Media & Mass Communications: The limits of Facebook and Twitter

by Anne Almeling

Article originally published by Al Arabiya News

Since the beginning of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, social media such as Facebook and Twitter have attracted more attention than ever. Not only did anti-government activists manage to mobilize protesters with the help of the Internet. They also disseminated information much quicker than traditional media outlets.

So how did social media affect the traditional media in Arab countries? And how big a role did it play for toppling the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt?

“It was definitely a factor but I think it has been exaggerated,” said Blake Hounshell, Managing Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, in an interview with Al Arabiya. “The people in Egypt were sick and tired of Hosni Mubarak, they were sick and tired of poverty and corruption, and Facebook was a tool for them to express their grievances.”

Mr. Hounshell is convinced that social media helped the protesters to organize but adds: “When the Internet was shut off, people found other ways: they used their old landlines, they talked to people in their neighborhoods.”

Mishaal Al Gergawi, a columnist based in the United Arab Emirates, shares Mr. Hounshell’s view.

“I think social media played an important role but it did not play a founding role. It was a tool that amplified the message,” Mr. Gergawi said during a conference on “The Role of Media in Arab Societies” in Abu Dhabi. “With the absence of social media, the revolutions that took two or three weeks probably would have taken two or three months.”   According to the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center’s report “Egypt from Tahrir to Transition,” the uprisings in Egypt were “not a Facebook revolution.” While media sources have widely credited online activists for igniting the recent uprisings, the report concludes that the role of social media as a key factor in mobilizing millions is likely overstated. According to the center’s research, based on a nationally representative survey of about 1,000 respondents in Egypt, only 8 percent said that they relied on Facebook and Twitter to get news on the protests. Some 81 percent named Egyptian state TV as their source for news, 63 percent named Al Jazeera.

For Shadi Hamid, Director of Research of the Brooking’s Doha Center, Al Jazeera played an important role for the toppling of the regime in Egypt. “Al Jazeera was absolutely crucial in the Egyptian revolution because the first week of the protest Al Jazeera was covering it 24/7, it was rolling coverage,” Mr. Hamid said during the Arab Media Forum in Dubai. “Al Jazeera hasn’t really done that since for any other country. They’ve done it a little bit for Libya, but they haven’t done it for Bahrain and Syria. And that makes a very big difference.”   Fadi Salem of the Dubai School of Government is equally convinced that regional satellite television had an “influential role” in toppling the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. He doubts, however, that television would have been equally influential without videos from YouTube and information from Twitter and Facebook.   “The convergence between social media and television, specifically satellite television, created a new set of media consumption habits in the Arab world,” Mr. Salem said in an interview with Al Arabiya. “The ‘lifecycle’ of the civil movements that started especially in Egypt set a trend where mobilization and organization takes place primarily using social media. Once the movements begin on the ground, television channels start a continued coverage, fueled by social media users.”

According to the latest Arab Social Media Report published by the Dubai School of Government, the “overreliance” on social media by television channels has generated an unprecedented number of “errors” in reporting.

“It seems that many traditional media outlets today have a much lower fact-checking criteria when reporting based on social media sources compared to more traditional sources”, said Mr. Salem. “It is a worrying trend as social media sources are subject to more manipulation by both activists and governments.”   With more and more traditional media outlets integrating social media in their products, many newspapers and television now face the problem of setting themselves apart from others.

“The challenge is to remain relevant,” said Mishaal Al Gergawi. “If you want to remain relevant, you have to provide value. Everybody can tweet breaking news now but the question is: Who is able to collect information and link it up together?”

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