September 30, 2022

I.H.T. Special: Social Media Firms Move to Capitalize on Popularity in Middle East

The use of social media exploded during the Arab Spring as people turned to cyberspace to express themselves. On the back of that, social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, have moved into the region commercially, setting up offices to sell advertising products to companies like Mobily, which has over 200,000 Twitter followers, to capitalize on the growing audience.

“In Saudi, social media gets everyone talking to everyone, which is something we just don’t have in the streets here,” said Muna AbuSulayman, a Saudi development consultant and formerly a popular television talk show host, who has over 100,000 followers on Twitter.

“It’s a unique opportunity that lets people have conversations in a boundary-less way that wasn’t possible before,” Ms. AbuSulayman said. “In addition to promoting social and political discussion, it carries a powerful economic incentive for businesses, too.”

The rise of social media in the Arab world is changing the game for regional advertisers, pushing growth in digital advertising in a part of the world where traditional methods like television and print advertising have so far remained dominant.

Digital advertising in the Middle East and North Africa accounts for only about 4 percent of the region’s total advertising spending, at a value of $200 million, according to the most recent available estimate, but it has become the fastest-growing media platform in the region, said a study by the business services firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, published in 2011. Deloitte’s Arab Media Outlook projected growth in digital advertising spending in the region of 35 percent a year over the next three years, generating about $580 million across the region by 2015.

“The fact is that consumers are online, so brands need to be online,” said Reda Raad, chief operating officer of TBWARaad, the Middle East arm of the global advertising agency TWBA. “The use of digital channels has continued to increase dramatically after the Arab Spring and advertising on social media has become a highly targeted, cost-efficient way of communicating with consumers.”

Major brands, including Pepsi Arabia, are taking note. Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter users in the Arab world, holding 38 percent of the region’s two million users, according to a report by the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report released in June. In the past year alone, the number of Twitter users in the Arab world tripled, according to Shailesh Rao, Twitter’s vice president for international operations.

Thanks to the platform’s popularity in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Arabic is now the fastest-growing language on the Twitter platform.

“We prioritized a list of regions where we wanted to have a business presence, and the Mideast rises toward the top because the region’s user base is one of the fastest-growing in the world,” Mr. Rao said during an interview. “This represents a huge opportunity for brands looking for a large audience that is rapidly growing.”

Twitter has formed a partnership with the Egyptian digital advertising company Connect Ads to market and sell advertising services across the Middle East and North Africa region. Connect Ads will offer brand managers and marketers Twitter’s products, which include promoted tweets, promoted accounts and promoted trends.

Through these, a brand can reach broad Twitter audiences or more narrowly defined geographic or demographic segments. They can even target users of specific smartphone brands, like iPhones. Brands that have signed up so far include Mobily, Pepsi Arabia, the resort company Atlantis The Palm, and the events portal Dubai Calendar.

“Companies can learn a few things about their customers by optimizing for country and targeting those with specific interests,” said Mohamed El Mehairy, managing director of Connect Ads.

“They can probably uncover this type of information through market research,” he added, but it would come “at a higher expense and with more time and effort.”

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Armstrong Critics Unmoved by Winfrey Interview

Several members of both groups faulted Armstrong for the vagueness of his confession, particularly around sensitive matters, and its lack of apology, particularly toward people he had attacked for telling the truth in the past. Many characterized Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey as being more self-serving than revelatory.

“He spoke to a talk-show host,” David Howman, the executive director of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said from Montreal on Friday. “I don’t think any of it amounted to assistance to the antidoping community, let alone substantial assistance. You bundle it all up and say, ‘So what?’ ”

Howman said several of Armstrong’s statements were not accurate, adding that if he was serious about clearing the air, he needed to give testimony under oath and face cross-examination. Although Armstrong’s representatives frequently contacted Howman when Armstrong was still racing, they have not communicated with WADA since the United States Anti-Doping Agency found that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs and techniques.

“Nothing we’ve seen indicates that Usada got it wrong and that the lifetime ban should be reversed,” he said.

Richard Pound, the founding chairman of WADA and a member of the International Olympic Committee, also said he was unmoved.

“If what he’s looking for is some kind of reconstruction of his image, instead of providing entertainment with Oprah Winfrey, he’s got a long way to go,” Pound said from his Montreal office.

Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate and one of the cyclists whose sworn testimony led to Usada’s imposing a lifetime ban on Armstrong, also joined in the call for sworn testimony.

Vaughters, who has also admitted to doping, is now the chief executive of Slipstream Sports. The company owns the Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda cycling team, which includes another former Armstrong teammate, Christian Vande Velde.

