Biden makes late-night TV debut as president

In this photo provided by NBC, President Joe Biden is shown on a screen during a virtual interview with host Jimmy Fallon on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, in New York. (AP)
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Updated 11 December 2021
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Biden makes late-night TV debut as president

NEW YORK: Joe Biden on Friday used his first late-night television talk show appearance as US president to highlight his infrastructure bill — and laugh off his flagging approval ratings.
Biden’s appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” is the first by a sitting president since Barack Obama, and comes as the White House seeks to highlight the recently passed bill for upgrading the nation’s tattered transport networks.
Despite its passage, Biden’s approval ratings have sunk to the low 40 percent area, in part due to the spike in inflation.
Asked by host Jimmy Fallon if he pays attention to approval ratings, Biden dead-panned: “Well, not anymore.”
“I’m joking. I was paying attention when it was in the mid-60s, but when it’s in the mid-40s I don’t pay attention,” said the president, to laughter from the studio audience.
Biden’s appearance by remote video comes after his predecessor President Donald Trump declined invitations for any late-night talk shows as president.
Obama frequently used programs hosted by Fallon and rivals such as Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert to speak to the wider US public.
Fallon opened the show by joking the pair would “discuss the economy, the infrastructure bill, and break down the first two episodes of the ‘Sex and the City’ reboot.”
Fallon managed one barb about inflation figures, claiming he had earlier asked the president how excited he was to appear on the show on a scale of one to ten.
“He said ten. But six without inflation.”
But during the interview, Fallon allowed Biden to set out policies including his landmark $1.8 trillion Build Back Better plan to improve social services and fight climate change, which faces a tough road in Congress.
Wearing a suit and tie, and seated in front of a festively decorated mantlepiece, Biden also urged Americans to get booster shots and highlighted steady declines in the unemployment rate.
“We do have inflation on things that in fact matter in people’s lives” such as gas prices, said Biden.
“It’s going to come down,” he promised.
The interview — in which Fallon praised Biden for “bringing class back to the office” of the president and asked “does anyone really understand how hard your job is?” — ended with the talk host being invited over to the White House for dinner.


Meta bans ‘watermelon cupcake’ in internal Gaza row

Updated 13 July 2024
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Meta bans ‘watermelon cupcake’ in internal Gaza row

  • Meta’s Muslim club was told to avoid ‘disruptive’ themed cupcakes at internal company event
  • ‘Censorship hangs on absurdity,’ Meta data scientist denounced before being laid off

LONDON: Meta has banned the sale of watermelon-themed cupcakes due to the fruit’s association with Gaza, sparking an internal censorship controversy.

The incident began in late May when Saima Akhter, a Meta data scientist in the New York office, accused the company of blocking her plan to sell the themed cupcakes at a company event.

“I am deeply concerned and tired of the exorbitant internal censorship at Meta that is now hinging on absurdity,” Akhter wrote on Instagram after the company halted the idea.

Akhter explained that management called the offering “disruptive” and suggested the Muslim workers’ club offer “traditional Muslim sweets” instead.

According to Wired, which first reported the news, the dispute involved at least three Meta staff members, with Akhter being the only employee to publicly denounce the episode.

Akhter revealed she was fired by Meta two weeks later, allegedly for copying an internal document listing grievances of Muslim staff regarding the company’s handling of Palestinian content and the Gaza conflict.

Sources indicate she is one of at least four pro-Palestinian employees let go since Oct. 7 for various internal policy violations.

This episode highlights growing discontent among Muslim and Arab workers at tech companies over perceived bias and censorship.

Watermelon, due to its colors resembling the Palestinian flag, has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance and, recently, the Gaza protests.

In response to potential internal conflicts following the Oct 7 attack, Meta, like other tech companies, restricted discussions about the war, which has resulted in over 38,000 Palestinian and more than 1,500 Israeli deaths since October.

Maxine Williams, Meta’s diversity chief, stated in a memo that the company introduced new policies “to limit discussions around topics that have historically led to disruptions in the workplace, regardless of the importance of those topics.”


