Has Gulf Twitter Finally Realized How Hashtags Work?

Published August 23rd, 2017 - 03:11 GMT
Qataris have taken to Twitter to tell Qataris not to take to Twitter (Pixabay)
Qataris have taken to Twitter to tell Qataris not to take to Twitter (Pixabay)

Qataris have taken to Twitter to tell Qataris not to take to Twitter.

A hashtag has been trending in the tiny Gulf state instructing its citizens "not to participate in any suspicious hashtags".

Welcome to summer 2017 and the middle of a diplomatic crisis which has seen Qatar isolated by its closest neighbors - and given birth to a Twitter "war of words" between the two sides.

“Says a lot about Twitter in the Gulf,” Marc Owen Jones, lecturer in Gulf history at Exeter, tweeted in response to the tag, and it is certainly revealing about the extent that the escalating  tensions have been played out over the social media site.

In a typical response to the hashtag, the executive editor of Qatar’s al-Watan newspaper, Fahed al-Emadi, said: “Our participation makes them happy, so let us paint sadness on their faces and distance ourselves from their poisoned hashtags!”

This comes after Saudis had triumphantly claimed on Monday that “leave, Tamim” was trending at number one in Qatar. Al Arabiya even declared in a headline that “Qataris [were] flooding Twitter with hashtags demanding Sheikh Tamim ‘step down’”.

While Qataris were using the tag in large numbers, the majority were slamming it as the creation of Saudis determined to put pressure on the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

With this latest hashtag calling for a boycott of suspicious hashtags (i.e. those allegedly created by the Saudis), however, it seems that Qataris may have wised up to the fact that responding to trends actually promotes them, even if the intention is to refute the tag's claim.

But the Qataris are not alone in the Gulf for inadvertently boosting hashtags in the trending lists.

Saudi Arabia is the home of eyebrow-raising hashtags. In recent months alone, the Middle East’s most prolific Twitter users have managed to make the following tags trend.

In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, which has the death penalty for atheism and homosexuality, no diplomatic relations with Israel and is governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law, it is safe to say that these tags did not get to the top of the trending lists out of unfettered popularity.

Instead, tens of thousands of angry responses from Saudis, buoyed by a handful of positive tweets largely from expat Saudis or Arabs elsewhere in the region, fed the otherwise obscure hashtags.

The Gulf crisis: Brought to you by Twitter

One Saudi in particular has made Qataris cautious about responding to hashtags, since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt cut ties with Doha on June 5. Saud al-Qahtani is the “General Supervisor of the Center for Studies and Information Affairs” who seems to have taken on the role of commander in Saudi Arabia's battle for Twitter. His account issues a non-stop stream of anti-Qatari tweets and hashtags.

Last week his provocative comments implying Saudi Arabia could invade its tiny neighbor sparked an angry social media comeback from Qataris. Meanwhile, his call for Saudis to use the hashtag “blacklist” to inform on any Qatar sympathizers saw an online backlash on Saturday from those demanding freedom of expression.

Saudis clearly see al-Qahtani’s Twitter presence as a powerful tool in the efforts to pressure the Qatari leadership. On Wednesday, for instance, “Saud’s account to reach a million followers” was the country’s number one trend.

But it is not just al-Qahtani who is using Twitter to exert pressure on Qatar. In fact, the social media site has been used more subtly in the Saudi campaign to promote Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani, a little-known Qatari royal, ostensibly as a figure to aid regional reconciliation.

Coinciding with his emergence as a Saudi-backed “mediator”, Sheikh Abdullah launched a Twitter account on August 18, which already has 290,000 followers.

It is not clear whether his embrace by the Saudis is the beginning of an attempt to impose regime change in Qatar. However, it is undoubtedly a move aimed at placing further pressure on Qatar's Emir.

Meanwhile, both sides have accused the other of using “fake accounts” for malicious purposes.

The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported on July 6 that al-Qahtani had “revealed that a study listed more than 23,000 fake twitter accounts launched by Qatar to attack Saudi Arabia.”

It is perhaps not surprising that Twitter has been a key tool for shaping opinion during the Gulf crisis, given how many Saudis use the site. In 2014, Saudis represented a disproportionately large 40 per cent of the Arab world’s Twitter users. Twenty per cent of Saudis used the microblogging site in 2016 (nearly 6.4 million), according to the Global Media Insight website.

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