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)
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Updated 28 March 2021

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

  • 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.”


Instagram launches new campaign to tackle phishing

Updated 19 October 2021

Instagram launches new campaign to tackle phishing

  • Social networking service offers users 5-step action plan to protect against phishing attacks

DUBAI: Phishing has become one of the main methods for hackers to access the personal information of social media users across different platforms.

The online hoaxers typically use deceptive messages that appear to come from an official source such as a bank, social media platform, or email service to encourage users to download an attachment or click on a link.

Nadia Diab Caceres, public policy manager for Instagram in the Middle East and North Africa region, told Arab News: “Phishing is one of the most common types of cyberattacks and it can take many forms – from fun quizzes about your favorite cereal brand to receiving direct messages claiming to be from Instagram about issues with your account.”

Instagram users, in particular, have been the target of many such attacks. In September, Romania’s cybersecurity incident response team warned about a targeted campaign against Instagram users in the county, and last year TrendMicro reported similar activity led by Turkish-speaking hackers preying on high-profile accounts on the social networking platform.

Diab Caceres did not reveal the number of users that had been subject to phishing but said: “Phishing on social platforms is an evolving issue that has been increasing in both frequency and sophistication.

“We are constantly evolving our safety and security features to protect our community from cyberattacks. We have strong defenses in our existing security tools and features, and we continue to upgrade these in line with the needs of the times.”

As part of its efforts to raise awareness and increase usage of its safety tools, Instagram has collaborated with influential content creators including Khaled Mokhtar, Amr Maskoun, Aly Osman, Adel Aladwani, and Mazen Yaseen.

Additionally, it is educating users on steps they can take to protect their accounts.

One such way is its new security checkup feature that guides users whose accounts may have been hacked through the steps needed to secure them, including checking login activity, reviewing profile information, confirming the accounts that share login information, and updating account recovery contact information such as phone number or email.

Another method users can take is to enable two-factor authentication, whereby they receive a notification or are asked to enter a special login code when someone tries logging into their account from a device the platform does not recognize.

Enabling login request is available to users setting up two-factor authentication on Instagram. Any login attempt from an unrecognized device or web browser triggers an alert showing details of the device that tried logging in and its location. Users can then approve or deny the request from their already logged-in devices.

A further safety step is to update phone numbers and emails. Instagram advises users to always keep the email and phone numbers associated with their device up to date, so the platform can reach them if something happens to their account, as well as aid the recovery process even when a hacker changes their information.

In addition, Instagram encourages users to report suspicious or spammy accounts and content to help the platform better combat attacks.

There has recently been an increase in malicious accounts direct messaging people to try and access sensitive information, such as account passwords, by falsely stating that the user account is at risk of being banned, that users are violating Instagram’s policies around intellectual property, or that their photos are being shared elsewhere.

Users are urged to report these accounts to Instagram which has stressed that it would never send a direct message to users and would only communicate through the emails from Instagram tab in settings.

“Instagram is a people’s platform, and we are at our strongest when our entire community is aware of and uses the safety features at their disposal,” said Diab Caceres.


Remembering Roger Harrison: He loved the Kingdom, and Saudis loved him back in equal measure

Updated 19 October 2021

Remembering Roger Harrison: He loved the Kingdom, and Saudis loved him back in equal measure

  • Family, friends and former colleagues mourn man of many talents with 25-year connection to Saudi Arabia