Tunisian judge imposes media ban on a candidate for presidential election

Updated 12 July 2024
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Tunisian judge imposes media ban on a candidate for presidential election

  • Opposition party said decision is ‘obstructions to challenging President Kais Saied’

LONDON: A Tunisian judge barred a potential presidential candidate from appearing in the media or traveling around the country on Friday, the latest politician to face what their parties have called obstructions to challenging President Kais Saied.
Abd Ellatif Mekki’s party called the measures an attempt to exclude a serious candidate from the campaign for elections on Oct. 6.
Opposition parties have accused Saied’s government of exerting pressure on the judiciary to track down the president’s rivals and pave the way for him to win a second term.
They say imprisoned politicians must be released and the media allowed to operate without pressure from the government.
Saied’s supporters deny allegations that opposition politicians have been targeted for political reasons. They say that running for elections is not a reason to stop prosecutions against people accused of crimes such as money laundering and corruption.
Two political leaders, Abir Moussi and Ghazi Chaouachi, have been imprisoned since last year.
Last week, police arrested another candidate, Lotfi Mraihi, on suspicion of money laundering. He said in a video that he has faced restrictions and harassment since announcing his candidacy.
Other potential candidates, including Safi Saeed, Mondher Znaidi and Nizar Chaari, are facing prosecution for alleged crimes such as fraud and money laundering.
OBSTRUCTION ALLEGATIONS
Mekki’s lawyer, Monia Bouali, told Reuters, “The judge decided to impose a travel ban on Mekki and prevent him from appearing in the media and social media and ordered him to stay (in) Wardia area,” referring to a neighborhood in the capital, where Mekki lives.


Court officials were not immediately available to comment on the decision.
“Mekki is clearly targeted to obstruct his campaign to collect signatures from citizens and to contact them,” said Ahmed Naffati, a prominent official in Mekki’s party, told Reuters.
Days after Mekki announced his candidacy this month, a court spokesman said Mekki was suspected of having participated in the murder of a businessman who died in prison years ago.


Mekki said he had nothing to do with this case, and that filing a case against him after he announced his intention to run showed he was targeted.
Saied, who was elected president in 2019, has not officially announced his candidacy but is expected to do so soon. Last year he said he would not hand over power to what he called non-patriots.
In 2021, Saied dissolved parliament and began ruling by decree in a move that the opposition described as a coup. Saied said his steps were legal and necessary to end years of rampant corruption.


‘If it’s happening in the Kingdom, chances are it’s on Snapchat’

Updated 12 July 2024
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‘If it’s happening in the Kingdom, chances are it’s on Snapchat’

  • Snapchat reaches over 90% of those aged 13-34 in Saudi
  • Kingdom’s users open app over 50 times daily on average

DUBAI: “Snapchat is particularly popular in Saudi Arabia,” Snap Inc.’s regional business lead in the Kingdom, Abdulla Alhammadi, told Arab News during a recent interview.

In Saudi Arabia, the app reaches over 90 percent of those aged between 13 and 34, with users opening it over 50 times a day on average.

And it boasts a monthly addressable reach — or the number of Snapchat users who can be reached through ads in a given month — exceeding 22 million.

Its popularity in the Kingdom “is deeply rooted in its ability to fuel and foster real connections within the community amid the evolving social and cultural landscape of the Kingdom,” Alhammadi explained.

Snapchat was always built to be different from other social media platforms, he added.

Unlike other apps, Snapchat does not have a news feed. However, every Snapchat user has a “Snapscore” that is displayed under their profile.

This is described by the company as a “super-secret, special equation” based on the number of Snaps sent and received, Stories posted, and other undisclosed factors.

Still, this score does not affect the popularity of the posts themselves. This is unlike other social media platforms whose algorithms take “likes” and “shares” into account to determine the popularity of posts and their appearance to a user’s friends or followers.

On the contrary, posts on Snapchat are temporary, disappearing after 24 hours — a feature copied by other apps in the form of Stories.

