Clock ticking for TikTok as US lawmakers pile on the pressure

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Updated 17 March 2024
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Clock ticking for TikTok as US lawmakers pile on the pressure

  • If a US bill is signed into law, ByteDance will be forced to sell the app to an American company within six months
  • Social-video platform faces bans, boycotts and scrutiny of its handling of user data, criticism about its influence

LONDON/DUBAI: Just days after the US House of Representatives passed a bill that, if signed into law, would force the China-based owner of TikTok to sell the video-sharing app, the fate of the company’s US operations hangs in the balance.

If the Senate also passes the bill and President Joe Biden signs it into law, ByteDance would have to sell TikTok to an American company within six months or the app will be banned in the US.

Such a law “will take billions of dollars out of the pockets of creators and small businesses” and put more than 30,000 American jobs at risk, said TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew.




CaptionTikTok's CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., January 31, 2024. (REUTERS)

The House vote is only the latest setback in a string of bad news for TikTok, which has faced government bans, boycotts, scrutiny of its handling of sensitive user data and criticism about its influence on users in a number of important markets.

Many countries, including the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France and Taiwan, have prohibited the use of TikTok app on the work phones of government employees over privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

INNUMBERS

• US has the largest TikTok audience by far, with almost 150 million users engaging with it as of January 2024.

• Indonesia has around 126 million TikTok users.

• Brazil comes in third with almost 99 million users.

Source: Statista

In June 2020, India banned the use of the app nationwide after a deadly clash on the India-China border, depriving 200 million users access to the app almost overnight. In November last year, Nepal announced a full ban on TikTok in the country, saying that the app was “detrimental to social harmony.”

Late last year, calls to boycott TikTok in Saudi Arabia intensified after a campaign accused the platform of unjustly censoring and banning Saudi accounts expressing positive views about the Kingdom.

Many users turned to alternative social platforms to denounce TikTok’s alleged restriction of pro-Saudi content, with the trending hashtag #BoycottTikTok accompanied by posts urging Saudis to delete the app.

In an effort to rebuild trust, TikTok launched a dedicated hashtag page for Saudi content on its platform.

This year, TikTok reported having 26 million active users in Saudi Arabia, positioning it as the second most popular social platform after YouTube. Preliminary data indicated that last year’s boycott resulted in a decline in the number of Saudi TikTok users.

Social media personalities and celebrities including Emirati artist Ahlam supported the boycott by Saudi TikTok users. The private sector joined in as well, with social media news channel The Saudi Post closing its accounts on the platform.

Citing a source close to the Saudi First Division League earlier in November 2023, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that the second tier of professional football in Saudi Arabia had severed its relationship with TikTok due to the platform’s alleged actions against Saudi content.

TikTok denied the allegations it had restricted Saudi content and dismissed the boycott campaign as a “coordinated action.”

The company said in a statement: “The rumors regarding TikTok removing content related to Saudi Arabia are not true. We strongly reject these allegations that are inconsistent with our policies and values.”

In December 2022, Jordan temporarily banned TikTok after a police officer was killed during clashes with protesters that broke out over high fuel prices.

Videos of the protests flooded TikTok, resulting in the platform being temporarily banned due to concerns over users sharing fabricated videos and inciting violence.




Jordanian military personnel walk on December 16, 2022 in the southern city of Jerash in the funeral procession of a senior police officer who was killed in riots the previous day in southern Jordan. (AFP/File)

Jordan’s Public Security Directorate said that it was suspending the app “after its misuse and failing to deal with publications inciting violence and disorder.”

The temporary ban is still in effect, with many young users turning to VPN services to access the app.

Local media reports cited Abd Al-Hadi Al-Tahat, head of the Cybercrime Unit at the Public Security Directorate, as saying that the ban would remain until the platform fully complied with Jordanian regulations and laws.

