Is this really a social media revolution ?

Is this really a social media revolution ?

“Egypt is on the lower end of face book penetration in the Arab world at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent” says a recent report on social media usage by the Dubai School of Government ( DSG). Having managed their PR for over a year and having worked with the person in charge of the research, I can say with confidence that I trust those numbers.  So, is this hype about “social media revolution”, “twitter revolution” all just hype ? or is there truth to this argument ?

First things first: a few clarifications are in order.

Journalists like easy answers – and ones that satisfy their audience, without leaving much ambiguity. That is truly the rule of thumb operating here.  While most journalists writing about the Middle East and Foreign policy issues are not qualified to be writing about these issues , they want to give the impression that they truly are in control and know what is going on. I remember meeting a very senior diplomat from the State department recently, who in all modesty confirmed that he doesn’t know what the hell is going on. So, go figure.

I believe there is a tendency among the journalistic franternity to repeat the same theory over and over again, as long as someone credible says it, without questioning, analysing it. This is a trend, not to say it happens all the time.

This issue also reminds of  a panel discussion a few weeks ago at the National press club, Washington DC, where prominent journalists, bloggers and activists participated. The gist of the discussion, which represented both social media evangelists, as well as traditional media folks such as Riz Khan of Al Jazeera was that though social media played a key role in the uprisings, and continues to do so, there is a need to temper down the credit that we are giving it. Social media did not invent courage and the imagination to stand up to people.

The second edition of the DSG  report also mentions :” Egypt, the report found, constitutes about a quarter of total facebook users in the Arab region, and has added close to 2 million new users between January and April. Egypt is nonetheless on the lower end of facebook penetration in the Arab world, at 7.66 per cent, whereas the UAE, at the highest, is at 50 per cent “. So, what is really going on here ?

How come those societies which are most connected are not witnessing revolutions ? UAE, where the monarchy is very stable, did not even witness a whiff of protest, forget having a full-blown revolution.

In my mind, there are a few other possible explanations, rather than giving all the credit to Facebook and twitter. Some key factors which made the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions effective in terms of social media :

  1. There are huge masses of poor, affected people, who need to mobilize
  2. There is state censorship of media
  3. There is a critical mass of youth who want their voices to be heard

Since the demographics of the region are titled in favour of the youth ( by some estimates, about 50 % of the population in the MENA region are below 25 yrs), this creates a critical mass of users of social media and technologies.

In a study called Shababtek, done a few years ago by TNS, the market research firm, this was also brought out. I am surprised that no one is quoting this report. This was way back in the year 2008, when I was in Dubai and used to manage the TNS account. The study, which was an ethnographic study of youth across 6 countries brought out the essential truth  : Youth in the region want to express themselves, connect with others and feel part of the larger community. And the social media, internet allow for that to happen rather easily.

This can also explain partly why the revolutions in the region have succeeded, more so because youth have adopted these tools.

But to give all the credit to the tools would not only be naïve, but also foolish.

A heady week ahead for Middle East peace – time for the US to act ?

With President’s speeches  out of  the way, there seems to be much to look forward to this coming week in the realm of Middle East peace. The first speech on thursday, which failed to live up to the expectations of Cairo speech, is seen by most analysts as damp, weak and ineffectual.

The second speech at Aipac was a reiteration of his earlier speech and seem to have the intended effect – of riling up the pro-Israeli groups and Bibi himself.

The rhetoric going forward must,  lead to actions. Too many peace treaties have been proposed, and much blood has been shed to go back to just words again.

Hamas has called the speech “empty of concrete significance”, while  PM of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected Obama’s call for return to 1967 borders.

In my research of this subject, my understanding of this informs me that unless the US takes a firm stand, gets the Israeli government to commit to sticking with the plans that have been outlined in several of the proposed peace plans.

The right to return as well as status of refuges are other burning issues which need to be addressed – with all the sincerity that it deserves.

The upcoming declaration of statehood by Palestine ( expected in September) is likely to be the high point in the process.  While most of the developing world and other sympathizers have recognized Palestine, Obama administration vetoed its recognition last fall in the U.N, saying any unilateral action to isolate Israel is not likely to result in any tangible results.

