Facebook, Twitter and the Search for Peace in the Middle East

At a tech conference I attended recently in Abu Dhabi, I gave a talk about how to use social media to promote peace in the Middle East. I was struck by how willing many of the Arab leaders were to fully embrace these new social tools.
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We all know the many ways the Internet has been used in the service of terrorism -- al Qaeda-linked websites, recruitment videos, uploads of Bin Laden's latest video screed, and how-to-blow-things-up online manuals. Al Qaeda and its sympathizers were early adopters of the web and have made destructive use of its unparalleled ability to connect people.

But a new, countervailing trend is emerging: More and more of the Middle East is getting wired. As a result, we can now change the conversation to the impact of technology and social media on peace, not just on terror.

This was, in fact, one of the topics that was addressed at a conference I attended recently in Abu Dhabi. Now, I've been to a lot of tech conferences, but I've rarely seen the sort of enthusiasm and optimism that I witnessed at the Sir Bani Yas conference, convened by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed (foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates) and the International Peace Institute. The participants included Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority; Amr Moussa, secretary general of the League of Arab States; and high-level officials from Jordan, Palestine, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Bahrain.

When I spoke on the second evening of the conference about how to use social media to promote peace and security in the Middle East, I was struck by how willing many of the Arab leaders present were to more fully embrace these new social tools.

Among them was Khalid Alkhalifa, who describes himself on his Twitter feed as "Diplomat, Ambassador, Foreign Minister of Bahrain, Reader, World Traveler, Bon Vivant." He's also an impassioned tweeter, who has mastered the art of being familiar with his followers.

At the dinner, Jordan's foreign minister told me about a live Twitter interview he hosted this summer, where he took questions (many of them pointed) from Jordanian "tweeps" (using the hashtag #QFMJO: Questions for Foreign Minister of Jordan). Of course, Queen Rania has famously made Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (where she has 1.3 million followers) a vital part of her communications repertoire. Earlier this month, she tweeted, "Technology isn't just a luxury of the developed world; it's a crucial tool for the developing world" -- a powerful echo of Twitter founder Biz Stone's assertion that "Twitter is not a triumph of tech. It's a triumph of humanity."

All across the region governments, NGOs, groups, and individuals are utilizing social platforms to impact their societies -- politically, culturally, and socially.

In Jordan, young people are texting, tweeting, and using Facebook and YouTube to call attention to environmental issues. This is a concern across the region. Bahrain's Alkhalifa recently tweeted "UAE, Qatar, Bahrain named among worst polluters in global list."

In Egypt, young people are using social tools to put a spotlight on police brutality and to try to keep their government honest. Indeed, this week, Egypt will hold the first round of its parliamentary elections. The government is refusing to allow international observers to monitor the vote. But the website U-Shahid.org (which means "you are a witness" in Arabic) is trying to fill the void by soliciting citizen reports of election problems. Egyptians can report irregularities via email, Twitter (hashtag #USHAHID), and text message, which U-Shahid tracks on an interactive map. U-Shahid.org currently has 125 volunteers working on the project.

Elsewhere in Egypt, a new project aims to catalog instances of women being harassed on the streets of Cairo -- a huge problem there (83 percent of Egyptian women say they have been sexually harassed).

HarassMap is a new site that helps women to anonymously report mistreatment via Twitter, Facebook, email and text. The site hopes to identify the parts of Cairo where harassment is particularly prevalent, then do community outreach in those neighborhoods.

In Lebanon, the Social Media Exchange is training people to use social media to develop projects such as Building a Culture of Peace, which is geared toward teaching young Lebanese activists how to resolve conflicts.

And throughout the Middle East, young people are downloading the Mideast Youth iPhone App, a tool that promises to gather in one place what young people in the region are saying on Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed and a variety of popular websites. Among the features: a Middle East news feed, the latest tweets from the region, a Middle East youth podcast, and a list of human rights Facebook groups in the Middle East.