During a talk at Yarmouk University titled “Visions of Modernization: Youth is the Focus of Concern,” the country’s prime minister, Bisher Al-Khasawneh, said one of the conditions for TikTok’s reactivation in the country is for the company to establish an office in Jordan or elsewhere in the region.

A TikTok spokesperson told Jordanian media outlet Roya that the platform is committed to improving and updating its safety policies and tools. However, it has yet to outline any specific measures.

Wednesday’s move by US lawmakers to pass legislation — with 352 votes in favor and just 65 against — that could ban TikTok in the US prompted an outcry among users and from the company itself.




Rep. Robert Garcia of California speaks outside Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2024, as he is joined by fellow Democratic congressmen and TikTok creators during a press conference to voice their opposition to the "Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act," which woul,d effective ban TikTok in the US. (REUTERS)

“This process was secret and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban,” a TikTok spokesperson told Arab News.

“We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents and realize the impact on the economy — 7 million small businesses and the 170 million Americans who use our service.”

Denouncing the arguments behind the bill as “bandit logic,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Thursday that the US decision “runs contrary to the principles of fair competition and justice.”

He added: “When someone sees a good thing another person has and tries to take it for themselves, this is entirely the logic of a bandit.”




A man walks past a Tiktok booth during the Appliance & Electronics World Expo (AWE) in Shanghai on March 14, 2024. China on March 14, 2024 slammed the approval of a US bill that would ban TikTok unless it severs ties with its Chinese parent company, blasting Washington's "bandit" mentality and vowing Beijing would "take all necessary measures" to protect the interests of its companies overseas. (AFP)

Closer to home, Summer Lucille, founder and owner of a boutique in North Carolina, told US lawmakers: “You are voting against my small business. You are voting against me getting a slice of my American pie.”

Lucille began advertising on TikTok in 2022 and has since been able to expand her business significantly, a CNN report said.

Several other American business owners have echoed the sentiment. “Banning TikTok would shut down a lot of small businesses, including mine,” Brandon Hurst, a plant shop owner, told The Washington Post.

Gigi Gonzalez, a financial educator from Chicago, said that the ban would remove her biggest revenue source — a video host for brand deals, speaking opportunities and digital course sales.




Supporters of TikTok do a TV news interview at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on March 13, 2024, as the House of Representatives passed a bill that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular video app if its China-based owner doesn't sell to an American owner. (AP Photo)

Before using TikTok, she had tried to reach people — unsuccessfully — through webinars. Now, Gonzalez reaches millions of people through TikTok, The Post was told.

Beyond its economic impact, a ban “would stifle free speech,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

“Under the First Amendment, we have the right to speak, to express ourselves, to receive information from others and to associate freely. And banning TikTok would implicate each of those rights.”

 

 

She added that the US government cannot impose such a ban unless it is the only way to “prevent extremely serious, significant and immediate harm to national security.”

However, “there’s no public evidence of that type of harm,” Gorski said, adding that even if national security is threatened, there are better options than an outright ban.

Nour Halabi, an assistant professor and interdisciplinary research fellow working on global media and politics at the University of Aberdeen, believes that the TikTok battle is rooted in “America’s political and economic rivalry with China.”

She told Arab News: “For a long time, scholars of media — especially digital media — have pointed to the imbalanced concentration of the world’s most powerful media platforms in the Global North and specifically in the US.

“The market share of American media platforms dominates the whole world’s digital media use to some extent. The rise of a media platform based in China challenges this primacy, so from an economic standpoint, it is a threat.”




Marcus Bridgewater tends to his backyard herbs and flower garden in Spring, Texas, on March 14, 2024. The TikTok content creator speaks with The Associated on how TikTok has transformed his life and the adverse effect a TikTok ban iwill have on his online space for gardening. (AP)

She added: “From a geopolitical standpoint, the conversation on TikTok echoes the political discourse around the ‘Al Jazeera effect’ in the 2000s, when American politicians showed concern that Americans would turn to foreign media outlets to get insight on political issues, and therefore the US would lose control of strategic narratives on key debates on domestic matters and foreign policy issues.”

