Most readers of Media Week will have read and listened to countless discussions about how powerful social media can be, how it is changing the world, and creating new opportunities and challenges.
I would like to take some time to explain why I believe social media is the second most important thing to the Arab World and its 300 million citizens.
It’s no secret that our neighborhood is not renowned for freedom of any kind, especially freedom of speech. That is astounding when you think about the fact that an Arab man brought forth a message of freedom and equality that is now followed (in some measure) by one out of every four people on the planet.
Our ‘Fear of Freedom’ is a national disease; it cannot be blamed on a specific event, government or even colonial power. But it does exist and was best portrayed on August 2, 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. We did not have satellite TV then. On August 3 state media referred fleetingly to a dispute between the two countries, on August 4 there was talk of a resolution – it was not until August 5 that most state owned media in many Arab countries acknowledged the ugly truth.
While things have changed for the better, I believe that “Fear of Freedom” remains. I also still believe that while governments in the region are not geared to handle full-fledged personal, political and professional freedoms – I no longer believe the tired argument that they stand in the way of that freedom. They are willing to enter a gradual and moderate process of change, provided the public, who drivers for and demands that freedom, is responsible, rational, peaceful and incremental in its steps.
How can this freedom be reached? How can this incremental process start when there is no civil society backbone and where forums of public discourse on accountability and liberty are limited, or nonexistent, in many Arab countries?
Enter social media.
Or should I say, the mosque, or chapel, of social media. You are free to come inside. You are free to say what you want. You are free to talk to who you want. You are free to act on what you believe.
President Nasser’s well-meaning but misguided Soviet policies of restrictions on public protests, freedom of congregation and freedom of speech that dominated modern Arab political thinking were discredited years ago, but lingered in the political culture of our societies today. What is happening in the mosque of social media is finally washing us clean of that heritage: it is breaking down the ‘Freedom of Fear.’
The fear to share opinions is fading away. The fear to advocate or oppose an idea is declining. The fear to set-up a business with no money and against the odds is going away. The fear of being different is going away. The fear of falling love with someone who is not pre-approved is going away.
Social media in the Arab World is replacing our self-inflicted ‘Fear of Freedom ‘ with a cautious excitement about the possibilities of a full and free life. The many political, business and conservative barriers that separated 300 million people of common language, heritage and faith into a collection of 22 smaller and weaker states is being swept aside by the great unifying nature of social media.
I refer specifically to social media because traditional media, and even Internet media represents one-way reporting from the news room to the public. Social media is connecting communities, businesses, leaders, innovators, educators in Rabat and Muscat, Jerusalem and Algiers, Fujairah and Suez.
Social media has allowed tens of millions of forgotten and once seemingly un-important people whose existence was marginal to the world and its business, to suddenly make a grand entrance into day-to-day life.
Today, by all accounts, more than 80 million (out of 300 million) Arabs are online and most of them use social media as their first destination on the Internet. Five year ago that number was less than 20 million. Five years from now that number will be 150 million people.
The impact of this great new mosque is not just that people are talking with a sense of freedom never seen before, but that it is allowing companies in Saudi Arabia to understand customers in the Maghreb. It’s allowing teachers in Yemen to ask academic communities in Damascus their opinion on how to overcome lack of funding for schools, and helping doctors in Jordan share their ideas with colleagues in the Sudan.
In fact, as companies like Maktoob, Watwet.com and others demonstrate the management of this great mosque of social media is itself driving innovation in technology, content and entrepreneurship that is capturing the attention of companies and governments around the world.
This is not top-line Internet connectivity – it is social media community that allows Arab people – not organizations or governments – to pick and choose who they want to talk to help improve their lives.
Monumental shifts that change entire nations usually happen quietly and under the superficial guise of something different – in this case the wonders of modern technology. But what happens beneath the surface is profound and eternal.
Social media has helped the Arab World re-establish the original mosque in Arab consciousness: a people of faith, freedom and hope are coming back to their roots; the talent and brilliance they brought to the world through Algebra, medicine, architecture, art, justice, women’s rights, children’s rights, education and more, is about to re-enter the world.
But for it to do so triumphantly, we must never cease to focus on the first most important thing in Arab living today: the re haul of our education systems to allow full, free and universal quality education for all. Not many Arabs will be able to grasp what is written on the walls of this great new mosque if they cannot read or think.
President, News Group
MD, Media Watch