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No Unplugging This Revolution

Portia Crowe

MONTREAL, Canada, Sep 12 2011 (IPS) - Nabeel Rajab believes in the power of social media, and he wants his government to know it. Speaking at the CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal, the Bahraini activist embraced such communication and specifically requested that all live- Tweeters “hashtag” his name, or include it in their posts.

“That way my government will see I am here speaking out,” he told audience members at Saturday’s plenary session.

Rajab is the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, and an outspoken critic of that country’s regime. He is also critical of mainstream media – both local and international – and its coverage of Bahraini citizen uprisings.

“Social media is leading the revolution in the Arab Spring – not any local media or regional or international media,” he told IPS. Most media sources, including the well-known Arabic news source Al- Jazeera, are “ignoring and silencing Bahrain”, he said.

According to Perihan Abou-Zeid of Egypt’s Qabila TV, the role of social media in developing countries has most commonly been to unite people around a particular cause.

“A cause is more of a historical thing, and you can rally people around [it] and get them attracted, through a story,” said Abou-Zeid, who spoke Monday with civil society representatives about the role of social media in elections.


She said such storytelling, via social media, tends to attract people in a more emotional way than traditional forms of political communication do.

“That’s basically how social media played a role in the revolution,” she told IPS, noting for example the images of Khaled Mohamed Saeed, allegedly beaten to death by Egyptian security forces, which circulated on Facebook and helped spark the country’s Jan. 25 revolution.

Once such emotional barriers were breached, said Abou-Zeid, the next step was to mobilise action. Social media proved useful here, too.

“They asked the right question: what do you want to do? Do you want to go down to the streets?” Abou-Zeid explained.

In Egypt, this was enough to initiate protests in Tahrir Square. The Internet was then blocked, but since its return after Mubarak’s ousting, social media has taken on an entirely new purpose in the country’s democratisation.

“Its role after the rallies was that it was the ‘right’ source of information,” Abou-Zeid told IPS.

“You had people basically reflecting the reality, telling the truth,” she said.

Egypt has experienced an explosion of citizen journalism. According to Abou-Zeid, in the 10 days after Internet access resumed, the country gained one million new Facebook users and 65 percent more Twitter users, and organisations like Abou-Zeid’s Qabila TV have emerged to create a new “platform of political awareness”.

Through its YouTube channel, Qabila aims to make politics more accessible by helping regular citizens understand political terms used by elites. Qabila staff also work on the ground, training citizen journalists to conduct surveys, analyse their communities’ priorities, and ask tough questions of electoral candidates.

“We’re basically working in a decentralised fashion in the local communities,” Abou-Zeid explained.

The road ahead

Despite the progress made in the last seven months, social media are only beginning to have a real impact on Egyptian political life. Of the country’s 85 million residents, only 23 million are Internet users, Abou-Zeid said, and of these, only five million use Facebook and fewer than 50,000 use Twitter.

“We’re not expecting social media to play a great role in promoting a candidate or political party,” she explained. But she described the educated community who use social media as “trendsetters when it comes to political activism”.

At Monday’s workshop, some civil society actors expressed concern at the prospect of social media being used in harmful ways. One member noted the possibilities for slander, misinformation, and the breaking of electoral campaign rules.

Abou-Zeid, however, noted that in many cases, citizens have already proved capable of recognising such unreliable sources. She gave the example of Youm7.com, an Egyptian newspaper known for tweeting false information, which is no longer considered a trusted source by the Egyptian people.

The full impacts of social media in post-Mubarak Egypt are not clear, but its role in sparking that country’s revolution has inspired those like Nabeel Rajab in Bahrain, where human rights abuses are ripe and citizens continue to oppose the regime.

“Bahrain is very much educated in social media, and now every level of age group and every level of society are very aware,” he told IPS. “Thank God it’s not yet been blocked.”

He estimated that his own Twitter and Facebook followers alone make up 18 percent of the country’s population.

“I want my government to hear that,” he said.

 
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