Surging falsehoods seek to dent Western aid to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seen on a screen speaking during the German-Ukrainian business forum in Berlin, on October 24, 2023. Zelensky has been the target of disinformation by Russian propagandists, according to fact-checkers. (AFP)
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Updated 27 October 2023
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Surging falsehoods seek to dent Western aid to Ukraine

  • AFP factcheckers have also uncovered fabricated German and French media reports about graffiti depicting Zelensky engaging in cannibalism
  • The falsehoods are aimed at provoking anti-Ukraine sentiment in Western countries, experts say
  • “Russia cannot win this conventional war but still aspires to win in the information dimension,” says one analyst

WASHINGTON: From fake street art to doctored media reports demonizing President Volodymyr Zelensky, a torrent of online disinformation seeks to erode Western support that is crucial for Kyiv’s war effort against Russia.

The falsehoods, experts say, are aimed at provoking anti-Ukraine sentiment in Western countries while lending credence to the notion that war-weary European and American allies are turning against Zelensky.
The wave of disinformation comes as Kyiv is scrambling to retain Western support — while attention shifts to the war between Israel and the militant group Hamas — ahead of what is expected to be another winter bombing campaign by Russia.
“The (disinformation) campaigns take place in multiple countries and languages, and their intensification suggest concerted efforts,” Roman Osadchuk, from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), told AFP.
“The main objective of Russia here is to put a wedge in Western societies, polarizing them and portraying the help for Ukraine as ‘problematic.’
“These efforts are aimed at political elites and the general population, some of whom might not closely follow the war, making them more vulnerable” to the false narratives.
AFP’s factcheckers have exposed a series of doctored images of street art mocking Zelensky, who has faced an avalanche of disinformation since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022.
That includes fake photos — shared across social media platforms — of graffiti in cities such as Warsaw, Berlin and Paris depicting Zelensky devouring money from his Western allies. No such graffiti was found.

Fabricated reports

AFP factcheckers have also uncovered fabricated German and French media reports about graffiti depicting Zelensky engaging in cannibalism. The media outlets confirmed that the posts circulating on platforms such as Facebook and Telegram were fake.
When Zelensky visited the United States last month, a doctored online video appeared to show a New York city billboard with the words “glory to urine” alongside an image of the Ukrainian leader.
The manipulated clip was watermarked with the logo for Fox News Digital, but a network spokesperson told AFP that it had not posted any such footage.
It remains unclear precisely who is behind the false claims but they fit a broader pattern of anti-Ukraine disinformation by Russia, which for decades has engaged in information warfare focused on fueling anti-Western sentiments, researchers say.
“There has been a visible growth of Russian propaganda in Europe” compared to the first few months of 2022, Ruslan Trad, a resident fellow for security research at the DFRLab, told AFP.
“The Kremlin is capitalizing on war fatigue and apathy, as well as the Euroskepticism and fears of Western and Central European societies.”
Raising concerns about cracks in Western support for Kyiv, Slovakia’s new populist Prime Minister Robert Fico on Thursday said he had “informed” the European Union’s executive of his decision to stop military aid to Ukraine.
Soon after last month’s general election — which Fico won on pledges to end assistance to Ukraine — Slovakia accused Moscow of interfering in the vote by deliberately disseminating falsehoods.
Even in the United States — Kyiv’s biggest donor of security aid — there are concerns that opposition from hard-line Republican lawmakers has put future assistance for Kyiv in doubt.

 

President Joe Biden is currently pushing Congress to approve a massive $106 billion security bill, which includes $61 billion in military aid for Ukraine.
On Thursday, Washington announced a new $150 million military assistance package for Ukraine that includes artillery and small-arms ammunition as well as anti-tank weapons.
Zelensky thanked the US for the assistance, saying “strengthening air defense is critical to protect Ukrainian cities and infrastructure” as winter approaches.
Ukraine is bracing itself for a renewed Russian bombing campaign on its energy infrastructure, which last year plunged millions of civilians into extreme hardship.
The European Union has also vowed steadfast support. Earlier this month, the European Parliament endorsed a proposal to provide an extra 50 billion euros ($53 billion) for Ukraine’s recovery.
But despite these robust pledges, US officials cited by local media have warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to end American and European support for Ukraine by using his spy agencies to push propaganda and conspiracy theories.
“Russia is benefiting right now (from) decades of information activities,” said Adam Lelonek, from the International Republican Institute’s Beacon Project.
“Russia cannot win this conventional war but still aspires to win in the information dimension.”
 


Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

Updated 01 March 2024
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Gaza conflict sends ripples through MENA soft power landscape

  • Saudi Arabia rose to 18th place in this year’s Brand Finance ranking, while Israel’s perception declined, possibly due to the ongoing conflict
  • This year’s survey encompassed all UN member states, assessing nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact

LONDON: The latest findings from Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index, one of the world’s leading brand evaluation consultancies, unveiled key shifts in the global soft power landscape, reflecting the intricate dynamics of the regional context.

While Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have solidified their positions, attention has turned to Israel’s ranking decline and the repercussions of the Gaza conflict.

Israel experienced a noticeable decline in its soft power standing, a trend exacerbated by the recent conflict in Gaza.

“As the Anholt Nation Brands Index has shown since 2005, public opinion does not tolerate conflict,” Simon Anholt, policy advisor, author and one of the world’s leading authorities on national image, told Arab News.

“Conflict harms the images of all parties involved, whether perceived as aggressor or victim, and the effect lingers. Current events in Gaza will likely harm the images of both Israel and Palestine for years to come (even though Palestine does not feature in the index), reducing their ability to attract trade, talent, tourists and investment.”

However, Brand Finance CEO David Haigh highlighted that the full impact of the war on Israel’s performance in this year’s index remains unclear.

“Overall, Israel has dropped fairly obviously, but (since the completion of the survey), things have become a lot worse not only in what Israel is doing, but also the reaction globally,” Haigh told Arab News, suggesting that the true impact may be seen in next year’s report.

He emphasized a shift in global sentiment against Israel, both in the short and long term, requiring “substantial” and “real” changes for image improvement.

“If you don’t do that, whatever you’re doing is just propaganda,” he added.

The survey, which offers “a comprehensive evaluation of nations’ presence, reputation, and global impact” deriving from a range of metrics, was conducted between mid-September and early November, showing a split in results before and after the war.

These metrics encompass familiarity, influence, reputation, and perception. Perception is based on eight pillars: business and trade, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media and communication, education and science, people and values, and sustainable future. 

Soft power, a concept coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s, denotes a nation’s ability to achieve desired outcomes through persuasion rather than coercion or financial incentives. It emphasizes appealing to countries instead of coercing them, in contrast to the traditional reliance on military and economic power.

According to the latest edition of the report, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have surged ahead in the rankings of the most influential soft power nations, outpacing other countries worldwide.

“Nations such as the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have not only ascended in the ranks of global perception but are weaving the fabric of their generous hospitality, innovative achievements, and peace-building initiatives into the tapestry of international diplomacy,” Haigh said, noting how this continued investment could signal the “dawn of a new era, where dialogue and collaboration are the cornerstones of the global order.”

Benefiting from robust oil demand and substantial investments in sports and tourism, the Kingdom achieved a score of 56 out of 100 index points, marking a 4.7-point increase from the previous year and surpassing Denmark.

Similarly, the UAE and Qatar have seen their scores rise due to their resilient economies and the successful hosting of high-profile events like Expo 2020 and COP28 in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The UAE also received a 10/10 score for “Strong and stable economy,” ranking first in that category, and scored highly for “Future growth potential” and “Generosity.”

Haigh said: “Saudi Arabia is very similar. Both have been investing heavily.” He emphasized how despite economic and political challenges, these factors have emerged as key drivers of both “Reputation” and “Influence.”

However, he pointed out that Gulf countries still have room for improvement in the aspect of “Familiarity,” an area where the entire region has historically lagged behind, and “Friendly people,” an aspect that the Brand Finance CEO attributes to high costs associated with visiting these countries and, thus, not being able to interact directly with their cultures.

“Although increasing numbers of people are going there on holidays, the exposure to the actual Emiratis (and Gulf populations at large) is quite low,” Haigh said, arguing that regular interactions are essential for people around the globe to understand “whether you’re friendly or not.”

The findings of the report published annually by Brand Finance were discussed by soft-power experts, researchers and government delegates at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on Thursday.

This year’s survey involved 170,000 respondents worldwide and an expanded ranking covering all 193 UN member states.

