Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Dynamics of Social Media, Politics and Public Policy in the Arab World

Academic journal article Global Media Journal

Dynamics of Social Media, Politics and Public Policy in the Arab World

Article excerpt

The proliferation of social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, presents new, powerful communication tools capable of influencing political opinions and policy decisions. Mainstream news media attempt to document the scale and speed of the social media revolution with little systematic analysis of its outcomes and effects. The breathtaking growth of the phenomenon and the sheer number of users are highly impressive, but less interesting for policy purposes than are the consequences of the medium on politics and public affairs.

Mainstream media analysts suggest that the upstart social media have influence over politics and policy (Gross, 2011; Shane, 2011). In this paper social media are defined and their public affairs functions are examined drawing on empirical evidence. Social concepts, decision processes and developmental constructs are measured against the medium's current and possible future uses in public affairs in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Social media are tools for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques - such as web-based, mobile technologies - to turn communication into interactive dialogue.

Scholars will ascertain more about how design features of particular social media (such as Twitter's 140-character limit per message) encourage - or alternately discourage - political speech and foster open and inclusive - - or alternatively, closed and restrictive - public discourse. Our objective is to develop a framework for social media in MENA public affairs into which these more specific research questions may be rooted.

Although "social media" and "social network" are used interchangeably, this presentation should not be confused with social network analysis (see, for example, Wasserman & Faust, 1994) which develops models of relationships among groups of individuals and pathways of information flow. This is an exploration of the values and strategies of those who generate and use social media content for political and public policy purposes in the Arab World.

Impact on politics and policy

There is a sense of community among users of social media. A reader of an article at Al Jazeera mobile is not necessarily part of a network involving other of the channel's website visitors; if the reader posts a comment about the article on Al Jazeera's blog (or on another blog or on the microblogging platform Twitter), he or she has entered an electronic community where user opinions and values are shared.

Values and opinions are shaped and shared because digital posts spawn commentary, sway views and spur action. Between 2005 and 2011, Internet access in the Middle East and North Africa expanded from 13 percent to 40 percent of the population. Blogging became a popular form of political activism and mobilization as it grew in popularity from 2005 onwards as new social media platforms emerged. Social media use in the region expanded exponentially with the introduction of Twitter and Facebook in 2007, which Egyptians immediately adapted for political activism. By the time the January 2011 uprisings took place, Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags were an integral part of any political protest. There were then more than 16.8 million Facebook accounts in the region representing about 13 percent of the population, and more than 40,000 Twitter users, of which Egyptians accounted for about half (Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, 2011).

Even so, because the percentages of the total population online remained relatively small in the Arab world, analysts and observers often discounted the importance of blogging and online social networking without acknowledging that official connectivity figures tend to discount the impact of public access points or pirated connections, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that youth, the middle class and the politically active were highly represented. Mobile phones, on the other hand, were ubiquitous, with regional penetration rates surpassing 100 percent by late 2008. …

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