I attended a fascinating talk with Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Non-resident Fellow at the Dubai School of Government and now a social media maven-by-happenstance in the UAE. A humble, young, well mannered and very likeable man, he became the premier tweeter during the radical Arab uprisings earlier this year. As he described it, he was just an average person who got swept up in the TV coverage of events, starting in Tunisia then cascading into Egypt, Bahrain and beyond. At the height of the Egyptian protests, he describes being in his apartment glued to several TVs watching different live broadcasts and tweeting constantly about what he was seeing. His story was gripping, and despite direct contact from an old friend telling him to stop out of fear for his safety, he said (rather humourously) “I just couldn’t stop tweeting. I tweeted about him telling me to stop, and he told me he saw my tweet!” Many other people, however, encouraged him to keep tweeting, as his tweets were feeding important information to his 3000+ followers, who in turn retweeted it for an estimated total reach of as many as 200,000 people. This was information like such-and-such action is happening on this street, or Mubarek loyalists are attacking a group or building at this address…” etc. He now believes his tweeting saved lives.
While it’s an inspiring story about the positive power of social media, he said that those governments caught unawares have now gotten social media savvy in a hurry, and in some cases are trying to use it for propaganda, suppression, disinformation and intimidation. Some countries are creating new ‘crimes’ in their penal codes for retweeting. Even in the West, we are seeing government intervention against flash mobs organized via social media in places such as London and San Francisco, and the debate is raging about when, if ever, pulling the plug might be within a government’s purview. While Sultan described social media and tweeting as still an elite activity in the Middle East (people in rural areas would not even have access), most young people in urban areas around the globe have no concept of a world without the internet. Such mixed applications of connected technology are the next step in the evolution of these sociological and anthropological phenomena.