Indeed, the eruption of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza in October last year has also placed TikTok at the center of another heated debate in the US, this time over the app’s perceived influence over young Americans.

As well as the Chinese ownership of the app, many Republican politicians have also cited the relative popularity of pro-Palestinian videos on the platform as justification for a nationwide ban.

TikTok creators and social media experts have responded by arguing that the platform merely offers content reflecting multiple sides of the debate, especially considering that the opinions of Americans on the Israel-Hamas war sharply differ by age.




Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene says she voted for a bill seeking to ban TikTok in the US unless the Chinese-owned parent company ByteDance sells the popular video app within the next six months. (Getty Images/AFP)

In November last year, TikTok prohibited content that publicized slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 2002 letter outlining his justifications for attacks on the US.

“Content promoting this letter clearly violates our rules on supporting any form of terrorism,” TikTok said in a statement, but described reports that the 20-year-old letter was “trending” on the platform as inaccurate.

America may be trying to protect its global hegemony over digital media, as critics of a TikTok ban say. But US government officials warn that they are concerned over data collected by TikTok being used to threaten national security.

Although TikTok has repeatedly denied claims that it shares sensitive user data with the Chinese government, what fuels concerns in Washington is Beijing’s recent national security legislation that can compel private Chinese companies to aid in intelligence gathering.

Legislators fear that ByteDance may be — now or in the future — controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, thereby allowing the Chinese government to use the app to disseminate false information that interferes with US elections, especially at a time when Americans increasingly use TikTok for news.




A view shows the office of TikTok in Culver City, California. (REUTERS/File Photo)

Also, as TikTok’s critics frequently cite, internet users in China cannot access US-owned platforms like YouTube, X, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook.

Only time will if tell users and content producers can survive and do business in a TikTok-less America.

During previous attempts by the US government to force a sale of TikTok, when Donald Trump was in the White House, several American companies reportedly entered into talks with ByteDance to acquire TikTok’s US operations, only for the deals to stall.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath news channels, sees US lawmakers’ battle against TikTok as a “political drama” of their own creation, based on two arguments that “do not make sense and are not based on conclusive evidence.”

In a recent post on X, Al-Muhaini argued that TikTok is not alone among social media companies in collecting user data to inform algorithms.

“This is what all platforms do, including Facebook, Twitter (X) and Instagram,” Al-Muhaini said, adding that no evidence has been provided to back the claim that the Chinese government has used TikTok to spy on US or Western government institutions.

 


Meta takes down Israeli settlers’ accounts following attacks on aid convoys

Updated 24 May 2024
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Meta takes down Israeli settlers’ accounts following attacks on aid convoys

  • Platform said Tzav 9’s operations violated harm policy
  • Arab News learns that group behind several raids on trucks directed to Gaza resumed operations under different username

LONDON: Meta has deactivated the accounts of a group of Israeli settlers after a series of attacks on aid convoys bound for Gaza.

The right-wing Israeli group Tzav 9 (Order 9) has been responsible for organizing attacks on trucks carrying food, medicines, and other essential supplies to the Gaza Strip.

According to a report by Middle East Eye, the group, which used both Facebook and Instagram to coordinate raids on convoys, was suspended for violating Meta’s Coordinating Harm policy.

This prohibits users from using the platform to “facilitate, organize, promote, or admit” criminal activities.

Meta confirmed on Thursday that Tzav 9’s operations fell under this policy.

The group has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including blocking a convoy from Jordan to Gaza at a checkpoint in the Hebron Hills region last week.

During these attacks, members affiliated to the group threw goods on the ground and set fire to two trucks.

Arab News has learned that, at the time of writing, Tzav 9 appears to have resumed activity on Instagram under a similar username.

Links in the account’s bio redirect to what appears to be the group’s website and WhatsApp channel.

Arab News has reached out to Meta for comments.

Meanwhile, Tzav 9’s accounts on X and TikTok are still active.

