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Nehad Ismail Headshot

Arab Revolution, Social Media Hype and Al Jazeera

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The impact of the social media on the Arab Spring has been wildly exaggerated.
A week or so ago we witnessed the world's first YouTube lynching of a universally hated dictator.

A global audience has watched the brutal killing of Muammar Gaddafi by crazy young rebels. The last minutes of Muammar Gaddafi's life were captured by mobile phones; the footage was fed to YouTube and found its way to TV Screens around the globe.

The footage was shown over and over again. It was analysed, dissected, replayed continuously for at least 48 hours. This is the digital social media in action feeding the mainstream media and making the news. I would like to clarify that I have never been a fan of the unstable dictator of Libya but I was shocked at the way he was dealt with by the unruly armed rebels.

Some weeks ago I argued in an article in the Huffington Post that Al Jazeera Arabic had been instrumental in bringing down the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. (Al Jazeera's Role in Toppling the Dictators One by One) September 4th 2011.

Many media watchers believe that the Digital Social Media have played a facilitating role in the revolutions. It did not create the new democratic change but it enhanced people's ability to influence events and help bring about change.

Fragmented groups of citizens with no central co-ordinating body used the Social Media to define aims, identify a common objective and to get organized. It can be said that the new technology savvy users were the main players in the democratisation movement.

Some even suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize should have been given to social media activists in Egypt such as Wael Ghonim, or even given to Twitter or Facebook which were the main tools for activists to mobilise the opposition to the dictatorial Arab regimes. As it happened Tawakul Karman of Yemen shared the prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee both from Liberia. They were officially recognized for their fight for women's safety and rights to equal participation in the peace-building process. Karman has been a democracy campaigner in Yemen.

A Tunisian Miss Ben Mhenni a 27 year old girl who documented accounts of police brutality was touted as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. Even she was quoted as saying that the the role of social media in the Arab Spring has been exaggerated. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria the media has been under tight state control and the opposition was not tolerated and internet access was blocked. In Syria the situation is now even worse than ever. The Syrian regime is arresting, torturing and killing those posting on Face book or Twitter.

We have seen how young people carrying smart phones in Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi or the Syrian city of Homs and taking pictures of demonstrators being abused, beaten and killed. Such images found their way to mainstream media and on to the internet.

Communicating between young people during the revolutions is very important. Not only the social media is instantaneous, it is not subject to the constraints of publication deadlines and news editors.

Social media proved crucial in publicizing the case of Mohammed Bouazizi the vegetable sellers who set himself on fire on December 17th 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid. The Bouazizi case captured world attention because of the social media. A similar case happened in the Tunisian town of Monastir three months earlier but no one knew about it as no one was there to record the incident and transmits the image on to the internet.

I would argue that the Social media has definitely played a part in the Arab Spring Revolutions but its impact has often been exaggerated. But the role played by Al Jazeera Arabic has been more effective and devastating to the dictatorial regimes.

In the case of Libya and Egypt al-Jazeera mobilised public opinion as it is now doing with the coverage of Syria and Yemen. Every time a Syrian spokesperson appears on TV or speaks to the Press, he or she begins by attacking Al Jazzera, not Twitter or Facebook.

By integrating the social media output with the main news Aljazeera has secured the attention of millions of young viewers.

Al Jazeera has been beaming visceral videos of atrocities in Syria and Yemen. Al Jazeera made full use of the social media and accepted feeds from individual protesters who took footage on their mobile phones, Twitter feeds and Face book postings. It has mobilized the crowds and encouraged them to rise up against the tyrants ruling over them.

Waddah Khanfar, the former Director General of Al Jazeera News Channel who resigned recently defended the Station's coverage during recent interviews. Khanfar explained that the Station strives to be fair and accurate and at the same time to ensure that the voice of the people is heard. Credibility is important to Al Jazeera Khanfar said. He rejected the accusation that Al Jazeera fuelled the protests. It merely allowed the voices of the people to be heard by integrating the Social Media with the main stream news gathering methods, he explained.

Its coverage has been a catalyst in the toppling of the Tunisian President Zein al-Abedin Ben Ali, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Al Jazeera's next target is the Syrian tyrant Bashar Al Assad. The Channel provided extensive coverage of the peaceful protests in Syria and the brutal military crackdown against the civilians by the regime security forces. The most graphic images supplied by Social networking sites have been shown on Al Jazeera and other TV networks. Writing in the Guardian on February 25th Peter Beaumont referred to what he called the other critical factor at work which helped the social media maintains a high profile in the Arab Spring revolutions. "The Strong reliance that mainstream media such as the Doha-based television network Al Jazeera has had to place on material smuggled out via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter."

The conclusion is whilst we cannot underestimate the role of the Internet and the Social Media on the Arab Spring; we must not exaggerate this role. When the Egyptian Authorities blocked Internet access at the height of the protests, this stupid step backfired and people rushed out to the streets to see what was going on thus swelling the crowds which in turn emboldened the protesters and pushed their cause to the forefront.