On a global scale, the US and the UK lead as the most influential soft power nations, with China ranking third, surpassing Japan and Germany, which hold the fourth and fifth positions, respectively.

Speaking to Arab News, Courtney Fingar, editor in chief of Investment Monitor and a commentator on international investment trends, also addressed the potential economic implications of the Gaza conflict spreading beyond current borders.

“The war spilling (over) and escalating beyond the current borders is not good news for anyone in the region, but (also) not for the world.”

Recognizing the improved resilience of Gulf markets due to diversification efforts, Fingar cautioned against volatility risks, highlighting investors’ prioritization of security, a trend corroborated by the report.

She observed that the challenge for Gulf economies lies in “translating that attention and that energy into tangible investments,” Fingar said.

Saudi Arabia, alongside other nations, has prioritized economic diversification as a cornerstone of its Vision 2030. Central to this vision is the Kingdom’s effort to attract investment across various sectors, notably sports and tourism.

Florian Kaefer, founder and editor of The Place Brand Observer, a platform focusing on country brand reputation, emphasized Saudi Arabia’s significant strides in rebranding itself as a sustainable tourist destination.

Citing projects like Red Sea Global and AlUla, Kaefer highlighted the Kingdom’s shift toward a narrative imbued with purpose.

“Tourism, if it’s done well, like in terms of regenerative development — an approach that focuses on supporting local communities and creating positive relationships that will benefit society and the environment — has the potential to emphasize the power of a country,” he remarked.

Kaefer pointed out the transformative impact of high-profile events like the World Expo, to be hosted by Riyadh in 2030, in reshaping perceptions and benefiting countries striving to establish themselves as hubs of sustainability and regeneration.

“The image of Dubai has changed over the last 10 years quite a bit. I think Saudi Arabia is going to follow that path, which is smart regenerative development, sustainability,” Kaefer noted, underscoring the importance for the Kingdom to “stay true” to its promises of regeneration and sustainability, as this will enhance its reception and popularity both globally and domestically.

Apart from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel, this year’s Global Soft Power Index also involved 14 other Middle East and North African nations.

Kuwait, Egypt, and Oman secured ranks 37, 39, and 49, respectively, followed closely by Morocco at 50, Bahrain at 51, and Iran at 62. Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Lebanon followed suit, securing ranks 63, 73, 77, and 91, respectively.

Iraq made a notable return to the top 100, securing the 99th position, while new entries like Syria (129th), Libya (139th), and Yemen (149th) also made their debut in the index.


Media watchdog urges protection of Israeli journalist facing death threats after pro-Palestine speech

Updated 01 March 2024
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Media watchdog urges protection of Israeli journalist facing death threats after pro-Palestine speech

  • Yuval Abraham voiced concerns about Gaza situation during award acceptance speech at Berlin Film Festival
  • CPJ coordinator highlights ‘atmosphere of self-censorship and anti-press rhetoric in Israel’ 

LONDON: The Committee to Protect Journalists, a media watchdog, has called on Israeli authorities to ensure the safety of Yuval Abraham and his family, who have been the target of death threats following his speech expressing solidarity with Palestine.

Abraham, an Israeli journalist for +972 magazine and filmmaker, faced criticism from both Israeli and German officials after delivering a speech at the Berlin Film Festival in which he voiced concerns about the situation in Gaza.

CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said that he was “deeply alarmed” by the death threats directed at Abraham, and warned of a growing “atmosphere of self-censorship and anti-press rhetoric in Israel, which has been expanding since the Israel-Gaza war.”

He added: “Israeli authorities must ensure the necessary protection for all journalists, regardless of their views, and hold accountable those who threaten journalists and their family members.”

Abraham revealed that he had to cancel his flight back to Israel out of fear of being targeted. His family reportedly fled their home at night after a right-wing Israeli group arrived, searching for the journalist and issuing threats.

In his speech, Abraham accused the Israeli government of perpetrating a “massacre,” and called for an end to the double standards between Israeli and Palestinian citizens.

Standing alongside his Palestinian co-director, Basel Adra, Abraham highlighted the disparities in rights and freedoms between Israelis and Palestinians living in close proximity.

“This situation of apartheid between us, this inequality, has to end. We need to call for a ceasefire,” Abraham said.