JEDDAH: Roger Harrison, who has died on the Spanish island of Mallorca at the age of 75, was a man of more than one career and many talents — among them an event organizer, a writer and photographer, a jeweler and gemologist, a lecturer and raconteur.
Here at Arab News, where he was a senior reporter from 2001 to 2013 covering Saudi affairs and expat life, he will be best remembered as a news magnet to whom stories simply happened.
Among Harrison’s many achievements was his work on the book Wings Over Arabia, a photographic record of a three-man glider team flying over and photographing spectacular and rarely seen areas of the Kingdom. The team included Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab and Muslim astronaut, and Prince Bandar bin Khaled Al-Faisal.
In his preface to the book, Prince Bandar paid tribute to Harrison’s abilities and his work: “He captures the beauty of my country from a perspective that most of the population will never experience. I thank him sincerely for writing and photographing a definitive work that is both a fascinating story and, perhaps, a source of inspiration for future glider pilots.”
So fascinated was the British historian Robert Lacey by Harrison’s work that he wrote: “Lawrence of Arabia captured it from a camel. Roger Harrison captures it from the air. Both convey the magic of Arabia with breathtaking power.”
Harrison was also one of the last journalists to interview the famed explorer of Arabia and the Middle East, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, in 2002.
Stories had a way of coming to Harrison. One of his last visits to Saudi Arabia was in October 2019, when he was invited to a government-sponsored media conference just as visas on arrival became available to foreigners. Harrison flew into Jeddah from London, and offered to pay the visa fee by credit card, prompting a bank security request to enter a one-time password — which was sent to his cell phone back in London. It seemed an insoluble problem, but the Saudi officer at the airport offered to pay the fee. Harrison assured him he would be repaid as soon as the problem was sorted out, but the officer said: “You are our guest. You don’t have to worry.”
Later Harrison regaled the Arab News Jeddah newsroom with the tale, his eyes filling with tears as he told how a complete stranger had come unhesitatingly to his assistance. He loved Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis loved him back in equal measure.
Harrison was born in Eastbourne, England, in 1946. He arrived in Saudi Arabia with his wife Sian in September 1996, to teach at Jubail Industrial College, where he remained for four years. The couple then went back to London, but the Kingdom had made its mark on Harrison and he returned to Jeddah to teach English to the Saudi Navy.
Harrison’s career with Arab News began by accident — quite literally. He and his wife were involved in a collision with a car that came out of the desert and ran straight into them. Harrison wrote a letter to the newspaper describing the incident, and Arab News replied asking him to write it in the form of an article rather than a letter. The piece appeared on the front page under the headline: “Why throw yourself to death when you can drive there?” The article led to an offer of employment at Arab News.
“He loved the people he worked with and he loved the opportunities the paper gave him,” his wife Sian said. “He went to places he would never have visited and was even able to indulge his love of racing by test-driving cars he could never have owned. The articles he wrote, especially ‘Adam and Eid,’ showed the depth of his humanity and his love of Saudi Arabia and its people. There were so many articles that displayed this empathetic side of Roger. The one he wrote after the dreadful floods of Jeddah was more personal, about the many friends who helped us.”
The Harrisons left Jeddah in 2013 and went to live in Ras Al-Khaimah in the UAE. He had visited once to write an article, and liked the idea of being there while still close to Saudi Arabia. The couple’s son Ben, a newly qualified teacher, came from London to join them and applied for his first teaching post — in Riyadh. “Roger was thrilled the Harrison connection was continuing in the Kingdom and gave him a reason to visit,” Sian said. “Ben left Riyadh in 2019 and was going to accompany Roger on a trip to Saudi Arabia in January, when they wanted to do a follow-up to the Wings Over Arabia book, but this time from the ground.”
Ben Harrison hopes to return for a visit, and would love to be able to honor his father’s last wish.
In 2017, the Harrisons moved to Mallorca, which they knew well from visits over the years. Why Mallorca? “We had been visiting the beautiful Spanish island for over 20 years since my sister had moved to live there,” said Sian. “My mother also sold up and left London to live in Mallorca. She was very close to Roger. They loved to debate and had many spirited conversations, and the highlight of their week was a shopping trip to Lidl where they discussed anything and everything.”
Sian has received many messages of condolence from people who knew her husband. “They have shown me a side of him that truly shows the honorable and honest man he was, his old-fashioned values of being true to your word, his love for the Kingdom and the opportunities it gave him. I can’t stress enough how much being in Saudi Arabia meant to him.”
Harrison had great respect for Saudi Arabia, and was adamant in correcting people’s misconceptions about the Kingdom. He regularly called UK radio stations and wrote letters to various publications out of a sincere desire to set the record straight. As Prince Sultan bin Salman once said, Harrison knew more about Saudi Arabia than most Saudis.
“Although I never had the pleasure of working with Roger, I have crossed paths many times with him covering events in Jeddah in the early 2000s. He was full of passion for journalism and for the Kingdom, was kind to everyone around him and was always the first to arrive and last to leave during any press event,” said Faisal J. Abbas, current Editor in Chief of Arab News.
“Obviously, we at Arab News extend our condolences to Roger’s family, and on behalf of all the editors and colleagues he worked with in the past, we thank him for all the work he has done and all his contributions to our newspaper,” he added.
Harrison’s motto was: “Everybody dies, but some never live.” He lived a remarkable life in a remarkable country, and documented all that he could for future historians and writers of Arabia. He was a gentle soul, a humanist first and journalist last. Among those who admired and respected him is Razan Baker, director of international communication at the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee.
“He touched many lives, including my own, and for that I consider myself lucky,” she said. “I was honored to know him as one of my dearest Arab News family members. He was always inspiring and motivating. Nothing was impossible for him. He was like a generous moving library that challenged us all to learn, be passionate about what we love and do, and try to do it better.”


