Saturday, April 16, 2011

Social Media and the Middle East

When discussing the recent uprisings throughout the Middle East, Western publics are obsessively focusing on the so-called power of social media, as if such technology was above our social relationships and not a result of them. Many have dubbed the politically active youth in Egypt and Tunisia as "the facebook generation" and even claimed that the social movement after the election in Iran was somehow a "twitter revolution," completely neglecting the reality that there were also counter demonstrations going on throughout Iran to support the government. Of course facebook, twitter and other social media are indeed helping anti-government protesters throughout the Middle East to organize themselves in the streets and air their grievances to the outside world. And these social media become all the more important when states restrict communications and reporters are banned from covering the demonstrations, as is happening in Syria today.

During the upheaval in Iran I even signed up for a twitter account to help me follow events as they unfolded. But I soon discovered that this was not useful. Almost nothing being tweeted was reliable. Old footage of selected acts of violence was being reposted to exaggerate the repression and erroneous information proliferated. Luckily I had access to sources who helped me to realize what was going on. We may never know if the unreliable tweets were a result of sabotage by the Iranian Cyber Army, activist efforts to help mobilize support for the protesters, or kids around the world just messing around. In my opinion it was likely the result of the latter two, as the vast majority of tweets were coming from the West. And while theories of the value of crowd sourcing have gained traction since the launch of wikipedia, the crowd first needs to be educated about the topic at hand. And when it comes to the Middle East, the problem is that we in the West are very ignorant.

There are several other issues that lead me to adopt a skeptical perspective towards social media. My main concern is related to the below article published in the Guardian newspaper yesterday. A female activist in Syria says that “today most young Syrians have mobile phones with high quality cameras so each one has become like a journalist.” I am sorry but a high quality camera does not mean that you offer quality documentation of events, only that the technical quality of the pictures you take is of higher resolution and definition. The very concept of citizen journalists is something of a contradiction, especially during an age where media are expected to be “objective”. Protesters are not journalists. They have not been trained, they are not experienced and they are positioned in a particular location that closes doors to other perspectives. They are political activists in the streets and not observers watching what is happening in any of the surrounding environments. While I always critique the Western media’s claims to neutrality and balance, I know a number of fine journalists and they are a hell of a lot closer to objectivity than a young person passionately engaged in a political activity. Of course I identify with the passion of these young activists and usually support their politics so I do think that their voices are incredibly important. But their accounts must be relayed in context of many other perspectives. We still need to try and find out what the rest of the population thinks about these governments and protests and not just stop at the activist accounts.

Questions of politics and power are also something that are important to consider. During Israel's 2009 siege on Gaza, which in many ways can be described as a slaughter since the Israelis killed 1400 Palestinians more than half of whom were civilians, I was a member of a facebook group protesting this military aggression and promoting a peaceful solution. The organizers of this group selected a day for democratic action and asked all members to please call our local congressperson to say that we think the siege must end. Almost immediately facebook disabled their accounts, apparently citing offensive behavior. At around the same time there was a facebook group that called for bombing Iran. I had previously sent a complaint to facebook saying that this group was promoting violence. However the anti-Iran group was never shut down and in fact today many such groups exist on facebook. Politics and power can be abused online just as easily as offline.

Which leads me to the supposed democratic nature of the Internet. The Western theory is that all people have equal access. Only they do not. This is mostly a class issue, although over time the technology is indeed becoming more affordable. However right now electricity is only available a few hours a day in many parts of the Middle East and learning how to use modern technology takes time and resources that many cannot afford. People work multiple jobs and look after extended families. Age is also a huge concern. How many grandparents in Syria let alone in the United States regularly tweet?

