Following protests fuelled by Facebook and Twitter, a report reveals the use of social media in the Arab world has nearly doubled in a year. Sociologists say it is an ideal forum for disaffected youth.
Internet ideal forum for disaffected youth in region
ABU DHABI // Social networking sites, Facebook in particular, have seen usage in the Arab world nearly double in the past year and have played no small part in political activity in the region.
Racha Mourtada, a research associate at the Dubai School of Government (DSG), is not surprised. Facebook and Twitter might be the tools used by youth to mobilise in Egypt and Tunisia, she said, but the movement was about the people.
"Facebook is a very powerful tool because it can disseminate information very quickly to many people at once, and it can help in situations like Egypt because of its speed and breadth of reach," said Ms Mourtada, who is part of the research team behind the first issue of the quarterly Arab Social Media Report, released by the DSG on Monday.
The report found that among youth aged 15 to 29, who make up one-third of the Arab population, Facebook users increased 78 per cent, from 11.9 million in January last year to 21.3 million in December.
It was no coincidence, said Fadi Salem, the director of the DSG's governance and innovation programme, that Tunisia witnessed an 8 per cent sudden surge in Facebook users during the first two weeks of January, when protests there were ongoing. However, Ms Mourtada said, the reach of social media could extend too far.
Wael Ghonim, Google's Dubai-based head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa, was held by authorities in Egypt for 12 days and was one of the creators of a Facebook site that advocated action. The 30-year-old Egyptian, who had been feared dead, has become a symbol for the protest movement's young majority, and his disappearance heralded for helping to spur on the protests that have shaken Egypt in the past two weeks.
An Arabic Facebook page, founded anonymously and entitled "I authorise Wael Ghonim to speak on behalf of the January 25 revolution", had more than 136,000 "likes", or fans, as of last night. Most of this approval occurred in just 14 hours.
Ms Mourtada cautioned against making assumptions based on the numbers of fans Mr Ghonim seemed to have generated.
"It should be taken at face value, because it's very easy to click 'like' and have numbers soar thanks to the speed of these social media tools," she said.
Shereen Zaky, 27, an Egyptian lawyer who lives and works in Cairo, had not even heard of Mr Ghonim a few days ago. Today she is a fan of his on Facebook, and one of the people who volunteered to create English subtitles for an interview he held on Monday night with the Arabic Egyptian TV channel, Dream.
"I heard through social media - Facebook and Twitter - that he was the one who first floated the idea of the January 25 protest, but I had no information about him," Ms Zaky said. After watching his interview after he was released, she linked to the video and to articles about him on her own Facebook wall.
"I noticed everyone on my Facebook clicking on his page, nominating him to be spokesperson for the revolution, and though I don't think he has a large quantity of political acumen or charisma, or formal leadership qualities, this movement is stagnating and losing momentum, and it is time to select anyone who can be a spokesperson or an intermediate," she said.
Mr Ghonim fitted that role perfectly, whether he wanted to or not, said Dr Rima Sabban, an assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University.
"As a smart, active, young man [who holds] a good position at a popular, international internet company, Wael has the wow-factor that got similar, like-minded, young and smart and active people to stand behind him," Dr Sabban said. And of course, she said, they found out about him through social media.
"Social media has the power to put people in leadership positions, to give you popularity and presence."
It could take a person from a limited physical space, said Dr Sabban, and open him up to the entire world, providing a reach that had never existed before.
What social media had done for Arab youth, she said, was allow them to express themselves and voice their frustrations, and find others who share those same frustrations.
"Social media ignited the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, but that doesn't mean that it alone can create a revolution.
"People's frustrations are what led to this, and being able to find a community where they can voice their frustrations and find like-minded voices meant that they let go of their fear, and took it all a step further."