Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

“There is no end to fake news but we must continue to battle it,”  Arab News editor-in-chief Faisal J. Abas said during a panel discussion at the Top CEO Forum in Dubai on May 17. (AN photo)
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Updated 19 May 2022

Fake news or free expression: Top CEO Conference panel examines the hazards of digital media age

  • Top CEO Conference panel explores the case for digital media regulation to fight misinformation 
  • Examples of truth-telling and conspiracy theories show social media can be a double-edged sword

DUBAI: Fake news, a term popularized by former US President Donald Trump to berate sections of the media, is viewed by many in civil society and the business community as one of the most harmful phenomena of the digital age.

There are several recent examples of misinformation, or indeed deliberate disinformation, published online and then amplified by social media, having real-world consequences, from stirring up ethnic tensions to undermining public health initiatives. 

Take, for instance, the case of Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, who in December 2016 read an article online about an alleged elite pedophile ring operating out of a pizzeria in Washington D.C.

“Pizzagate,” as it became known, was a far-right conspiracy theory, which sought to connect several high-ranking Democratic Party officials with an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring linked to a restaurant named Comet Ping Pong.

After reading the article, Welch picked up a gun and drove the full six hours from his home to Washington D.C. where he opened fire on the restaurant. No one was injured in the attack, and the allegations have since been thoroughly debunked. 

Compare this example with the footage that emerged on May 13 of Israeli security forces attacking Palestinian pallbearers carrying the coffin of veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead two days earlier. 

Thanks to video captured by witnesses on their smartphones and shared on social media, the whole world was able to bear witness to this shocking incident instantaneously, spurring world leaders to condemn the funeral assault.  

During a panel discussion at the Top CEO Conference in Dubai on May 17, both of these incidents were raised as examples of the tremendous power of social media as a means, on the one hand, of spreading misinformation, and, on the other, of exposing the truth. 

It is because of the positive traits of social media as a weapon of truth that media outlets and civil society are cautious about onerous government regulation of these platforms, which might undermine freedom of expression.

“Nobody is against freedom, but we should also be against chaos,” Faisal J. Abbas, the editor-in-chief of Arab News, told Tuesday’s panel. 

“We are talking about billions of people, billions of posts, it is physically impossible to monitor everything and by the time they get to it, the damage would most probably have been done.  

“If you remember from 2016 the fake story which was spreading on Facebook and other platforms about the pizzeria that had a child abuse ring, and somebody took a gun and went and shot up the place.

“The story got more views than the rebuttals. The more crazy the news, the more content it creates, the more websites like Facebook get traction,” Abbas said. 

“There is no end to fake news but we must continue to battle it.”  

Indeed, the digital transformation, which has revolutionized the sharing of information in just a matter of years, has left regulators and companies fighting to keep up with some of its more damaging manifestations.

Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. MENA, who also participated in Tuesday’s panel, said that the efforts of governments to regulate online platforms should not “take away the responsibility of the tech platforms” to tackle fake news.

“When we talk about regulations, there is a component of thoughtful regulation with the government, and we want to engage in that, and help the government to come up with what that means,” Freijeh told Arab News on the sidelines of Tuesday’s forum. 

“Then there is self-regulation, or platform regulation. And this is our responsibility and how we deal with product design, and how to do the policy to control that. 

“And then (there is) self-responsibility from (content) creators and the community, and that is an educational process. It requires a lot of technology to allow self-regulation, and it is a process that we have to commit to.” 

While fake news was in no way created by social media, the sheer speed and accessibility these networks provide means that harmful and malicious behavior now has a greater reach than ever before. 

“Social media gave people freedom,” Khaled Janahi, chairman of Vision 3, told Tuesday’s panel. But, he warned, people need to use it correctly.  

In separate comments to Arab News, Thomas Hughes, executive director of Meta’s oversight board, said that social media companies have a role to play in combating fake news. 

“Content moderation policies have to be crafted in a way that reflects the kinds of standards we want to set globally,” he said. 

