As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)
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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington, DC, on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images via AFP)
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Updated 25 March 2023

As the Arab world watches on, is the clock ticking for TikTok?

  • The impact and implications of TikTok’s growing influence in the MENA region are a global concern with more questions than answers after a congressional hearing with app CEO
  • TikTok CEO’s mounting woes as security concerns place him in the hotseat at a US congressional hearing with the world looking on for answers

DUBAI/LONDON: In yet another congressional hearing-turned-nail-biting drama, TikTok’s CEO was the latest global tech chief to take center stage before the US Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive of perhaps the world’s most popular app, was in the same hot seat that previously hosted the likes of Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

People from around the globe tuned in to see how Chew would justify and ensure US user data was safe and protected.

Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL) question TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew as he testifies before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

TikTok’s Chinese roots are not just an issue for US citizens; “it impacts the world,” Giles Crouch, a digital anthropologist, told Arab News.

“While the Chinese government doesn’t own a majority share in TikTok, they do own what’s called a ‘golden share,’ so they have a seat at the board,” he added.

India has already banned the app entirely, while Canada, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and the US have banned TikTok on government devices. However, the app still operates fully across the Middle East.

In Saudi Arabia alone, a country with a majority youth population, the app has 26.39 million users — the most in the region. Iraq and Egypt both have more than 23 million users, while the UAE has almost 6 million.

For five hours, bipartisan lawmakers grilled Chew over a range of topics, namely the claim that the Chinese Communist Party has access to TikTok user data, as well as fears over the platform’s algorithms and content that could have a potentially harmful impact on young people.

The questioning ended with a frustrated committee unsatisfied with Chew’s responses. The CEO, when given the chance to answer questions, often came across as evasive, resorting to “I’ll get back to you with specifics.”

Such hesitation and evasiveness has become a cause for concern among users and governments around the globe, with France taking the decision to ban the app on administrative phones just one day after the hearing.

“Our CEO, Shou Chew, came prepared to answer questions from Congress, but, unfortunately, the day was dominated by political grandstanding that failed to acknowledge the real solutions already underway through Project Texas or productively address industry-wide issues of youth safety,” a TikTok MENA spokesperson told Arab News, relaying the same response issued by the global company.

Last year, TikTok announced the $1.5 billion Project Texas initiative to protect the data of its US users. The plan, which is estimated to cost the company $700 million to $1 billion per year, hopes to address government concerns about user data privacy risks and content recommendations.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill on March 23, 2023. (Getty Images/AFP)

During the hearing, the committee questioned Chew about Project Texas, with some members asking how the $1.5 billion would be allocated. Other members remained skeptical of the project, as well as TikTok’s ability to truly safeguard US data.

Many, if not all, committee members seemed to believe that TikTok is essentially an arm of the Chinese government. Although Chew said that he has not seen any “evidence that the Chinese government has access to that data; they have never asked us, we have not provided it,” several members openly voiced their disbelief.

“I find that actually preposterous,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo.

In a recent column, however, Al Arabiya News Channel’s Mamdouh Al-Muhaini claimed that “both arguments (of spying and propaganda spreading) are absurd and lack conclusive evidence. Rather, they are being used merely for political blackmail — to force China to make concessions amid international conflict between Beijing and Washington.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on the platform's consumer privacy and data security practices and impact on children during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023. (AP)

“The war on TikTok comes in the context of the race between America — and the West — and China. In a war for influence, brains and hearts, all weapons, accusations and pretexts can be used,” he said, adding that the app was “being used as a device in the (US-China) cold war.”

An FBI and Department of Justice investigation into TikTok’s ability to spy on US citizens also undermined Chew’s case. Last year, parent company ByteDance confirmed that its employees used TikTok to track and obtain the IP addresses of multiple US journalists covering the app.

Yet, when Congressman Neal Dunn asked Chew if ByteDance is spying on US citizens, the CEO shakily replied: “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.”

The Chinese minister of foreign affairs held a press briefing the following day, with a spokesperson saying: “The Chinese government has never asked and will never ask any company or individual to collect or provide data, information or intelligence located abroad against local laws.