Several reports indicate that the group has been attacking humanitarian convoys since January in a bid to demand the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Tzav 9 states on its website that, besides blocking aid convoys, the group’s goal is to “prevent the legitimization of UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) in the country, in accordance with the nature and actions of the terrorist organization.”

This reference relates to allegations made by Israeli authorities in January, accusing 12 UNRWA employees of involvement in attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023, later expanding this claim to 19 employees and 400 personnel.

These allegations, which led several nations to cut funding to UNRWA at a critical time, have largely been dismissed after Israel failed to provide supporting evidence.

Meta has faced pressure to tackle media accounts on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since Oct. 7, and has been accused of inciting violence or disseminating misinformation.

The tech giant introduced temporary measures to limit “potentially unwelcome or unwanted comments” on posts about the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

This tool, which changed the default setting for who can comment on new public Facebook posts, ultimately failed to meet its objectives.

Human Rights Watch accused Meta in December of “broken promises” after finding the company guilty of “systemic censorship of Palestinian content” and failing to “meet its human rights due diligence responsibilities.”

The nongovernmental organization attributed these issues to “flawed Meta policies and their inconsistent and erroneous implementation, over-reliance on automated tools to moderate content, and undue government influence over content removals.”


Fake US election-related accounts proliferating on X, study says

Updated 24 May 2024
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Fake US election-related accounts proliferating on X, study says

  • Cyabra’s analysts found that 15 percent of X accounts praising former President Donald Trump and criticizing President Joe Biden are fake
  • Despite X pledge to ‘purge bots and trolls,’ fake accounts on the platform are on the rise

NEW YORK: Fake accounts posting about the US presidential election are proliferating on the social media platform X, according to a social media analysis company’s report shared with Reuters exclusively ahead of its release on Friday.
Analysts from Israeli tech company Cyabra, which uses a subset of artificial intelligence called machine learning to identify fake accounts, found that 15 percent of X accounts praising former President Donald Trump and criticizing President Joe Biden are fake. The report also found that 7 percent of accounts praising Biden, a Democrat, and criticizing Trump, a Republican, are fake.
Cyabra’s study is based on a review of posts on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, over two months beginning March 1. The review included analyzing popular hashtags and determining sentiment in terms of whether posts are positive, negative or neutral.
The analysis shows that newly detected fake accounts had increased up to tenfold during March and April.
The report cites 12,391 inauthentic pro-Trump profiles out of 94,363 total and 803 inauthentic pro-Biden profiles out of 10,065 total.
A spokesperson for X did not respond to a request for comment about the fake accounts, nor did representatives from the White House and Trump campaign.
X and other social media platforms have been under greater scrutiny since 2016, when Russia interfered in the US presidential election in an attempt to boost Trump’s candidacy and harm his opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton. Election officials and online misinformation experts are again watching for misleading narratives ahead of the Nov. 5 election.
The fake accounts praising Trump this cycle are part of a coordinated campaign to sway public opinion and influence online discussions, Cyabra said. The report did not identify the individuals or groups behind the campaign.
Cyabra said it made that determination based on evidence including the use of identical hashtags and the fact that fake accounts published posts and comments at the same time. The report found that the fake pro-Trump accounts pushed two main messages: “Vote for Trump” and “Biden is the worst president the US has ever had.”
“The level of coordination suggests that there is a nefarious objective and that there is a whole operation in order to change people’s opinion,” said Cyabra’s vice president, Rafi Mendelsohn.
The fake accounts backing Biden are not part of a coordinated campaign, the report said, as the hallmarks of a coordinated campaign — such as fake accounts posting at the same time — were not identified.
X, which was publicly held until its 2022 takeover by billionaire Elon Musk, has long downplayed the use of fake accounts on its platform. Twitter said in May 2022 that fewer than 5 percent of its daily active users were “false or spam” based on an internal review of accounts. At the time, Cyabra had estimated that 13.7 percent of Twitter profiles were inauthentic.
In an X post on April 4, Musk wrote that a “system purge of bots and trolls” was under way and that the company “will be tracing the people responsible and bringing the full force of the law to bear upon them.” In October the company tested its “Not a Bot” program in New Zealand and the Philippines to combat bots and spammers.


