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China tightens media control with tiny stakes in two Alibaba units

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Alibaba completed its acquisition of video platform operator Youku Tudou in 2016. Pictured here is an old version of the Youku logo.
Sopa Images | Lightrocket | Getty Images

BEIJING — State-backed entities have taken tiny stakes in parts of two Alibaba subsidiaries that oversee a video platform and web browser.

News of the holdings in the last week raised concerns about Beijing’s influence over the U.S.-listed e-commerce giant. However, the affected subsidiaries are just two of several units under the company’s digital media and entertainment arm — an arm that accounts for 4% of Alibaba’s revenue.

Alibaba shares have gained slightly over the last five trading days.

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The state-backed stakes reflect a progression of government directives over the last decade to increase control of media in China. The so-called golden shares, or special management shares, generally allow the state-backed entity to install a board member with the power to veto decisions — for the company the entity has taken a 1% stake in.

It will likely take a couple months to see what level of influence the state has gained, said Liqian Ren, leader of quantitative investment at WisdomTree. “So far most of the stakes announced (including in other Chinese companies) seem to be highly concentrated on media companies and media subsidiaries.”

“It’s very natural for the Chinese government to want to control how information is disseminated,” she said, “particularly if you believe China has entered a period where there will be much more frequent protests.”

Groups of Chinese held public demonstrations in late November to protest stringent Covid controls. Reports of other protests in the last several months include some Tesla owners upset with price cuts, people at a provincial capital protesting frozen bank deposits and disgruntled workers at certain factories.

Since 2020, business records show state-backed entities have taken 1% stakes in popular social media or short-video apps Weibo, ByteDance’s Douyin and Kuaishou. That’s on top of censorship that often deletes articles or freezes accounts over words deemed sensitive.

Along with media, finance and energy are the two other industries that Beijing is inclined to control, said WisdomTree’s Ren. Her firm has a fund for investing in Chinese companies that aren’t state-owned.

Alibaba is the largest holding in that fund. Ren said WisdomTree isn’t making changes to that holding at this time, because it recently completed its annual review and because it only considers state-owned enterprises as those with government ownership of more than 20%.

SoftBank is by far the largest holder of Alibaba’s U.S.-listed shares, at nearly 24%, according to S&P Capital IQ. Vanguard and BlackRock are next, each with holdings of less than 3%, the database showed.

About two-thirds of Alibaba’s annual revenue of about $125 billion comes from China commerce.

How small are the stakes?

Here’s where state-backed entities have bought in to Alibaba, according to business database Tianyancha:

  • Guangzhou Lujiao Information Technology is connected to a group of subsidiaries under Alibaba’s media arm that operate the UCWeb browser. A fund — ultimately backed by China’s cybersecurity regulator and finance ministry — took a 1% stake in Lujiao in January, leaving an Alibaba subsidiary with 99% ownership. Lujiao more than tripled its registered capital to 35 million yuan ($5.16 million) this month.
  • Youku Yingshi, which has 70.7 million yuan in registered capital, owns Youku, one of the three major video streaming platforms in China. A provincial state media group completed a 1% investment in September, leaving Alibaba’s media arm with 99% ownership.

Records showed each subsidiary also gained a new board member with the same name as an individual connected with the respective state-backed stakeholder. It was not immediately clear if they were the same person.

“Our digital media and entertainment business (such as Youku) brought in a state-owned multimedia entity as a minor strategic investor for a consolidated entity,” Alibaba said in its fiscal year report published July 26.

“This shareholder has the right to appoint a director of the relevant consolidated entity and other rights including certain veto rights over the content review processes,” the company said, warning of the impact on trading prices from market perception — and the potential of more state oversight on its content-related businesses.

Alibaba declined to comment. The Financial Times and Reuters previously reported on the government-linked stakes.

Signs of a regulatory shift

The news of the state-owned stakes comes as Alibaba shares try to recover from two years of sharp losses in the aftermath of the abrupt suspension of affiliate Ant’s IPO in November 2020. International investors have become more wary of Chinese stocks after increased regulation of China’s once freewheeling internet industry.

