Sunday, March 6, 2011

Social Media Were Made For Arabs

Part 3

2009 - The Year of the social media lessons

The end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 ushered in a new wave of violence in the Middle East in the form of an Israeli incursion into Gaza with the aim of quelling the Hamas attacks against Israel. Western media reported it from a distance because Israel did not issue permits for western journalists to enter Gaza and give their first hand accounts of what was going on, citing concern over their safety. To this day, there are unfinished inquiries and many controversies surrounding the Israeli attack which was protested around the world. Read the UNHRC Goldstone Report details below.

In 2009 I started experimenting with a two-way communication with social media users. Prior to that, I was only an observer and didn't engage as I was learning the landscape and understanding how social forums and networks can be used in a newsroom setting. While Arabs showed appreciation and deep desire to communicate through the social networks, their knowledge of the power of social media was still in its infancy. Arab networks like AlJazeera covered Gaza extensively and emotionally but they hadn't learned to utilize the available social media yet. Many experiments were going on at the time but they remained at that until December 2010.

Gaza had an enormous impact on people in the Arab world. The images they watched on Arab networks, the death, suffering, and destruction were unbearable to many especially in comparison to what was described as “sanitized” images on western media. Activists' anger was obvious, the urge to do something was natural but they were not aware of the social media power within their reach yet. No one knew it back then either. Otherwise, knowing what we know today, the outcome of Israel's war on Gaza, the western media commitment to report it fairly, the world reaction to it, Israel's handling of the situation and the entire outcome would've been very different.

Beyond Gaza, three main events played out in 2009 and were highlighted by social media. They served as the best live lessons to anyone who was paying attention but especially to the voiceless people of the Middle East including many Iranians. We were learning as we went along.

1. President Obama's trip to the region and his speech at the Univeristy of Cairo which was live blogged by Egypt's youth and intelligentsia. Thanks to the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, Egypt showed to the world its other side. Not the one always portrayed by state-run media propaganda but the independent, intelligent minds that analyzed the speech, reacted to it and answered it all in real time, while the world was watching. Whether they know it or not, the young Egyptian revolutionaries owe it to President Obama for affording them the opportunity to become their own megaphone, their own reporter, their own broadcasting network by just showing up at their doorstep and speaking to them. I hope that some scholars are already studying the role his visit and his speech played in empowering the Egyptian masses that were yearning for freedom and change. Following this event, Egypt's online community got a boost that could be felt in chats, blogs and, for me, particularly on Twitter. They got the worldwide exposure they desperately needed. It was after this visit that many of us were introduced to and started following brave bloggers like Wael Abbas responding to his detention/harassment by security forces at Egypt's airport by tweeting about it. His tweets would spread like wild fire and his followers wouldn't rest until they knew he was released and safe at home albeit without his laptop! Read below a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) analysis of that period.

2. Lebanon's parliamentary elections. The scene was set for a Hezbollah win of the seats majority. Media were reporting it as a fact, most analysis pointed in that direction. Locally, there was fear of rigged elections to guarantee that prediction. My online barometer, especially through my Twitter observation and engagement with various sections of the Lebanese political sphere showed busy activity and organization by Hezbollah's opponents, while the Hezbollah side seemed pretty sure of winning. There was high level organization by a neutral group that cared only about making sure the elections are honest and irregularities are recorded. It was this activity that made me hang on to a very unpopular belief that there is a chance the March 14 side will win that election. Either way, my analysis was not adventurous; judging by the online activity and all the known facts on the ground, those elections were too close to guess one way or another was my conclusion. I was very pleased when my social media measurement was pretty accurate. The March 14 bloc in 2009, to the surprise of most, ended up with the majority of seats in parliament and they formed the government. The Lebanese online community was energized and it became more serious in its use of social media after that event.

3. Then came the historic Iran elections and their aftermath. Arabs watched in awe what happened in Iran and it seemed to me as an observer that Egypt's opposition groups were getting ready to do the same. I watched as they got active around their events, planned demonstrations and then executed them.. The search afterwards to make sure everyone is accounted for.. It all happened through social media. I also discussed with a couple of bloggers how some of their stories can get more international coverage, better coverage. What was missing I felt was the spark that will light their fire and the common thread to bring everyone to the street not just pockets of activists here and there representing different opposition groups and various affiliations.

That spark had to come from Tunisia one year later. For Egyptians, the common thread had always been there but they couldn't figure out how to unite around it. The entire region was ready but it needed to find its voice first. The Economist had this special report on July 15, 2010 which truly describes the mood of the sinking monarchies and lifetime presidencies as well as a movement getting ready to take over and waiting for the right opportunity.