AFP illustration image

“The US government has provided no evidence or proof that TikTok threatens US national security, yet it has repeatedly suppressed and attacked the company based on the presumption of guilt.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning added that the US should “respect the principles of a market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing foreign companies and provide an open, fair, just and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies operating in the US.”

While a plethora of countries in the West chimed in on the debate, governments across the Middle East have largely stayed silent.

In a previous interview with Arab News, Saudi cybersecurity expert Abdullah Al-Jaber said that concerns over TikTok’s data security stemmed from the app’s country of origin as well as Chinese rules and regulations.

“If you use Facebook or Twitter, it’s not much different than using TikTok,” he said.

Apart from the focus on spying and data collection, members of congress also grilled the TikTok CEO over the platform’s algorithms for content suggestions and discovery, particularly among vulnerable audiences. Members asked why certain content is allowed to be published on the platform — unlike on China’s sister app Douyin, which is heavily censored.

“TikTok can be very good for kids but the way it’s used in China is very different from the way it’s used in the rest of the world — what kids are seeing in Riyadh or Dubai is very different from what they’re going to be seeing in Beijing,” said Crouch, the digital anthropologist.

Douyin features “very positive and uplifting content” that encourages “doing good for the community, helping one another and being very sociable,” he added.

But in other countries, “they (TikTok) literally use algorithms which manipulate young kids’ minds so they get served with content that is mindless, often negative, and can be disturbing to those minds,” Crouch said.

ikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew departs after testifying during a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on  March 23, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo)

Chew attributed the contrast in content on TikTok and Douyin to the different laws in each country. That argument is true to some extent, because the Chinese government does have more control over content posted on domestic platforms.

“They put the controls in place in China to stop kids from being overly stimulated,” said Crouch. But “they just don’t care for the rest of the world because they’re out to make money.”

In some aspects, including dangerous content, TikTok is very much like any other social media company, many of which originated in Silicon Valley — a fact acknowledged by some members of the committee.

Senior executives from Meta, Twitter and Google have all appeared before US Congress in an attempt to allay concerns over data, privacy and moderation.

However, as Congressman Dan Crenshaw said in the hearing, all social media companies collect personal data and could use it to “influence narratives and trends, create misinformation campaigns, encourage self-destructive behavior, purposefully allow drug cartels to communicate freely and organize human and drug trafficking.”

But the difference is that “it’s only TikTok that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”


British media organizations condemn Meta’s decision to ditch Facebook News

Updated 26 September 2023

British media organizations condemn Meta’s decision to ditch Facebook News

  • In a letter to the company’s global affairs president they also slammed Meta for dumping a scheme through which it funds local journalism in the UK
  • They said: ‘Particularly as we near a general election, these deliberate actions pose an urgent threat to democracy by choking trusted news’

DUBAI: British media organizations have condemned a decision by Meta to phase out Facebook News, a dedicated tab in the bookmarks section of Facebook that spotlights news, in some countries. They also slammed the company’s plans to end a scheme through which it funds local journalism in the UK.

Reach, one of the UK’s largest newspaper publishers, and the News Media Association sent Meta’s global affairs president, Nick Clegg, a letter criticizing moves they described as “financially damaging” and “deeply concerning for democracy and society.”

They added: “Particularly as we near a general election, these deliberate actions pose an urgent threat to democracy by choking trusted news — both financially for the media industry and practically, for audiences accustomed to trusting your platform for information.”

In addition to Clegg, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats who served as the UK’s deputy prime minister in his party’s coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, the recipients of the letter reportedly included Lucy Frazer, the UK’s culture secretary, and Michelle Donelan, the technology minister.

Meta announced this month that it plans to “deprecate” Facebook News in early December in the UK, France and Germany, as part of an “ongoing effort to better align our investments to our products and services people value the most.”

The company, which has increasingly been shifting its focus to short-form video and other new-tech services, said people do not come to Facebook for news and political content.

“News makes up less than three percent of what people around the world see in their Facebook feed, so news discovery is a small part of the Facebook experience for the vast majority of people,” Meta said.

However, the organizations that sent the letter of protest argued that “platforms such as Facebook continue to be key discovery routes for news for millions of people, and indeed voters, as Ofcom’s News Consumption in the UK 2022/23 report showed earlier this year.”

