Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Heard Mentality: If You Want to Multiply Your Flock, Use Twitter

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Heard Mentality: If You Want to Multiply Your Flock, Use Twitter

Article excerpt

Social media let Christopher Davidson share research, address non-academics and listen in to fast-shifting Middle East debates

A common joke in Saudi Arabia these days is that "Twitter is parliament". There's much truth in this, as social media are proving to be a powerful modernising force in a country that now has one of the world's highest internet penetration rates, alongside one of its most traditional and authoritarian political systems.

Probably half of Saudi adults and doubtless nearly the entire youth population have some sort of online presence and, as many of them are quickly discovering, it's a fresh, open space for sharing ideas above and beyond the government's best efforts to censor and control. But, as we are becoming painfully aware, it is also a battleground, with extremist propaganda and ideas - most notably from the supporters of the media-savvy Islamic State - fast gaining traction.

If you haven't guessed already, my field is Middle East politics, and without doubt my scholarship must now delve into the cyber world as much as the real world if I have any hope of following and making sense of the region's seismic shifts and key debates. Twitter, so far, is easily the best platform as it allows for mass peer-to-peer communications on a scale never seen before. Over the past year or two I have witnessed and participated in huge, sweeping discussions on political Islam, terror, citizenship, identity and countless other topics that in previous years were firmly off-limits - publicly, at least. According to the latest Twitter analytics, more than 90 per cent of my 120,000 followers are from Arab states, with about 50,000 from Saudi Arabia itself. So while I still firmly believe that nothing can replace visiting, living and working in the countries one focuses on as an academic, it is readily apparent that mastering social media tools has become an essential parallel foundation for area studies research.

Beyond my own humble work, I have also observed countless other academics and students from across the social sciences and beyond making Twitter work for them, too. And social media are going to become only more important as such platforms - and their inevitably even more powerful future incarnations - have an ever greater impact on how humans interact with each other and the world around them. Whether it is gauging public opinion on key government policies, gaining insight into public protests, assessing the damage wreaked by a hurricane or understanding the thoughts of a hitherto isolated religious community, the scholarly possibilities are enormous.

In my experience - especially with Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook - using social media also offers a host of other practical benefits to the modern academic or public intellectual. …

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