Last apps standing? Telegram, WhatsApp duck Russia bans

WhatsApp’s use for one-on-one or group chats make it less of a target for Russian authorities for now. (AFP)
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Updated 19 March 2022

Last apps standing? Telegram, WhatsApp duck Russia bans

  • Meta-owned WhatsApp is less suited for mass communication
  • An average of 2.5 million new users joined Telegram daily in the last three weeks

WASHINGTON: Chat platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram have avoided being blocked by Russia — unlike some of the world’s biggest social networks — in a tenuous tolerance that experts warn could end suddenly.
Years of tension between Moscow and US-based Facebook and Twitter erupted into confrontation after the invasion of Ukraine, with the platforms targeting state-tied media and then finding themselves restricted in Russia.
YouTube, which has barred channels linked to Russian state media globally, was on Friday also facing a direct threat of being blocked after Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, accused the site’s owner Google of being “anti-Russian.”
Messaging apps, however, have gotten a pass so far in part because Meta-owned WhatsApp is less suited for mass communication, while Telegram’s ability to blast information to large groups has made it useful both for independent media and the Kremlin.
“I think it’s unlikely Russia will ban Telegram because they are so short on platforms where they can operate,” said Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University, who noted that authorities in 2020 aborted efforts to block the service.
Telegram, criticized as having a lax content policing policy, offers a forum for Russian authorities to promote narratives friendly to their internationally condemned war.
Russia still operates accounts on platforms like Facebook, despite blocking the service at home, but this week the Silicon Valley giant took down posts from Moscow’s pages that contained misinformation about its deadly offensive.
Telegram has become an essential exchange for news on the war, with its growth accelerating after the Kremlin’s latest crackdown on independent media and the lock-out of apps like Facebook and Instagram.
An average of 2.5 million new users joined Telegram daily in the last three weeks, the firm said, about a 25 percent jump from the weeks prior.
But experts highlighted a risk to Telegram and its users due to a lack of default, end-to-end encryption that potentially leaves the company susceptible to government pressure to turn over information.
Alp Toker, director of web monitoring group NetBlocks, noted WhatsApp has put in place firestops that offer insulation against that sort of pressure.
“By improving their security and adopting end-to-end encryption technology, they have essentially protected their own platform from legal risk and potential demands for content access requests,” Toker added.
WhatsApp’s use for one-on-one or group chats make it less of a target for Russian authorities for now, but that could change if it became known as a key platform for protests against the war.
“Primarily, Roskomnadzor has been very concerned about channels and news and ways of disseminating information to large numbers of people, which WhatsApp and such are less good for,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at Electronic Frontier Foundation.
But Toker noted that the question hasn’t reached a critical point yet for authorities, partly because it was social media platforms, many of them now blocked, that had played a key role in organizing.
“As those (platforms) disappear, the dynamics could change and messaging apps could become the next target,” he added.
WhatsApp was one of the most popular apps in Russia in 2021, with some 67 million users or about 65 percent of Internet users in the country — far ahead of TikTok, Russian social media platform VK, and even Telegram, according to data from eMarketer.
But YouTube, with 76 million viewers in 2021, drew more Russians than any of the above platforms, the data showed.
Its popularity was due in part to the access it offers to entertainment for everyday Russians, who in turn provided an audience for politicians and the government seeking their attention.
Sanovich, the Princeton researcher, said the platform had simply gotten on the wrong side of authorities.
“They have a hard time controlling YouTube in terms of censorship and YouTube’s recent moves made it less valuable as a venue for foreign propaganda,” he noted.
The lack of a sufficiently high-quality homegrown alternative has also been a complicating factor for the government in deciding what to do with YouTube.
Toker, the NetBlocks director, cautioned that the blocking of YouTube would mean confronting Google, with its suite of services like Gmail.
“Declaring war on YouTube effectively means declaring war on the rest of the company,” he noted. “Google is a major force in business and a significant connection to the outside world.”

Prince Mohammed bin Salman College, Saudi Press Agency sign training agreement

Updated 1 min 7 sec ago

Prince Mohammed bin Salman College, Saudi Press Agency sign training agreement

  • MBSC will train journalists in ‘interpersonal effectiveness skills,’ such as negotiation and presentation

RIYADH: The Prince Mohammed bin Salman College for Management and Entrepreneurship announced on Thursday a new partnership with the Saudi Press Agency to provide specialized training and development programs for the Kingdom’s news industry.