Some developments in the recent past have also added to the confusion with respect to the peace process. With the departure of George Mitchell, the Middle East special Envoy, things may be looking quite unclear at this moment.

The US administration has also been caught off-guard on most  issues related to Middle East in the last 6 months , and it remains to be seen if the State department gets its act together to formulate a clear vision and pushes all sides involved to do what is necessary – in its roles as the honest broker.

With  unity between Hamas and Fatah, it seems like this is the moment to be sized, and hammer out a lasting deal, while pushing Hamas to recognize Israel.

If both sides are able to compromise and come to the table, with a strong stance taken by the US on the issue of recognition of the Palestinian state, peace may be within our grasp. The bigger question in my mind is : Does the Obama administration have the gumption to back up its words with actions ?

Q and A with Riz Khan, Anchor at Al –Jazeera English

It is not everyday that you get to meet your childhood hero. To me, Riz Khan has always been a role-model and continues to do the kind of work that I would love to do, though in a different format. Even though I am a bit star-struck by him, I managed an  interview about an issue that I have followed closely for a few years now, and am researching for a project  at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

In this interview, he talks about the role of media in framing issues pertaining to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He also discusses the way in which  USA’s  domestic politics impacts the process.

Q: What are your impressions of the failed  Middle East peace talks – 2010 ? What do you make of it ?

Riz Khan: To be honest,  I don’t know all the specifics. But I do know one thing – that the USA has been pre-occupied and the Obama administration has had a lot to deal with in the last few months. The economy, coming close up to the re-election campaign, the president himself has been pre-occupied. And also I don’t know how strongly they felt about the legitimacy of the players involved.  Mahmoud Abbas has been considered the main person to talk to, but his power base has been fragmented by the Hamas; so people wonder if he truly represents the Palestinians.

The other thing  as well  is that the Palestinian papers have compromised what we know. According to them, the Palestinians were willing to give more than what we are told and the Israelis were unwilling to compromise. Netanyahu also had a terse relationship with Obama and the power of the lobby – AIPAC forced the president if he would continue the support, and to do this; he would have to be a bit soft on him.

So, it seems that president Obama has had to back down so many times. I have been to conferences where people have even described him as a “coward”, for not being strong enough in his convictions.  He came in with these strong convictions, with the Cairo speech and vision; but failed to deliver. He has been bowing to power, and the horrible thing about political life is compromise and I remember Hillary Clinton going to the Palestinian territories and being shocked with the conditions. But she had to run for senate, following her visit, she had to keep mum about these issues. She again had to flip-flop on her position as well.  Like her, President Obama also has not been in a strong position. He has been pre-occupied with one issue after another and allowed himself to be pressured.

There is also limited value and prestige when it comes to leadership when it actually comes to achieving things.

Q: In terms of media process, how has the framing taken place ?

Riz Khan : You must remember that there is media at various levels. At the US national level, international level.

Essentially, international news, like most other news is reactive. The local news in the USA is not going to give you anything of any value when it comes to coverage of  the Middle East. So, people here don’t have any clue of what’s going on. The national media here is also limited except for a few media such as the NPR, which had a few interesting discussions around the peace talks, and PBS too.

The American public is blind as to what is going on about the mid-east process. The international media is guilty of knee-jerk reaction. They are obsessed with the question : What’s the story of the day ? For example, visit of Netanyahu or Secretary of state Clinton to the region becomes the biggest news that  there is.

We at Al-Jazeera ( AJ)  are a bit different in that we have been able to provide more context, breadth and background; and that is largely due to the heritage of  our channel – being Arab and Middle Eastern.

In general, the trouble is that we do have a knee-jerk reaction in most international coverage of events and the over-all picture is lost in the sound-bites. AJ has tried to shift this paradigm and that is our strength.

There is also a merging of issues and a growing consciousness in the Arab world about common grievances. I was on a panel today with the former ambassador of Jordan to USA, and he actually said the trouble is that people expect us to keep issues separate . What is happening in Tunisia, Egypt  and Libya. Mixing the Palestinian –Israeli issue and looking at the impact of the Arab spring on this issues is  just confusing for people. But he is right in saying that if unless we  solve the issue of Palestine, there is a lot that is going to come back and bite the leaders  of US back.