Alhammadi believes these features allow the app’s users “to be — and show — their true, authentic selves.”

This is why Saudi Arabia’s citizens “express their authentic selves on Snapchat twice as often as on other platforms.” This results in Snapchat surpassing “other social connectivity apps” to become “the platform of choice” for citizens, he added.

In order to celebrate the app’s popularity in the Kingdom, Snapchat launched its first Saudi Arabia-focused campaign this May called “Telgana Ala Snap,” which translates to “Find us on Snap.”

The campaign film showcases how audiences in the Kingdom use Snapchat: from a brother imitating his father through the old age lens, to a teenager tucked into bed watching Snap star Naif Hamdan.

For Snap, Alhammadi said, the campaign is a celebration “of the profound role of Snapchat in the daily lives of Saudis.

“We like to say, if it’s happening in the Kingdom, chances are it’s on Snapchat.”

Despite Snapchat’s reach in the Kingdom, “many brands are still not fully harnessing these capabilities to connect with audiences,” he said.

Augmented reality has been shown to enhance the shopping experience leading to a 94 percent higher conversion rate in Saudi Arabia, according to Alhammadi.

But lack of awareness about AR and platforms like Snapchat, as well as challenges in integrating AR into marketing strategies, pose a significant barrier for advertisers.

He advises brands to understand the unique needs of the Saudi Arabia audience and tailor their strategies accordingly, especially as the Kingdom is making big leaps toward integrated digital experiences.

According to a recent study by consulting firm Kearney, a majority of respondents (84 percent) expressed a preference for engaging in at least part of their shopping activities online, with only 16 percent preferring in-store shopping.

And yet, less than 30 percent of consumers see the retail sector as being technologically advanced, the study found.

“There is a lot of work to be done to ensure brands are equipped to thrive in the digital age,” Alhammadi said.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the government’s investments in the digital economy “create an environment conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship, laying a solid foundation for Snap’s growth and business development in the region,” he added.

And Snap is committed to working with local governing bodies to support their goals for the Kingdom, such as the digital transformation agenda, he continued.

The company has partnered with several government bodies on various occasions to create AR lenses, filters, and physical activations.

For example, this February, Snap partnered with the Saudi Tourism Authority to create a campaign for the Kingdom’s Founding Day that included an AR experience, which enabled users to dress up in traditional attire.

The campaign, which was live for one day, reached 15 million Snapchat users. This created a new record of one-day engagements for a single activation on Snapchat and marking a first for the company in the Middle East and North Africa region, Alhammadi explained.

Last year, Snapchat collaborated with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture and the Saudi Fashion Commission, to launch TASAWAR, an augmented reality exhibition that merged design and technology.

Snapchat created AR showrooms for five Saudi designers — Hekayat, Hindamme, ArAm, Abadia, and KAF by KAF — that allowed visitors to experience virtual runways, dress try-ons, and headpiece selfie lenses during Riyadh Fashion Week.

Going forward, Alhammadi said, Snap is focusing locally on two areas: improving results for advertisers to drive overall demand on Snapchat, and continue showcasing its AR technology.

This “has the power to change the face of every industry, meeting the ambitious digital transformation agendas taking shape in the region.”

He added: “With internet adoption at 100 percent and smartphone penetration at 95 percent (in Saudi Arabia), Saudi consumers are eager to explore new ideas and engage with the latest innovations, driving demand for Snap’s products and services.”


Musk’s X ‘deceives’ users with blue checks, EU charges

Updated 12 July 2024
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Musk’s X ‘deceives’ users with blue checks, EU charges

  • Breach of EU’s Digital Markets Act regulations could lead to hefty fines as high as 6 percent of total annual turnover
  • ‘Blue check negatively affects users' ability to make informed decisions about account authenticity and content,’ Commission said

