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.”

TikTok to partner with TalkShopLive for US live shopping

Updated 03 October 2022

TikTok to partner with TalkShopLive for US live shopping

  • TalkShopLive's “live streaming, social buying and selling platform” will allow users to buy products through links on the app during live broadcasts

LONDON: TikTok is due to enter a partnership with Los Angeles-based TalkShopLive to launch its live shopping platform in North America by outsourcing its operation, the Financial Times reported on Saturday citing two people familiar with the operations.
The companies are still finalizing the arrangements, the FT report said, adding that no contracts have been signed so far.
TikTok did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment while a representative for TalkShopLive declined to comment.
Bytedance-owned TikTok’s live shopping platform TikTok Shop is available in Asian markets including Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. It was launched in the UK last year, according to the report.
TikTok Shop allows users to buy products through links on the app during live broadcasts, and the Los Angeles based TalkShopLive app works on a similar concept. TalkShopLive describes itself as a “live streaming, social buying and selling platform,” on its website.
TalkShopLive signed an agreement with US retailer Walmart last year to provide shoppable content through embeddable videos across
The reported partnership comes at a time when TikTok, which counts the United States as its largest market, is facing scrutiny from US lawmakers questioning the Chinese-owned app’s safeguards of user data.


Spotify’s new report delves into how UAE’s Gen Zs are driving culture

Updated 30 September 2022

Spotify’s new report delves into how UAE’s Gen Zs are driving culture

  • Annual Culture Next report reveals the behaviors, attitudes and mindsets of GenZs in the UAE

DUBAI: Spotify has released the UAE edition of its annual global culture and trends report, Culture Next.

In the fourth edition of the report, the second to feature the UAE, Spotify delves deeper into the behaviors, attitudes and mindsets of their largest audience segment, Generation Z (aged 15 to 25), and how they differ from Generation Y, known as millennials (26 to 40).

In 2021, Gen Zs globally streamed music more often than they used any other media (including videos, games, and TV), and shared more Spotify playlists and engaged in more group listening sessions than any other generation, according to the report.

In the first quarter of 2022 alone, 18 to 24-year-olds have played more than 578 billion minutes of music on Spotify — more than any other segment, and roughly 16 billion more minutes than millennials, or 25 to 34-year-olds, around the world.

“Audio has always been part of our lives,” Mark Abou Jaoude, Spotify’s head of music in the Middle East and North Africa, told Arab News.

“Streaming is being seen more and more as a key driver for discovery and the formation of a global community that identifies with one another through audio. It’s a way of self-expression and it's screenless,” he added.

Video, as a format, has grown in popularity in recent times, spurred by short-form video such as that on TikTok and Instagram’s Reels.

Jaoude, however, stresses the importance of audio, particularly for Gen Zs. “A video with no audio is hard to comprehend, for example, but a pure audio piece is not. Audio enriches storytelling,” he said.

The report highlights key differences between Gen Zs and millennials, with the former having gone from an “emerging” generation to the “center stage of culture.”

Firstly, while both generations are stressed, Gen Zs are more so. “Millennials were raised in a boom, Zs in a bust,” said Jaoude. They have experienced significant downturns associated with the crash of 2008 and later COVID-19, which they experienced mostly as adults, he explained.

In this environment, they are turning to audio as a safe space. Fifty-nine percent of 18 to 24-year-olds in the UAE said they turn to podcasts to get answers to hard or personal questions before talking to their families about it, and 66 percent said they listen to podcasts to inform the conversations they have with their friends.

Moreover, according to 68 percent of Gen Zs in the UAE, audio helps them understand themselves better, and 80 percent said it allows them to explore different sides of their personality.

All of this means that for Gen Zs, audio has always been a part of their lives, and they use it for everything from creativity and self-expression, to discovering aspects of their own personality.

The second factor setting Gen Zs apart is that they are “the most racially and culturally diverse generation and therefore they demand this diversity be reflected through their lifestyle, the brands they engage with, social media and the audio they consume,” according to Jaoude.

Self-expression and creativity are core to this generation and so, “they lean into music, artists, podcasts, and playlists to shape the stories they tell about themselves,” he added.


66 percent listen to podcasts to inform the conversations they have with their friends.

82 percent said they had learned something about themselves by looking back on their listening habits.

74 percent believe that their listening habits tell a story about who they are.

