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.”


Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

Updated 13 August 2022

Iran conservative media hail Salman Rushdie attacker

  • Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa

TEHRAN: Iranian ultra-conservative newspaper Kayhan on Saturday hailed the man who stabbed British author Salman Rushdie — the target of a 1989 Iranian fatwa calling for his death.
Rushdie was on a ventilator after the attack during a literary event in New York state on Friday, more than 30 years after he went into hiding following late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa.
“Bravo to this courageous and duty-conscious man who attacked the apostate and depraved Salman Rushdie in New York,” wrote the paper, whose chief is appointed by current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Let us kiss the hands of the one who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife,” the daily added.
With the exception of reformist publication Etemad, Iranian media followed a similar line, describing Rushdie as an “apostate.”
State-owned paper Iran said that the “neck of the devil” had been “cut by a razor.”
Iranian authorities have yet to make any official comment on the stabbing attack against Rushdie.
But Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to the negotiating team for Iran’s nuclear talks in Vienna, wrote on Twitter: “I won’t be shedding tears for a writer who spouts endless hatred and contempt for Muslims and Islam.”
“But, isn’t it odd that as we near a potential nuclear deal, the US makes claims about a hit on Bolton... and then this happens?” he questioned.
The attack came after Iran hinted earlier on Friday that it may accept a final compromise to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. This followed the European Union’s submission of a “final text” in Vienna.
The US Justice Department said Wednesday that it had indicted a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards over allegations he had offered to pay an individual in the United States $300,000 to kill former White House national security adviser John Bolton.
Iran dismissed the allegations as “fiction.”
Rushdie, 75, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981, which won international praise and Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India, where he was born.
But his 1988 book “The Satanic Verses” transformed his life when Khomeini issued a religious decree ordering his killing.
In 1998, the government of Iran’s reformist president Mohammad Khatami assured Britain that Iran would not implement the fatwa.
But Khamenei said in 2005 he still believed Rushdie was an apostate whose killing would be authorized by Islam.


Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report

Updated 12 August 2022

Saudi government’s digital activity comes under scrutiny in new report

  • Ministry of Health found to have ‘most engaging’ social media content
  • Education Ministry has ‘top-performing website’

DUBAI: The Kingdom’s health, education and sports ministries were among the government’s top social media performers in 2021, according to a report analyzing their digital activity.

The “State of Digital Government” report was put together by social media marketing company Emplifi in partnership with advertising network Extend.

“Social media is a valuable tool for government agencies to communicate with citizens and residents, to build and establish trust, share important information quickly and in real-time, answer questions and engage at a more personal level,” Christian Bechara, Emplifi’s vice-president for the Middle East and Africa, told Arab News.

“The world is increasingly social first, and public sector organizations compete with private sector brands for the same attention and awareness,” he added.

“Saudi Arabia recognizes that digitization and innovation in governmental services are necessary to provide capabilities at scale, to lead as a G20 country, and to keep up with the shift in information consumption.”

According to the report, the Ministry of Health had the top-performing social media accounts, while the Ministry of Education had the top-performing website and the Ministry of Sports ranked first in terms of “e-participation.”

It said also that the Ministry of Municipal Rural Affairs was the most active, the Ministry of Education the most mentioned and the Ministry of Health the most followed, as well as having the most engaging content, most new followers and most engaged users.

According to Bechara, the report analyzed the digital performance of 24 ministries across 81 social media accounts and 24 websites.

“In 2021, we saw exponential growth in followers across all ministerial social media accounts, and in particular, 7.1 million new followers,” he said.

In terms of the people talking about and engaging with Saudi ministries, the report found that about two-thirds were aged 18 to 35 and about 75 percent were male.

“Around 66 percent of social media users are Gen Z, which is no surprise — they’ve grown up with the internet and social networks at their fingertips. In their eyes, government agencies are another brand competing in the same space,” Bechara said.

When looking at the content, the report found that while 62 percent of all posts used photos, the most appealing format was video, which accounted for 42 percent of all engagements.

That picture was similar to what was happening in the private sector, Bechara said.

“Short-form video as a means to share information and updates, plus the use of influencers is a common strategy across all organizations and part of a successful marketing mix.”

 

Saudi Arabia’s young, highly connected population, coupled with the Kingdom’s digitization and modernization efforts has positioned social media as the ideal channel for the government to connect with its citizens.

Bechara advised ministries to “continue focusing on your audience, using data and metrics to tailor content.”

But he said governments should not use social media for all their messaging. Rather they should think about the relevancy and value of social media content “and how it will be perceived.”

“Lastly, always engage with your followers,” Bechara said. “Social media is very much here to stay, and it’s great to see government agencies pushing boundaries.”