The first revolution happened at the most unusual time, with the most unusual circumstances and in the most unusual of settings. I won't go into the details of Tunisia again. For that, you can read my December 2010 and January 2011 posts.

When Egyptians saw what happened to their North African brothers and sisters and what they were able to achieve and at what price, they organized to do the same. Egypt had the experience and the know-how that Tunisia didn't have. But Egypt also had more people, a much wider political spectrum and more difficult international political chanllenges than Tunisia. The first time I saw the #Jan25 I sensed that Egyptians thought “It's now or never.” Judging by the results so far, if that's what they thought, then they were right. Attack before the Mubarak regime gets the chance to get ready. Attack before Tunisia's “Shock and Awe” settles down and leaders figure out what could hit them. Attack they did and now they set the stage for others. The most interesting thing in all these revolutions is that the spokespeople are not the usual recycled figureheads. They are fresh, crisp, smart, articulate, educated and they actually have something new to say and a plan to follow towards freedom. They're also versatile, able to manage their message as well on social media as on traditional media.

Libya has now taken the road of no return to freedom from more than forty years of tyranny. Social media are abuzz with updates and opinions just as the streets are alive with protests, chants and blood. Hearing the anti-Gaddafi crowds and commentators speak, sounds surreal to me. All of this wouldn't have been imaginable only a few months ago. It is the proof, however, that the change is real, it is here to stay. With all the concerns about Libya descending into civil war, my personal view is that they'll pull it off but not without a high price.

We're seeing anti-government demonstrations in Yemen with clear demands for Ali Abdallah Saleh to step down. In Jordan, protesters are louder and more empowered in their demand for reform. No one has mentioned the royal family yet but that doesn't mean much in the big scheme of things. Events have shown that anything and everything can happen to any leader at any moment and no one is immune. My sense is that the Jordanian monarchy is already busy figuring out ways to quiet the voices of dissent.

In Bahrain, the king is trying to answer the demand of the opposition. It's not clear which direction things will take from here. Again, all options are open. There is not a single Arab country that is not nervous right now as to what their people might do to get what they want and what they think they deserve.

It is a wonder to think that all this started with the opportunity to express oneself. It is amazing what being able to be heard does to a person and an entire population. This is why I think social media came to serve, among other things, a need to speak up when no one is allowing you to do so. Not your government, not your media, not the international community.

If it was not clear before, it is now why repressive regimes constantly devise ways to keep people from expressing opinion. When social media enter the life of many and provide each person with their own megaphone.. When any person can reach world leaders, movers and shakers with one simple tweet.. When one person can start a movement whether it's called “We are all Khalid Saeed” or “UniteBH” or “Hunger Strike to Support KSA Detainees” .. an immeasurable power can come from this simple feat. Translated into one's life and communicated to others can only lead to action; and this is exactly how modern Arab leaders are born.

The next installment in this series ‘Social media were made for Arabs' will examine early 2010 events, role of the AlJazeera network and a conclusion of Arabs' love affair with social media.

Additional reading:

CNN blog: Israeli incursion into Gaza Arabs around the world take to the streets in protest

The UN Human Rights Council Goldstone Report on Israel's incursion into Gaza

The Goldstone Report: Palestinian anger at their leaders intensifies

The Nation: Goldstone's Legacy for Israel

CPJ.org Middle East Bloggers: The Street Leads Online Oct 14/2009

Facebook Campaigns mentioned above

Khalid Saeed


Hunger Strike

CNN blog: Women, bloggers and gays lead change in the Arab world


Keep the conversation going...

Anonymous Oussama said...

The problem with most of the Arab regimes is they never paid attention to the youth and their needs. Not in the context of party youth organisations, but as a segment of society.
Also they never understood the power of social media, it was always regarded as a frivolous and time wasting form of entertainment. Regarded by most as a media for corrupting young people in repressed societies. In other words they never paid attention to basically two time bombs. We tend to underestimate our younger generations in terms of their political activism, knowledge and ability to act when necessary.
I suppose in November 2010 and onwards they surprised us all. The skilful use of social media, the skilful planing and coordination of activities and mostly the courage, resilience and tenacity that they have shown has put a lot of people of my generation to shame. They achieved regime change in a peaceful manner, something super powers never did. The sad thing is as revolution moved from one country to the other the regimes except for Jordan and maybe Oman did not learn the lesson, you have to listen to and accomodate their demands. Keep up the pressure to force things forward but I hope that they also should be willing to listen.

March 6, 2011 at 10:53 PM  
Blogger jbirdme said...

Why no comments about Syria? I hope it is not because it hits too close to home.

April 27, 2011 at 9:43 PM  

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