78 percent listen to music from movies or shows because they like to feel like they are a character in the story.

71 percent like listening to and watching media from earlier decades because it reminds them of when things were simpler.

75 percent like it when brands bring back old aesthetic styles.

72 percent love it when brands produce retro products or content.

For instance, 82 percent in the UAE said they had learned something about themselves by looking back on their listening habits, and 74 percent believe that their listening habits tell a story about who they are.

It might appear that they are self-involved, but according to the report, they are driving the “main-character energy” trend, in which people use social media or digital audio to make themselves feel like the center of attention. This is evident in the popularity of playlists like “My Life is a Movie” and ones containing “POV” in the title.

Seventy-eight percent of Gen Zs in the UAE listen to music from movies or shows because “they like to feel like they are a character in the story,” according to Jaoude, and 79 percent of all Spotify playlists globally with “POV” in the title were created by Gen Zs.

Jaoude said: “They are experts in structuring and communicating their individual stories through playlists. They create their own playlists on Spotify and even use collaborative playlist features to ask their friends and community to exchange songs.”

While millennials are known for being nostalgic, Gen Zs go even further down memory lane, he added. They are “reinventing nostalgia” by filtering pop culture “through a contemporary perspective to access and inspire something new and unique to them,” he said.

Millennials are nostalgic for the times they have lived through; Gen Zs, on the other hand, are nostalgic for eras that offer some form of reprieve from current times, which they find stressful and anxiety-inducing.

“Among Zs, the past is all fuel for the future — and that is true for more than music,” Jaoude said.

It is why 71 percent of Gen Zs in UAE said they like listening to and watching media from earlier decades — because it reminds them of when things were simpler, and 75 percent like it when brands bring back old aesthetic styles, while 72 percent love it when brands produce retro products or content.

“You will see that movement in today’s fashion and the sound of music; there’s a lot of borrowing from previous eras and artists add their personal flair or vision to that sound,” said Jaoude.

Gen Zs’ unique problems, and habits, provide an untapped opportunity for marketers. As Jaoude said: “They are seeking new opportunities to share themselves through audio — and looking to brands to help make it happen.”

Forty-nine percent in the UAE said they like being able to select the ad they listen to on a digital audio streaming service, and more than a third said they like it when they can interact with ads.

For example, Spotify worked with Adidas on the “Nite Jogger” campaign where they created a custom digital experience that gleaned the “sonic traits” of listeners’ nighttime streaming activity to create a custom playlist unique to each individual. The campaign racked up 32.4 million impressions and over 9 million unique visitors.

“While brands of the past may have prioritized keeping an iron grip over their messaging, there’s a huge opportunity to connect with the next generation by handing the reins over to them and allowing them to customize their experience — especially in the space of audio,” said Jaoude.

BBC announces job losses at World Service

Updated 29 September 2022

BBC announces job losses at World Service

  • The BBC said its international services needed to make savings of £28.5 million as part of wider reductions of £500 million
  • Radio services in Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu will stop, if the proposals are approved by staff and unions

LONDON: Nearly 400 staff at BBC World Service will lose their jobs as part of a cost-cutting program and move to digital platforms, the broadcaster announced on Thursday.
The BBC said its international services needed to make savings of £28.5 million ($31 million) as part of wider reductions of £500 million.
In July it detailed plans to merge BBC World News television and its domestic UK equivalent into a single channel to launch in April next year.
BBC World Service currently operates in 40 languages around the world with a weekly audience of some 364 million people.
But the corporation said audience habits were changing and more people were accessing news online, which along with a freeze on BBC funding and increased operating costs meant a move to “digital-first” made financial sense.
“Today’s proposals entail a net total of around 382 post closures,” it said in an online statement.
Eleven language services — Azerbaijani, Brasil, Marathi, Mundo, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Thai, Turkish, and Vietnamese — are already digital only.
Under the restructuring plans they will be joined by seven more: Chinese, Gujarati, Igbo, Indonesian, Pidgin, Urdu and Yoruba.
Radio services in Arabic, Persian, Kyrgyz, Hindi, Bengali, Chinese, Indonesian, Tamil and Urdu will stop, if the proposals are approved by staff and unions.
No language services will close, the broadcaster insisted, although some production will move out of London.
The Thai service will move to Bangkok, the Korean service to Seoul and the Bangla service to Dhaka.
The “Focus on Africa” television bulletin will be broadcast from Nairobi, it added.
BBC World Service director Liliane Landor said there was a “compelling case” for expanding digital services, as audiences had more than doubled since 2018.
“The way audiences are accessing news and content is changing and the challenge of reaching and engaging people around the world with quality, trusted journalism is growing,” she added.
BBC World Service is funded out of the UK license fee — currently £159 for a color TV and payable by every household with a television set.
The BBC has faced increasing claims from right-wingers since the UK’s divisive Brexit referendum in 2016 of political bias, and pushing a “woke,” London-centric liberal agenda.
But it has faced similar accusations of political bias in favor of the right from the left.
The government announced a freeze on the license fee earlier this year, in what was seen as a brazen attack on a cherished British institution.
But ministers claimed the funding model needed to be revised because of technological changes, including the uptake of streaming services.
Rival commercial broadcasters have long complained that the guaranteed funding is unfair.


Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

Updated 29 September 2022

Rohingya seek reparations from Facebook for role in massacre

  • “Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says

With roosters crowing in the background as he speaks from the crowded refugee camp in Bangladesh that’s been his home since 2017, Maung Sawyeddollah, 21, describes what happened when violent hate speech and disinformation targeting the Rohingya minority in Myanmar began to spread on Facebook.
“We were good with most of the people there. But some very narrow minded and very nationalist types escalated hate against Rohingya on Facebook,” he said. “And the people who were good, in close communication with Rohingya. changed their mind against Rohingya and it turned to hate.”
For years, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc., pushed the narrative that it was a neutral platform in Myanmar that was misused by malicious people, and that despite its efforts to remove violent and hateful material, it unfortunately fell short. That narrative echoes its response to the role it has played in other conflicts around the world, whether the 2020 election in the US or hate speech in India.
But a new and comprehensive report by Amnesty International states that Facebook’s preferred narrative is false. The platform, Amnesty says, wasn’t merely a passive site with insufficient content moderation. Instead, Meta’s algorithms “proactively amplified and promoted content” on Facebook, which incited violent hatred against the Rohingya beginning as early as 2012.
Despite years of warnings, Amnesty found, the company not only failed to remove violent hate speech and disinformation against the Rohingya, it actively spread and amplified it until it culminated in the 2017 massacre. The timing coincided with the rising popularity of Facebook in Myanmar, where for many people it served as their only connection to the online world. That effectively made Facebook the Internet for a vast number of Myanmar’s population.
More than 700,000 Rohingya fled into neighboring Bangladesh that year. Myanmar security forces were accused of mass rapes, killings and torching thousands of homes owned by Rohingya.
“Meta — through its dangerous algorithms and its relentless pursuit of profit — substantially contributed to the serious human rights violations perpetrated against the Rohingya,” the report says.
A spokesperson for Meta declined to answer questions about the Amnesty report. In a statement, the company said it “stands in solidarity with the international community and supports efforts to hold the Tatmadaw accountable for its crimes against the Rohingya people.”
“Our safety and integrity work in Myanmar remains guided by feedback from local civil society organizations and international institutions, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar; the Human Rights Impact Assessment we commissioned in 2018; as well as our ongoing human rights risk management,” Rafael Frankel, director of public policy for emerging markets, Meta Asia-Pacific, said in a statement.
Like Sawyeddollah, who is quoted in the Amnesty report and spoke with the AP on Tuesday, most of the people who fled Myanmar — about 80 percent of the Rohingya living in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine at the time — are still staying in refugee camps. And they are asking Meta to pay reparations for its role in the violent repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which the US declared a genocide earlier this year.
Amnesty’s report, out Wednesday, is based on interviews with Rohingya refugees, former Meta staff, academics, activists and others. It also relied on documents disclosed to Congress last year by whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist. It notes that digital rights activists say Meta has improved its civil society engagement and some aspects of its content moderation practices in Myanmar in recent years. In January 2021, after a violent coup overthrew the government, it banned the country’s military from its platform.
But critics, including some of Facebook’s own employees, have long maintained such an approach will never truly work. It means Meta is playing whack-a-mole trying to remove harmful material while its algorithms designed to push “engaging” content that’s more likely to get people riled up essentially work against it.
“These algorithms are really dangerous to our human rights. And what happened to the Rohingya and Facebook’s role in that specific conflict risks happening again, in many different contexts across the world,” said Pat de Brún, researcher and adviser on artificial intelligence and human rights at Amnesty.
“The company has shown itself completely unwilling or incapable of resolving the root causes of its human rights impact.”
After the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar highlighted the “significant” role Facebook played in the atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya, Meta admitted in 2018 that “we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
In the following years, the company “touted certain improvements in its community engagement and content moderation practices in Myanmar,” Amnesty said, adding that its report “finds that these measures have proven wholly inadequate.”
In 2020, for instance, three years after the violence in Myanmar killed thousands of Rohingya Muslims and displaced 700,000 more, Facebook investigated how a video by a leading anti-Rohingya hate figure, U Wirathu, was circulating on its site.
The probe revealed that over 70 percent of the video’s views came from “chaining” — that is, it was suggested to people who played a different video, showing what’s “up next.” Facebook users were not seeking out or searching for the video, but had it fed to them by the platform’s algorithms.
Wirathu had been banned from Facebook since 2018.
“Even a well-resourced approach to content moderation, in isolation, would likely not have sufficed to prevent and mitigate these algorithmic harms. This is because content moderation fails to address the root cause of Meta’s algorithmic amplification of harmful content,” Amnesty’s report says.
The Rohingya refugees are seeking unspecified reparations from the Menlo Park, California-based social media giant for its role in perpetuating genocide. Meta, which is the subject of twin lawsuits in the US and the UK seeking $150 billion for Rohingya refugees, has so far refused.
“We believe that the genocide against Rohingya was possible only because of Facebook,” Sawyeddollah said. “They communicated with each other to spread hate, they organized campaigns through Facebook. But Facebook was silent.”