The leadership here ( in USA)  is talking about safety of civilians, security; while the Israeli  government  is bombing civilians in the Middle East. Consider the case when Israel struck Lebanon in summer of 2006. Gaza also witnessed the same thing; so we are seeing the same double-standards, which is what upsets people. Of course, the US is in a tricky position; and is considered to have an uneven hand. But the good thing is that even many American politicians are coming to understand and appreciate this.

We have seen this in the fracture that has appeared , in the emergence of J-street and other groups who are challenging this one-sided narrative.

That is  another critical factor, but overall the media has failed  to truly educate the public because they don’t have the motivation, or any interest.  The American public has very little interest in news in general, so it’s a difficult game for them to play.

Q: What do you make of J-street and other alternate voices that are emerging in the political advocacy spectrum ? How influential have they been ?

Riz Khan: They have tried a bit. There are a number of groups, One voice and others, who have come together. They are trying to be pro-active and engaged. Unfortunately, when there is good news, the media is not going to be interested.  Bad news makes for news.

The media is not going to write much about stories that say Palestinians and Israelis are sitting side by side and doing good things. Only there are bullets hitting people, is there news. That’s very sad, and the issue we face here is that, to get the counter-movements to have any real space is hard.

I don’t think people in this country realize, how strong the movement in Israeli public to counter what is happening. There are big divisions in Israeli society about what is the right thing to do.

Some realize that the occupation cannot go on.  There are Israeli groups protesting at the check-points and helping Palestinians get through. I was there for the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel – Nakba – as the Palestinians call it, and witnessed the various voices in the spectrum of Israeli society.  It’s easy to understand this new generation, who don’t know their history well. They don’t understand why the Palestinians live such a miserable life. Many of them are brought up to believe that the Palestinian lands were empty when the Jews arrived.

I think some of them have been indoctrinated into thinking that this is their land and  the Palestinians have no claim . In theory they coulld be sharing this piece of land.

Now the question of a two state solution is very much in question, because the land in the Palestinian side is fragmented heavily. The wall, the settlements are creating g huge bridge.

Q: When we speak of inclusiveness of Hamas,  Is there a trend in the media not to give it legitimacy even though the group won the 2006 elections ?

Riz Khan:  We at AJ have discussed this a lot. In the West, there is a failure to understand that Hamas  does not have  just the military arm, but there is also a social service arm to it; and it fills the gap, which people need. The same is with Hizbollah, so unfortunately on the ground, the reality is different from what is shown on TV and picture. These organisations have provided them what the Palestinian Authority has failed to.

The rhetoric about Hamas and other groups  tends to be one-sided and echoes what the politicians want you to see and hear. AJ was framed as a terrorist network, sponsored by Osama bin Laden by Donald Rumsfeld, the former Defense secretary.  His statements were inaccurate, that we had shown beheadings etc. There was a lack of understanding, and also mis-information.

Now, people watch AJ and most recently, Hillary Clinton was recently quoted  as saying that we cover these issues properly and how others don’t.  I think it is the height of ignorance to criticize something without having any knowledge of the issue.

So, I have no time for such people who criticize us with no basis and background of the work we do. It goes back to my school days, when I knew a guy who did not apparently like Pizza, and I finally established that he had never tasted Pizza. So, it’s the same principle.

You know, it’s a shame, but it is how it is.

Q: Will the Arab spring directly impact the Middle East peace process?

Riz Khan  : Not yet. I think it’s going to take some time. No one has really covered how the Palestinians have reacted to this movement in the Arab world.  

I think everyone is waiting to see if the change in the Middle East will change the paradigm in the peace process, but so far; there is no indication of that.

We thought of Saudi aligning with the US to fight Iran, and the sectarian ( Sunni-Shia) split which was highlighted with Bahrain, raised fears about the Middle East being an ethnic battle field more than anything else.

This is intriguing and may come up more and more.

I have heard many commentators say that Iran is just sitting and watching all of this, while the other guys are just beating themselves up.