“There is no government as ambitious in regulating big tech as the Chinese government,” said Rogier Creemers, professor at Leiden University, and author of the paper “The Great Rectification: A New Paradigm for China’s Online Platform Economy.

He said China has finished its big changes for tech regulation, and expects other countries will be pushing out their own regulation of big tech companies.

Chinese bank and insurance regulator head Guo Shuqing told state media this month that the “rectification” of the financial businesses of 14 platform companies has been basically completed.

“Minimal, non-controlling government ownership in Chinese tech firms may be an indication that Beijing is done with tightening regulation is shifting to oversight and enforcement,” said Brian Tycangco, analyst at Stansberry Research. “It also means the government now shares, albeit minimally, in the future success of the business.”

Ant in the last few weeks also got approval to expand its consumer finance business — along with investment from a Hangzhou city-backed entity.

Didi said this week it had resolved regulatory concerns and could start to accept new user registrations.

One of the primary regulators is the Cyberspace Administration of China, which ordered a cybersecurity review of Didi shortly after its U.S. IPO. The administration has its roots in propaganda and censorship work, according to Stanford’s DigiChina Project.

State ownership of local media

“Politically speaking, China’s really unpredictable,” Creemers said. “But in terms of policy China is really predictable. It tells us what it wants to do. The problem is we confuse the one for the other. I think it is much more transparent on policy than we give it credit for.”

In the case of golden shares, public information indicates Chinese policy discussion of such special management shares began in late 2013 to help state-owned media companies to become more competitive — and better influence public opinion — while retaining government control.

The following year, authorities approved a new plan for culture and ideology work, which said special management shares for non-state-owned media would be tested. In late 2021, authorities said non-state capital would be banned from owning domestic news outlets in China.

As the government tries to balance out its role with the market, the state will likely become more apparent, said Bruce Pang, chief economist and head of research, Greater China at JLL. “The government will continue to monitor, regulate and re-train private capital to ensure its healthy development. The ‘golden shares’ is just one of the latest evidences of the updated policy stance.”

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Trump’s Evolution on Truth Social: More QAnon, More Extremes – The New York Times

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The former president, now free to post again on Facebook and Twitter, has increasingly amplified far-right accounts on Truth Social. Experts on extremism worry that he will bring this approach to a far wider audience.

In September, former President Donald J. Trump went on Truth Social, his social network, and shared an image of himself wearing a lapel pin in the form of the letter Q, along with a phrase closely associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory movement: “The storm is coming.”

In doing so, Mr. Trump ensured that the message — first posted by a QAnon-aligned account — would be hugely amplified, visible to his more than four million followers. He was also delivering what amounted to an unmistakable endorsement of the movement, which falsely and violently claims that leading Democrats are baby-eating devil worshipers.

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Even as the parent company of Facebook and Instagram announced this past week that Mr. Trump would be reinstated — a move that followed the lifting of his ban from Twitter, though he has not yet returned — there is no sign that he has curtailed his behavior or stopped spreading the kinds of messages that got him exiled in the first place.

In fact, two years after he was banished from most mainstream social media sites for his role in inciting the Capitol riot, his online presence has grown only more extreme — even if it is far less visible to most Americans, who never use the relatively obscure platforms where he has been posting at a sometimes astonishing clip.

Since introducing his social media website in February 2022, Mr. Trump has shared hundreds of posts from accounts promoting QAnon ideas. He has continued to falsely insist that the 2020 election was stolen and that he is a victim of corrupt federal law enforcement agencies. And he has made personal attacks against his many perceived enemies, including private citizens whose names he has elevated.

Now, Mr. Trump’s increasingly probable return to major platforms raises the prospect that he will carry over his more radicalized behavior to a far wider audience on Facebook and Instagram, with a combined five billion active users, and Twitter, with 360 million active users.

The potential for such an outcome has alarmed extremism experts; pushed the platforms to explain that they have installed “guardrails” to deter incendiary posts; and prompted questions about how Mr. Trump’s assertions, long siloed in a right-wing arena, are likely to play with mainstream voters, particularly as a sizable share of his party signals that it is ready to move on.