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

Updated 29 September 2022

Netflix launches ‘New Saudi Voices’ collection to celebrate Saudi filmmakers

  • 11 films will celebrate creativity and talent of emerging figures in the Kingdom

DUBAI: Netflix is releasing a collection titled “New Saudi Voices” consisting of 11 specially curated short films to celebrate the creativity of emerging Saudi filmmakers.

The collection comprises movies across genres including horror, fantasy and animation, in an attempt to capture the full scope of Saudi filmmakers’ creativity and talent.

The 11 films are part of the New Saudi/New Cinema Shorts showcased at the Red Sea Film Festival last year and encapsulate the work of some of the most promising new voices in the Kingdom.

The films include Mohamed Basalamah’s “Hallucinated,” which tells the story of a delivery worker who suffers from worsening insomnia until the line blurs between his reality and hallucinations; and Rami Alzayer’s “The Day I Lost Myself,” which explores how a young man with anxiety finds himself stuck in an elevator on his way to an interview.

Documentaries like “Arufea” by Abbas Alshuwayfie offer a peek into an old Saudi neighborhood, and Omar Al-Omirat’s “Covida the 19th” explores lifestyle changes post-pandemic.

The collection also includes an animated short called “Whisper Down the Lane” by Raghad Albarqi, “The Jakar” by Abdulaziz Saleh, “The Palm Witch” by Hala Alhaid, “Hide and Seek” by Mohammad Helal, “Red Circle” by Abdulaziz Sarhan and “Little Bird” by Khalid Fahad.

Nuha El-Tayeb, director of content acquisitions, Netflix, MENA and Turkey, said: “We’re very excited to amplify the voices of up-and-coming filmmakers in Saudi Arabia through this collection. There’s incredible talent in the Kingdom, and they have unique stories to tell. We hope that as people tune into the films, they learn more about these creators, and catch a glimpse of their passion, originality and creativity, as we have.”

It is not the first time that Netflix has shined the spotlight on Saudi cinema. Earlier this year, the company launched a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films, “Because She Created,” featuring movies from filmmakers across Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt and more.

At the time, El-Tayeb told Arab News: “There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia. The entertainment landscape is rapidly evolving and Saudi women — like other women from the Arab world and globally — have beautiful, complex and layered stories to tell.”

The streaming giant has also worked with writer and director Hana Al-Omair on “Whispers,” an eight-part psychological thriller, as well as with Haifaa Al-Mansour on “Wadjda,” the first feature film made by a female Saudi director.

The “New Saudi Voices” collection will be available on Netflix on Sept. 29.