Reach, which owns national and local newspapers, including the Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star, previously attributed a financial decline to Facebook.

In its half-year earnings, the publisher revealed a revenue drop of 6.1 percent year-on-year, and overall its titles experienced a 16 percent decline in website page views. The company said at the time that had Facebook not made a change that deprioritized news, it would have expected page views to decline by only 2 percent.

The letter also admonished Meta for its decision to cancel funding for its Community News Project, introduced in 2018, through which Meta pledged £4.5 million ($5.5 million) to help fund 80 new community journalists in the UK.

“We recognize the important role Facebook plays in how people get their news today and we want to do more to support local publishers,” Meta said at the time of launch.

The letter’s signatories reminded the company of its commitment, saying: “If Meta truly believes, as it stated only 18 months ago, that ‘local newspapers are the lifeblood of communities,’ then it is crucial that the company acts to support, rather than undermine, the sustainability of journalism in the UK by continuing these valuable and successful initiatives.”

The News Media Association and Reach called for a meeting with representatives of Meta to discuss how it can support news publishers and the distribution of trustworthy reports and information.

Cadillac Arabia launches gaming-focused campaign for Saudi National Day

Updated 25 September 2023

Cadillac Arabia launches gaming-focused campaign for Saudi National Day

  • Game parade will feature cars decorated in KSA flags or colors 

DUBAI: Cadillac Arabia invited Saudi gamers to “Maseerat Cadillac,” the brand’s first game parade on the video game Forza Horizon 5, to celebrate Saudi National Day on Sept. 23 at 7 p.m.

The campaign draws inspiration from Saudis’ passion for gaming and combines it with the tradition of decorating cars with KSA flags or colors to take part in parades across the country, Cadillac said.

The brand has partnered with local influencer Powr Rakan, who livestreamed the parade on his Twitch channel.

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Gamers were invited to join the parade on Forza Horizon 5 by designing their Cadillac cars around the Saudi National Day theme. They could also submit their designs through Discord for a chance to win prizes by Rakan.

The first-prize winner will receive an Xbox Series X bundle with Forza Horizon 5, and the second and third-prize winners will take home an Xbox Series S and Xbox Elite Series II Controller, respectively.

Participants could also win prizes by joining the Twitch stream and commenting on the livestream.

Saudi Arabia is home to a growing gaming community, and the Kingdom has made significant efforts to bolster the local gaming industry.

In February, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund became the biggest outside investor in Nintendo, and earlier this year, the Kingdom hosted a major gaming tournament, Gamers8.

Iran International TV returns to air from high-security studio

Updated 25 September 2023

Iran International TV returns to air from high-security studio

  • London-based broadcaster suspended operations in February over threats to staff
  • UK authorities claimed Iranian government behind threats, Tehran denied involvement

LONDON: Iran International returned to air on Monday from a new high-security studio in London.

The Farsi-language news broadcaster closed in February following alleged threats from the Iranian government.

But the TV channel’s head of news, Aliasghar Ramezanpoor, told The Sunday Times: “We are saying, ‘you are back — you are finding your voice again.’ As a journalist, I feel it is my moral obligation. People are putting their trust in us.”

British authorities claimed broadcast staff, particular those born in Iran, had been the target of “multiple threats,” adding that due to the studio’s former location in Chiswick Business Park police could not guarantee workers’ safety.

The station’s offices have been relocated to a new, high-security site in north London with steel barriers and armed patrols.

Following the decision to shut down the station in mid-February based on recommendations from Scotland Yard, the channel and parts of its staff were relocated to Washington as a temporary solution.

Ramezanpoor, who has reportedly received three credible death threats since last year, said that the suspension of the London operation had been a major blow to the broadcaster and expressed hope that the channel and its journalists would be able to reconnect with viewers.

Iran International, which is owned by private investors, including a British Saudi businessman, claimed to have 30 million viewers in Iran and among the Iranian diaspora.

The broadcaster, which provided round-the-clock updates during the protests that erupted in the country following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody last year, said it relied heavily on amateur footage sent in by citizens in Iran.