Furthermore, the name social networking betrays its democratic potential. A network is a group that is not hierarchical but nevertheless ultimately confined. Those who are unconnected to the Internet or members of other groups that may hold different values are excluded. So while Westerners have plenty of access to anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Syria, they are not connected into the networks that allow them access to the same kinds of coverage of pro-government rallies. When state media relays coverage of these pro-government demonstrations it is immediately dismissed as propaganda. So in the end we have almost no access to those voices that support the governments in either Iran or Syria. Of course the opposite is also true as any Western coverage of anti-government protests is often viewed as interference or propaganda by the governments in Tehran and Damascus. Which leads me to wonder if this kind of system is promoting dialogue or furthering polarization?

Citizen journalists defy threats of violence to replace harassed local reporters and banned foreign media with web technology

By Hugh Macleod and a correspondent in Damascus
Friday 15 April 2011

He's got sim cards and pseudonyms, cigarettes and light fingers that dance across the touchpad in a mad ballet of digital information sharing. "Now I'm receiving reports of four people killed in Deraa. They opened fire there now," says Rami Nakhle.

Staring down at his laptop, Nakhle reconnects, for the eighth time that afternoon, a Skype call to a protester in Banias, a port on Syria's western Mediterranean coast. "Now I will tell demonstrators in Banias there are four killed in Deraa," he says, sucking back on a cigarette.

On the laptop screen is the pixelated image of a man holding an olive branch in one hand and a mobile phone in the other, which he is using as a video camera to stream, via the social media programme Qik, live images of tens of thousands of protesters in Banias directly into Nakhle's laptop, ready for uploading to YouTube.

Over a faltering digital connection, Nakhle tells his colleague in Banias about the deaths in Deraa. The message is relayed to a protester with a megaphone, who broadcasts it to the masses. Ten minutes later the reaction comes in: "OK, now we can hear chanting in Banias, 'With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice to you Deraa.' And they are in Banias, a different side of the country!"

Among unprecedented and growing protests against the 41-year dictatorship of the Assad family over Syria, social media mavens such as Nakhle are emerging as the thread that binds disparate protests together. Foreign media have been all but barred from reporting from Syria and dozens of local and Arab journalists have been arrested or expelled. In their place, Syria's cyber activists are using social media and technology to ensure reporting gets out, linking the protesters on the street with the eyes and ears of the world.

It's a risky business. Nakhle, who was known as Malath Omran until his real identity was made public last week by the Syrian secret police, lives in a secret location in Beirut and receives regular threats on his Facebook and Twitter accounts from what he believes are Syrian security agents, which range from the comic – "Have you started using Pampers yet?" – to the chilling.

"My sister was arrested for two months and 24 days just for saying she didn't think the president was very smart during a conversation at Damascus University," says Nakhle.

"So Syrian security posted a message on my wall saying, 'You have until midnight tonight to announce your withdrawal from the Syrian revolution or we will get her.'"

Another activist, a 26-year-old woman based in Damascus who did not want to be named, and who uploads protest footage to YouTube, explained how the Syrians have learned from their Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts.

"We use a proxy server and change it almost every day," she said. "Today most young Syrians have mobile phones with high quality cameras so each one has become like a journalist. I upload videos and statements from internet cafes. I leave after 10 minutes and don't come back to the same one for a long time."

Reporters Without Borders lists Syria as one of 10 countries that are active "internet enemies". Hundreds of websites remain blocked, most of them run by political movements perceived to be opposed to the regime in Damascus.

Until last month, Syria held one of the eldest and the youngest political prisoners in the world, 82-year-old Haithem Maleh, a veteran human rights campaigner who was released, and 19-year-old student blogger Tal al-Mallouhi, who remains behind bars.

"Many of my friends were arrested in the last few days, especially the activists behind the computers," says Razan Zeitouna, a lawyer and human rights researcher who has played a key role inside Syria connecting activists with the media outside. She has been interrogated many times by the secret police.

"Each time they tell me, 'This is the last time you get out. Next time you'll never see the sun again.'" But, like other activists,

Zeitouna fears for the life of the historic movement she has played a part in. "We lost so many young people in our mission," she says, pausing for a moment on the Skype line. "The thought of us not achieving our goals would mean it had all been for nothing. That's what makes us scared."

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