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Cairo to Kyiv: Social media’s rocky ride through conflict zones

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Facebook was hailed during the Arab Spring revolts, but its reputation was later tarnished


Facebook was hailed during the Arab Spring revolts, but its reputation was later tarnished – Copyright AFP/File KHALED DESOUKI

Joseph BOYLE with Bahira Amin in Cairo

When Yarema Dukh set up Ukraine’s official Twitter account in 2016, he knew that social media was the best way for his country to get its message out.

“We never had the means like the Russians to found multinational media like RT or Sputnik,” the former government communications adviser told AFP over the phone from Kyiv.

Since Russia’s full invasion last month, the Kyiv government has used social media to highlight atrocities, issue messages of defiance and even share a joke or two.

Young Ukrainians have used TikTok to chronicle life under Russian siege and tech enthusiasts have commandeered Telegram channels to organise donations of cryptocurrency.

On the other hand, Russia has launched an onslaught against Western tech firms and all but ended free speech online.

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The Ukraine war marks the expansion of social media in conflicts from a tool of the outsider to a genuinely ubiquitous presence.

But the tortuous history of its relations with protest movements and governments — from 2011’s Arab Spring to Myanmar today — suggests Ukraine will have to fight to hold on to its gains.

– Amplifying the message –

Back in 2011, Facebook was far from the behemoth it is today and Twitter barely registered in many countries.

“We were fighting to carve out a space in the margins,” said Hossam El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian activist who became a prominent voice during the Arab Spring protests.

The revolts across the Middle East and North Africa became known as the “Facebook revolution” but the jury is still out on its overall role.

Hamalawy said social media’s real power was not as an organising tool but as a way of amplifying the message.

“I knew that anything I wrote on Twitter would get picked up (by mainstream media),” he told AFP from his home in Berlin.

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In the early 2010s in Ukraine, Dukh says the most popular social media was a blogging platform called LiveJournal.

But then a journalist posted a message on his Facebook in 2014 promising to launch an anti-government rally if he received 1,000 replies.

When he got enough replies, he went to Maidan square in the heart of Kyiv and launched a protest that brought down the pro-Russian government.

The exposure also helped Facebook become the number one social network by far in Ukraine.

During this period, the US tech giant was happy to embrace its association with outsiders and protesters.

Company boss Mark Zuckerberg wrote in 2012 that the firm was not interested in profits but rather in empowering people to carry out social change.

However, social media companies were already in a much more complex position.

– ‘Extremely naive’ –

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Burmese journalist Thin Lei Win said 2012 was the moment when Facebook “became the internet” in Myanmar.

“Everything was on Facebook and everybody was sharing everything,” she told AFP.

But some of the messages being shared were incendiary, spreading false information that stoked violence between Buddhist nationalists and the Muslim Rohingya minority.

By 2018, a UN rapporteur called the platform a “beast” and accused it of inciting racial hatred.

The wheels came off in Egypt too, where faction fighting among protesters on the street was mirrored by bitter feuds online.

Protest leader Wael Ghonim, whose Facebook messages had helped to galvanise the movement, told US broadcaster PBS in 2018 that he soon became a target of online disinformation.

“I was extremely naive,” he said, “thinking that these are liberating tools.”

Meanwhile in Ukraine, the Maidan revolution was also turning sour.

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Moscow had used it as a pretext for annexing Crimea and sowing unrest in Ukraine’s east.

Dukh, as a new recruit in the government’s communications team, found himself battling Russian troll farms.

– Three-finger salute –

Activists in Arab Spring countries now lament how the platforms they once lauded have been retooled to serve the powerful.

A group of NGOs wrote an open letter to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube last year accusing them of supporting repression by systematically shutting accounts of dissidents across the region.

In Myanmar, a military junta seized power in a coup early last year, ending several years of liberalisation.

Dissent quickly spread across social media with the three-finger salute borrowed from the “Hunger Games” movies proving popular.

But Thin Lei Win said the authorities were aware that Burmese people were enthusiastic sharers and began stopping people in the streets and demanding to see their phones.

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“If you had posted anything on your social media critical of the junta or supportive of the NUG (National Unity Government) you could be arrested,” she said.

– ‘Whack-a-mole’ –

Facebook and other platforms closed accounts of the Burmese generals shortly after the coup and, according to Thin Lei Win, established platforms have hugely improved their record with disinformation.