“As the (oversight) board cannot hear every appeal, when we select cases, we are thinking about what kind of precedent our decision might create, and we prioritize cases that have the potential to affect lots of users around the world, are of critical importance to public discourse or raise important questions about Meta’s policies.” 

He added that the Oversight Board for Meta — formerly known as Facebook — has already issued more than 100 recommendations and that Meta has committed to implementing the majority of them. 

But conflicts like those raging in Ukraine and Ethiopia, according to Hughes, add fuel to the fire of fake news. 

Conflict and instability “unfortunately, go hand in hand with rises in mis- and disinformation — although this issue is very much global,” he told Arab News.

Journalists can play a key role in tackling fake news, according to Hughes, which is why many of Meta’s board members have worked in the traditional media in the past. 

“They feel passionately about these issues and about ensuring that more is done to protect journalists and free speech, while also working to protect people from harm.”

Dubai Film and TV Commission launches initiative to support Emirati screenwriters

Updated 23 sec ago

Dubai Film and TV Commission launches initiative to support Emirati screenwriters

  • The program builds upon the UAE and India’s long-standing relationship, which is marked by decades of cultural and social exchange

LONDON: The Dubai Film and TV Commission launched an initiative on Wednesday to support Emirati scriptwriters from across the UAE and abroad to produce scripts for Bollywood.

In partnership with leading Bollywood studios, the initiative “Ticket to Bollywood” is aimed at expanding Emirati talent in film and cinema.

“Bollywood has a special place in the hearts of natives and expats across the region. For decades, Indian culture, from food and fashion to film and song, have interacted with and influenced our own,” Saeed Aljanahi, director of operations at DFTC, said.

“We are delighted to enrich our relationship with greater cultural and creative engagement. This initiative aims to provide Emirati writers a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and appreciation for the industry with their personal touch, while gaining invaluable experience working alongside established writers and directors from one of the world’s biggest filmmaking industries.”

Those interested aged 18 years or older can register their interest, experience and portfolio via the DFTC website

Shortlisted applicants will then be asked to submit a story exploring topics of their choosing within drama, action, thriller or romance genres.

A panel of film industry experts will vet the submissions before selecting a number of outstanding writers to develop a feature-length script for the participating Bollywood studios.

The program builds upon the UAE and India’s long-standing relationship, which is marked by decades of cultural and social exchange.

Bollywood blockbusters like ‘“Happy New Year,” “Raees,” “Laxmmi Bomb” were filmed over the years in Dubai, many of which have also been enjoyed by local Arabic-speaking audiences.

INTERVIEW: Saudi women have beautiful, layered stories to tell, says Netflix exec

Updated 06 July 2022

INTERVIEW: Saudi women have beautiful, layered stories to tell, says Netflix exec

  • Nuha El-Tayeb discusses launch of Because She Created, a collection of 21 films by Arab women filmmakers

DUBAI: Netflix is launching a specially curated collection of 21 Arab films on July 7 titled “Because She Created.”

Featuring movies by female filmmakers, the collection includes documentaries as well as dramas and romance movies, amplifying the creative voices of Arab women filmmakers.

The filmmakers hail from diverse countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine and more.

The Because She Created platform was first launched last year as a virtual panel discussion hosting Arab women filmmakers to talk about the evolving role of women in the regional film industry.

Netflix then teamed up with the Cairo International Film Festival to host the second edition of Because She Created as a fireside chat with renowned Tunisian actress Hend Sabry. Now, the streaming giant is using the platform to launch a specially curated collection of films that shine a spotlight on Arab women filmmakers.

“We have had women filmmakers, writers, producers and actors creating their own ripple in the regional entertainment industry for decades,” Nuha El-Tayeb, director of Content Acquisitions, Netflix MENA and Turkey, told Arab News.

“Filmmakers in the Arab world are more aware that in order to be seen they have to have authenticity, but also to deliver a universal story. There is a return of powerful female lead roles in commercial cinema, young creatives are breaking traditional gender boxes and women are finding more avenues to tell stories they haven’t been able to tell before,” she added.