Saeid Habil, a senior television and radio journalist at Iran International, said that the channel’s coverage of the events prompted the government to try and shut down its operations.

The Iranian government has denied any involvement in threats against Iran International staff. However, Iran’s intelligence minister, Esmail Khatib, recently described the station as a “terrorist network” and said the regime would take “offensive security measures … whenever and wherever we deem appropriate.”

The channel’s return to air comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West.

Tehran has been accused of providing drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, and it is also facing international pressure over its nuclear program.

And an Iranian government official was recently accused by Iran International of attacking one its journalists covering President Ebrahim Raisi’s stay in New York.

Indonesia may issue regulations on social media e-commerce this week

Updated 25 September 2023

Indonesia may issue regulations on social media e-commerce this week

  • Trade Ministry likely to impose strict regulations
  • Social media platforms are threatening offline markets, ministry said

JAKARTA: Indonesia may issue on Tuesday a regulation on the use of social media to sell goods in the country, President Joko Widodo said, a move intended to quell threats to offline markets in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy.
Ministers have repeatedly said that e-commerce sellers using predatory pricing on social media platforms are threatening offline markets in Indonesia, with some officials specifically citing the video platform TikTok as an example.
“We just...decided on the use of social media for e-commerce. Tomorrow it will perhaps come out,” Widodo, who is commonly known as Jokowi, said in a streamed video address on Monday.
“What the people are expecting is that the advancement of technology can create new economic potential, not kill existing economies.”
Jokowi did not mention any specific companies or offer further details on the regulation, which is being formulated by the trade ministry.
Current trade regulations do not specifically cover direct transactions on social media.
Deputy Trade Minister Jerry Sambuaga said earlier this month that “social media and social commerce cannot be combined,” vowing to ban the mix of the two and citing TikTok’s “live” features which allow people to sell goods.
A TikTok Indonesia spokesperson declined to comment. TikTok is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance.
The company said that its app had 325 million Southeast Asian users that were active every month, of whom 125 million were in Indonesia. The company has said that there were 2 million small businesses on TikTok Shop in Indonesia.

Cosmetics brand Garnier partners with Snapchat to celebrate Saudi National Day

Updated 23 September 2023

Cosmetics brand Garnier partners with Snapchat to celebrate Saudi National Day

  • Their environmental-themed campaign includes limited-edition Bitmoji merchandise and an augmented reality experience
  • Snapchat users can also design a tote bag and share it for a chance to influence the next Garnier tote design, which will be available at Panda stores

DUBAI: Cosmetics company Garnier is teaming up with Snapchat for new campaign, “Shop Greener Because Saudi Deserves Green,” to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s 93rd National Day on Sept. 23 and encourage people in the Kingdom to choose sustainable beauty products.

The campaign, which runs until Sept. 27, features two exclusive experiences for Snapchat users: limited-edition Bitmoji merchandise that can be unlocked by scanning a QR code on Snapchat, and an immersive augmented reality lens featuring a customizable tote bag.

According to a Snapchat report titled Augmentality Shift, 77 percent of consumers surveyed in the Kingdom agreed that they feel closer to brands or products that offer AR experiences.

“We take pride in collaborating with Garnier Green to help reduce environmental impact through the power of AR, and to raise awareness and catalyze change on environmental issues that can have an even bigger influence to champion real change,” said Mariam Koumaiha, brand strategist at Snap Inc. for the Middle East and North Africa region.

As part of the campaign, Snapchat users are invited to design a tote bag and share it for a chance to influence the next Garnier tote design, which will be available at Panda stores.

Users will also receive a complimentary tote bag with the purchase of any Garnier product, and receive a cashback of SR5 ($1.33) when they return with the reusable tote and buy Garnier products worth at least SR50.

“Garnier’s unwavering commitment to a greener and more sustainable Saudi Arabia has been our driving force for years,” said Ahmed Wagih, general manager of Garnier Middle East’s Consumer Product division.

“As we celebrate Saudi Arabia’s heritage, we also celebrate our shared responsibility towards a greener future.”

Snapchat said it has a monthly addressable audience of 22 million users in Saudi Arabia and reaches 90 percent of people in the country between the ages of 13 and 34.