Adapted from a column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on March 12, 2012
by Larry Magid
I came to the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar to moderate a social media panel at the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) conference on Promoting Online Safety and Cyber Ethics in the Middle East. But it’s hard to talk about anything dealing with the Internet or technology in this part of the world without focusing on the historic events of last year that, among other things, brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and nearby Bahrain, Qatar has no street protests. With a per capital gross domestic product of more than $102,000, citizens of the world’s richest nation are unlikely to call for a revolution. There are poor people in this country, but they are mostly immigrant workers here temporarily to help in the massive building boom as the country gets ready for the 2022 World Cup.
Still, based on the conversations I’ve had here with people from Qatar, Egypt, Syria, Dubai and other Arab countries, there is a sense that the events of 2011 — and the role played by social media — have forever changed the region.
Experience in Cairo
One who shares that feeling is Mona Abdel Fattah Younes, an Egyptian e-learning specialist working in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Last year her daughter, a student at Northwestern University’s journalism school in Illinois, flew back to Cairo to participate in the protests. Like any parent, Younes was worried about her daughter’s safety and yearned for as much information as she could get.
“When they cut the phones it was the most horrible days,” she said in an interview, adding that she is grateful to Google for quickly launching a service that let people tweet by leaving a voice mail on one of three international phone numbers.
Younes and many others I spoke with credit Facebook,Twitter and texting for helping to facilitate the movement, but no one gives technology all the credit.
“It would have happened anyway, but not as quickly,” she said. “When I came back in August from summer vacation, I told my relatives that within a year there will be a revolution because all of the elements were there — poverty, high unemployment, high crime rate and a very high rate of dissatisfaction. There is always a line and after that line is crossed people just won’t take it.”
Still, Younes said, the technology made it a lot easier for protest leaders to mobilize people and get them to the right place at the right time.
Mubarak certainly understood the power of the Internet and mobile phones, which is why he ordered operators to shut down service in Egypt in January 2011. But his tactics backfired.
Blocking access backfired
Fadi Salem, director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government, told the conference that Internet traffic was extremely high before being cut off and almost immediately resumed at historic levels when restored. That pattern, said Salem was not lost on other leaders.
“By the middle of 2011, many governments realized that blocking the Internet would backfire,” he said. “In Egypt it was seen as just one more right taken away, which pushed many people to go to the streets.” Even in Syria, said Salem, the government last year backed away from its earlier tactics of blocking Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other social media networks after assessing public reaction.
Technology can also help make up for lack of media access to information. “In Syria, traditional media has very little access,” Salem said. “So the alterative is the YouTube videos that are documenting the abuses and the demonstrations.”
Mainstream media are relying on social media for sources but that, too, can be problematic. “In some cases, they are over-relying and prone to manipulation by activists because social media sources aren’t necessarily reliable,” Salem said.
Technology is neutral
One reason governments keep information flowing is that the Internet is politically neutral. Salem pointed out that government officials, like their counterparts in the protest movement, can use the Internet to push their point of view.
Just as the Internet can’t cause a revolution, it can’t stop one, either. While government leaders and mainstream politicians can use it to mobilize their own supporters and spread their messages to the public, a good website can’t make up for oppressive practices or social conditions that cause unrest. However, in the hands of governments that are genuinely interested in transparency, technology can play a major role in encouraging civic engagement.
As I get ready to board my plane back to the United States, I take with me a greater appreciation of the perseverance and spirit of the people of this region, as well as a renewed appreciation for the contribution of people from my own community — Silicon Valley– where companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google are making a real difference in the lives of people thousands of miles away.