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Jun 12th, 2010


Social Media Lessons from Middle Eastern Activists

Lawyers, religious and political leaders — like Gandhi combining all of these roles, for example — used to be the social glue that made activism effective. While they certainly still are to an extent, social media is rapidly proving to be not only a new glue, but a flexible adhesive that can unite, organize and mobilize activists on scales, in ways and with speeds previously unimaginable. Here are few instances in which social media is, has and can be used for activism in the Middle East, and the lessons activists worldwide can learn from them and apply now. An online discussion arena intended for raising and debating ideas central to the Arab-Israeli peace process, not only among country leaderships, but person-to-person as well. According to its website, "the project, which represents the first joint Syrian-Israeli online discussion of its kind, was formed through the efforts of private individuals — bloggers, academics, political analysts, journalists, and professionals — who embarked on producing an extensive list of objections to peace commonly encountered in both Syrian and Israeli societies." Warning: not for those who do not find debate an invaluable mode of activism.

The social media activism lesson: Better to hash problems out with words than with violence, and social media provides powerful platforms to interact peacefully across geographical, political and religious lines.

Egyptian Social Media Electioneering: Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former U.S. nuclear watchdog boss Mohamed ElBaradei was backed by some 200,000 Egyptians within a matter of days on Facebook (using notes from the Obama campaign, no doubt). Frustration is building against incumbent Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981. Eman AbdelRahman, a 25-year-old ElBaradei's supporter, says "We need collaboration from everyone in Egypt, including those who are online." But another supporter has noted that "It's unrealistic to think that online activism can turn things around without the existence of an opposition that can challenge the state," meaning non-virtual, in-person presences.

The social media activism lesson: Social media can enhance the organization and execution of activist projects, but cannot yet replace traditional, in-person modes of social change, from voting in elections to mass protests.

The Power of One-to-Many: With Israeli rockets pouring down on her city in a disproportionate retaliation to Hamas rocket attacks, blogger Fida Qishta became the overnight voice of the Palestinian people in a time of crisis. "The Israeli army are cannibals. They don't look for civilians, for children or women. Most attacks happen on families, on their houses," she said in a CNN phone interview during the attacks, her voice rising in anger. Her blog, called Sunshine, has since become a key repository for first-hand accounts of Israeli brutality which makes the recent flotilla fiascos look like a walk in the park, but also of how the Palestinian people are coming together to build peace in a time of dire need.

The social media activism lesson: Never underestimate the power of one person's use of social media to reach many (one-to-many), which by most definitions of social media are used by groups (many-to-many). And never forget that while social media activism can be used for organizing and executing an action, it thereby becomes a valuable, or self-betraying, record of it, too.

Twittering in Iran: The use of Twitter by activists in Iran is so far the most celebrated case of social media activism, but also the most misunderstood. As Time Magazine reported, "The U.S. State Department doesn't usually take an interest in the maintenance schedules of dotcom start-ups. But ... officials there reached out to Twitter and asked them to delay a network upgrade that was scheduled." Twitter did, infringing upon Iran's sovereignty through its technology at the request of a foreign  government. "The reason? To protect the interests of Iranians using the service to protest the presidential election. So what exactly makes Twitter the medium of the moment?" the article goes on to ask. "It's free, highly mobile, very personal and very quick. It's also built to spread, and fast."

The social media activism lesson: Social media platforms cannot be neutral; they are always subject to the control and interests of corporate leadership and governments.

Not taking this last lesson into consideration when developing the strategy behind activist projects is a misplaced blind faith to which no resolution I am aware of exists, and is not limited to social media but includes other online services such as Google, Skype and hi5, to name just a few.

Antony Adolf is the author of Peace: A World History, and a teacher, public speaker and independent scholar. He is the publisher of One World, Many Peaces: Current Events Creating the Future.