencies and Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation.

“Targeted at Russian citizens, the goal (of the campaign) is to shed light on the actual situation in Ukraine and to call on Russians to participate in anti-war meetings in their cities,” said Slyvinska.

In the early days of the war, AIR Media-Tech created internal groups on Telegram to coordinate the company’s efforts in relation to the conflict. Evacuation was the top priority and so the company created a chat group in which requests for help could be posted.

“Social media channels, predominantly Facebook, Instagram and dedicated groups on Telegram, became the space where we could find actual information from people about safe routes for evacuation from Kyiv and other hot spots, possibilities of sharing transport, information about petrol availability at gas stations, available shelters on the way,” among other things, said Slyvinska.

“Social media is a place to ask for help and also offer our free resources to others when we have it,” she added.

The company also launched email and social media campaigns to inform partner creators about the situation in Ukraine and call on influencers to spread the word and raise funds. A group of employees created a humanitarian hub in Kyiv called Over Help that relies on social media to collect requests for help, find partners and raise donations.

Another company, Epom, which specializes in ad servers, has collected the stories of more than 100 Ukrainians as it builds a confidential database at www.uabrave.org, where journalists can read about people’s experiences and request interviews from them.

Lina Lugova, Epom’s chief marketing officer, said that on the “first day of the full-scale Russian invasion,” PR managers and journalists were searching for eyewitness accounts from people across Ukraine.

Epom’s efforts have helped to amplify the truth and share it with the world, she said, with eyewitnesses giving more than 500 interviews to international media outlets.

“Ukrainians in the bombed cities of Kharkiv, Chernigiv, Mariupol and others who shared their living conditions on Instagram quickly became famous as their sincere stories gave a real understanding of Russian aggression against civilians,” Lugova added.

Konstantin Vasuk, executive director of the IT Ukraine Association, said that social media has been the silver lining in an otherwise desperate situation. He describes it as “a well-known case of how social media makes the impossible possible.”

In February, for example, digital transformation minister Fedorov Tweeted a request asking Tesla CEO Elon Musk, now also the new owner of Twitter, to launch his satellite internet system, Starlink, in Ukraine.

“We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.”

Within 24 hours, Musk responded: “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.

The power of Twitter was also evident during the 2011 revolution in Egypt, which resulted in President Hosni Mubarak being overthrown after just over two weeks of protests.

Killian Clarke, an assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, which is affiliated with the university’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, and Korhan Kocak, an assistant professor of political science at NYU Abu Dhabi, published a paper analyzing the role of Facebook and Twitter in the Egyptian uprising.

They found that Facebook had been crucial in organizing the protest and mobilizing demonstrators, while Twitter was used on the day of the protests to share updates about where the protesters were going and which areas to avoid. Such updates facilitated the spontaneous convergence of marches across Cairo on Tahrir Square, which was not part of the original plan.

“Overall, then, social media seems to be as helpful for organizing protests today as it was in Egypt eight years ago,” Clarke and Kocak wrote in a 2019 article for the Washington Post.

“The development of technologies and the internet opens many opportunities for people but can also be a threat when used for destructive purposes,” said Slyvinska.

“All Russian propaganda messages, facts, statistics and expert opinions are blatant lies but they are so well orchestrated in all possible media that not only Russian citizens, but also some people in other countries can believe them.”

Last month, for example, a deepfake video that claimed to show President Zelensky went viral online. TV news channel Ukraine 24 confirmed that the hackers responsible for it succeeded in getting the fake footage featured on some live TV broadcasts and, briefly, on the channel’s website.

More recently, a NewsGuard study found that within 40 minutes of joining TikTok, new users could receive recommendations that included articles containing false information about Ukraine.

Another study, by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, found that 27.5 percent of the Facebook posts it analyzed “cast doubt on the legitimacy of images from Bucha used by Western mainstream media,” and, even more importantly, gained “significantly more traction online than those that did not question the mainstream narrative.”

Slyvinska said: “Misinformation from Russia is distributed through every possible tool on the internet, from local Russian platforms such as VKontakte and Yandex to global platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and even Google Maps, where Russians put fake marks to intimidate Ukrainian citizens.

“They (Russians) also launch dedicated campaigns via influencers who repeat the same text, word-by-word, written by propaganda technologists.”

And yet she pointed out that during wars fought in the pre-internet days, “enemies could spread misinformation through leaflets without fear of being exposed.” She added that this is in contrast to current times, “when internet users have instant access to necessary information, and those who want to can find plenty of guides to determine fakes and get reliable information from trusted officials.”

Moreover, she said, despite Russia’s use of the internet to spread propaganda, it is not dependent on it.

“TV remains a very powerful media channel in Russia, with the majority of channels under state control where they can build whatever surrealistic reality perception for their population,” Slyvinska said.