Q:  How can one make sense of US ambivalence towards the issue. How can one understand this, in the context of  it being the sole super-power and the only one with the ability to influence the decision substantially ?

Riz khan : It depends on who you mean by the US ?  If you mean the US politicians, yes, they are totally pre-occupied with domestic issues – deficits, collective bargaining issues etc.  What bothers me most is that the previous administrations over-emphasis on American security. This whole sense of creating a sense of fear was detrimental to the quality of life in this country.

When I see Colin Powell and actually seeing him being searched and wanded electronically a the Airport by security guards. It shows you that things are really going to be crazy. Even top officials are going to bear the brunt of it.

Ironically, Al-Qaeda has succeeded in doing far more than just killing people and destroying two buildings. They have disrupted American lifestyle to a degree where I don’t see it recovering quickly.

Media continues to exaggerate these issues.

The peace talks have to be addressed. Hillary Clinton is a smart woman and she knows that this is something that needs to be dealt with. Sadly, when people play politics, people do know that the real issues get sidelined. When people are looking to get re-elected, or looking for support or funds; the issues that affect people’s day to day issues are lost. The Israelis and Palestinians are caught up in the shadows of an election cycle. It’s more vigorous than ever.

Today, I became an Indian – yet again.

2 April 2011 is a historic day in my life. India has won the Cricket world cup today and I am a new revert.  A revert to being completely and truly Indian.

There are few things that can define an Indian identity.  To be an Indian in the year 2011, it would seem reasonable to satisfy two criterion– Love of Cricket, and  passion for Bollywood. The rest, as they say,  can be compromised.  Going by these two criterion, I am supremely unqualified to  be called an Indian. The last cricket match I actually watched was in Dubai in the year 2008. Ever since, I haven’t felt the slightest need to go to a TV, turn it on and look for  anything to do with Cricket. My bigger crime has been not to have followed the latest in Bollywood.  Most of the new film stars are unknown quantities, and when I speak with my cousins or friends back home in India, I struggle to keep up with the developments in both these spheres.

I am surprised my that passport has not been revoked and I haven’t been banned from traveling back to my homeland.  My “Indian ness” has been questioned not so much when it comes to politics, but by how much I cheer for my cricket team. A colleague at school today remarked at how stoic I was when the finals between Srilanka and India was on.  Though I did enjoy the match, I saw no point in getting all excited about one run being scored.

I can easily blame this lack of interest in Cricket on my dad – a former soccer player, who I am told was pretty damn good at the sport, and even played professionally for his city club in his youth. But that would be washing my hands off a crime that I have committed.  While the rest of the country was fascinated with Cricket, my family  was busy watching  Soccer and  Tennis. Soccer  World cup and Wimbledon kept up the family for nights at a stretch, with chai, samosas and lots of cheering ( mainly by my dad and brother) . Here I must add my mom’s rather curious interest in Tennis – Steffi Graf was her favorite tennis player. Go figure.

My older brother trained in Field Hockey and in my early childhood, I remember following him with a hockey stick to the field nearby and train for two summers in India’s national sport ; which unfortunately no one cares about today.

And it is totally appropriate to mention here that I trained for another 3 summers in Table tennis, a game that again no one in most of the country cares about, but being from Bangalore, there are a few good sports clubs, and which produced world-class Table Tennis players; there was some encouragement to learn the sport. I did play for my school and also for my under-grad TT team for a brief period of time.

I am so damn good at the sport that i beat  group of random chinese students in a park around 5th Avenue NYC last summer. They were amazed at how well I played, despite being an Indian. I just left, leaving them baffled at my superb  TT skills. This has been  my proudest sporting moment in the USA so far.

And lest i forget, I must mention that  I did have my brief fling with Bollywood, when as an impressionable 17 year old, I tried my hand at acting. I attended a summer actors training workshop, organized by the famous Bangalore Little Theatre, which has produced some of the finest theater talent in the country. But this was soon cut-short by my mother’s  insistence. She thought I was upto some mischief and in “bad company”, since  it involved hanging out with  certain “types” of people she did not approve of.  I quietly gave up. With this died my passion for theatre, acting and also by association Bollywood.

