The Declining Use of Social Media as a Political Tool in the Middle East

Wednesday، March 08، 2017
The Declining Use of Social Media as a Political Tool in the Middle East

In recent years, social media networks have played a significant role in shaping public opinion to such an extent that has influenced decision makers. Social media has also played a pivotal role in sparking revolts and mass protests in the Arab world and increasing their momentum on the streets. Such impact has drawn widespread attention in an attempt to measure the evolution of these networks, which were originally created as a means of social communication, but quickly transformed into an important political space.

Social networks are no longer simply a platform for personal expression. Nor are they a tool for the media, websites and think tanks to use as avenues for self-promotion by taking advantage of the high degree of connectivity among social media users. Rather, these networks have become one of the most important indicators of crowd mobilization, and predictors of possible mass uprisings. These networks’ role was evident in the uprisings in the Arab world as well as other countries, including Turkey, Iran and Morocco.

The political role of social media in the Middle East over the last six years has started to decline, as social media returns to carrying out mainly social functions. The impact of social media in the Arab street is now significantly weaker due to several factors, the most significant of which is the Arab public’s desire for stability, whether political, economic or security-related after years of continued unrest. The more connective features of social media are now gaining prominence, though even these often have a critical political element to them, as numerous campaigns critical of government organizations across the region have demonstrated, as well as those that draw attention to specific causes. 

New Roles

Within the last few years, social media has been one of the most important tools of political change in several Middle Eastern states. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the political opinions of its users are not formulated in isolation from reality, but rather that sentiments on social media are often reflective of sentiments on the street and trends within public opinion. The period of Arab revolts and protests is one of the most significant examples of social realities being reflected on social media, given how there was a broad consensus over certain political issues across varying segments of the rebelling societies.  

It could be said that social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are the most prominent networks that played a direct role in the uprisings, which began in 2011, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. These websites are the most utilized by the opposition in many Middle Eastern countries, as demonstrated by Turkey, Iran, Morocco and Sudan. This has prompted the authorities to occasionally attempt to restrict these networks, which have become powerful platforms for political expression, crowd mobilization and communication with the outside world. 

Increased use of social media networks in the Middle East has coincided with the decline of its political role in mobilizing the public, even though much of the daily content on social media is highly politicized in terms of the opinions and ideas expressed. The “revolutionary” political momentum, mainly based on mobilization of the public for protesting, has now weakened to the point of nonexistence. There have been numerous failures in attempts to spark political mobilization, especially in countries which have witnessed revolutions such as Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood have failed to successfully use the Internet as a means of bringing the populace out onto the streets. 

The seventh edition of the Arab Social Media Report, published in February 2017 by the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government, concluded that there is an evident increase in the use of social media in Arab countries. The number of Arab Facebook users reached 156 million by 2017, up from 115 million in 2016. Twitter’s Arab users numbered 11.1 million by the start of 2017, compared to 5.8 million users three years ago. 

The report partially relied on a survey study carried out across 22 Arab states via the Internet, and found that social media sites are carrying out new functions in the region. Some of them include helping the formation of government and developmental policies, as well as forming the trajectories of the private sector, which is conducted through observing the data and flow of opinions on these sites. This is especially pertinent given how many companies and government entities are keen to have official pages on social media sites, in order to observe public opinion and communicate with the public.

Though political content is not absent from social media, the platform remains the most common tool for political expression, there is nevertheless an important change occurring. This change pertains to politics aimed at mobilizing crowds, which has now fallen out of favor and instead has shifted to constructive criticism. In many cases, this criticism aims to pressure the relevant government institutions to correct their faulty policies which are provoking public criticism. These institutions may also be pressured to solve a particular problem, or pressure some private companies or satellite channels, or other entities that provide services to citizens.

In this context, there have been several prominent successful popular campaigns on social media. For example, many campaigns repeatedly carried out by Egyptian activists opposing violence against children in orphanages successfully persuaded the relevant authorities to involve themselves and punish the perpetrators of such violence. Another example is a campaign launched by activists in October 2015 to boycott the Egyptian television show Sabaya al Khair on al-Nahar TV. The boycott was organized due to accusations leveled at the show’s presenter for defaming a girl and publishing personal photographs of her without her consent. The companies sponsoring the show withdrew their sponsorship, and the show was temporarily taken off the air, although it was eventually brought back by al-Nahar without any sponsors.   

Tunisia has witnessed successful Internet campaigns as well. One such campaign, titled “Where is the Pavement?” was launched in September 2015. The campaign began in response to the rising trend of assaults on public roads by shops and wandering street sellers. The Tunisian government attempted to curb this phenomenon, and by the start of 2016 closed down about 333 unlicensed stalls.  

In Morocco, a campaign was launched named “Tahn Mo”, in reference to the crushing death of a fish salesman inside of a garbage truck. Moroccan King Mohammed VI personally intervened and ordered a quick investigation of the incident in order to punish those responsible.

The Reasons for Decline

There are numerous reasons why the political role of social media has declined in recent years; the most of important can be listed as follows:

1- Differing priorities amongst Arabs: Large segments of the population are convinced that any threats to stability should be avoided. There is a concern for building the state and confronting crises, and ignoring calls for mobilization on the streets. These attitudes are evident in the opinion polls carried out in a number of Arab countries.

2- Strict surveillance of social media websites: Iran, for example, has imposed strict controls on the use of social media since 2009, after the important role it played in organizing the “Where’s My Vote” protests in what was dubbed the “Green Revolution”. These protests suffered a severe crackdown, and many social media activists were arrested alongside the movement’s leaders. These crackdowns continue to the president day, should any activist use social media for a political purpose. 

Turkish authorities have also increased surveillance of social media after the failed coup in July 2016, which was preceded by an attempt to partially block social media websites. The actions of the Turkish government have led many activists to refrain from using social media for political agendas, whether out of a belief that social media is no longer a practical political tool because of its curtailment, or to avoid retaliation from the authorities.

3- Attempts to discredit social media and its activists: There have been calls not to follow agendas seeking to destabilize nations, and these campaigns have led to many criticisms directed at social media and social media activists. Some have sought to brand such activists as traitors, which has created a negative image of social media among many in the public. Much doubt has been cast on political criticism and viewpoints expressed on social media.  

It is thus natural that there are social media pages and accounts dedicated to responding to political criticisms. Whenever a new hashtag emerges to promote a certain cause, there is almost an inevitable counter hashtag in opposition to it. Such trends have led to confusion and division among social media users, which has often led to them adopting a neutral or indifferent stance towards political matters.

In conclusion, the use of social media as a tool for political mobilization has transformed, and has become more oriented to social and service roles, in which they have largely succeeded. This indicates that social media will remain a force in shaping public opinion, especially in light of the increasing number of users in the region. 

Keywords: MENAsocial media