Facebook plans to hire 10,000 in EU to build ‘metaverse’

Metaverse is a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 October 2021

Facebook plans to hire 10,000 in EU to build ‘metaverse’

  • Facebook plans to hire 10,000 workers in the EU to work on the new virtual reality tool 'metaverse'

MENLO PARK: Facebook says it plans to hire 10,000 workers in the European Union over the next five years to work on a new computing platform.
The company said in a blog post Sunday that those high-skilled workers will help build “the metaverse,” a futuristic notion for connecting people online that encompasses augmented and virtual reality.
Facebook executives have been touting the metaverse as the next big thing after the mobile Internet as they also contend with other matters such as antitrust crackdowns, the testimony of a whistleblowing former employee and concerns about how the company handles vaccine-related and political misinformation on its platform.
In a separate blog post Sunday, the company defended its approach to combating hate speech, in response to a Wall Street Journal article that examined the company’s inability to detect and remove hateful and excessively violent posts.


Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

Updated 16 October 2021

Google cyber-threat arm exposes Tehran’s online espionage

  • An Iranian-government aligned group has tried to steal personal information and passwords of notable individuals across Europe and the US through 2021
  • Iran set to continue on the same cyber-espionage path despite the exposure of their tactics, expert tells Arab News

Tech giant Google has exposed how Iranian-backed groups attempt to use its platforms to carry out espionage on behalf of the government in Tehran.

In a blog post released on Thursday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group exposed the work of APT35, a shady hacking group that Google said is linked to the Iranian government.

Ajax Bash, of TAG, said: “This is the one of the groups we disrupted during the 2020 US election cycle for its targeting of campaign staffers. For years, this group has hijacked accounts, deployed malware, and used novel techniques to conduct espionage aligned with the interests of the Iranian government.”

APT35 “regularly conducts phishing campaigns targeting high risk users,” Bash said.

In one instance, he said, Iranian hackers targeted lecturers from a British university — the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London — and impersonated them in an attempt to trick others in the academic community into divulging their personal information and passwords. This form of cyber espionage is called credential phishing.

“APT35 has relied on this technique since 2017 — targeting high-value accounts in government, academia, journalism, NGOs, foreign policy, and national security,” said Bash.

“Credential phishing through a compromised website demonstrates these attackers will go to great lengths to appear legitimate — as they know it’s difficult for users to detect this kind of attack.

“One of the most notable characteristics of APT35 is their impersonation of conference officials to conduct phishing attacks,” said Bash. He explained that Iranian-backed operatives impersonated officials from the Munich Security Conference and an Italian think-tank to steal passwords and information.

Amin Sabeti, the founder of Digital Impact Lab and an Iran-focused cyber security professional, told Arab News that Google’s blog exposes how Iran continues to build on its national cyber security strategy.

“This report shows again that Iranian state-backed hackers are very good in social engineering and they have improved their technique,” he said.

“For example, using a legitimate website to convince the target to enter the credential details of their online account is something new that we didn’t see a few years ago.”

Sabeti also said that, despite Google unmasking Iran’s cyber-espionage activity, it is unlikely that they will change their strategy entirely.

“I think we will see the same techniques but with new ideas.”

Google’s Bash said: “We warn users when we suspect a government-backed threat like APT35 is targeting them. Thousands of these warnings are sent every month, even in cases where the corresponding attack is blocked.  