Coming back to Cricket, I must admit, I did cheer, and celebrate India’s victory. And I genuinely felt happy that we have won the world-cup after 28 long years.  But no, I  did not cry or call home to congratulate all my cousins, friends and my friends’ cousins.  My heart-rate remained pretty stable and normal too. Not much of Adrenaline rush to speak of.

So, here I am, having grown up to be totally un-Indian in my taste of sports; and having been denied my shot at Bollywood by my mother. I reverted again today, with a sincere heart – at trying to love a sport that the British left behind for us – just like the English language, a legacy of sorts; which we are so proud of, that we have made it our own.

With this said, I wonder if I have been re-admitted to the club, and If I am a part of the gang. And  I am left  wondering: What can I do ? Rail against my fate, blame my parents and society for not making me a “true ” Indian ? Or   May be as Mark Twain famously remarked, I will also  tell all those who don’t trust me  or my conversion back to being a cricket aficionado :  “ Alright, I’ll go to hell then”.

To plan or not to plan – that is the question.

“Long term planning” is a dreary word in my dictionary. I have always loathed thinking about what my life / the world will look like in 5 yrs time. The very idea of a “five year plan” conjures up images of India’s socialist misadventures, which led to a country trapped in a time-warp; to be freed finally in 1991 with market led reforms.For those who arent aware of this phase of  India’s politico-economic history, i would suggest meeting me for a discussion.

The economics and politics of that period of time aside, i would like to mull over the very idea of long-term planning in  our world, in the year 2011.  This year will perhaps stand out in our collective memory for several reasons – the Tsunami in Japan, the very many revolutions in the Arab world and perhaps one or two more dramatic events which will unfold in the months to come.

The pace at which our world is changing begs the question : Does “planning” have any significance in today’s world ?

Though i can be a bit of a control freak when it comes to travel, organising events, my world-view has been challenged of late.  In particular, when looking at events in the Arab world, all the wisdom, the gyan and punditry that the intellectuals, scholars and journalists spouted all along has come to naught.

Who could have imagined that Hosni Mubarak would be ousted or that Gaddafi would be seriously challenged ? What would the planners and strategists for several multi-national firms be thinking now, after drawing up their fancy projections for years ahead, and realising that all of it has failed. They will have to start from scratch. And where will their numbers come from ? Where will they start from ? The very base of their projections has  shifted.

A crisis can shift our world entirely. And sometimes permanently. So, does planning have any relevance in such a context ?

During my recent trip to India, my older brother, who works for an IT firm told me that “India is where the action is”. I agree with him to a large extent. But it is also a country that is famous for not planning. Bangalore, the IT capital of the country, and my hometown is famous for its terrible roads and a metro which is being built now, as i write this post. French town planners were hired by the Bangalore Development Authority to do town planning, and in one such presentation that i attended several years ago, i recall hearing the planner complaining that they were being asked to do what the city should have done a good 30 years ago.The Brits did leave with an unfinished task – of teaching the natives how to plan for the future.

What is happening in many parts the city is crisis management, not planning. A road built here, a building demolished there. A city and country coming to terms with itself and its mighty ambition of taking over the world and becoming a “super-power”.

This “development” can be seen as a crisis of sorts. A crisis of identity, or managing expectations and aspirations. And  by the very nature, crisis keep morphing into something new every few weeks/ months.

By this logic, is the new long-term horizon a year, or perhaps 6 months ?

Non-hierarchical news gathering the new wave sweeping journalism ?

In an interesting discussion, which brought together the stalwarts of journalism in Washington DC, as well as some member of other new media, several issues were discussed – including, but not limited to the Arab “social media revolutions”, the democratisation of news across the Middle East and also questions of access. The keynote speaker at the event, organised by Washington DC based International Center for Journalists was Riz Khan, the celebrity anchor at Al-Jazeera, the news network, which has caught everyone’s imagination.

Khan started off by saying that one of the keys to the success of Al-Jazeera has been its presence on ground in all the Arab countries where revolutions have taken place, and also to be open to non-traditional means of news gathering and also being open to ideas from the public. “This is the democratization of media. There is a batte of the Old school vs new school going on as far as i can see. We are faced with questions such as, whether blogging a valid way of gathering news. This idea has driven what has happened in the Middle East,” he pointed out.