Arab cinema has had a moment on the global stage in recent years. In 2019, Nadine Labaki became the first Arab woman to be nominated for best Foreign Language film at the Oscars through her title “Capernaum.” Still, there are gaps in the industry that need to be addressed.

One way to create more opportunities for women is to let them have more autonomy over their stories, El-Tayeb said. “Actors need to be more conscious of the narratives and stories they choose to be involved in, and demand better and more authentic portrayals for women in film.”

This is especially important given that there are fewer scripts written for female characters, while male characters “remain the motor of Arab cinema,” she said.

“We know that more women behind the camera has a ripple effect for women in front of it,” El-Tayeb added. Netflix recently renewed “AlRawabi School for Girls” and “Finding Ola” for another season. Both shows are spearheaded by female showrunners and have made it to Netflix top 10 lists around the world.

“The success of these shows has helped Arab talent, creators and storytellers reach new audiences, and instilled a sense of pride,” she said.

Since the lifting of the cinema ban in 2018, Saudi Arabia has made significant investments in the creative industries, allocating $64 billion toward the entertainment sector alone. During the Red Sea Film Festival last year, the Ministry of Investment announced that the Kingdom would support the production of 100 films by 2030.

The Saudi Film Commission also announced an incentive program earlier this year offering financial refunds of up to 40 percent for local and international producers shooting in the Kingdom.

“There’s incredible talent in Saudi Arabia,” said El-Tayeb. “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.”

Netflix is already working with Arab women not only to help tell their stories, but also to amplify their voices in order to reach a global audience. In April, it partnered with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture to grant five women Arab filmmakers $250,000 to bring their work to life.

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.

As Saudi women become more involved in government and private industries, El-Tayeb hopes that they “gain more autonomy over their stories and give more people a chance to see their lives reflected on screen.

“With more women behind the camera, we can also expect more Saudi women to play leading roles and carry films in a way they may not have had the opportunity to do before.”

One of the films featured in the collection is Saudi filmmaker Ahd Kamel’s “Sanctity,” which tells the story of a young Saudi widow who endures a world of hardship to protect her unborn child. 

The film was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlinale 2013, and won a Golden Aleph at the Beirut International Film Festival as well as a Development Award at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival.

For many, the topic of the film might seem somewhat controversial. But for Kamel, it is simply about what a woman would do without a man, and “I don’t see anything controversial about that,” she told Arab News.

The idea for the film was born out of Kamel’s personal experience. At the age of 14, when she lost her father, Kamel saw her mother struggle to pick up the pieces and manage the household.

“I wanted to explore the topic of what is a woman’s power and where it lies,” she said. “I truly believe women can endure way more than men and it’s something that I wanted to honor.”

Kamel, who is also an actor, grew up in the Kingdom when a career in the film industry was not even possible. She moved to the US to study filmmaking — her true passion — and acting happened by chance.

In her initial roles, Kamel was cast as a terrorist, and then “upgraded” to a refugee and CIA agent. Going from a terrorist to an anti-terrorism agent for an Arab Muslim woman in Hollywood might seem like progress, but Kamel said that it was tied to a “political idea, whether we are creating terrorism or fighting it.”

Despite these challenges, Kamel added that “you have to continue believing in what you believe in.”

The Kingdom’s transformation, in particular, “shifts the whole paradigm,” she said. “If we (women) can say that we are part of writing the history of our culture and of our country, that is something quite groundbreaking and amazing.”

Netflix’s Because She Created collection includes films both by established, award-winning filmmakers as well as new talent. It also hosts work from “several underrepresented parts of the Arab world” that deserve a wider audience, El-Tayeb said.

“With this collection, we want to showcase the diversity and depth of work by women filmmakers in the region,” she added.

“We hope that through the collection, people around the world get a peek into award-winning masterpieces, directorial debuts and several poignant stories by female Arab filmmakers all at once.”


