Twitter: The new pulse of the Arab Street

Shahira Fahmy
Saturday 9 Apr 2016

In the age of Twitter, the media are having a hard time influencing public opinion.

Let’s take John Kerry’s recent visit to Egypt, where he expressed the US’s concern over Egypt’s human rights situation. The American government’s position towards Egypt has, admittedly, been seriously confused in recent years. But I think that most of us would agree that it is in everyone’s best interests to get positive relations back on track instead of cultivating more negativity.

Not very likely anytime soon. The comments created a firestorm of indignation, including from the parliament. Suggestions included issuing condemnations of the US’s human rights violations such as Guantanamo detainees being held indefinitely without charge or trial and police brutality against black minorities.

And on Twitter, a hashtag was created (translating to “Expose America”) to vent about the US government’s hypocrisy. It delivered passionate anti-US rants, accusing Americans of a litany of shameful acts that they brag about while wagging fingers at others.

One tweet for instance called Americans “vampires who have horribly deformed the children of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.” If there were a thermometer to measure the heat generated, it would have been boiling.

Twitter – which just celebrated its ten-year anniversary – is transforming the landscape of who shapes public opinion. It is amplifying the legendary “Arab Street” and giving it even more prominence far beyond the Arab world.

Is this a good thing? The public’s engagement on Twitter is clearly adding to the diversity of political discussion. But there are two down sides.

First, the established media is being drowned out. Many will criticise them for being self-appointed elites, which sometimes pursue their own agendas and even in the West can pander to populist sentiment. But the truth is that as an institution, the media have always been critical to keeping the populace, including the political classes, informed about the issues. Now however it is being replaced by what is essentially a megaphone for the masses. 

About a year and a half ago my colleagues and I did a study to measure Twitter sentiments about US President Barack Obama, five years after his historic address in Cairo promising a new beginning in US-Egypt relations. Thousands of tweets in Arabic were analysed during the 2014 Eid Al-Fitr festivities, comparing those from the media to those from the public.

The public’s tweets were significantly more negative than the media’s, and were also more frequent. For example, the public blamed Obama for the 2014 conflict in Gaza between the Israelis and Hamas; the media’s references to the president were more neutral and nuanced.

The sentiments of the public’s tweets reflect the sentiments of the public. A poll by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude’s Project found that Middle Eastern people’s negative perceptions toward Washington are almost as low now as they were during the Bush administration.

If the public were listening to the media they might have been more neutral toward the Obama administration. But with Twitter, the people are listening to themselves. And the media are fighting an uphill battle.

Second, it is Twitter’s “shock jocks” who are holding sway. Like the Rush Limbaughs and the New York Posts in the United States, the more brash and simplistic your tweets are the higher the chances they will get re-tweeted. In my academic world I came across a study researching academic tweeting patterns, reported by Times Higher Education, concluding that success on Twitter can bear little relation to scholarly merit.

The follower counts were significantly skewed towards a small elite of users – the top 5 percent of the users accounted for 43 percent of all followers in the study. These Twitterati were not necessarily the top scholars; they were the ones following the most other users, posting the highest number of tweets, and participating the longest in their Twitter groups.

In short, these academics had figured out that the best way to get attention on social media is to participate actively. Irrespective of their academic credentials or credibility, they became the biggest influencers among their peers. So on Twitter the loudest, and not the best informed, win out. Try injecting reason into a system like that.

US diplomats need to better understand the new Street. The media can no longer be the reliable explainers they used to be. These days the sound waves created by a few talking points can quickly amplify into a deafening roar. The filters are gone; the rabble-rousers have replaced them.

And as for the media, they need to get back into the game. It’s time for them to figure out how to recapture the megaphone. Maybe, like the academic Twitterati, they should work on participating more actively.

The writer is professor at the University of Arizona and the first female Arab-American tenured journalism faculty member at a research university in the United States. Her book Visual Communication Theory and Research received the research excellence award for the most outstanding book of 2014 by the National Communication Association (NCA). Follow her on Twitter at @shahiraf.


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