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Word of Click: Social Networking and the Arab Spring Revolutions


Reported by Kody Gerkin in Doha, Qatar

I’ve been reacting with equal parts of shock and awe in recent months as I encounter varying degrees of cynicism among aging academics in the West with regard to the internet’s role in recent Middle Eastern affairs. Fear not, the inability to grasp the explosive potential of social media and blogs extends to academics and professionals in the Middle East as well. Despite the fact that social media tools have shown a remarkable capacity to contest traditional power brokers in North Africa and the Middle East, many (in the West particularly) proffer analysis that is insufficient, ethnocentric or simply wrong. If recent events in Egypt and Tunisia weren’t proof positive of the impact the internet can have on revolutions then we can now turn our attention to places like Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

The misunderstanding, lackluster analysis and cynicism come from two different sources within the Western world. My aim here is to explore and dismiss these concerns quicker than you can tweet “that’s bullshit”. First of all, traditional media such as the television and newspapers fear the rise of participatory media dissemination channels like Twitter and Youtube because they can’t be independently verified and because they make “expert” journalists seem obsolete. The printing press was once controlled by an elite bent on maintaining the technology amongst elite for the dissemination of a particular brand of “truth” as well. Likewise, just because communication tools become more widely available to people from different social strata doesn’t mean that the medium is eroded. Social media allows for more than one truth story to be told, allows for greater transparency and more voices to come to the table. Surely this doesn’t mean that the current media transition underway should be feared or derailed. The second source of this cynicism is more nuanced and complex. My arguments regarding the second concept taken up here will be expanded in another post that will explore Arab society and highlight why, in a specific Arab context, the stage is ripe for cyberspace to play a crucial role in political power brokering.

I will be referring specifically to the case of Egypt, a nation whose recent revolution shocked the international community, not to mention Egypt’s own domestic population. There is much debate about whether or not this could have happened without the internet or about whether or not this truly was a “Facebook revolution.” Accompanying this rhetoric is the debate over the place of traditional media outlets, newspapers, radio and television in the future of the Arab world.

At a media symposium in Doha, Qatar, social media quickly became the subject of much of the night’s discussion. The panel, mediated by a well-known newscaster from Al Jazeera, Sami Zeidan, was composed of several influential members of the Arab media including Nakhle el Hage. Nakhle is currently the Director of News and Current Affairs for al Arabiya News Channel, part of the Dubai, United Arab Emirates based Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC). Nakhle was the first Arab news editor in a Pan-Arab satellite channel and when the MBC moved its office from London to Dubai in 2002 he oversaw the transition. After Al Arabiya news channel was launched he was responsible for the creation of 15 different news programs…not exactly a lightweight. Yet when the conversation turned to the power of social media, he derided these outlets as not being “independently verifiable” and cited traditional media (read: television) as the only medium capable of doing widespread news and information dissemination justice. He was as far from the mark as Western academics who fail to understand just how powerful Facebook and Twitter are in a setting like Egypt.

Nakhle undoubtedly feels threatened by Twitter, Facebook and amateur blogs. Who will need to watch television news in the Middle East, the cause to which he has dedicated his professional life, if the next generation of Arabs get their news or current affairs fix from Twitter and Wikipedia? This fear is both misguided and wholly unnecessary. In my time working for a University in the Middle East I hear Twitter, Facebook and Youtube referenced in conversation often, but not as places where news content is created. Nakhle’s negative, knee jerk reaction presupposes that Facebook or Twitter actually create media or, in this case, create news broadcasts. Were this true, sure, they might compete for shares of the pie Nakhle helped bake, i.e., Arab satellite and broadcast news made by Arabs. His stance on this issue, however, reveals a lack of understanding as to what exactly these tools are capable of, which isn’t surprising given the fact that I doubt Nakhle utilizes any of the tools in questions. He should know that Facebook, Youtube and Twitter don’t generate content. But, they are sites which act as intermediaries, as places where friends and acquaintances may have conveniently filtered the entirety of Al Jazeera or The New York Times and handpicked relevant content for other users.

These social media tools have made something like The New York Times, which is probably daunting to youth everywhere, much more user friendly. Stories, which are relevant to social media users who wouldn’t have combed the pages of The New York Times for are filtered for them by their network of friends and they get the relevant content delivered via an electronic link. In the halls of at least one academic institution in the Middle East, it’s often said that someone’s friend posted this great story on Twitter, not that Twitter has this great story on the topic; the language makes an important distinction, one Nakhle and other panelists’ analysis failed to make.

