A Word With Fadi Salem - Journalism Week


Kurdish protesters demonstrate against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

Photo by Jan Sefti.

It is difficult to recall any coverage of the Egyptian Revolution that did not mention social media. Far more lasting and memorable than images of talking heads dissecting the action on cable news are the YouTube videos of armored police vehicles hosing protesters through the streets, the immeasurable energy pulsating from crowds in Tahrir Square, and personal compilations from everyday Egyptian citizens witnessing history in the making, just to name a few. While the mainstream media tried their damnedest to provide context and expertise to the flood of information, all too frequently they could only play handmaiden to a new, muscular, and untamed species of storytelling for an overseas audience.

As the late great Gil Scott-Heron once said, “NBC will not be able to predict the winner at 8:42 from 39 districts, the revolution will not be televised.”

He was right. If Egypt proved anything, it’s that the revolution will be streamed.

Yet beyond merely communicating with the outside world, the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak would have been impossible without Facebook and other internet tools that facilitated communications between factions of the resistance. Subsequent revolutions in the region haven’t looked quite as peaceful, idealistic, or efficient by comparison.

With nearly a year since the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the West has shifted its watchful eye to the increasing instability in Syria. Like in Libya, we’ve seen little from the resistance in Syria in the way of social media – either in the forms of reporting or signs of online organization. Paired with the demands of election year coverage and a stagnant United Nations assembly, the American media finds more reasons every day for not granting the Syrian uprising the same comprehensive treatment they’ve given to its predecessors.

Focusing squarely on violence that is largely perpetrated by the Syrian government, what’s going on in Syria has been deemed (arguably inaccurately) by multiple channels as a civil war. Associations with the bigger picture of the so-called “Arab Spring” are far less frequent, even though the narrative isn’t far departed from that of Egypt or Libya.

Turning to a trusted source within the region to bring some context to the conflict and the discrepancies in its reporting, BTR recently spoke with Fadi Salem, Director of the Governance and Innovation Program at the Dubai School of Government and co-author of The Arab Social Media Report. Salem appears frequently on the Arab language network, Al-Jazeera, speaking on the subjects of social media and Middle East politics.

BreakThru Radio: We’ve been hearing a lot less social media interaction among the resistance forces in Syria than we did during the 24 hours news media cycle during the protests in Tahrir Square, during the Egyptian Revolution. Can you tell us why that is? Is there less social media among the resistance in Syria?

Fadi Salem: There are a few reasons. The primary reason is that the internet is generally blocked and controlled by the regime, while in the case of Egypt, in 2011, the sector was mature. Internet providers were plenty, while in Syria it is controlled by the State. That’s one reason; additionally, the population, the number of internet users in general and the number of social media users in Egypt is much higher than that in Syria. So you have a much higher volume of users using social media, and according to research, social media users across the region trend shifted from social usage to more political, more societal usage. So, by comparison you have 25 percent of users generally across the region on Facebook who are located in Egypt, while Syria is much, much smaller than that.

BTR: You mentioned in an interview with the Near East Quarterly that the Syrian government is more interested in using social media. Is this a lesson learned from the fall of Hosni Mubarak?

FS: Definitely. We’ve seen, for example, if you compare Egypt, Libya, and Syria during the revolutions there, in Egypt people used social media during the revolution and before that for a few months. They mobilized on social media closed networks for a long time, for around eight months before the revolution. During the revolution, it was the primary source of information — YouTube videos, Facebook social and closed groups, et cetera, and Twitter — were the primary tools for people participating in the revolution, especially that media wasn’t allowed all the time. So, in that, the Mubarak regime saw that its usage was a threat and a source of information that was threatening and undermining the media-controlled sources, so that they cut the internet and mobile networks in the country during the revolution there for six days. And during those six days with the internet down, the flow of information from the country itself to the outside world, almost stopped, let alone a few connections with dial-up — landlines and dial-up.

So after that — less than a month after that — the Syrian revolution started, and people utilized YouTube videos to transfer what was going on, on the ground to the rest of the world, especially since there was no foreign media allowed at all, unlike in Egypt, for example. And the regime learned from that mistake and never cut the internet really, all over a year and a half — the past year and a half — of the Syrian revolution, for several reasons. One of them is that the social media sources are reflecting what is happening inside the country from all sides. So the regime sees that there is some support inside the country which is accurate, and that the sources coming from social media sources relaying to the media are giving both sides of the story in their view. While it is the regime’s view that journalists are a threat and an enemy from outside, but to report only one side of the story. So blocking them will allow two sides of the story to emerge. This is the view of the regime. A more cynical view on this is that the regime is allowing social media to be used so it can control or monitor the trends and the activist actions, which was the case in many areas until more sophisticated tools and encryptions were used by activists.

BTR: Is this altogether a different animal than the Mubarak regime? It seems that Mubarak’s regime had a… I don’t want to say, or I don’t want to use the words ‘social media literacy,’ but it doesn’t seem like [social media] was that great a concern up until the Egyptian revolution was taking place.

FS: It is … Partly, that’s true. The revolution in Egypt, Tunisia and Egypt were the sources of the revolutions that happened in the so-called “Arab Spring”, so it was a learning experience for the regimes and the security apparatus there even though they were controlling the media, the social media and the internet, generally. While in Syria it took Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, and they witnessed the different reactions by the community and populations to the actions taken by these governments, again on social media and internet, they decided learning, as you like, from these experiences, not to block the internet and social media. In contrast they used these tools for their propaganda as well to support them and to mobilize their supporters to use them as well.

For more with Fadi Salem, tune into tomorrow’s episode of Third Eye Weekly, BTR’s premier current events podcast.