The partnership was co-signed by Zieger DeGreef, dean of MBSC, and Fahad bin Hassan Al-Aqran, president of SPA, during the “Human Capabilities Initiative” conference held in Riyadh on Feb. 28-29.

“We are proud to partner with the Saudi Press Agency,” DeGreef said. “We are proud to partner with a number of very prominent ministries and organizations in the Kingdom to develop business acumen in Saudi Arabia.”

He told Arab News that the partnership will train journalists in a variety of “interpersonal effectiveness skills,” such as teamwork, negotiation, presentation, influencing, decision-making, and communication — all of which “are very relevant for journalists (and) for professionals in the media.”

DeGreef added that although “there is already good education in the Kingdom,” it has “a long way to go in excellence in business education.”

He added: “The college tries to fill that void.”  

In addition to joining media-focused training programs under the agreement, Saudi journalists will also be able to obtain graduate degrees in business administration and finance.

“We will welcome journalists in those degree programs in business, but we are also developing an exciting portfolio of executive education programs again for the media,” DeGreef said. “So, most of our partnerships are already in those two areas, but the third area is research.”

He highlighted that MBSC’s faculty “will work with journalists from SPA on particular research projects, mostly linked to data, data analysis, data presentations, (and) data communication.”

SPA announced on Thursday the launch of its first news training academy in partnership with several organizations, including the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, the Prince Mohammad Bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship, the Institute of Public Administration, the Human Resources Development Fund, Sky News Arabia Academy, and the Austrian International Center for Qualification and Quality.

Former MSNBC show host launches new media company

Updated 29 February 2024

Former MSNBC show host launches new media company

  • Subscription-based news organization aims to produce “unfiltered journalism”

LONDON: Former MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan is to launch a new digital media company called Zeteo.

In a CNN interview with Jake Tapper, aired on Wednesday, the British-American writer and broadcaster said: “The reason I’m starting this company is that I want to be able to speak in a blunter fashion than some in the media speak right now, especially about issues like racism, fascism, genocide.”

The move came after his MSNBC “The Mehdi Hasan Show” was abruptly canceled by the network in October.

It coincided with his criticism of Israel’s actions during its war against Hamas in Gaza.

Zeteo, Hasan noted, was an ancient Greek word that meant “to seek out, to inquire, to get to the truth.”

The subscription-based news organization aims to produce “unfiltered journalism” with hard-hitting interviews, podcasts, newsletters, op-eds, and essays.

In a promotional video for the site, Hasan pointed out that he had been busy assembling an “Avengers-style team of contributors,” which included award-winning journalists, New York Times best-selling authors, and Hollywood celebrities.

Before joining MSNBC in 2021, Hasan worked for Al Jazeera English and hosted a podcast at The Intercept.

Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation

Updated 29 February 2024

Step boss says AI regulation is critical but cautions against over-regulation

  • Ray Dargham, the CEO of the tech-focused new media company, tells Arab News Saudi Arabia and the UAE are leading the way in AI advances and regulation
  • Annual Step Conference in Dubai last week added an AI track reflecting the growth of the technology globally and regionally

DUBAI: Tech-focused new media company Step held its 12th annual conference and exhibition in Dubai last week, which attracted about 350 startups, 150 venture capital firms and more than 8,000 delegates.

Ray Dargham, the co-founder and CEO of Step, said during the opening ceremony that the business, which has already expanded to include a conference in Saudi Arabia, now plans to go global through a partner-hosting model.

The event in Dubai featured six tracks: Start, covering startups, growth and venture capital; Fintech, covering ecommerce; Digital, devoted to media, adtech and creators; Wellness, covering health, lifestyle and femtech; Earth, for greentech and sustainability; and Artificial Intelligence, covering machine learning, data and automation.

The newly added AI track covered topics such as large-language models, advanced neural nets, and co-pilot systems, which were discussed by industry experts such as Brittany McDonough of the Abu Dhabi Investment Office; Maitha Alsuwaidi, chief operating officer of Microsoft UAE; Google Cloud’s Ahmad El-Sayed; and Google Deepmind’s head of product, Mehdi-Ghissassi.

Although AI has been around for a while, “it hadn’t actually reached a critical mass until about a year ago,” Dargham told Arab News. “For a long time, AGI or artificial general intelligence, was mostly limited to labs.”

More recently, ChatGPT has played a critical role in helping AI reach a mass audience, allowing everyone to “experience the power behind the technology,” he added.