Saudi content creator is among 50 chosen for new TikTok Change Makers program

Updated 23 May 2024
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Saudi content creator is among 50 chosen for new TikTok Change Makers program

  • 4 creators from region chosen for 6-month initiative spotlighting users who use TikTok to ‘create meaningful change in their communities’

DUBAI: A content creator in Saudi Arabia is one of 50 from around the world chosen by TikTok to take part in its new Change Makers program, which the company said will spotlight creators and non-profit organizations “who create meaningful change in their communities” through their use of the short-form video platform.

During the six-month initiative, TikTok will support selected creators by helping them reach wider audiences and build greater engagement on the platform. It will also offer them assistance with real-world opportunities in the form of dedicated tools and by providing resources and donations.

The platform has chosen 50 creators from around the world, including four from the Middle East and North Africa region, to participate in the new program. Abdullah Al-Alawi, a dentist in Saudi Arabia who uses TikTok to share health-related information in a fun and lighthearted manner, is one of them.

“I’m passionate about spreading content about health, giving back to the community and the environment,” he told Arab News.

Social media “has broken down old barriers, making it easier to reach more people, quickly” and “become a bigger part of our lives,” he added.

Al-Alawi said his main purpose when creating content is “delivering an impactful and positive message that can be beneficial to the community.”

Ensuring such helpful information gets noticed among the mass of content on social media is a challenge, he added, but creators nevertheless have a “big role and responsibility” to provide it and try to make sure it reaches as wide an audience as possible.

“The way people learn has changed and they rely a lot more on social media for updates and getting answers,” Al-Alawi said.

“It’s part of my responsibility, as a content creator, to share my experiences and provide reliable information.”

The other creators in the region chosen for Change Makers are: UAE-based Dr. Jana Bou Reslan, a university lecturer who teaches educational psychology; Abdullah Annan from Egypt, known as “The Arab Science Guy” on TikTok, who makes videos that explain scientific concepts in simple terms; and Mai Gamal, also from Egypt, who is a certified nutritionist and health coach.

As part of the program, TikTok has launched the Change Makers Grant, through which it will donate over $1 million to more than 30 global and local non-profit organizations. The company will also make a $25,000 direct donation on behalf of each of its chosen Change Makers to a non-profit of their choice.

“We’re proud to launch the TikTok Change Makers program to help social-impact creators and non-profit organizations reach more communities, unlock real-world opportunities, and bring about lasting, meaningful change,” said Kim Farrell, the platform’s head of creators.


Riyadh Season’s ad campaign wins Sports Emmy award

Updated 23 May 2024
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Riyadh Season’s ad campaign wins Sports Emmy award

  • “Battle of the Baddest: Rumble” has been recognized in the Outstanding Promotional Announcement category

LONDON: The Riyadh Season “Battle of the Baddest: Rumble” advertising campaign has scooped a Sports Emmy in the Outstanding Promotional Announcement category.

The 45th awards took place on Tuesday at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in New York City, US.

The promotional campaign, crafted by creative agencies Droga5 and Accenture Song, was created for last year’s boxing match between former world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

The event, which took place in October, was one of the highlights of Riyadh Season and garnered 12 awards from 32 nominations at international creative festivals.

The campaign was developed in collaboration with the General Entertainment Authority, Saudi Media Group, American sports channels ESPN and ESPN+, and production company Park Pictures.

Scott Bell, chief creative officer at Droga5 NY, described the project as “a labor of love.”

“It’s deeply gratifying to see it resonate so profoundly,” he said during the ceremony. “Our team at Droga5 and Accenture Song, along with our amazing partners, poured their hearts into creating something truly special.

