Brian Whitaker, Mai Noman, Fanar Haddad and Nesrine Malik speak at joint Caabu and MBI Al Jaber Foundation event on social media in the Arab world

Posted by Caabu on 08 Jul 2014

On 2nd July, Caabu and the MBI Al Jaber Foundation hosted a panel discussion on the role of social media as a catalyst for social and political change in the Arab world: Social media in the Arab world: Whose friend, whose foe? The panellists included former Middle East Editor of the Guardian Brian Whitaker; Mai Noman, Interactivity Producer for BBC Arabic, Fanar Haddad, Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore and journalist and comment writer, Nesrine Malik. The event was chaired by Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams.

Brian Whitaker began by describing the evolution of communication technology from the 1990s onwards in the Arab World and the effect that this has had upon states’ ability to control information within, and outside, their own borders. He described how the border control of information began to break down in the early 1990s with the arrival of satellite T.V, followed by the internet which “gave Arabs global access to information, at least potentially, and it also opened up the possibility that everyone could have a public voice.” Arab governments, he explained, have not been at all happy about these developments and have tried to resist to varying degrees. 

He went on to describe some of the social implications of this communications evolution with particular reference to the transformation in social interactions between Arab youths. He concluded that “more than any other time in the past Arabs are now able to see beyond their borders and this has opened their eyes to a host of new possibilities” and that overall “the trend is overwhelmingly positive.”

Mai Noman, Interactivity Producer at BBC Arabic, then discussed how the evolution of social media in the Arab world has impacted how news agencies report their stories. Mai began by acknowledging the “arabisation” of social media which now reflects the Arab identity and language of its 82 million users in the Middle East. She also identified the transformation of social platforms from “a place in which we socialise with friends and family to being a place where we get news, information and launch campaigns.”

This shift in how people use social media, she explained, has meant that news organisations have also had to adapt: BBC Arabic now creates content specifically tailored for social consumption through ‘BBC Trending’, an online and radio programme which discusses what is trending on social media. Spotting trends on social media, she explained, can be problematic due to language difficulties, predominant use of social elites, trend veryfing, trend hijacking and access to internet as “some Arab countries dominate on social media because they have better internet access”.

Fanar Haddad focused on the role that social media has played in the sectarianisation of the region and particularly within Iraq. He noted that “social media played a big role largely due to the simple fact that the emergence of social media almost perfectly coincided with the emergence of the new Iraq.” Actors were therefore able to take advantage of these new channels of communication to facilitate the spread of sectarianisation across borders. He added that social media alone, does not do anything unless a dynamic already exists. He explained that social media has also accelerated the devolution of sectarianisation down to the grass roots level and that we can no longer blame Saudi Arabia and Iran for the spread of sectarian narrative. He also mentioned that jihadists were the first to grasp the potential of social media in the region, and timing ensured that jihadists were amongst the first social media pioneers.

He later discussed the susceptibly of social media to the ‘echo chamber effect’ whereby some people become perceptive only to information which validates their perceptions therefore leading to miscommunication of information. Ultimately Fanar concluded that “social media is neither inherently good nor bad. It depends on how it is being used and who is using it and the context in which it is being used.”

Nesrine Malik spoke about the financial implications of social media on capital flows within the MENA region.  She explained that “in the Arab world the internet providers are still mainly the state”. This gives the state a large amount of power as it has a monopoly on the supervision of I.P addresses, and prices for example. However, citizens are now using social media and 3G to “leap-frog” the limitations of the state which has massive social and political implications. Citizens are now able to organise events and meetings themselves via social media thereby giving economic power to the individual.  She compared the proliferation of liberal and conservative channels that the arrival of the satellite TV brought to the region in the nineties, with what it is happening now with social media. She described social media as more of a reflection of society than a medium to innovate change. Although social media can be used by predominantly young populations to spread change, it can also amplifiy conservative and regressive elements in societies, she said. For example in Saudi Arabia, some of the most influential users of social media are religious clerics.

The event ended with some questions from the audience on the role of news organisations in spotting and highlighting trends online and the responsibility of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook etc. to filter and delete graphic content on their websites.  Brian Whitaker responded that YouTube has to be very careful about what content they delete because in Syria videos posted online are important as they are of historical value. Syria, he said, has been history's most filmed and documented conflict. He said that YouTube “has to maintain a “balance between a free internet and blocking violent and hateful images and/or messages.” 

Finally, when asked about the importance of verification from a journalistic perspective, Nesrine Malik warned against snobbery about user generated media used by news outlets and that “news agencies get it just as wrong”.