In December, the Online Collaborative Club of the American University of Beirut organized Blogging Lebanon, a conference for more than 150 Lebanese and Arab bloggers, e-activists, journalists, students, professors and others interested in social media. The convention demonstrated that social media are central to the Arab world today, and essential for positive change.
In the Arab world, many diplomats and politicians have started using social media tools to improve their relationships with citizens. Examples include the emir of Dubai, Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, Jordan’s Queen Rania al-Abdullah, and the wife of Qatar’s emir, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned. These high-profile people all have personal accounts on Facebook and Twitter, demonstrating how much social media have evolved. Now, even diplomats and politicians are discussing society’s problems and issues online. But not everyone is finding it easy.
The British ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, spoke during the convention about difficulties that diplomats face when blogging. After she blogged about the passing of the Shiite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah and praised him she later apologized in another post if the “praise” offended anyone since her post had sparked extensive controversy.
Lebanese politicians have taken advantage of this social media to encourage debate and conversation on Facebook and personal blogs, and to respond directly to questions – especially from youth – about a variety of social and political issues. For example, Lebanese parliamentarian Nouhad Machnouk organizes a weekly live discussion with youth on Facebook and has over 3,000 followers.
The rise of social media – and politicians using it – may be due to the fact that mainstream media in the Arab world have lost part of their credibility as media industries are usually run by political parties. In such outlets news is reported and interpreted in a way that serves that party’s interests, particularly in Lebanon.
Perhaps because of this, youth have started to use the Internet as one of their main sources of news and information. Accordingly, politicians have begun to go online to connect with youths and build a direct relationship with them. In this way, social media are actually reshaping how politicians relate to constituents.
In addition to becoming a meeting space for officials and their constituents, blogging has also become a forum for resourceful creativity that can reshape social norms.
This is evident in Shankaboot, an online mini-series that examines social issues in the Middle East. It focuses primarily on issues facing Beirutis that are not addressed by traditional Lebanese television dramas. It is the first of its kind in the Arab world.
The series highlights issues facing the marginalized and poor, which are rarely portrayed in media. In particular, Shankaboot reflects challenges facing youth such as drugs, domestic violence, and unemployment. The series depicts daily life in Beirut as well as the adventures of Suleiman, the main character, a young delivery boy who crosses the city on his motorcycle.
During the Blogging Lebanon convention, Arek Dakessian, the online content and community manager of Shankaboot, and Toni Oyry, the project manager, spoke about their use of social media to reach people. Shankaboot has already touched more than half a million people, including 337,000 visitors to the shankaboot.com  website, 291,000 YouTube viewers, 18,500 Facebook friends, and 1,163 Twitter followers.
The most significant conclusion of the conference was that no one is immune to social media. Activists in Lebanon and the Arab world use them to protest human rights violations or support causes. Government officials use them to communicate and gain feedback from constituents. “E-activists” have used such media to defend bloggers, journalists and activists who have been arrested for expressing their opinions, such as Bahraini blogger Ali Abdel Imam, arrested for “spreading false information.”
In 2010, there were many similar cases of activists being arrested, as well as others using social media to come to their defense. This escalated more recently with popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where social media have played a significant mobilizing role. All this serves as proof of the significance of social media, but also of the speed of their progress throughout the Arab world.
By Hani Naim