In his testimony to Usada, Vande Velde said Armstrong told him in 2002 that he needed to follow the team’s doping program “to the letter” if he wanted to remain with the squad, adding that “Lance called the shots on the team.”

In Thursday’s broadcast, Armstrong denied pressuring or requiring Vande Velde to dope and played down his control over the team.

A request for comment to Vande Velde went unanswered. But Vaughters took strong exception to Armstrong’s account.

“Listen, Christian’s affidavit is freely available for anyone to look at,” Vaughters said. “That affidavit was taken under oath; it’s sworn testimony; it’s truthful. Again, that’s why I look forward to the moment when Lance testifies.”

An earlier target of Armstrong’s bullying was similarly unimpressed by the lack of detail or apology from Armstrong. Christophe Bassons was the only member of the Festina team to be cleared by an investigation that followed a series of police drug raids that almost brought the 1998 Tour de France to a close. He quit the Tour the next year after Armstrong rode up beside him and made vague threats for speaking out against doping. Armstrong went on to win the Tour for the first time.

Speaking to RMC, a French radio network, Bassons speculated that Armstrong had another motive.

“I think he has political ambitions,” Bassons told the broadcaster. “He’s maintaining his image as someone who is very courageous, very tough.”

Jeffrey M. Tillotson, the lawyer for the insurance company that unsuccessfully tried not to pay Tour de France win bonuses to Armstrong on the basis that he had cheated, said his client, SCA Promotions, would make a decision about suing Armstrong over the weekend. If it proceeds, the company will seek $12 million, a sum representing the bonuses, which had been insured by Armstrong’s team, as well as legal fees.

“It seemed to us that he was more sorry that he had been caught than for what he had done,” Tillotson said. “If he’s serious about rehabbing himself, he needs to start making amends to the people he bullied and vilified, and he needs to start paying money back.”

One of the few organizations with anything positive to offer about Armstrong was the International Cycling Union, which is more commonly known by its initials in French, U.C.I.

During the interview with Winfrey, Armstrong flatly dismissed widespread allegations that he had persuaded the governing body to cover up a positive drug test at a race in Switzerland and that a donation he later made to it was effectively hush money.

In a statement, Pat McQuaid, the body’s president, said Armstrong made “an important step forward on the long road to repairing the damage that has been caused to cycling and to restoring confidence in the sport.”

McQuaid noted Armstrong’s denial that the organization had been involved in any cover-up.

In a statement that also called on Armstrong to present evidence to antidoping officials, the International Olympic Committee said, “This is indeed a very sad day for sport, but there is a positive side if these revelations can begin to draw a line under previous practices.”

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The Onion Is Seeking a Pulitzer, Any Pulitzer

Not that it hasn’t tried. Editors at the satirical newspaper have submitted their work for consideration by the Pulitzer Board, sometimes in categories they could conceivably qualify for, like commentary, and other times in categories that would be a stretch, like public service.

Saying the paper’s journalistic excellence should be overlooked no longer, The Onion is beginning a full-scale multimedia campaign to get a long-coveted Pulitzer. Readers, celebrities, world leaders and a nonprofit advocacy group called Americans for Fairness in Awarding Journalism Prizes are all contributing to the effort.

The occasion for the campaign is the paper’s 1,000th issue — or at least what the editors say they think is the 1,000th issue. They claim they do not really know. Or care.

“Since we say it is, it is,” said Seth Reiss, The Onion’s head writer.

With an oddness that only The Onion could muster, the list of luminaries who have contributed testimonial video pleas to the Pulitzer board includes Gayle King, the radio talk show host and best friend of Oprah Winfrey, and the president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili.

“We’re spending all our capital on this,” Mr. Reiss added.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., an acknowledged fan of The Onion’s merciless satires of him as a womanizing derelict, was said to be unavailable.

A full-page ad from Americans for Fairness in Awarding Journalism Prizes will appear in this week’s issue of The Onion. It says it is “a nonprofit watchdog group committed to exposing those who engage in improper journalism-award-giving,” and seeks to correct what it calls a grave injustice.

“Simply put, it’s time for the Pulitzer Board to stop the bias, stop the ignorance, and stop the neglect,” the ad declares.

The Onion’s ostensibly crotchety old publisher, a character by the name of T. Herman Zweibel, explains the paper’s crusade for a Pulitzer as the ultimate revenge after a long-running feud with Joseph Pulitzer.

