For me there are several milestones. First, there was the Virginia Tech massacre on April 16, 2007. It left thirty two people dead and many wounded. Right after the news broke of a deadly shooting on the Virginia Tech campus, news vans rushed to the scene to cover the story and newsrooms across the nation got into their ‘breaking news’ mode. At the same time, one student -- who had the extremely brave and bright idea of turning his cell phone camera on to capture the actual gun shots as heard from his location, and videotape campus police activity during the massacre -- was uploading his video to the Internet and sharing it with a news network (my former employer). What the young man did intuitively is the equivalent of years of journalism training.
· He established the seriousness of the event and the importance of reporting it despite the danger
· He captured the audiovisual elements on his electronic device
· As soon as it was safe for him to do so, he uploaded his video on line
As any journalism student or professional will tell you, these steps are the basics of broadcast journalism.
· Sound editorial judgment – What makes a news story
· News gathering – Shooting the elements (exclusive breaking news in this case)
· Transmission – Reporting
From there, the story developed quickly and the focus for a long time was on MySpace mainly where the Virginia Tech students including most of the victims had active profiles. Media across the world logged into the social network to find eyewitnesses, potential guests, analysts and sources. As far as I know, this was the first time news organizations and other businesses turned to social media and used them as tools of instant communication and information sharing especially in times of crisis.
Underneath the sad weight of the tragedy and the intensity of covering it, there was something within me that appreciated the fact that the young man who shot the exclusive video which was flashed around the world was an Arab, a Virginia Tech student by the name of Jamal Al-Barghouti. At a tense time when the words Arabs and Muslims were wrongly associated with terrorists, it was refreshing to hear the reference to bravery and good judgment associated with this young Palestinian.
Later that year, in December 2007, I heard about the ‘Qatif Woman’ from Saudi bloggers who braved extreme government censorship and intimidation and used the Internet to expose a taboo story. The woman known only as the ‘Qatif Woman’ was attacked under the pretense of being in a public place with an unrelated male then gang-raped. Instead of the customary hiding in shame, she pressed charges. Instead of the justice she was seeking, she received a jail sentence and hundreds of lashes. When her lawyer appealed, the sentence was raised to more jail time and more lashes! It was the Saudi blogging community along with a few brave local journalists and a human rights lawyer that publicized her story internally, regionally and internationally using mainly the web. They were repeatedly threatened, intimidated and asked to leave the story alone. If it weren’t to the social media reach the bloggers had, I and many others wouldn’t have even heard of the story, let alone report on it. They deserve all the credit for the Qatif Woman receiving the Saudi Monarch’s mercy and being spared jail time and lashing.
Although Egypt started jailing bloggers as early as 2006, the years 2007 and 2008 saw a spike in bloggers and on line community members challenging the status quo around the Arab world but especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They bonded around their dreams of freedom and the challenges they faced to reach them. They supported each other, created updating systems and figured out ways to publicize their plight and shed light on the treatment their repressive governments were giving them. Their strategy worked because western media started paying attention to what’s going on inside these otherwise closed societies. Although there was not much to be done from outside, it was extremely important to know that there is dissent on the inside and that some people were not able or willing to take their governments’ abuse and censorship anymore.
For me and many others, this was the beginning of something new and refreshing. Arabs speaking up against injustice. Arabs braving real, serious danger to bring to the forefront their desire for freedom, a better life, a normal life, a decent life. 2007 and 2008 ushered into my world a vision of what the Arab world would be like if people of my generation and younger had the options and opportunities the rest of the world took for granted.
In the next installment, I’ll look at more milestones I witnessed and reported on in the love affair between Arabs and social media. For now, I’ll end with this quote from a blog post I wrote in 2008. You can read the full post below.
“It is increasingly obvious that Arabs are turning to the social networking and video sharing websites to vent, call attention and rally support for their causes.”
Octavia Nasr -- April 7, 2008