Watching social media take hold in the Arab world is like going back in a time machine and re-experiencing the sense of possibility and excitement that characterized the early internet years in the United State. Except, in the Middle East, that possibility carries with it a life-and-death urgency. When the Internet hit the United States, we were already a free society, awash in data and information. Just imagine the potential of this incredibly powerful and hard to contain technology in a region where information has been so tightly controlled.

The numbers are impressive: The Arabic version of Facebook added 1 million new users each month in June, July and August. Egypt alone added more than 600,000 users during that period.

There are now more than 15 million Facebook users in the region. It's not just the young signing up -- in the United Arab Emirates, for example, almost 70 percent of Facebook users are over 25 years old. And although the percentage is lower than it is in the West, women account for 37 percent of Facebook users in the Middle East.

Perhaps even more significant, the number of Facebook users in the region has now surpassed the number of newspapers subscribers -- a potential turning point, since the information that people see in print is easier to control than what people are able to access online.

This social networking explosion comes in the wake of the dramatic impact that Twitter had on the Iranian uprising in the summer of 2009. That was when the State Department, accurately sensing how important Twitter was becoming, requested that Twitter delay a planned network upgrade so that it didn't occur during daytime hours in Iran. Besides issuing statements of "strong concern" and threatening further sanctions, the State Department was hesitant to put direct pressure on the Iranian regime. Twitter, on the other hand, was "practically ideal for a mass protest movement," as Time's Lev Grossman wrote at the time, "both very easy for the average citizen to use and very hard for any central authority to control."

Not only did Twitter allow those inside Iran to communicate with each other, it allowed the rest of the world to see what was going on at a time when the regime had severely restricted the mainstream media's ability to cover the story.

A year before that, we saw how useful Twitter could be in an isolated instance. In April 2008, UC Berkeley graduate student James Karl Buck and his translator were arrested in Egypt while covering an anti-government protest. His one word tweet was "arrested."

And with that one word, he kicked into motion a chain of events. Friends quickly connected with each other and coordinated the hiring of a lawyer. Less than 24 hours later, another one word tweet was sent out: "Free." (Who says you need 140 characters?)

It's because of the remarkable and unruly power of social media that many governments in the region are dead set on trying to control it. As EFF reported this summer, attempts at censorship are popping up almost as fast as new users. The Afghan government blocks websites dealing with alcohol, gambling and, yes, social networking. And Pakistan announced intentions to put up barriers to Yahoo!, Google, and YouTube.

Of course, the rapid spread of technology is no guarantee of rapid transformation. As Alex Ross, senior adviser on innovation at the State Department, said to the VOA in July:

The Internet is a wildly powerful and disruptive tool. It can be used for good, it can be used for ill. It disrupts markets, it disrupts communication, it changes the way people connect and collaborate with one another, but it's just a tool, and it's a tool used by people for a variety of different ends.

That's certainly true, but it's hard to witness the spread of social media, especially among the young, and not believe that it has the potential to bring new solutions -- or at least the opportunity for them -- to a region that desperately needs them.

As the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians began, yet again, in September, with the same low -- if not lower -- expectations, Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post, presented social media as a possible catalyst for a breakthrough:

The ancient rivalries and the heavy burden of history are being lifted among a rising generation of world citizens even as the taupe generation rehashes the same -- may I just say -- absurd arguments over who gets to claim which square inch of the sandbox. That is so last millennium. Enter the Facebook generation, for whom el mundo es un pañuelo, as perhaps 500 million people might put it. Translation: It's a small world.

And though, as we've seen, technology can be used to terrorize and divide, social media, by its nature, tilts toward bringing down barriers and connecting people. Which is what is starting to happen in the Middle East -- a powerful tool in the crucial battle for hearts and minds being waged between the terrorists and the moderates.

No longer is our best hope for change in the region the far-too-often failed process of our government pressuring their governments. If fundamental change happens, it's going to come from the bottom up -- with social media fueling the transformation.

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