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Dubai: Criminals and fraudsters are promoting their illegal activities in the UAE through paid advertisements on Facebook and Instagram.

Get rich quick schemes endorsed by unwitting celebrities, and online degree firms that sell you fake qualifications — then threaten to expose you unless you part with more cash — are just some of the scams that people are falling for by trusting these sponsored ads that social media giants are accepting.

“These portals should be doing way more to prevent this, but at the end of the day they are just trying to make money any way they can,” said Uma Ghosh, a Dubai-based TV host turned influencer, whose image was recently used without her knowledge to promote crypto-currencies on Facebook.

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“It’s easy to fall for something like this,” she added. “I would do the same if I saw someone I looked up to promoting something, but I guess people have to be more aware.

Dh5000

Fine for companies placing ads if they fail to comply with advertising rules

“It’s a platform I immensely love and have respect for because it has connected me to so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise reached through other mediums, but when something like this happens, I had to reach out to friends to figure out how to get the ad down.

“There are no clear laws on this especially when it’s on the internet and you’re not area or country specific.

“Anybody at any point can do whatever they want and you have very little control over it. Nothing is clear and the digital world is so new to us that I didn’t know how to go about stopping it.

“I feel it’s so new for everyone that despite policies being put in place experts find loopholes, so it’s just about educating yourself and being smart, but these portals should be doing way more.”

Cambridge Analytica episode

Percy Fernandez, chairperson of the School of Media and Communication at Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Dubai, agreed. “You only have to look at the Cambridge Analytica incident to see that there are players that use these platforms to peddle things that are not trustworthy,” he said, in reference to how the personal data of millions of people had been harvested through Facebook and used for political gain.

“Social media is still very new and I think there are lots of voices calling for more regulation from governments to tell tech giants to filter and sift through the information they put out, but there’s clearly still scope for more.”

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A joint statement from Facebook and Instagram issued to Gulf News said: “At both Instagram and Facebook, we take illegal content of any form incredibly seriously and are investing heavily in our security and content review teams, as well as smart technology such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to make both platforms a safer place for everyone.”

However, the statement added: “In many ways, we face sophisticated adversaries who continually challenge tactics to circumvent our controls, which means we must continuously build and adapt our efforts.

“Our content reviewers respond to millions of reports each week from people all over the world and users can report profiles, pages, groups, events, individual content and even comments, with reports then reviewed 24 hours a day, seven days a week in over 50 languages.

You only have to look at the Cambridge Analytica incident to see that there are players that use these platforms to peddle things that are not trustworthy.

- Percy Fernandez, Manipal Academy of Higher Education

“If necessary, we will reach out to law enforcement if we learn of content that we believe reflects a credible threat or imminent harm, and will routinely respond to valid law enforcement requests for information.”

That’s not enough for Sajith Ansar, however, the founder and CEO of Idea Spice, a Dubai-based brand and marketing firm. He says that while social media giants are very good at reacting to the problem of fake ads, they should be better at double checking who they are selling to in the first place.

“I don’t think they are diligent enough,” he said. “It’s tough because of the number of people they are selling ads to around the world, but with algorithms it’s easy enough to do a quick background check before the ad goes live.

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“Like all businesses they are looking for ways to monetise, which is fair but I think it’s got to be done responsibly.

“It’s a fine line because you don’t want them to be a big brother but at the same time they are responsible for what kind of companies are reaching out to you.”

The National Media Council launched Electronic Media Regulations in March 2018 to encourage electronic media outlets to produce reliable content that meets the needs of different audiences.

- Dr Rashid Al Nuaimi, Executive director of media affairs, NMC

Companies placing ads in traditional media like newspapers need a trade licence and if it’s a health care brand they also need endorsement from the local health authority. But Ansar said that so many freelancers and start-ups, without trade licences are using social media ads across jurisdictions that this would be hard to enforce. And because it’s all so new, a grey area exists to be exploited.

The UAE’s National Media Council, who are in charge of regulating such ads, are trying to correct the issue however.

“The National Media Council launched Electronic Media Regulations in March 2018 to encourage electronic media outlets to produce reliable content that meets the needs of different audiences,” NMC executive director of media affairs Dr Rashid Al Nuaimi told Gulf News.

Obtaining prior licence

“The guide refers to electronic advertisements in the sphere of social media communication and stresses that all those who carry out advertising activities on a commercial basis need to obtain a prior licence from the council.

“With regards to oversight, it is not possible to ‘control’ social media as such, as anyone can open an account and post content, but it is possible to regulate it by actively monitoring channels for content that breach guidelines. We have a specialised unit to observe any such transgressions and — if found — to report them for action accordingly.

“Protecting all individuals in the UAE from any form of harmful content online through balanced, respectful and decent content was a key driver for introducing well balanced and comprehensive regulations across the electronic media sphere and will remain an important focus for the NMC moving forward.

“The NMC has a very good relationship with organisations that operate in the media sector and which are relevant to its sphere of interest.

“The council continues to be a part of meaningful efforts to maintain a practical framework to protect the public from advertisements that do not comply with the applicable standards.”

When contacted for comment by Gulf News, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA), who can block online content in the UAE, said that if users see such ads they should report them using the reporting mechanisms within Facebook or Instagram, or report them to the TRA to be deleted through its various channels via www.tra.gov.ae

Four penalties that NMC can take against violators

  1. A fine of Dh5,000 for failing to comply with advertising rules
  2. Dh100 added for each day the fine is unpaid by the due date
  3. The fine is doubled if the same violation is committed within a year
  4. The council can then delete or prohibit circulation in the UAE until it complies with standards