Related


Twitter plan to fight midterm misinformation falls short, voting rights experts say

Updated 12 August 2022

Twitter plan to fight midterm misinformation falls short, voting rights experts say

LONDON: Twitter Inc. on Thursday set out a plan to combat the spread of election misinformation that revives previous strategies, but civil and voting rights experts said it would fall short of what is needed to prepare for the upcoming US midterm elections.
The social media company said it will apply its civic integrity policy, introduced in 2018, to the Nov. 8 midterms, when numerous US Senate and House of Representatives seats will be up for election. The policy relies on labeling or removing posts with misleading content, focused on messages intended to stop voting or claims intended to undermine public confidence in an election.
In a statement, Twitter said it has taken numerous steps in recent months to “elevate reliable resources” about primaries and voting processes. Applying a label to a tweet also means the content is not recommended or distributed to more users.
The San Francisco-based company is currently in a legal battle with billionaire Elon Musk over his attempt to walk away from his $44-billion deal to acquire Twitter.
Musk has called himself a “free speech absolutist,” and has said Twitter posts should only be removed if there is illegal content, a view supported by many in the tech industry.
But civil rights and online misinformation experts have long accused social media and tech platforms of not doing enough to prevent the spread of false content, including the idea that President Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election.
They warn that misinformation could be an even greater challenge this year, as candidates who question the 2020 election are running for office, and divisive rhetoric is spreading following an FBI search of former President Donald Trump’s Florida home earlier this week.
“We’re seeing the same patterns playing out,” said Evan Feeney, deputy senior campaign director at Color of Change, which advocates for the rights of Black Americans.
In the blog post, Twitter said a test of redesigned labels saw a decline in users’ retweeting, liking and replying to misleading content.
Researchers say Twitter and other platforms have a spotty record in consistently labeling such content.
In a paper published last month, Stanford University researchers examined a sample of posts on Twitter and Meta Platforms’ Facebook that altogether contained 78 misleading claims about the 2020 election. They found that Twitter and Facebook both consistently applied labels to only about 70 percent of the claims.
In a statement, Twitter said it has taken numerous steps in recent months to “elevate reliable resources” about primaries and voting processes.
Twitter’s efforts to fight misinformation during the midterms will include information prompts to debunk falsehoods before they spread widely online.
More emphasis should be placed on removing false and misleading posts, said Yosef Getachew, media and democracy program director at nonpartisan group Common Cause.
“Pointing them to other sources isn’t enough,” he said.
Experts also questioned Twitter’s practice of leaving up some tweets from world leaders in the name of public interest.
“Twitter has a responsibility and ability to stop misinformation at the source,” Feeney said, saying that world leaders and politicians should face a higher standard for what they tweet.
Twitter leads the industry in releasing data on how its efforts to intervene against misinformation are working, said Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School who studies online speech regulation.
Yet more than a year after soliciting public input on what the company should do when a world leader violates its rules, Twitter has not provided an update, she said.


Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

Updated 11 August 2022

Google opposes Facebook-backed proposal for self-regulatory body in India - sources

  • India wants a panel to review complaints about content decisions
  • Google says self-regulatory system sets bad precedent - sources

NEW DELHI: Google has grave reservations about developing a self-regulatory body for the social media sector in India to hear user complaints, though the proposal has support from Facebook and Twitter, sources with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters.
India in June proposed appointing a government panel to hear complaints from users about content moderation decisions, but has also said it is open to the idea of a self-regulatory body if the industry is willing.
The lack of consensus among the tech giants, however, increases the likelihood of a government panel being formed — a prospect that Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook and Twitter are keen to avoid as they fear government and regulatory overreach in India, the sources said.
At a closed-door meeting this week, an executive from Alphabet Inc’s Google told other attendees the company was unconvinced about the merits of a self-regulatory body. The body would mean external reviews of decisions that could force Google to reinstate content, even if it violated Google’s internal policies, the executive was quoted as saying.
Such directives from a self-regulatory body could set a dangerous precedent, the sources also quoted the Google executive as saying.
The sources declined to be identified as the discussions were private.
In addition to Facebook, Twitter and Google, representatives from Snap Inc. and popular Indian social media platform ShareChat also attended the meeting. Together, the companies have hundreds of millions of users in India.
Snap and ShareChat also voiced concern about a self-regulatory system, saying the matter requires much more consultation including with civil society, the sources said.
Google said in a statement it had attended a preliminary meeting and is engaging with the industry and the government, adding that it was “exploring all options” for a “best possible solution.”
ShareChat and Facebook declined to comment. The other companies did not respond to Reuters requests for comment.