Faith in democracy on the decline among noteworthy findings in major BBC MENA survey

Updated 06 July 2022

Faith in democracy on the decline among noteworthy findings in major BBC MENA survey

  • 23k people were interviewed across Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Palestinian
  • Majority of those surveyed believe economic conditions are worsening in the region

LONDON: BBC News Arabic revealed on Wednesday the findings of a major survey conducted in the Middle East and North Africa region between 2021-2022. 

Approximately 23,000 people were interviewed across Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Palestinian on a wide range of topics, including democracy, women’s rights, the economy and race. 

Conducted between October 2021 and April 2022, the survey was commissioned by BBC News Arabic in partnership with Arab Barometer, a research network based at Princeton University.

Sam Farah, head of BBC News Arabic, said: “The Arab World Survey 2021/2022 is vital in helping us to understand what people living in the Middle East and North Africa think about the pressing issues affecting their lives.”

One of the most noteworthy findings is that faith in democracy is in rapid decline in the countries surveyed.

Over 50 percent of participants in Tunisia, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine believe that their country’s economy is weak under a democratic system, with Iraq having the highest number of people who appear to have lost faith in democracy (72 percent).

That said, the majority of people in all countries surveyed believe that while democracy may have problems, it is still better than other political systems. 

In Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories, more than half of those surveyed agreed with the statement that their country needs a leader who can bend the rules if necessary to get things done.

Another notable finding is that people believe economic conditions are worsening. 

Lebanon is ranked lowest out of all the countries in the survey, with less than 1 percent of Lebanese surveyed saying that the current economic situation is good. 

Overall, most people surveyed do not expect that the economic situation in their country will improve in the next few years. Some optimism exists, nevertheless. In six countries, over a third of surveyed citizens say the situation will be better or somewhat better in the coming two to three years.

Of those surveyed, many have experienced food insecurity and scarcity and say that often or sometimes they did not have money to buy more food. The struggle to keep food on the table was most acutely witnessed in Egypt and Mauritania, where around two in three people said this happened sometimes or often.

In general, attitudes toward the role of women in the region are slowly becoming more progressive, apart from Morocco where 49 percent of Moroccans said men are better at political leadership than women. 

While attitudes regarding the role of women were improving, the majority of participants believe that violence toward women has increased, with 61 percent of participants in Tunisia agreeing with this statement. 

The survey also suggests that people appear to be finding their faith again, particularly young people. However, trust in religious leaders is decreasing, with 47 percent of Lebanese and 31 percent of Sudanese surveyed saying they do not have any trust in religious leaders.

In terms of attitudes toward world leaders, US President Joe Biden’s MENA policies are viewed as being not much better than those of Trump, but the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is widely supported in surveyed countries.

Meanwhile, the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remain popular in the countries surveyed. 

Finally, more than a third of people in all countries surveyed except Egypt agree that racial discrimination is a problem, with Tunisia having the highest number of people agreeing with this (80 percent).

However, 82 percent of Egyptians say that there is no racial discrimination at all against black people.

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

Updated 05 July 2022

Emerging company XGUARD to educate local Saudi businesses on new tech

RIYADH: Non-fungible tokens and blockchain technologies took the world by storm, dominating everything from the art space to advertising. Web3, a new blockchain-based version of the internet, and the metaverse are still fairly new concepts, but it seems like they are here to stay with more and more people — and businesses — experimenting with them.

XGUARD, for example, is an emerging company with offices in Riyadh, Dubai and Vienna, helping organizations and individuals navigate Web3 and the virtual space “one block at a time.”

In Riyadh, the company has been actively hosting informational sessions and workshops to help equip Saudis with the skills and tools needed to venture into Web3, open their own wallet, invest in or sell NFTs, grow their businesses and engage in virtual experiences. 

XGUARD first started as a sports promotion company in Dubai. After its founder Omar Aridi began venturing into these emerging technologies, his interest in them grew.

The industry in Saudi is still at a nascent stage, Aridi told Arab News.

He said: “I was planning on working in a very decentralized way. Saudi wasn’t just my focus, but then after reading the market and seeing how things are going, I think Saudi has the most appetite when it comes to [this space].” 