The AI sessions at the Step Conference, which covered several topics, including regulatory frameworks and deep learning, were “designed to provide startups with invaluable insights into the ethical, regulatory and technological advancement of AI, equipping them to navigate and capitalize on the dynamic and fast-moving landscape of AI-driven innovation.”

The company is adapting to become an “AI conference” because, Dargham said, “most of what we consider ‘tech’ today will become AI-powered or have an AI component to it over the next few years.”

All of the other tracks during Step events will be affected by the development and utilization of AI to such a significant degree that Dargham believes the technology “will become bigger than software and the internet itself. Hence, theoretically speaking, our conference will become an AI conference instead of being a tech conference.”

Much of the innovation and development in AI has been global but Dargham said that in particular, Step was “noticing a significant shift in the Middle East region toward a growing interest and adoption of generative AI technologies.”

As evidence of this he cited the UAE’s strategy on AI, which aims to ensure the country is at the forefront of innovation in the technology by 2031, and Saudi Arabia’s national agenda for data and AI, which aims to position the Kingdom as a global leader in data-driven economies, allowing it to leverage the power of AI for economic and social development.

The region is already receiving greater international attention and investment related to AI. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, for example, is reportedly in talks with investors, including in the UAE, to raise funding — said to be as much as between $5 trillion and $7 trillion — for a tech initiative to boost international chip-building capacity and expand its ability to power AI, among other things.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE “are leading a groundbreaking wave of AI investment, spearheaded by entities like (AI development company) G42,” said Dargham.

“The adoption rates are skyrocketing across sectors, from healthcare to finance, highlighting a strategic shift towards AI-driven innovation” but it isn’t “just about numbers,” he added.

“It’s about crafting a narrative of ambition and progress that’s reshaping the region’s technological landscape.”

The national strategies of the countries and their investments are encouraging interest from private entities that “are increasingly investing in AI research and development, with a particular focus on generative AI,” which includes “endeavors to pioneer advanced algorithms, models, and applications customized to address regional needs and challenges,” said Dargham.

AI innovation is particularly evident in the startup landscape, with businesses “exploring diverse applications of generative AI in areas such as natural language processing, computer vision and creative AI.”

The advancement of AI is not without its challenges as global concerns grow about data privacy and security.

“Ensuring the protection of sensitive information and compliance with data-protection regulations are imperative for instilling trust and confidence in GenAI technologies among stakeholders,” said Dargham.

He added that “a significant hurdle” is the shortage of skilled AI professionals.

“Without an adequate talent pool equipped with the necessary expertise, organizations struggle to effectively implement GenAI solutions” resulting in a “pressing need to invest in AI education and training programs,” he said.

The rapid development of AI also brings with it ethical considerations.

“From deepfakes to misinformation, the ethical implications of GenAI demand robust guidelines and frameworks for responsible use,” Dargham said.

Step is committed to playing its part in this space, he added, through sessions designed to address the ethics, safety and societal impacts of AI. It is also exploring collaborations between governments and international organizations “to develop policies that foster innovation while addressing concerns related to data privacy, bias, transparency and responsibility.”

While regulation is critical, Dargham cautioned against over-regulation.

“Collaboration with policymakers, industry leaders, and ethical experts is essential in establishing clear guidelines that promote the ethical deployment of GenAI technologies, fostering trust and accountability within the ecosystem,” he said.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have “made significant progress in crafting frameworks for AI governance and ethics,” accompanied by national strategies and programs “aimed at advancing AI technologies while addressing pertinent regulatory concerns,” Dargham added.

“I think regulation for AI is crucial, but I’m also concerned about over-regulation globally; the EU tends to overregulate.”

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson

Updated 29 February 2024

NATO appoints Farah Dakhlallah as new spokesperson

  • Dakhlallah, a Lebanese-British citizen, has wide-ranging experience in both the public and private sectors

LONDON: NATO has appointed Farah Dakhlallah as its new spokesperson.

In a statement announcing the news, the organization’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said: “In a more dangerous world, clear and timely communication, and engagement with the media, are more important than ever.” 

Dakhlallah, a Lebanese-British citizen, has wide-ranging experience in both the public and private sectors, including with the UN, the UK government and AstraZeneca, as well as several media organizations.

Posting on her LinkedIn account, she wrote: “It is an honor and a privilege to be appointed NATO spokesperson, leading press and media for the alliance during this critical time.”