THORNY ISSUE
Self-regulatory bodies to police content in the social media sector are rare, though there have been instances of cooperation. In New Zealand, big tech companies have signed a code of practice aimed at reducing harmful content online.
Tension over social media content decisions has been a particularly thorny issue in India. Social media companies often receive takedown requests from the government or remove content proactively. Google’s YouTube, for example, removed 1.2 million videos in the first quarter of this year that were in violation of its guidelines, the highest in any country in the world.
India’s government is concerned that users upset with decisions to have their content taken down do not have a proper system to appeal those decisions and that their only legal recourse is to go to court.
Twitter has faced backlash after it blocked accounts of influential Indians, including politicians, citing violation of its policies. Twitter also locked horns with the Indian government last year when it declined to comply fully with orders to take down accounts the government said spread misinformation.
An initial draft of the proposal for the self-regulatory body said the panel would have a retired judge or an experienced person from the field of technology as chairperson, as well as six other individuals, including some senior executives at social media companies.
The panel’s decisions would be “binding in nature,” stated the draft, which was seen by Reuters.
Western tech giants have for years been at odds with the Indian government, arguing that strict regulations are hurting their business and investment plans. The disagreements have also strained trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
US industry lobby groups representing the tech giants believe a government-appointed review panel raises concern about how it could act independently if New Delhi controls who sits on it.
The proposal for a government panel was open to public consultation until early July. No fixed date for implementation has been set.


Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles

Updated 11 August 2022

Disney+ subscribers surge as Netflix stumbles

SAN FRANCISCO: The Disney+ streaming service saw its number of paying subscribers leap beyond expectations in the last quarter, as rival Netflix’s client count ebbed, results showed Wednesday.
The number of people subscribing to Disney+ topped 152 million, up some 31 percent from the same period a year earlier, the entertainment giant said in an earnings report.
Disney’s bottom line was also boosted by rising revenue from its theme parks, which showed signs of recovering from stifled attendance during the pandemic.
Better-that-expected earnings reported by Disney came as many of the tech titans that flourished during the pandemic curb costs in the face of inflation and people get back to living life in the real world instead of online.
Disney shares were up more than 6 percent in after-market trades that followed release of the earnings figures.
“We had an excellent quarter, with our world-class creative and business teams powering outstanding performance at our domestic theme parks, big increases in live-sports viewership, and significant subscriber growth at our streaming services,” said Disney chief executive Bob Chapek.
The 14.4 million Disney+ subscribers added in the recently ended quarter raised the overall number of subscriptions to its streaming services, which include Hulu and ESPN+, to 221 million, Chapek added.
The overall number of subscribers to Disney streaming services topped those of Netflix for the first time.
“Investors will breathe a sigh of relief from Disney’s robust fiscal (quarterly) earnings,” said Insider Intelligence principal analyst Paul Verna.
“The streaming figures will be seen as an indicator of the health of the market, especially after lackluster subscriber figures from Netflix and Comcast.”
Disney also announced that an ad-subsidized version of its streaming television subscription service will be offered in the United States starting December 8 at a monthly price $3 less than the ad-free offering.
Taking a page from Netflix’s playbook, Disney has been investing in shows created in places outside the United States.
The company plans to “step up” investments in such local original content, Chapek said, pointing out a film concert and docu-series focused on South Korean music sensation BTS.
He expressed confidence in Disney theater films in the works, including an eagerly anticipated “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” addition to its Marvel superhero line-up.
A trailer for the Black Panther film logged more than 170 million views in the 24 hours after its release, Chapek said.
“Disney still faces economic uncertainty and intense competition, but performance should at least temporarily put to rest some of Wall Street’s gloomier perceptions about the company, and more broadly about the entertainment industry,” said Paul Verna, an analyst at Insider Intelligence.
Rival Netflix has reported losing subscribers for two quarters in a row, as the streaming giant battles fierce competition and viewer belt tightening, though the firm assured investors of better days ahead.
The loss of 970,000 paying customers in the most recent quarter was less than expected, leaving Netflix with just shy of 221 million subscribers.
“Our challenge and opportunity is to accelerate our revenue and membership growth... and to better monetize our big audience,” the firm said in its earnings report.
After years of amassing subscribers, Netflix lost 200,000 customers worldwide in the first quarter compared to the end of 2021.
Netflix said in its earnings report that it had expected to gain a million paid subscribers in the current quarter.
Netflix executives have made it clear the company will get tougher on sharing logins and passwords, which allow many to access the platform’s content without paying.
In an effort to draw new subscribers, Netflix said it will work with Microsoft to launch a cheaper subscription plan that includes advertisements.
The ad-supported offering will be in addition to the three account options already available, with the cheapest plan coming in at $10 per month in the United States.