Banu Akdenizli, Northwestern University in Qatar
When the influence of ICTs and particularly social media in the Middle East is considered as a topic, the usual subtext of these studies involves the role of social media outlets in organizing uprisings nationally and documenting it internationally for the rest of the world to see, frequently framed as a cry for democracy and the protection of human rights along with improved living conditions economically (such as it was with the Arab Spring, the Iran election protests which came to be even labeled as a “Twitter revolution”). And in the case of public diplomacy the usual focus seems to be centered around the Western powers’ public/digital diplomacy performance towards the Middle East in an effort to forge better communication strategies in a post September 11, 2001 world (such as the social media performance of Western embassies in such states to promote and represent the home country in the host country, e.g. Strauss, Kruikemeir, van der Meulen & Van Noort, 2015; Khatib, Dutton, & Thelwall, 2012).
Countries in the Middle East are often criticized for censoring, blocking access to social media websites and the Internet; and as societies traditionally considered closed to the flow of information. The compatibility of Islam and democracy has been a long standing issue of debate in politics. The Arab Charter on Human Rights, which all GCC countries other than Oman have ratified, guarantees citizens “the right to information and to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium, regardless of geographical boundaries.” Yet a recent report by Human Rights Watch (2016) on GCC countries details how they have procured and employed surveillance technology to track and screen nationals’ online movement. Released corporate records and reports from autonomous security analysts uncover how Western and Israeli organizations have sold software to GCC governments that can be utilized to abuse citizens’ privacy. There’s an established record of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and bloggers, being detained across the region.
Internet access has seen dramatic growth in the region. The Gulf states enjoy the highest penetration rates in the Middle East. Qatar (97%), Bahrain (93%), the United Arab Emirates (92%) and Kuwait (80%) have near universal access. Oman (71%) and Saudi Arabia (65%) have widespread diffusion as well. Studies increasingly show that the Arab society is an engaged public and the use of social media has increased tremendously in the past years (as illustrated by the Media Use in the Middle East Reports by Dennis, Martin & Wood, 2016). As the report states, “Facebook and WhatsApp are the dominant social media platforms in the region, both sites used by more than three in four respondents. High use of these platforms is consistent regardless of gender or age” (http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2015/chapter/social-media.html#subchapter0).
As noted by Forti et al. (2014) Gulf countries have taken serious action to improve e-government applications. Coupled with the fact that youth represent the majority of social media users in the Arab world (Arab Social Media Report, 2015), the potential for ever-growing and evolving social media use in the region exists. A recent USC Fellowship study tracking the social media accounts of GCC countries official embassy, foreign minister and foreign ministry’s reveal that leaders are aware of the potential of social media in crafting an image online, and communicating among GCC countries and to the rest of the world, and are keen to portray themselves tech-savy, forward thinking, modern leaders.
The main efficacy of social media tools is that they afford the opportunity to provide a mutual transmission process between political entities and their public by enabling citizen participation through commenting, liking and sharing the messages that they are delivered by the political agents. Arguments that new media tools are effective on public participation and bringing governments closer to their citizens are common. Yet these arguments probably carry more weight in democratic societies. In autocratic societies, diplomatic efforts are expected to reflect the agenda of the existing regime. The internet makes public matters more visible, but at the same time contributes to the spread of the powers’ discourse. At this stage, it is too early for a verdict. The extent of digital diplomacy efforts in the Gulf and the interaction and dialogue it fosters both regionally and universally remains to be seen.
Arab Social Media Report (2015). Arab Social Media Influencers Summit March 16, 2015. Retrieved from http://dmc.ae/img/pdf/white-papers/ArabSocialMediaReport-2015.pdf
Dennis, E.E.; Martin, J.D, & Wood, R. (2016). Media Use in the Middle East 2016: A Six-Nation Survey. Retrieved from http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2016/uploads/file/NUQ_Media_Use_2016_Final_Full_Demo.pdf.
Forti, Y., Bechkoum, K., Turner, S., & Ajit, S. (2014). The Adoption of e-Government in Arab Countries: the Case of Libya. Proceedings of the 14th European Conference on e-Government: ECEG 2014, pp.317-326.
Khatib, L., Dutton, W. & Thelwall, M. (2012). “Public Diplomay 2.0: A Case Study of the U.S. Digital Outreach Team”. The Middle East Journal, 66 (3), pp. 453-472.
Strauss, N; Krukemeier, S.; van der Meulen, H. & van Noort, G. (2015). “Digital Diplomacy in GCC Countries: Strategic Communication of Western Embassies on Twitter” Government Information Quarterly, 32, pp. 369-379.