Thin Lei Win and activist groups point out that the generals have since hopped on to other networks and their messages still get through.

“It’s like whack-a-mole, you close something, something else pops up,” said Thin Lei Win.

Younger companies like TikTok and Telegram have been criticised for continuing to host Burmese military propaganda.

In Ukraine too, TikTok and Telegram have both been accused of failing to tackle Russian disinformation.

But Dukh, who left the Ukrainian government in 2019, continues to see the positive side of social media.

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He said Ukraine had learnt lessons from its years of dealing with Russian disinformation and could share them with the world.

“We are good learners and I hope after the victory we’ll be good teachers as well,” he said.



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Meta Announces New Privacy-Focused Ad Targeting Solutions, Improvements in Automated Targeting

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NFTs are Coming to Facebook and Instagram – Whether You Like Them or Not

With Apple’s ATT data privacy update changing the game for app-based advertisers, Meta has been one of the biggest losers, with the company projecting up to $10 billion in revenue loss this year alone based on the amount of users opting out of data tracking in its apps.

Of course, part of that is due to Meta’s poor reputation on data privacy and protection, with the high-profile Cambridge Analytica case, in particular, shining a light on the platform’s past lax privacy measures, which have led to misuse.

But Meta has evolved its processes, and it’s now looking to ensure that it’s providing more data-protective solutions that will help advertisers maximize their campaigns, while also aligning with broader industry shifts.

On this front, Meta has today outlined a range of new ad measures, beginning with a new element within its Advantage ad suite, which incorporates Meta’s various ad automation and AI-based tools.

As explained by Meta:

“We’re rolling out Advantage custom audience, a new targeting automation product that leverages an advertiser’s Custom Audience to reach new and existing customers. This is similar to Lookalike audiences that find people who are likely to be interested in your business, except that Advantage custom audience goes beyond the 1%, 5% or 10% similarity ranges you are used to, while also prioritizing delivery of ads to people in your Custom Audience.”

Expanding the matching depth for Custom Audiences could be big, with the process guided by Meta’s evolving machine learning tools to help maximize campaign performance with less manual effort.

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Many performance advertisers have noted the improvement in Meta’s automated targeting tools, and with broader matching options to work with, it could be a good way to improve reach and response. Likely worthy of an experiment at least.

Meta’s also updating its Click to Messenger ads, with a new optimization that will target users more likely to make a purchase via a message thread.

Typically, we show Click to Messenger ads to people who are most likely to initiate a conversation with a business on WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct. With this update, we’re introducing the ability for advertisers to run Click to Messenger ads which will reach the people who are most likely to make a purchase in a thread.”

That adds another dimension to Click to Messenger targeting, which could help to optimize reach to people that are more likely to buy in-stream. Meta’s also adding a new ad format for lead generation which will funnel customers to either Messenger or a form, depending on which one the customer is most likely to interact with.

Meta’s also made improvements to its privacy solutions, including its Private Lift Measurement product. While at the same time, it’s also been working with various academics to study the impacts of the privacy shift.

“For example, we collaborated with academics from Northwestern University and the University of Chicago to better understand the value of offsite data for ads personalization, in part to help guide the development of solutions that leverage privacy-enhancing technologies. The research reveals that advertisers’ costs increased by 37% when removing offsite data from the ad delivery system with outsized impact on smaller advertisers in CPG, retail, and e-commerce, who are often more reliant on digital performance advertising than larger, more established companies.”

So while Meta’s working to build more privacy-protective processes, it’s also looking to highlight the impacts that these changes will have on the broader industry, as it pushes the big platforms to factor such into their future changes and shifts.

Finally, Meta’s also looking to help advertisers to prepare for the next stage of digital connection, partnering with Coursera on a new, free course called “What is the metaverse?”

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“This course explains what the metaverse is, what we know about it today and what it means for the future of work, play and life. We’re working with partners like Coursera to give people, businesses, creators and developers the tools needed to succeed as the metaverse takes shape.”

Though you will be getting Meta’s interpretation of what ‘metaverse’ means, which may not be exactly how it plays out. Meta’s increasingly keen to impress its vision of the metaverse future onto anyone who’ll listen, but it’s also important to note that the metaverse does not exist, and will not exist in a fully-functional, interoperable way for some time yet.

Still, it may be worth tuning in, and getting some insight into Meta’s future vision, and how it relates to advertising and brand reach.

You can pre-enroll to the new ‘What is the Metaverse’?’ course here.

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