Despite all the fake news, misinformation and propaganda that spreads rapidly on social media, it nevertheless provides a powerful, and sometimes safe, space for people in war-ravaged nations.

“(Thanks to) the internet, crimes committed by Russia and its soldiers against the civilian population in Ukraine cannot be hidden,” said Slyvinska. “For Ukraine, in its current situation, the internet adds more power.”


One of three jailed Iranian filmmakers released on bail 

One of three jailed Iranian filmmakers released on bail 
Updated 49 sec ago

One of three jailed Iranian filmmakers released on bail 

One of three jailed Iranian filmmakers released on bail 
  • The 52-year-old was arrested along with filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi in June
  • The filmmakers’ arrest sparked international criticism from European film and arts festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival

Mostafa Al-Ahmad, one of the three prominent Iranian filmmakers arrested during Iran’s latest crackdown on dissent, has been released on bail, according to Radio Farda. 

The 52-year-old was arrested along with filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi in June, days after signing an open letter calling on security forces in the country to “lay down their arms” during widespread demonstrations over “corruption, theft, inefficiency, and repression,” Radio Farda reported. 

Al-Ahmad and Panahi had reportedly contracted COVID-19 in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and were denied hospital care outside the detention facility, the report said. 

Outrage erupted across the country after more than 40 people were killed in May when a 10-storey building collapsed in the southwestern city of Abadan. At the time, public outcry called for corrupted authorities to be held accountable. 

The filmmakers’ arrest sparked international criticism from European film and arts festivals, including the Cannes Film Festival. 

“The Festival de Cannes strongly condemns these arrests as well as the wave of repression obviously in progress in Iran against its artists,” festival organizers said. “The festival calls for the immediate release of Mohammad Rasoulof, Mostafa [Al-Ahmad] and Jafar Panahi.”

“The Festival de Cannes also wishes to reassert its support to all those who, throughout the world, are subjected to violence and repression. The festival remains and will always remain a haven for artists from all over the world and it will relentlessly be at their service in order to convey their voices loud and clear, in the defense of freedom of creation and freedom of speech.”


Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association launches awards for exceptional reporting

Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association launches awards for exceptional reporting
Updated 11 August 2022

Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association launches awards for exceptional reporting

Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association launches awards for exceptional reporting
  • Jury panel includes award-winning reporters from NPR, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and NYU Journalism School
  • Each winner will receive a $500 cash prize

DUBAI: The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has launched a series of awards to highlight exceptional work by and about Arab, Middle Eastern and North African communities.
“Promoting accurate and nuanced coverage of the Middle East and North Africa regions and people is at the core of our mission,” said Hoda Osman, AMEJA president.
“We’re excited to launch the AMEJA awards so we can lift up exceptional news coverage by journalists working tirelessly to get the story right.”
The awards program includes three awards: Best coverage of the MENA region; best coverage of MENA immigrant and heritage communities in North America; and the Walid El-Gabry Memorial Award, named after one of AMEJA’s founders to recognize the work of an AMEJA member.
Each winner will receive a $500 cash prize.
The first two awards are open to all journalists.
Entries will be judged by a jury panel, including Mohamad Bazzi, NYU journalism professor and director of the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies; Nima Elbagir, CNN chief international investigative correspondent; Leila Fadel, host of NPR’s Morning Edition; Kareem Fahim, Middle East bureau chief for The Washington Post; Ayman Mohyeldin, MSNBC host of the show “Ayman”; and Jason Rezaian, columnist at The Washington Post and host of the 544 Days podcast.
The Walid El-Gabry Memorial Award will be voted on by AMEJA’s members.
AMEJA is accepting submissions until Aug. 28. To be eligible, the work must have been published, in English, between Jan. 1, 2021, and Aug. 1, 2022. Entries can be submitted in any format from print to podcasts.
Winners will be announced in the fall of this year.


Facebook hands in private data to police in abortion case against teen

Facebook hands in private data to police in abortion case against teen
Updated 11 August 2022

Facebook hands in private data to police in abortion case against teen

Facebook hands in private data to police in abortion case against teen
  • Authorities obtained incriminatory messages between the mother and the daughter after they approached Facebook with a search warrant

LONDON: Facebook is under intense scrutiny after handing in private messages of a 17-year-old girl accused of crimes relating to an abortion to Nebraska police.

The teenager is accused, along with her mother, of having broken the law that prohibits abortion after 20 weeks. According to court files, the teenager miscarried at 23 weeks of pregnancy and secretly buried the fetus with her mother’s help.

The two were charged in July with allegedly removing, concealing or abandoning a dead human body, concealing the death of another person and false reporting.

Authorities obtained incriminatory messages between the mother and daughter after they approached Facebook with a search warrant.