Just last month, the Saudi Tourism Ministry and Saudi Tourism Authority created NFT souvenirs that were presented to the heads of delegations participating in the 116th session of the UN World Tourism Organization executive council, held in Jeddah.

“Vision 2030 and the whole direction of digital transformation and blockchain technologies and artificial intelligence — this makes it the perfect platform for us,” Aridi said. “The only bottleneck that we had were the cryptocurrency regulations, which I know are on the way. I think it’s better to be the first movers from now and the first adopters. When things get regulated, we know we will be the go-to consulting company here.”

Since cryptocurrencies are the most commonly used mode of payment in the metaverse, their lack of regulation has resulted in businesses being wary of entering this space. 

“The lack of trust comes from the lack of regulation, not from the technology,” Aridi said. “You need to pay with cryptocurrency, and that is the element that has not yet been regulated.”

In the Gulf region, the UAE has been spearheading the regulation of NFTs and cryptocurrencies by issuing the first cryptocurrency law and establishing the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority.

For businesses, enterprise NFT technologies themselves are key. “It brings a very well authenticated ownership documented on the blockchain. Nobody can erase it, and nobody can penetrate it,” Aridi said. 

In certain industries, having verified proof of ownership and secured data records can cut down on processing time, reduce fraud and error risks, provide immutable authenticity of products, manage critical data and ease the supply chain process.

Although the NFT, bitcoin and Ethereum markets are currently down as a result of cryptocurrencies crashing, Aridi is optimistic. “​​This is very good because the market has to [course] correct,” he said. “Hopefully, only the few proper solid value propositions will be sustained and XGUARD will be one of those because we are thinking of NFTs as a technology, not as a hype.” 

XGUARD provides companies with Web3 consulting, marketing, art and blockchain development, all under one roof. “In terms of competition, I don’t see anyone offering the value proposition that we provide, which is advisory, A-to-Z solutions. Nobody in Saudi Arabia is doing that yet,” said Aridi. 

For now, the company is adopting a predominantly educational approach. It has collaborated with local spaces and businesses, such as AlMashtal Creative Space in Riyadh and The Music Space in Jeddah, to build communities across the country. 

“We have a lot of artists, in Saudi Arabia specifically, that really want to be heard, that really want to improve their business,” Aridi said. “For entrepreneurs, if they have an idea, we sit with them, we scope it, we shape it, we come up with a strategy together and we help them launch it. The idea is to basically create success stories.”


TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

Updated 05 July 2022

TikTok ad policy is ‘clear abuse’ of EU law: activists

  • Activists accuse TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising

PARIS: Rights activists on Tuesday accused social media giant TikTok of breaching EU laws by co-opting users into sharing their data for targeted advertising.
TikTok said it would change its policy next week to allow data to be gathered from over-18s in Europe whether or not they had consented, claiming the move was allowed under Europe’s data protection law (GDPR).
But digital rights group Access Now wrote to the company asking for clarity on the legal basis, calling it a “clear abuse” of several European laws including GDPR.
“TikTok wants to strip away the rights of people who use the platform to bump its ad revenue,” said Estelle Masse of Access Now.
Masse said other social media platforms also had problems with their consent mechanisms but TikTok was “taking a step further” by “effectively suggesting that we should not have a say in deciding how our information is used.”
Social media firms gather vast troves of data on individuals’ online habits and use it to sell highly targeted advertising.
But the GDPR forces firms to give detailed justifications for gathering data, something social media platforms have struggled to do.
TikTok has said its policy change relies on a principle in the GDPR called “legitimate interest,” which allows companies to process data without giving a specific justification.
However, regulators have already begun to limit the use of legitimate interest.
They ruled in February that websites relying on the principle to opt-in users to targeted advertising were acting illegally.
AFP has asked TikTok for a response to the criticism.
TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is Chinese, is also under pressure from lawmakers in the United States over its use of data after reports suggested it allowed its staff in China to access data on US-based users.
The social media company confirmed the reports last week in a letter to US Congress but said it would never allow Communist Party officials to access data on US users.