Abraham, who is based mainly in Jerusalem, also criticized German arms sales to Israel.

The speech was labeled as “antisemitic” by several high-ranking German and Israeli officials, including the mayor of Berlin and Israel’s ambassador to Germany.

Abraham and Adra accepted two awards on Feb. 25 for their documentary “No Other Land,” which chronicles Israeli authorities’ evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan News initially labeled Abraham’s speech as “antisemitic,” a designation that was retracted only following Abraham’s request to the network.

Abraham joins a growing list of Israeli journalists facing physical assault and death threats since the beginning of the conflict last October.

Itamar Cohen, a journalist with Israel-based outlet News 360, faced hostility when Israeli police forcibly removed him from the scene of a stabbing in Jerusalem’s Old City, despite his identification as a journalist.

In October, journalist and columnist Israel Frey went into hiding after his home was attacked by a far-right Israeli mob. The attack took place after Frey expressed solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.


US judge signals Elon Musk’s X may lose case against hate speech watchdog

Updated 01 March 2024
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US judge signals Elon Musk’s X may lose case against hate speech watchdog

  • X sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate last July, accusing the nonprofit of breaching its user contract by cherry-picking data to create false and misleading reports that Musk was letting X become a haven for hate speech, extremism and other misinf

A US judge on Thursday signaled he may dismiss X Corp’s lawsuit against a nonprofit group that has criticized a rise in hate speech on the social media platform once known as Twitter since Elon Musk took it over.

X sued the Center for Countering Digital Hate last July, accusing it of causing tens of millions of dollars in damages through a “scare campaign” to drive away advertisers.
According to X, the nonprofit breached its user contract by improperly scraping and cherry-picking data to create false and misleading reports that Musk was letting X become a haven for hate speech, extremism and other misinformation.
US District Judge Charles Breyer was skeptical that when the nonprofit entered the standard user contract governing all Twitter and X users, it could have foreseen that Musk would buy Twitter for $44 billion in 2022 and welcome back users it had banned for posting hateful content.
“You’re telling me ... it was foreseeable that Twitter would change its policy and allow these people to have access,” the San Francisco-based judge told X’s lawyer Jon Hawk in a video conference.
“I am trying to figure out, in my mind, how that’s possibly true, because I don’t think it is.”
Hawk said the nonprofit could have left X if it didn’t like Musk’s changes. “When CCDH agreed to stay on the platform, it agreed to successors’ versions of the policy,” he said.
Musk, the world’s second-richest person, also runs the electric vehicle maker Tesla, which has faced several lawsuits claiming it tolerated the harassment of workers. Tesla has denied those allegations.

Free speech interference
John Quinn, a lawyer for the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said X’s lawsuit violated California’s so-called anti-SLAPP law, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, which was meant to stop lawsuits intended to silence critics.
He also called it “implausible” to suggest the nonprofit engaged in scraping, and said it could not be liable for advertisers’ “independent” decisions not to work with X.
“CCDH used a tool that runs searches for certain people to see what public tweets are being put out, and then they commented on it,” Quinn said. ” didn’t have any issues with that until advertisers reacted to the content of the report.”
Quinn also said giving Musk and X “the power to say, anybody who uses our search function and looks at tweets, if you use an automated tool in any way, we can come after you, sue you, drag you into court ... runs straight into speech principles.”
Hawk said that wasn’t why X sued.
“I understand CCDH does not like some of the content it may see,” he said. “This is about the security of data.”
Breyer did not say when he would rule, or if X could file an amended complaint if he dismissed the case.

European nonprofit
X also sued the European Climate Foundation, a nonprofit based in The Hague, Netherlands that promotes efforts to mitigate climate change, accusing it of conspiring with the Center for Countering Digital Hate to illegally gather data.
A lawyer for the European nonprofit said it should be dismissed from the case because the court lacked jurisdiction.
Since buying Twitter, Musk has since faced wide criticism that he fired too many people who policed misinformation, and from civil rights groups for allowing more harmful and abusive posts.
In November 2023, Musk endorsed an antisemitic post on X that said members of the Jewish community were stoking hatred against white people, saying the user spoke “the actual truth.”
He has denied being antisemitic and sought to make amends for his post. In January he visited former Nazi death camp Auschwitz in southern Poland.
The case is X Corp. v. Center for Countering Digital Hate Inc. et al, US District Court, Northern District of California, No. 23-03836.