Facebook reportedly had the option of challenging the court’s decision but chose to provide police access to the teen’s direct messages instead. The teenager is currently facing three criminal charges as a result of using an abortion pill purchased online and burying the unborn fetus.

“Nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion. The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion,” Meta Spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement.

This case represents one of the first instances in which a person’s social media activity has been used against them in a state where access to abortion is restricted, and it is perceived as a stab in the back after tech companies vowed to protect users in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The news comes just a few weeks after Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg pledged to “expand encryption across the platform in an effort to keep people safe.” Meta also said it would offer financial assistance to employees having to travel to a different state to seek an abortion.


Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources
Updated 11 August 2022

Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources
  • India wants a panel to review complaints about content decisions
  • Google says self-regulatory system sets bad precedent - sources

NEW DELHI: Google has grave reservations about developing a self-regulatory body for the social media sector in India to hear user complaints, though the proposal has support from Facebook and Twitter, sources with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters.
India in June proposed appointing a government panel to hear complaints from users about content moderation decisions, but has also said it is open to the idea of a self-regulatory body if the industry is willing.
The lack of consensus among the tech giants, however, increases the likelihood of a government panel being formed — a prospect that Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook and Twitter are keen to avoid as they fear government and regulatory overreach in India, the sources said.
At a closed-door meeting this week, an executive from Alphabet Inc’s Google told other attendees the company was unconvinced about the merits of a self-regulatory body. The body would mean external reviews of decisions that could force Google to reinstate content, even if it violated Google’s internal policies, the executive was quoted as saying.
Such directives from a self-regulatory body could set a dangerous precedent, the sources also quoted the Google executive as saying.
The sources declined to be identified as the discussions were private.
In addition to Facebook, Twitter and Google, representatives from Snap Inc. and popular Indian social media platform ShareChat also attended the meeting. Together, the companies have hundreds of millions of users in India.
Snap and ShareChat also voiced concern about a self-regulatory system, saying the matter requires much more consultation including with civil society, the sources said.
Google said in a statement it had attended a preliminary meeting and is engaging with the industry and the government, adding that it was “exploring all options” for a “best possible solution.”
ShareChat and Facebook declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

THORNY ISSUE
Self-regulatory bodies to police content in the social media sector are rare, though there have been instances of cooperation. In New Zealand, big tech companies have signed a code of practice aimed at reducing harmful content online.
Tension over social media content decisions has been a particularly thorny issue in India. Social media companies often receive takedown requests from the government or remove content proactively. Google’s YouTube, for example, removed 1.2 million videos in the first quarter of this year that were in violation of its guidelines, the highest in any country in the world.
India’s government is concerned that users upset with decisions to have their content taken down do not have a proper system to appeal those decisions and that their only legal recourse is to go to court.
Twitter has faced backlash after it blocked accounts of influential Indians, including politicians, citing violation of its policies. Twitter also locked horns with the Indian government last year when it declined to comply fully with orders to take down accounts the government said spread misinformation.
An initial draft of the proposal for the self-regulatory body said the panel would have a retired judge or an experienced person from the field of technology as chairperson, as well as six other individuals, including some senior executives at social media companies.
The panel’s decisions would be “binding in nature,” stated the draft, which was seen by Reuters.
Western tech giants have for years been at odds with the Indian government, arguing that strict regulations are hurting their business and investment plans. The disagreements have also strained trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
US industry lobby groups representing the tech giants believe a government-appointed review panel raises concern about how it could act independently if New Delhi controls who sits on it.
The proposal for a government panel was open to public consultation until early July. No fixed date for implementation has been set.


Saudi Arabia to host Arab Radio and Television Festival

Saudi Arabia to host Arab Radio and Television Festival
Updated 11 August 2022

Saudi Arabia to host Arab Radio and Television Festival

Saudi Arabia to host Arab Radio and Television Festival
  • Festival running from Nov. 7 to Nov. 10 in Riyadh

RIYADH: Hundreds of media officials are expected at the 22nd edition of the Arab Radio and Television Festival, which will be hosted in Saudi Arabia.

Running from Nov. 7 to Nov. 10 in Riyadh, more than 1,000 media professionals are expected at the four-day event.

Activities will include a broad selection of workshops, discussions and competitions based on the broadcast industry.

The festival, organized by the Saudi Broadcasting Authority, will also have representatives from media organizations including World Broadcasting Unions, European Broadcasting Union, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, African Union of Broadcasting, Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development, China Global Television Network, International Telecommunication Union and the Mediterranean Center for Audiovisual Communication.

Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the festival, considered one of the most prominent media forums, gives a nod to its importance in the Arab and Islamic worlds as well as efforts to push for cultural transformation the Kingdom is witnessing, state news agency SPA reported.