“As any student of American journalism, history and criminology knows fully well,” Mr. Zweibel says in an article, “I have been at war with Joseph Pulitzer since the beginning of his career. At first he showed a measure of promise, and was one of the leading lights among Onion copy boys, cheerfully going about his work, always busy, never requesting fresh crusts or more sleeping hay.”

The relationship soured when Mr. Pulitzer committed the ultimate sin for a newspaperman in Mr. Zweibel’s eyes: He began asking questions. “Why are Mr. Zweibel’s editorials about the Whigs when most of them are long dead? Does manipulating the masses with appeals to their baser instinct sell a lot of papers?”

The Onion is also asking “concerned citizens” to sign a form letter and “mail it to the pieces of garbage” at the actual Pulitzer board office at Columbia. The letter’s salutation doesn’t lack for subtlety. “You Ignorant, Negligent Swine,” it begins.

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At New Network, Olbermann Sets Sights on MSNBC

Challenging MSNBC, which has a stable lineup of left-leaning hosts, will be Current TV, where Keith Olbermann will start anchoring the 8 p.m. hour, his former time slot on MSNBC. Rather audaciously, Mr. Olbermann will try to draw viewers away from MSNBC and to his new home, where he wants to add more hours of like-minded hosts.

Already, Mr. Olbermann seems to have succeeded in one respect: in creating a robust marketplace for liberal television talent. Since he left in January, MSNBC has signed prominent contributors like Eugene Robinson, the Washington Post columnist, to new long-term contracts, in some cases staving off Current’s attempts to poach them. MSNBC has also tried out new hosts, like Cenk Uygur, an Internet talk show host who has become the channel’s 6 p.m. anchor. The channel’s total ratings are holding steady so far this year.

Mr. Olbermann, meanwhile, has persuaded some boldface names to appear on Current, where he is recreating his MSNBC show, “Countdown.” His huge challenge will be persuading viewers

to come too, given that the channel is generally only watched only by tens of thousands of viewers at any given time and is high on the channel lineup in most markets. He anticipates that the early viewership totals will be low; he said on a conference call with reporters Friday, “We’re in this for the long haul.”

Few of Mr. Olbermann’s producers or regular guests from MSNBC are joining him on the new show. His entreaties to MSNBC employees sparked something of a bidding war, according to people involved in contract negotiations who insisted on anonymity to avoid distressing executives at MSNBC or Current.

“The threat of Keith’s new show meant that MSNBC had to spend a little bit of extra money — and Phil was willing to do that,” one of the people said, referring to Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC.

Guest bookings are important for cable news channels because viewers come to recognize and expect regular guests with opinions on the left and the right. The channels pay some guests — called contributors or analysts — for exclusive access to them, and also nurture new and influential voices in politics.

MSNBC has effectively created a new row of these voices, mostly on the left, just as the much-higher-rated Fox News Channel has done, mostly on the right.

MSNBC sought this spring to renew the contributor contracts of Mr. Robinson; Ezra Klein, a blogger for The Washington Post; and Christopher Hayes, a writer for The Nation. In an interview, Mr. Griffin declined to talk about contracts in detail, citing his parent company’s policy, but he said that the new deals were done because the contracts happened to be approaching end dates, not because of any threat from Current.

“I wanted to keep them because we have a strong platform, and they wanted to be on this platform,” he said.

Guest bookings are also important because popular guests can become full-time hosts. Mr. Hayes, for instance, is a frequent substitute for Lawrence O’Donnell and for Rachel Maddow, two MSNBC anchors. Now MSNBC is developing a show for Mr. Hayes. Mr. Uygur was groomed the same way.

“There’s a whole new batch of young people we’ve brought in, because we want to keep feeding our system,” Mr. Griffin said, naming as one example Alex Wagner, a writer for The Huffington Post.

Mr. Olbermann has his own liberal voices to nurture on Current, like the muckraking Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi, the law professor Jonathan Turley, and Heather McGhee, who directs the Washington office of the research group Demos, three of the contributors whom Current announced on Friday.

But it is unclear how often the contributors will appear, or how many are being paid. The payments for a liberal filmmaker, Michael Moore, who was named as a contributor in April, will be given to charity. Ken Burns, another filmmaker, told The Baltimore Sun that he was surprised to see his name in that announcement as well; Mr. Olbermann has “been a friend for a long time,” Mr. Burns said. “And when he moved, I said, ‘Oh, I’ll come and do it.’ And I think that’s what it is.”

Mr. Burns said that since he lives in New Hampshire, “I don’t know how I become a contributor.”

A Current spokeswoman declined to comment on individual contracts, but said that “the vast majority” of the contributors have formal agreements.

David Carr contributed reporting.

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