TikTok hosts awards ceremony for second edition of Creator Hub Middle East

Updated 01 March 2024
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TikTok hosts awards ceremony for second edition of Creator Hub Middle East

  • First place receives $10,000, second and third $5,000 each

RIYADH: TikTok MENA (Middle East and North Africa) hosted the second edition of the TikTok Creator Hub Awards ceremony in Riyadh on Wednesday to celebrate the growth of women-led businesses.

Taking place in Lakum Artspace, the event was attended by many aspiring businesswomen and influencers from the region.

Heba Qadeer, who won a second-place prize, told Arab News: “It’s incredible. I couldn’t believe it. When I found out that I (had) won, I was at work, and the first thing that I did was call my mom.”

Born and raised in Dubai, Qadeer is the founder and designer at Bharosa, a design line which celebrates Pakistani and Middle East culture.

She said: “I resonate with Middle Eastern culture so much, I am a hijabi myself and I absolutely love modest wear but at the same time I love my Pakistani colorful rich culture, so I wanted to mix that and create something that is unique.”

She explained that turning 30 was a milestone that motivated her to pursue her dream in business.

The top three at the event won cash prizes with Duaa Al-Bataiha, founder of Dina’s Dessert Hour, winning $10,000 for first place. 

Those in second and third place, Qadeer and Lara Akl, owner of a balloon and decoration company, received $5,000 each.

Kinda Ibrahim, TikTok’s general manager of operations for the Middle East, Turkiye, Africa, Pakistan, and South Asia, expressed the platform’s support for women-led businesses.

Reem Akl, communications and advocacy analyst at the UN Women Regional Office for the Arab States; Chahrazad Al-Hajjar, founder of Chahrazad’s Cuisine The Bakery; and Doaa Gawish, CEO and founder of The Hair Addict, also attended the ceremony.

Jomana Al-Rashid, CEO of the Saudi Research and Media Group and chairwoman of the Red Sea Film Foundation, delivered a speech via video.

She said: “To all of the incredible women creators, entrepreneurs and innovators here, you are making a profound impact on the world of digital media.

“Your creativity and determination are shaping narratives and inspiring women worldwide.

“Clarity of vision, resilience in execution, and the preparedness to seize opportunities when they are presented are the only determinants of success.”

One of the participants at the creator hub was Atheer Fahad, a Saudi designer who created the handbag brand Pearly.

She said: “This is all handmade. I taught myself how to create these products on my own and I took part in the competition through TikTok Creator Hub to reach more people and share my story and product.”

Fahad said she was a “one-woman show,” designing, creating, and promoting her handbags in the region.

She told Arab News: “I create these products on my own — from making the handbags by hand to managing the company and promoting it on TikTok.”

The program has helped her reach more people than ever before while showcasing her product, she added. 

The TikTok Creator Hub launched its Middle East edition in 2022. The program is set to continue annually with the next edition scheduled to take place in January 2025.


Saudi Press Agency launches first news training academy

Updated 29 February 2024
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Saudi Press Agency launches first news training academy

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s state news agency announced on Thursday the launch of its first news training academy.

The Saudi Press Agency’s initiative came as part of the Human Capacity Development Initiative conference, held in Riyadh under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The first phase of the academy’s work has seen the signing of partnerships with local and international organizations, SPA said in a press statement.

Local partnerships include the Technical and Vocational Training Corporation, the Prince Mohammad bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurship, the Institute of Public Administration, the Human Resources Development Fund, the Sky News Arabia Academy, and the Austrian International Center for Qualification and Quality.

SPA’s new academy will benefit from the agency’s partnership with more than 30 international news corporations.

The agency said it will work towards localizing knowledge, transferring best practices, and becoming a regional hub that produces and distributes news content.

The academy aims to develop advanced news skills, meet market requirements, and promote the transfer of knowledge, technology, and modern tools for journalistic and news work, in addition to enhancing a deep understanding of news issues and global challenges.

It will also offer training programs in five domains: journalism and news, technology and artificial intelligence, leadership and journalism ethics, media partners, and news awareness.

The newly established academy’s programs are directed at journalists, photographers, professionals, and technicians in the fields of media, media students, and media affairs officials in various entities.