“It’s not that Trump has meaningfully changed the way he behaves online. In fact, he’s grown more extreme,” said Jared Holt, a researcher at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who studies technology and extremism in the United States. “I don’t think anybody should reasonably expect him to be any different if he’s back on Facebook and Twitter. And when it comes to spreading conspiracy theories, Trump is the big tuna.”

Last month, as Meta considered whether to reinstate Mr. Trump, he wrote on Truth Social that even the Constitution should not stand in the way of his return to power.

“A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution,” he said.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said on Thursday that “Truth Social has been a success because President Trump has created a true free-speech platform, unlike the Big Tech oligarchs who censor conservatives.” He added, “President Trump should have never been banned on these social media platforms, and everybody knows their decisions were unjust and ultimately destroyed the integrity of our democracy.”

In a letter sent this month to three top Meta officials, including Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, a lawyer for Mr. Trump argued that the ban had “dramatically distorted and inhibited the public discourse.”

The petition for reinstatement was timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the decision to bar him from Facebook and Instagram, made one day after the deadly attack on the Capitol by Trump supporters. At the time, the company said his presence on its sites posed a risk to public safety.

Democrats have said he’s still dangerous. Last month, four of the party’s members of Congress urged Meta not to reinstate Mr. Trump, writing in a letter that he was still “undermining our democracy.”

But on Wednesday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s president for global affairs, wrote in a blog post that “our determination is that the risk has sufficiently receded.” He added that the suspension was “an extraordinary decision taken in extraordinary circumstances” and that normally, “the public should be able to hear from a former president of the United States, and a declared candidate for that office again, on our platforms.”

To try to stop Mr. Trump from provoking future unrest, Meta said, it would prevent sharing of posts that, among other things, question the legitimacy of elections or promote QAnon content. Violations of the company’s policies could also result in his being blocked from the site again, Meta said. Conservatives praised the decision, and the A.C.L.U. and Senator Bernie Sanders defended the move.

Audience members at a Trump rally in Ohio in September. His social media site, Truth Social, is far more partisan than mainstream platforms: A Pew Research Center study found that half of the site’s most influential accounts self-identified as pro-Trump or right-wing.Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

No such restrictions exist for Mr. Trump on Twitter, which had barred him soon after the Capitol riot but reinstated him in November after Elon Musk, the company’s new owner, conducted a public poll about a possible return.

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How Times reporters cover politics. We rely on our journalists to be independent observers. So while Times staff members may vote, they are not allowed to endorse or campaign for candidates or political causes. This includes participating in marches or rallies in support of a movement or giving money to, or raising money for, any political candidate or election cause.

Mr. Trump also often handled his Twitter account directly, unlike his Facebook account. He used the platform as a cudgel during his presidency, issuing a steady flow of stream-of-consciousness thoughts, insults and policy declarations on the fly.

He has been talking to aides about when and what to post on Twitter upon his return, according to two people familiar with the discussions who asked for anonymity.

The former president delivered the first-ever post on Truth Social, in which he has a significant financial stake, in February 2022, writing: “Get Ready! Your favorite President will see you soon!”

He didn’t return for more than two months, but the floodgates then opened, with Mr. Trump Truthing and Retruthing — as posts and shares are called — dozens of times a day.

On Aug. 31, for example, he posted over 50 times, making wild claims about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Dominion voting machines, and supposed links by President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to Russia.

He has often repeated lies about the 2020 election. This past week, he posted that his infamous phone call seeking more votes in Georgia was “perfect” and that officials had “cheated in many ways including STUFFING Ballots.”

If Mr. Trump returns to major social media sites, Republican candidates and elected officials — who spent his presidency dodging questions about his incendiary tweets — are far likelier to be pressed for their opinions on what he says.

Mr. Trump would also have to figure out how to manage his online presences.

According to regulatory filings, he is obliged to place his posts exclusively on Truth Social and to not share them elsewhere for six hours. That contract has a significant exception, though, allowing him to post material “that specifically relates to political messaging, political fund-raising or get-out-the vote efforts at any time” on other sites.