BRUSSELS: Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s X platform is misleading users with its blue checkmarks for certified accounts, and is also violating EU content rules, Brussels said Friday, in a finding that could lead to hefty fines.
EU regulators are unhappy with the blue badge system under Musk’s ownership since anyone can now obtain it with a premium subscription, whereas before it was reserved for verified accounts including leaders, companies and journalists, after approval.
The formal warning against X is the first under the Digital Services Act (DSA), a sweeping law that forces digital companies do more to police content online. It follows a probe launched in December 2023.
X becomes the third company in as many weeks to face the European Union’s wrath for violating landmark new rules, after Brussels warned Apple and Meta to change their ways or risk massive fines — for breaches of a second law known as the Digital Markets Act (DMA).
Musk has overhauled the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, including changing its name, since purchasing it in October 2022.
But his plans for X have put him at odds with Brussels since the EU wants big tech to do more to protect users online and increase competition in the digital sphere.
Now the European Commission has told X of its preliminary view that it is “in breach of” the DSA, arguing that the social network “deceives” users with its new blue badge rules.
“Since anyone can subscribe to obtain such a ‘verified’ status, it negatively affects users’ ability to make free and informed decisions about the authenticity of the accounts and the content they interact with,” the commission said in a statement.
“There is evidence of motivated malicious actors abusing the ‘verified account’ to deceive users,” it added.
The commission also accused X of failing to comply with rules on advertising transparency — since it does “not provide a searchable and reliable” ad database — and failing to give researchers access to public data.
“X has now the right of defense — but if our view is confirmed we will impose fines and require significant changes,” the EU’s top digital official, Thierry Breton, said.
Fines under the DSA can go as high as six percent of a company’s total worldwide annual turnover and force it to make changes to address violations.
X will be able to examine the EU’s file and defend itself against Friday’s finding.
There is no time limit on how long an investigation may last.
EU regulators’ wide-ranging probe into X also continues to look into the spread of illegal content and the effectiveness of the platform’s efforts to combat disinformation, the commission said.


Under the DSA, X is one of 25 “very large” online platforms, including Facebook and TikTok, with more than 45 million monthly active users in the 27-country EU.
X is also in the EU’s crosshairs for a cut to content moderation resources. In May, the EU told X to hand over “detailed information and internal documents” and demanded more information about steps taken to mitigate risks from generative AI on elections.
There are currently other investigations under the DSA into Meta’s Facebook and Instagram as well as TikTok and AliExpress.
The DSA and the DMA are both part of the EU’s bolstered legal armory targeting big tech and EU regulators have stepped up enforcement of the laws since they came into force.


Media organizations renew plea for ‘open access’ to Gaza in latest rebuke to Israel

Updated 11 July 2024
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Media organizations renew plea for ‘open access’ to Gaza in latest rebuke to Israel

  • Letter says Israeli ban places ‘unreasonable and untenable burden’ on local journalists, fosters misinformation
  • Release of the letter precedes a scheduled visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the US

LONDON: More than 60 organizations are demanding Israeli authorities allow free and unrestricted media access to Gaza, in the latest in a series of appeals.

In an open letter issued on Thursday and backed by bodies in 26 countries, major news outlets including Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, and The New York Times criticized Israel for imposing a near-total ban on international media.

“More than 100 journalists have been killed since the start of the war and those who remain are working in conditions of extreme deprivation,” the organizations said in the letter.

“The result is that information from Gaza is becoming harder and harder to obtain and that the reporting which does get through is subject to repeated questions over its veracity.”

The letter emphasized the “unreasonable and untenable burden” placed on local journalists to document events, and stressed Israel’s obligation to “uphold press freedom by granting foreign media immediate and independent access to Gaza.”

The bodies also called on Israel to fulfill its international commitments to protect journalists as civilians.

Media organizations and civil society groups have consistently urged Israel to allow independent access to international news organizations seeking to report from the Gaza Strip.

They argue that the current restrictions intensify pressure on local journalists and foster an environment in which misinformation can thrive.

Exceptions to the ban have been rare, although some journalists have been permitted entry under direct Israeli military supervision.

The release of the letter precedes a scheduled visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the US, during which he plans to meet President Joe Biden and address the US Congress on July 24.