“Threat Analysis Group will continue to identify bad actors and share relevant information with others in the industry, with the goal of bringing awareness to these issues, protecting you and fighting bad actors to prevent future attacks.”

Decoder

Credential phishing

It is a form of cyber attack in which hackers impersonate a reputable entity or person to steal user ID or email addresses and password combinations, then use the victim's credentials to carry out attacks on other targets.


Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.” (File/AFP)
Updated 15 October 2021

Microsoft shutting down LinkedIn app in China amid scrutiny

  • LinkedIn will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs

REDMOND, Washington: Microsoft is shutting down its main LinkedIn service in China later this year as Beijing tightens its internet rules.

The company said in a blog post Thursday it has faced a “significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China.”

Microsoft is the latest American tech giant to lessen its ties to the country after years of trying to tailor its services to the demands of government censors.

LinkedIn said it will replace its localized platform in China with a new app called InJobs that has some of LinkedIn’s career-networking features but will not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.

Chinese regulators have been escalating a broad crackdown on the internet sector, seeking to exercise greater control over the algorithms used by tech firms to personalize and recommend content. They have also strengthened data privacy restrictions and expanded control over the flow of information and public opinion.

LinkedIn in March said it would pause new member sign-ups on LinkedIn China because of unspecified regulatory issues. China’s internet watchdog in May said it had found LinkedIn as well as Microsoft’s Bing search engine and about 100 other apps were engaged in improper collection and use of data and ordered them to fix the problem.

Several scholars this summer reported getting warning letters from LinkedIn that they were sharing “prohibited content” that would not be made viewable in China but could still be seen by LinkedIn users elsewhere.

Tony Lee, a scholar at Berlin’s Free University, told The Associated Press in June that LinkedIn didn’t tell him which content was prohibited but said it was tied to the section of his profile where he listed his publications. Among his listed articles was one about the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and another comparing Chinese leader Xi Jinping with former leader Mao Zedong.

Lee said Thursday it is “wishful thinking for LinkedIn to maintain its presence in a different form” without social media elements, its distinctive selling point against other online job boards. He said LinkedIn is better off pulling out of the country entirely than “practicing censorship dictated by China” that damages the company’s worldwide credibility.

It’s been more than seven years since LinkedIn launched a site in simplified Chinese, the written characters used on the mainland, to expand its reach in the country. It said at the time of the launch in early 2014 that expanding in China raised “difficult questions” because it required censoring content, but that it would be clear about how it conducts business in China and undertake “extensive measures” to protect members’ rights and data.

Microsoft, which is based in Redmond, Washington, bought LinkedIn in 2016. LinkedIn doesn’t disclose how much of its revenue comes from China, but it reports having more than 54 million members in mainland China, its third-largest user base after the U.S. and India.

“LinkedIn once served a crucial role, as the only social media network on which Chinese and Western colleagues could communicate away from (Chinese Communist Party) censorship and prying eyes,” said Eyck Freymann, another scholar who received a censorship notice letter this year, in a text message Thursday.

Freymann, a doctoral student in China studies at Oxford University, said it is “shameful that Microsoft spent months censoring its own users — and, worse, pressuring them to self-censor” but that the company ultimately made the right choice to pull the plug.

Google pulled its search engine out of mainland China in 2010 after the government began censoring search results and videos on YouTube. It later considered starting a censored Chinese search engine nicknamed Project Dragonfly but dropped the idea following internal protest in 2018.

Other US-based social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are blocked within China.

Microsoft’s own search engine, Bing, was temporarily blocked in China in early 2019, leading the company’s president, Brad Smith, to reveal that executives sometimes have difficult negotiations with the Chinese government over censorship and other demands.

“We understand we don’t have the same legal freedom that we do in other countries, but at the same time, we stick to our guns,” Smith told Fox Business News in January 2019. “There are certain principles that we think it’s important to stand up for, and we’ll go at times into the negotiating room and the negotiations are sometimes pretty darn direct.”

Adding to the sensitivities this year was a massive hack of Microsoft’s Exchange email server software that U.S. officials have blamed on criminal hackers associated with the Chinese government.

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