Can 140 characters transform the Middle East?

Sara Elghobashy

September 27, 2009

Protests following the most recent Iranian elections opened the world’s eyes to the power of Twitter. While the social networking site was designed around the question “What are you doing?,” Iranian protestors used it to leak videos of demonstrations to foreign news sources and pressure the government to free prisoners. Whoever thought that 140 characters could be so powerful?

But just how powerful are Twitter and other social networking sites? Can social media transform the Middle East?

Well, it is the perfect way for disgruntled citizens to anonymously voice their political views, which are often stifled in their countries. The speed at which information is shared makes it easier to bring awareness to a news story, a political campaign or a social cause at a quick fire rate. And the sheer number of people utilizing sites like Twitter and Facebook enables one individual to reach millions of people at once.

Social media is already used all over the Middle East for online activism and mobilization. From unmarried women seeking to change the “spinister” mentality of Egyptians to Palestinians calling for Israeli settlement to come to a halt, Facebook has been used for social and political campaigns. And who can forget when young Egyptian women used the blogosphere to expose the government’s neglect to follow through on the sexual assault complaints filed after a Eid celebration in the streets of Cairo went horribly wrong?

However, in all the excitement about social media’s power, we forget about its limitations and the limitations placed on it by some governments. Twitter cannot force the Iranian government to hold a recount of votes. It will take a lot more than a Facebook group to stop the Israeli government from building new settlements. The blogosphere does not guarantee that the Egyptian government will try sexual predators. Furthermore, the internet is often regulated by countries desperately trying to maintain control of their citizens. Some Middle Eastern states have been known to block access to websites, filter content and monitor traffic to control the information disseminated within their borders.

So while social media continues to play a vital role in change, the Middle East (and the rest of the world) will always need people to step away from their keyboards and take other forms of action to see any real transformations.



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