If a seventeen year old in the Middle East says that she get her news from Twitter and Facebook, people like Nakhle are rolling their eyes. Caught somewhere in the generation between Nakhle and the teenager in question, I understand from the comment that what they “get” from Twitter is relevant news filtered to them through Twitter “feeds”. I also understand that Al Jazeera saw a two and a half thousand percent increase to its site during the Egyptian revolution, some sixty percent coming from the United States. I wonder how many of them “got their news” from Twitter and Facebook. Again, Facebook doesn’t make the news; it provides a forum for friends to filter out relevant content. Likewise Youtube is a great place for people in the Middle East to post pre-recorded content from Al Jazerra and send the link to their friends. It likely reduces Al Jazerra’s need to store and post all of its content online and cuts down on overhead. Users take care of that by posting popular content on Youtube and the promotion is handled by e-users, “word of click” so to speak. Furthermore, in places like Libya and Syria where it is either too dangerous or there is a ban on foreign journalists, Al Jazeera’s only access to video footage comes from Youtube. In these cases, yes, there is always the requisite and appropriate quote: “this video cannot be independently verified.”

What social media has done for television is kept it on its toes, helped keep it relevant and gotten viewers more involved. How? Social media. Watchers no longer want to be told the news or lectured endlessly by experts; they want to participate in the news-media production and consumption. The internet has speeded up the space-time continuum such that people no longer want to simply watch history unfold on the tube; they want to help create it and are capable of doing so in real-time. People send in video footage; call in to radio news shows, send pictures and offer street commentary; they want to contribute to history’s unfolding on 24 hour satellite cable news, from FOX News to CNN and from Al Arabiya to Al Jazeera.

This doesn’t challenge the power of television or radio as a tool for media and information dissemination. Quite the contrary in fact; social media input legitimizes and reinforces televisions usefulness in fostering civil society. Social media has also given the production of the news over to the people. Instead of a single reality based on expert political, social and economic analysis, people who watch and contribute to the news can now relate to the truth story being told by the media. Why? They themselves or everyday people they can relate to helped create it. It’s no surprise Al Jazeera’s coverage of the events in Egypt made the U.S. based networks coverage look like a sad imitation at best. Al Jazeera had a fully formed Bureau in Cairo and a wealth of native Arabic speakers on staff. Their staff persons understand Arab culture and the geopolitical importance of Egypt in the region. Al Jazeera’s ability to report on the street, to tell the story of Egypt’s people and utilize social media directly fed its coverage. I personally scoffed several times when switching the channel from Al Jazeera’s coverage of protests in Tahrir Square to “pundits” in Washington D.C. waxing poetic about the future of the U.S. military presence in Egypt on CNN International or the BBC. The contrast was astounding and no doubt fanned the flames surrounding the controversy of Al Jazeera’s mysterious absence on mainstream cable carriers in the United States.

Al Jazeera’s ability to fold social media into the fray of legitimate reporting was crucial to their success throughout the Egyptian revolution. Overall it seems as through social media will help democratize media production in a way that contributes to the transparency of television news broadcasts. It became glaringly obvious that other television news outlets such as Egyptian state television, which for a long time denied that protests were occurring and continued to offer Mubarak unwavering support, were being less than upfront about protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt. Egyptians in Egypt didn’t have to wait for state television to tell the truth any more than Egyptians living in the U.S. had to wait for FOX News to show them what was actually happening. Social media was taking care of that long before people took to the streets. CNN certainly couldn’t have toed the same line Egyptian state television did during the run-up to Mubarak’s resignation even if they’d wanted to. Al Jazzera, relying heavily on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter for networking and accessing events in Tahrir square in real-time were painting a picture of what was happening in Egypt that no one could deny.

It seems then that social media has the demonstrated potential to keep the journalistic mission transparent. This cycle of transparency continues, bringing such transparency to other social and political processes should be a legitimate aim of journalists. I welcome social media’s contribution to television and radio news because such social media encourages a consistently high level of transparency throughout the older media. This heightened transparency and broad-based participation, I would argue, is something to be embraced, not denigrated.

Despite a climate of guaranteed personal liberties and freedom, it could be argued that people in the West have increasingly less-meaningful interactions with others and seem obsessed as individuals with a personal growth that eludes them. It becomes hard for them, therefore to believe that Arab peoples are triumphing in social and political empowerment by using…Facebook? These tools may not seem to be capable of anything in the United States except for ego inflation - not that the youth in the U.S. need any help with this. The capacity for communication tools like Facebook and Twitter to alter the fabric of society in other corners of the world must, however, be recognized even though “Millennials” in the U.S. use them to obsessively ego-stroke one another into electronic oblivion. Allow me to make my point with a few examples. How much political impact can a blog on celebrity gossip or college basketball have on the pursuit of meaningful personal growth in a place such as the United States of America? Not much, though a person who keeps a blog about such things might not feel like they need to use a blog for political dissent. They could take a loudspeaker to any public square in the nation and vocalize their extreme disappointment/dissatisfaction (witness the Tea Party’s success here) with the economic or political status quo. This is precisely why academics and laypersons in the West miss the link between Twitter and freedom. How can people, who have always had the right to express their personalized brand of dissent against any cause they choose to support no matter how provocative, possibly understand what a tool like the internet can provide in a society wherein people have never had the right to dissent, peacefully or not. What good is Twitter as a tool of political expression when one already has guaranteed and legally protected freedom of speech, press, and assembly? To understand how and why these social media tools are important, we have to couch our understanding in Arab culture, and in the situations in which these tools have been used towards such powerful ends.

