Social Media & Transformation in the Middle East and North Africa: A Workshop
The social and political upheaval gripping the Middle East and North Africa has paralleled changes in how people communicate and interact. Across the region, governments are struggling to meet the needs of their people and in several cases, even their hold on power. Coinciding with an explosion in the use of social media, observers have asked many questions and made categorical statements about its impacts, both positive and negative. In the early stages, the Arab uprisings were sometimes referred to as Facebook or Twitter revolutions. To some, these claims sounded overblown, whereas others asserted that social media played a defining role in the course of events. But what role has new technology played?
As events in the Middle East continue to play out, the extent and nature of social media’s impact remains an open question. How are various forms of technology affecting the flow of political and social change? From young activists in Tahrir Square using Facebook to organize, to brutal Islamic State jihadists seeking new recruits and bragging about their exploits via gruesome images posted to Twitter, the rapid adoption of these new technologies is changing the way people communicate and organize. A range of actors, including governments, activists, militants, youth, media, scholars, and regular citizens are actively using social media. In some cases, the state itself has either used or restricted social media for propaganda and control. Understanding how various parties are using social media and how it can be employed effectively to promote peace, stability, and inclusiveness, are profound concerns.
Do actors in the region understand these changes? How are they altering their behavior in response? How are NGOs, social movements, universities, activists, media outlets, and others adapting? Are they leading or following?
Across the region, the “Arab Spring” that began in 2010-2011 has played out differently from country to country. Tunisia, with its new constitution, has made modest (if fragile) progress in establishing a functioning democratic system. Egypt has reverted to military, authoritarian rule after a chaotic year with a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government. Was the crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, human rights campaigners, and other liberals anticipated by the Egyptian people who promoted a return to a military regime?
Syria remains mired in a deadly civil war, with the two strongest remaining players being the Assad government and the Islamic State—headed by hardline militants who claim to have established an Islamic caliphate. Libya is violent and fragmented. In Bahrain, government suppression has quelled reformists. Other countries, such as Morocco and Oman, have moved proactively to implement reforms geared toward greater citizen participation in the governing process. In Turkey, following a wave of protests, that country went so far as to block Twitter. Saudi Arabia, which remained largely stable, remains a wildcard as it moves to fight terrorism at home and abroad while keeping many restrictions in place on its population. And in Iran, activists are engaged in a cat-and-mouse effort to organize in the face of severe government control and restrictions on Internet freedom.
By understanding how a range of players are using social media, the impacts its use has on events, and the implications of these findings, interested parties will be better prepared to respond proactively and effectively. To stem the tide of extremism and violence, actors ranging from policymakers to activists, universities to non-profits, and others can apply the lessons learned and marshal social media in service of transparency, stability, accountability, and peace.
Our goal is to bring together scholars and experts based inside and outside of the MENA region to address in depth the following questions:
- How has social media affected the relationship between the state and its citizens? What about non-state actors?
- How has social media impacted the strategies and tactics of governments, opposition groups, activists, students, non-government organizations, and others? (i.e., in recruiting, fundraising, propaganda, abuse reporting, etc.)
- How might new technology be used to map human rights violations or war crimes?
- Can technology be used to harness the “wisdom of the crowd” to better predict events such as escalating conflict?
- How has the internet been used to bridge social and political divides (e.g. YALLA and the Arab-Israeli conflict)?
- How does conflict change when the battlefield extends to social media, for example, between Hamas and Israel?
- Is the impact of social media stabilizing or destabilizing, and under what conditions? How can social media be used to reduce ethnic, religious, or other tensions, and promote stability, peace, and transparency? What are examples?
- How is social media being used for recruitment by extremist organizations, and can or should it be regulated?