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Social media in the era of ISIS

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This post, which explores the social media landscape in the Middle East, is part of a series related to the upcoming 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy: Triumphs and Tragedies: Media and Global Events in 2014, which took place in Vienna, Austria from April 19-21, 2015. 

The 2015 seminar was jointly organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, the American Austrian Foundation, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. For more information, visit the seminar webpage and Facebook page.

Even before the Arab Spring, activists took to social media to disseminate information in an atmosphere where the narrative was tightly controlled by the state.

In November 2007 YouTube shut down the account of Egyptian activist Wael Abbas after he posted a video showing police brutality for containing “inappropriate material.” The video was later re-instated following an outcry from human rights advocates and was then used to convict the two police officers of brutality.

During the 2006 Israeli air campaign on Lebanon, activist artist Zena El Khalil turned her blog “Beirut Update” into a source for news about the war and was featured in international media including CNN, BBC and The Guardian. In the summer of 2010 an anonymously administered Facebook page titled ‘We are all Khaled Saeed” after a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by police officers became a focal point for anti-regime protests leading up to the January 2011 uprising.

For the next few months social media was prominently used almost exclusively by activists across the Middle East and North Africa from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula. By 2012 Arab governments had woken up to the “threat” of social media and started imposing harsh penalties on activists further pushing them underground. There was also a significant splintering amongst activists who in some cases following the ouster of the head of the regime turned against each other. The online honeymoon was over.