I reproduce some of the questions and answers that were part of the discussion. The participants include, Riz khan, Mona Eltahawy, well-known blogger and Jeff Ghanem, media commentator.

Q : What is the twitter revolution, does it deserve the attention that it is getting ?

Riz : If it hadn’t been for the mechanisms, i don’t think the traditional media would have caught onto the dynamic on the ground. For sure, the social media added momentum to the whole process.

Mona : Twitter, FB were essential, and one of many tools in changing the consciousness of young people, who were the dissidents. By this, I mean, a platform to vent out their frustrations. The youth realised that they count, and their lives had value and they could make a change. This was the reaction on the Arab street. Social media didn’t invent courage. For decades, they were trying to do this, but it was social media  that connected all these people.
Jeff : I find that by calling it a Facebook ( FB)  and twitter revolution, we must look at the motivations of the people. You cant credit FB . Would these have succeeded ? Yes, because  of demographics, courage. The MENA region is made of vast number of marginalized, disposed young people. 50% of the entire population of some of the countries is  youth.

Natasha : Citizen journalists should get credit here.  I disagree with many of the points here. I will give credit to the Social media. Let me quote a personal anecdote as an example. In 1991, during the First Gulf war, there were rumors that Saddam’s pic was on the moon. We all believed it. Facts were not checked and corrected. And i remember that in school, people talked about it all the time.

Tunisian veg. seller- inspired the whole revolution in many respects. International pressure caused the whole movement to take the form and shape that it did. Actually, we must give more credit to them.

Q: Is this the age, where there will be an over-flow of info, and that it will be self-correcting?

Riz : I think information flow is much easier these days and there is  less hierarchy. In the old days, when i worked at BBC, balance was important. How interviews were supposed to be conducted was clearly defined. It is a bit different these days, with more horizontal modes of information flow. I believe there is a self-correcting mechanism in social media. If someone posts something incorrect on their Facebook, someone would correct them in no time.

Natasha : I believe some journalists also made big mistakes during the entire period. They took sides and did not report. They did their own commentaries.

Riz khan : It is funny that each era has its own challenges and i am faced with similar questions. During my stint at BBC, I had to defend the  BBC –it was seen as a British imperial project.  I think journos should leave their opinion out. The trouble is, channels have become very commentary based. Al-Jazeera tries to balance opinion, but provides a very clear Middle Eastern perspective to issues, which is fresh and original.

The panel went on to discuss issues related to the image of Muslims across the world and how the Arab revolutions may change it. While many of the speakers agreed that this was not about Islam, nor about Israel or about the USA, the mood was clearly that of Arab solidarity and one of the emergence of a new intellectual discourse in the Middle East. A new language has to be invented to talk about the Middle East these days, Mona pointed out.

The discussion ended on a high note, with a reception, attended by well over 300 people. Among those present, included the veteran journalist Helen Thomas.

Battle of intelligence vs intellect

While investigating the role of spoilers in the Middle East peace process, I started off with the rather objective and fair assumption that the lobbies in Washington DC are skewed positively in one direction. That is to say, the Israeli lobbies are so powerful and influential that they dominate the discourse on the issue and set the agenda.

From the time of president Truman, this has been a trend which has continued unabated. There is enough proof both historically and even in present day American politics to demonstrate that this is true. While it is perfectly rational to consider that there is also an Arab lobby, my intelligence told me that this is virtually non-existent. A cursory glance at the media in American mainstream shows that the Palestinian perspective is virtually non-existent, and the context of the creation of Israel is totally ignored, if at all acknowledged ( Pens and Swords, Dunsky).

Though there is a book called the “Arab lobby” by a certain Mitchell Bard, it seems to talk about non-core issues such as Academic influence of Arabs and the oil lobby. The political ramifications of the same are not examined at all.

My intellect tells me that perhaps there is a small grain of truth to this argument, and one should not dismiss it, if one is claiming to be fair and objective. So, i will investigate this further and try to inform my intelligence.

In the meanwhile, it is a battle of intelligence vs intellect. I am curious to see which one wins.