An important manner in which the revolution in Egypt was initiated, long before 2011, was the rising stature given to political bloggers. In Egypt the power of these bloggers was such that their arrest made headlines well before the events unfolded in Tahrir square and they became quasi-celebrities within Egypt. Their online dissent set the stage for the internet as a participatory tool for spreading the messages of the revolution and for communication among those participating in mass civil disobedience during the 18 day stand-off between Egyptian citizens and Hosni Mubarak and his cronies.

Ranwa Yehia, an Egyptian woman and the founder and director of Arab Digital Expression Foundation, spoke at length at a TEDx event in Doha of the power of social media as a tool leading up to and during the revolution in Egypt. She spoke of Twitter in particular as a way to know, on any given day, which entrances to Tahrir Square where open, where she could get a good internet connection inside the square or where she could find water, first aid, blankets or food. All of this, of course, on her mobile phone, and, constantly updated. Contrast this use of Twitter with the recent findings of two Kentucky researchers one of whom, Meghan M. Saculla, is writing her MA thesis on aspects of social media usage in the United States. They found, in part, that “Over all, students who frequently used social media as a tool for self-promotion and a vehicle to increase their popularity were more likely to be narcissistic and exhibit less nuanced moral reasoning than those who didn’t. Posting hundreds of pictures or self-involved status updates are examples of such behavior, and men were more likely to say they engaged in this behavior than were women, the study found.” Ms. Saculla also cautions that the technology might not make students any more narcissistic. “It’s just as plausible that the technology merely provides a medium for narcissistic people to strut their stuff.”

Herein lies the point that I think Western academics and fearful Arab media experts alike miss: what is a forum for overindulgent ego-stroking in the United States is actually safe space for meaningful self-actualization in places like pre-revolutionary Egypt. When Egyptians couldn’t meet over tea to discuss corruption they tweeted links to news stories from Al Jazeera about Egyptian corruption. When citizens couldn’t take to the public square with a megaphone to criticize the latest update to a thirty year emergency law statue in Egypt, they could blog about it. And they did. In the United States (as elsewhere in the West) we’ve become so disillusioned with politics (hence the laughable less than 50% who even bother to vote in national elections) and life in general that we shop, work more to shop more, and toil away leading what Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation”.

Patterns of consumption in the West are so blindly adhered to that we’re wreaking havoc on the environment and, most grossly, we are too busy working so hard to destroy our habitat that we haven’t time to think about the fact that we are working so hard to destroy our habitat. We don’t value enough the freedoms we have to take to the public square to protests much of anything anymore. We’re too fat and tired to do anything about it anyway. We’ve become convinced that whatever nonsense being spoon-fed us that day by - insert politician or media figurehead name here – resembles enough of the truth that we roll over and hope the desperation evaporates tomorrow. Political realities don’t matter because we’re busy purchasing eternal youth or some slice of happiness with the newest techno-gadget using our Groupon. When we hear that Facebook is helping people connect in meaningful ways to make social and political progress, that social media is aiding a collective effort behind a collective cause, what we hear sounds trite. It sounds trite, I believe, because we have long since forgotten that the freedom to shop does not replace a freedom continuously fought for and established through the pursuit of meaningful social and political justice. It’s also difficult for a lot of mainstream voices in the West because we, after all, talking about the Middle East. While we were busy using the internet to shop and follow the Tiger Woods scandal on Twitter, Egyptians were busy blogging and twittering Hosni Mubarak out of power. New communication tools are busy being misused and misunderstood in the West, particularly when it comes to their capacity to help unseat autocrats like Mubarak. In my follow up post I explore why these tools work so well in a place like Egypt for Arab-specific, culturally relevant reasons.

Kody M. Gerkin has spent several years working and studying oppression and economic disparities around the globe. He lived, worked and studied in Guatamala for several years before returning to the U.S. to earn an M.A. inInternational Human Rights from the University of Denver. Currently he lives in Doha, Qatar where he teaches, studies Arabic, bakes bread, and is now mainly occupied with reporting on the Arab Spring Revolutions.