To date, Mr. Trump has not taken advantage of the loophole, posting exclusively to his 4.8 million followers on Truth Social and at times reposting that content to his nearly 800,000 subscribers on Telegram.

Those follower counts pale in comparison to his potential reach elsewhere. A Pew Research Center analysis in October found that only 2 percent of Americans used Truth Social or Telegram as a regular source for news, compared with 28 percent for Facebook and 14 percent for Twitter.

Mr. Trump’s own statistics underscore that difference. He has nearly 88 million Twitter followers; his Facebook account has 34 million followers. His Instagram page, which tended to focus more on family photos, has 23 million followers.

According to people close to Mr. Trump, he is aware that a return to those platforms would risk starving Truth Social of its largest draw. But it may be that his desire for more income, they said, is outweighed by the enormous attention that Facebook and Twitter can provide him as he runs again for president.

Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights group, said Mr. Trump’s outsize following could partly explain why Meta made its decision.

“Corporations like Facebook have continued to find ways to profit off Trump even as they’ve condemned him,” said Mr. Robinson, whose group has pressured Facebook to enact policy changes through advertiser boycotts. “It’s not just that they let Donald Trump back on their platform, it’s that they benefit from it.”

He and others pointed to the fact that Mr. Trump’s campaign spent $89 million to advertise on Facebook and Instagram during the 2020 election, and $56 million to advertise on Google and YouTube. (Google, which also suspended Mr. Trump from YouTube in January 2021, has not announced plans to reinstate him.)

“Facebook has more followers than Christianity,” Mr. Robinson said. “There is not really a comparison point in terms of reach and advertising power.” Meta declined to comment on Mr. Robinson’s criticism. But executives have in the past noted that political advertising represents a tiny fraction of the company’s overall revenue, and Meta has acknowledged tweaking its algorithm to downplay political content over the past two years.

The Pew social media study found that Truth Social was “heavily partisan,” with half of its most influential accounts self-identifying as pro-Trump or right-wing.

Kash Patel, an adviser to Mr. Trump, described the proliferation of QAnon-friendly content on Truth Social as a deliberate business decision.Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

In a podcast interview in June, Kash Patel, an adviser to Mr. Trump and, at the time, a director of the company that owns Truth Social, described the proliferation of QAnon-friendly content on the site as a deliberate business decision by the platform, which has struggled financially.

“We try to incorporate it into our overall messaging scheme to capture audiences,” Mr. Patel said. “You can’t ignore that group of people that has such a strong dominant following.”

While it is possible that Mr. Trump will moderate his flow of extreme posts if he returns to mainstream platforms, it is far from clear he will do so.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump showed no sign of slowing down, posting or reposting 19 times on Truth Social about the 2020 election, the news media and the end of what he called his “deplatforming” from Facebook.

“Such a thing should never happen again,” he wrote.

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Mauritania media guide – Yahoo News Canada

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Mauritanians read newspapers on a main street in Nouakchott

Mauritanians read newspapers on a main street in Nouakchott

Privately-owned outlets provide competition for the state broadcaster, Telediffusion de Mauritanie (TDM). There is easy access to pan-Arab and European satellite TV.

Print newspapers have low circulations and some only publish irregularly. Some have moved to online-only publication.

Media rights groups say self-censorship is commonplace, especially when covering sensitive topics such as the military, corruption, and slavery. Legislation criminalises critical speech and “blasphemy”.

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Although internet use has risen substantially, driven by mobile access, it still only reaches a minority of the population. However, dozens of online news outlets have emerged.

Internet access is unrestricted. There were 969,000 internet users by December 2021, comprising 20% of the population (Worldinternetstats.com).

Facebook is the leading social media platform.

  • Radio Mauritanie – state-run, programmes in Arabic and French; also operates youth network and Koran network

  • Radio Sahara Media FM – private

  • Mauritanid FM – private

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Watch Live: Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield speaks to media about injury – Sportsnet.ca

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