x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Twitter emerges as the new Arab majlis

Amid the burgeoning political interest in the region, snippets of thoughts are playing an increasingly more important role in shaping opinion.

With the events of the past few years, people in the Middle East have become more engaged in politics than ever before. In part, that reflects the fact that an old myth - Arabs don't care about politics - has been disproved. But the more vibrant political discussions are also influenced by the new media, and in particular the surprisingly complex thoughts that are being expressed in 140 characters or less.

A report yesterday in The National about the "Twitterati" - the 50 most influential Twitter users in the region - detailed findings by the communications consultancy Portland. Among the "most connected" users in the Middle East, 78 per cent discuss mainly current political issues. As other Twitter users noted, the number one "most connected" communicator came as no surprise: Sultan Al Qassemi, an Emirati commentator and writer, has become an informal ambassador for the region. He was followed by Dima Khatib, a Qatari-based journalist, in the number two spot; and Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive who rose to prominence during Egypt's uprising, in number three.

Most of people on the list were commentators, activists and journalists, although prominent politicians also figured large, with Egypt's Mohamed ElBaradei, the former director general of the IAEA, ranking fourth.

In GCC states, and in the UAE in particular, Twitter has helped to narrow the communication gap between the leadership and people of the region. Both Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, and Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister, are included on the list.

The social-media platform has, in a sense, created a new space comparable to the majlis - a forum for frank discussion of issues on the day.

Facilitating the flow of ideas and debate is invariably a public good, but this new medium does come with caveats. In particular, Twitter allows for faceless interactions that, as many Twitter users know, can lead people to abandon common courtesy. As irritating as that can be, the more serious concerns arise when people lie, incite violence or extremism, or deliberately instigate. There are limits on these types of speech in any society, but in the cybersphere the lines can be hard to draw.

But what remains true is that in any free debate, quality ideas rise to the top. There may be some twits out there, but tweets will surely expose them.