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02/07/2014

Social Media in the Arab World: Whose Friend, Whose Foe?

The MBI Al Jaber Foundation and Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) co-hosted an event on ‘Social media in the Arab world: Whose friend, whose foe?’ at Portcullis House, bringing together the expertise of Brian Whitaker, former ME Editor of the Guardian; Mai Noman, Interactivity Producer from BBC Arabic; Fanar Haddad, Research Fellow at the ME Institute, National University of Singapore, and Nesrine Malik, journalist and comment writer. Stephen Williams MP, the Liberal Democrat representative for Bristol West, chaired the panel.

A variety of issues were raised by the panellists: Brian Whitaker discussed the impact that satellite TV and the internet has had upon the ability of the state to control information within and outside of its own borders. The 82 million internet users of the Arab world are now exposed to a magnitude of information not previously accessible and some Arab states, not always happy about these developments, have tried to resist to varying degrees. He concluded that more than ever before ‘Arabs are now able to see beyond their borders and this has opened their eyes to a host of new possibilities’. He believes the overall trend to be ‘overwhelmingly positive’.

Mai Noman identified the transformation of social platforms, shifting from places where ‘we socialise with friends and family’ to those where ‘we get news, information and launch campaigns’. This shift in the use of social media has meant that news organisations have had to adapt: BBC Arabic now specifically tailors its content for social consumption through ‘BBC Trending’, which discusses what is trending on social media.

The emergence of social media coinciding with the 2003 invasion of Iraq was discussed by Fanar Haddad. These virtually synchronous events raised the profile of sectarianism in the region, making it a mainstream event. The new channels of communication facilitated its spread across borders, accelerating its devolution to the grass roots level. Fannar believes 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 described the financial implications of social media on capital flows within the MENA region and how, in the Arab world, internet provision still mainly comes via the state, giving it great power and a monopoly, for example, on the supervision of IP addresses and prices. Citizens are, however, now using social media and 3G to surmount the limitations of the state, and this has huge social and political implications. Nesrine sees social media as more of a reflection of society than a medium for the innovation of change, as it has the ability to amplify conservative and regressive elements.

There were some interesting questions from the floor followed by a lively debate between panellists and the audience. Stephen Williams MP closed the briefing by thanking everyone for attending, with particular thanks given to the MBI Al Jaber Foundation and CAABU for supporting the event.


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