“This win is a testament to the power of creative collaboration and the enduring appeal of storytelling in sports.”

He also thanked the team at Riyadh Season, SMG, and Turki Alalshikh, the chairman of the GEA, for their support.

Alalshikh’s Instagram account shared a link to the advert on YouTube and described the Sports Emmy achievement as “exceptional.”

The 90-second film is inspired by an old boxing saying, “Living rent-free in your opponent’s head,” which depicts the intense psychological and physical preparations by contenders before a fight.

The campaign’s creators and the GEA have won several other accolades, including from The One Show, the ADC Awards, The Clios, The Andys, the Shots Awards, and at Dubai Lynx, where they won three Grand Prix, two golds, five silvers and three bronzes. 


Telly Awards names Asharq Network the ‘Telly Company of the Year!’ for 2024

Updated 23 May 2024
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Telly Awards names Asharq Network the ‘Telly Company of the Year!’ for 2024

  • Asharq Network wins over 100 awards across gold, silver, and bronze categories

RIYADH/DUBAI: Asharq Network, the leading multi-platform Arabic news provider, has once again been recognized for its commitment to excellence, winning 117 awards, including 12 gold, 49 silver, and 56 bronze, at the prestigious ‘Telly Awards’. Notably, the network was named “Telly Company of the Year”.  

Established in 1979 in the United States, the ‘Telly Awards’ celebrate excellence across a wide range of categories, from traditional cable television commercials to cutting-edge digital content. Major international brands and companies such as CNN, Fox News, HBO, and Time Warner, also actively participate in these prestigious awards.  

The prominent awards recognize Asharq Network’s ingenuity in covering the biggest stories that go ‘Beyond the Frame’.

Since its launch in 2020, Asharq Network has established itself as a leading Arabic multi-platform, earning over 150 global and regional awards for its high-quality programming and content.

In 2023, Asharq Network significantly expanded and diversified its portfolio by adding new audio and video platforms to meet the evolving demands of Arabic-speaking audiences. This included the launch of Asharq QuickTake, Asharq Podcasts, Asharq Documentary, Radio Asharq with Bloomberg, and Asharq Discovery in partnership with Warner Bros. Discovery. This expansion has further solidified the network's position as the fastest-growing news platform on social media. 

Asharq Network competed against a record-breaking 13,000 entries from 5 continents.

In addition to being named the “Telly Company of the Year”, the network’s brands won several other prominent awards. Asharq Business with Bloomberg received a Gold, a Silver and three Bronze Awards in the Video Journalism category for the “Asharq Business with Bloomberg Tech+” show. The “Asharq News Conflict in Darfur Story” won three Silver Awards in the Explainers category, and its coverage of ‘COP 28’ earned two Silver Awards in the Show Opening Segment category.  

Asharq Documentary, Asharq Discovery and Asharq Podcasts also won prestigious ‘Telly Awards’. Moataz Aziaza’s documentary promo on Asharq Documentary and the idents on Asharq Discovery were both recognized for their excellence. Additionally, ‘Asharq Podcasts Launch Promo’ won multiple awards in the Promotional Video Editing category. 

Nabeel Alkhatib, General Manager of Asharq News, commented: “Being named the ‘Telly Company of the Year’ is a testament to the dedication and creativity of the entire Asharq Network team. This achievement reaffirms our commitment to delivering in-depth analysis and insightful perspectives on the stories, people and events shaping the world today. Our mission is to set a new industry standard by providing content that truly resonates with our diverse audience.”

Steven Cheak, Director of Creative & Branding Services at Asharq News, said: “Being recognized by the prestigious Telly Awards is a great honor for our team. And to be able to compete against such a distinguished lineup of network brands, advertising agencies, and production companies only serves to motivate us to go even further.”  

Cheak added: “This honor reflects our tireless efforts to push the boundaries, and ultimately create content that captivates, informs, and inspires audiences worldwide. I would like to congratulate the creative team, who works every day to enrich the way we provide content across all our platforms.”