She added the alliance currently protected more than one billion people, “safeguarding their freedom and democracy, and contributing to a more peaceful world.” 

Dakhlallah previously served as media relations director for the Middle East and Africa at AstraZeneca, communications manager at the World Health Organization, and Arabic spokeswoman for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

She has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge and another in media and communications from the London School of Economics. She also studied audiovisual arts at Beirut’s Universite Saint Joseph.

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 

Updated 29 February 2024

East London’s streets become canvas for pro-Palestine art 

  • Nine graffiti murals spotlight Palestinian journalists and doctors in Gaza with their Instagram handle
  • 'History will judge us all,' Creative Debuts founder says

LONDON: When exploring East London, a vibrant display of creativity and dissent is evident.

Amid the backdrop of coffee shops spinning vinyl records and speakeasies tucked away in butcher shops, the streets have become a canvas for an array of art voicing solidarity with the Palestinian people.

The latest addition has been the “Heroes of Palestine” project, a collection of nine graffiti murals celebrating the resilience of frontline workers in Gaza.

A mural of Palestinian journalist Bisan Owda in London by Lours. (Creative Debuts)

First launched by the art platform Creative Debuts in January, each mural spotlighted a civilian journalist along with their Instagram handle. They include Motaz Azaiza, Wael Dahdouh, Plestia Al-Aqad, Bisan Owda, Hind Khoudary, and Doaa Al-Baz.

Citizen journalists, who are risking their lives to document Israel’s bombardment and military invasion of Gaza, have played a crucial role in humanizing Palestinians.

Through platforms like Instagram, they have forged deep emotional bonds with a global audience, drawing attention to the death and destruction brought on by the war. 

“The murals bring it back to the human beings on the ground and the fact that there’s a huge, tremendous loss of life,” Creative Debuts founder Calum Hall told Arab News. 

“There’s a horrendous amount of casualties, with 90 percent of the population displaced. There’s obviously the situation happening in Rafah at the moment, which is devastating,” he added.

The community-driven project has captured the attention of both the local community and a global audience, with Hall noting that “as far as social media goes, the murals are by far the most engaged pieces we’ve ever done.”

A mural of Palestinian doctor Ahmed Moghrabi spray painted in Peckham, London. (Creative Debuts)

Following the campaign’s initial success, Creative Debuts expanded their project in February to include a tribute to Gaza’s doctors.

Hall says the murals, which have all been seen by their subjects in Gaza via social media, also serve to boost morale.

“Particularly, with the medical professionals, they’re dealing with such harrowing circumstances all the time. So, if we can even provide a 1 percent bit of hope, encouragement, and love, that has a knock-on effect for the people around them.

“We want the people out there to know they’re being seen, know they’re being heard, and know they’re being loved.”

Meanwhile, Hall advocated for the use of street art as a form of activism, a conduit for dialogue, and a tool to connect communities.

“Street art is for the people. It’s the most accessible art form, so it very much should be depicting what’s going on in society.

“Everyone loves it, taking photos, engaging with it. But it is a form of rebellion, it is a form of activism in itself and it’s the perfect way for us to get this campaign out.”

A mural of Palestinian journalist Plestia Alaqad in London painted by  Ed Hicks. (Creative Debuts)

Israel’s brutal war on Gaza, now in its sixth month, has killed nearly 30,000 people, the majority of whom are women and children.

As of Feb. 15, a YouGov poll indicates that 66 percent of Britons want Israel’s war to stop. However, the UK government has not called for an immediate ceasefire, nor has it halted the transfer of arms to Israel amid concerns that they might be used to commit “war crimes” against Palestinians.

London has witnessed some of Europe’s largest pro-Palestine protests since October, with regular marches on Saturdays, drawing hundreds of thousands.

“What seems to be really apparent is there’s a disconnect between how serious the issue is, how the politicians are handling it, and what the public thinks,” Hall said.

“I think that’s creating a bigger fissure between the public and the people in charge in this country,” he added.

The founder concluded: “The murals are an important legacy for all of us, to rally behind the people in Gaza but to also let our politicians know that we’re not happy about it.

“We’re not happy seeing this destruction and devastation in real time on our social media; it’s unavoidable. History will judge us all.”

Creative Debuts has launched a GoFundMe to continue the creation and documentation of the “Heroes of Palestine” murals, with funds directly allocated to the artists, materials, and the photographer.