Palestinians bemoan failure to exploit social media

West Bank bloggers awed by Arab Spring revolution launched by Facebook, encourage use of social networks.

By DAVID E. MILLER / THE MEDIA LINE
May 20, 2011 08:20
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RAMALLAH – The person behind the “People Want to End the Division” Facebook page must have been celebrating two months ago ahead of planned rallies across the West Bank and Gaza Strip calling for Palestinian national unity. Almost 41,000 people promised to turnout and close to another 6,700 said they would try.

But on March 15, the day of the event, only 4,000 turned out in Ramallah, which was the largest gathering. Another 1,500 assembled in Nablus. In the Gaza Strip, 3,000 rallied but their demonstration was quickly dispersed by Hamas operatives.

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Hamas and its arch-rival, Fatah, did sign a unity agreement in early May, just as the Facebook campaigners were demanding, but most analysts say the two movements acted in response to regional politics. Compared to the size and persistence of the social-media-inspired protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down Egyptian president Husni Mubarak, Palestinian social media was barely a blip.

Social media experts and activists are bemoaning the failure of Palestinians to join the Arab Spring and bring about bottom-up change through viral campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Indeed, the disappointment was palpable at a one-day conference in Ramallah last week that brought together academics, politicians and social activists.

Palestinians’ ability to mobilize social media could emerge as a key obstacle as activists try to build on what many perceive as the start of a new era of  resistance against Israel with massive, non-violent protests. Many are pointing to the breach of Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria this week by thousands of people as a model, although it’s not clear who or how they were organized.

Awed by the ability of their fellow Arabs over the last several months to use social networking to mobilize masses and topple dictators, many participants admitted they still had much to learn, even from Israeli activists, who they admitted often blog and Tweet their cause better than Palestinians do. The conference was aptly titled "Palestine in the World of New Social Media – a Culture in the Making.”



Salah Dawabsheh, a Palestinian blogger and social media expert, pointed to Bilin, a West Bank village whose farm fields have been cut off by the Israeli security barrier and has become the site of weekly protests. But Dawabsheh said activists failed to use all the on-line tools at their disposal to document their cause and get the word out.

"The village of Bilin, for instance, is doing a great job, but no one knows about it," he said. "A website is for old times. Today the real question is: do you have a Facebook page?"

Another activist, Atallah Al-Tamimi from the village of Nabi Saleh, northwest of Ramallah, said his village hosted a number of Facebook pages, but admitted that recruitment for demonstrations relied largely on international and Israeli volunteers. He blamed official Palestinian television for inadequately covering popular activity.

By regional standards, the Palestinians are well connected and enjoy greater freedom of expression. Some 32 out of every 100 Palestinians used the Internet in 2009, compared with approximately 24 per 100 Egyptians and 34 out of 100 Tunisians, two countries where mass rallies brought down dictators.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) says that nearly half of Palestinian households have a computer and almost a third is connected to the Internet. Use of the internet among Palestinian youth is particularly high, with some 88% of those between the ages of 15 and 29 reporting they use it.

"After the Arab revolutions, all my friends opened Facebook accounts," said Ali Taqatqa, 19, a student at Al-Quds Open University. "Today it is rare to find someone who doesn't use Facebook."

Dawabsheh added that Palestinians had the highest rate of smart phones in the Arab world, and could use them to video demonstrations and upload them to sites such as Facebook and Twitter, where they would have a viral effect. According to Dawabsheh, 3,000 Palestinian bloggers could also help spread the message.   

The Palestinian media, unlike its counterpart in Egypt and Tunisia on the eve of the Arab Spring, enjoy relative freedom.

Khaled Abu-Aker, a conference participant and journalist, recalled that he established Amin.org in 1996 to provide a platform for Palestinian journalists to publish articles that were censored in mainstream media. Over the years, his site has been hacked but it hasn’t been shut down. He gradually came to realize that traditional journalism, including the on-line variety, wasn’t enough.

"Today news is not conveyed by a journalist, but by a regular citizen in a remote village with a camera in his hand," Abu-Aker said. 

In 2007, Amin.org began hosting Palestinian blogs, he said, and today some 1,500 bloggers from Gaza and the West Bank use Amin to make their voice heard. Amin also provides training to Palestinians in creating blogs, use of social media networks, uploading videos and what he called "citizens' journalism".

In fact, some conference participants contended that the Palestinian failure to make use of social media was due to the fact the Palestinians enjoy comparative freedom.

"We don't need Facebook like the Egyptians did," said Dawabsheh. "We have freedom of speech, which they didn't. Even in this conference, we are free to criticize whoever we want."

Indeed, the biggest obstacle to Palestinians exploiting social media comes from the providers, rather than the government. A Facebook page calling for a Third Palestinian Intifada, or popular uprising, against Israel was shut down in March by the company after Israeli Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein complained it was inciting violence against Jews and Israelis.The page had garnered some 500,000 supporters, and was eventually closed. Facebook started by taking down comments and ripped out the whole page when the company found its administrators were echoing the violent statements of commentators. 

But Pro-Palestinian activists haven’t given up and have set up a new Facebook group with the same name calling for mass marches on Israel's borders this Friday. The page currently has 100,000 "likes." The group urges Arab activists in neighboring countries to storm Israel's borders as they did last Sunday, Nakba Day on the Palestinian calendar that commemorates the “catastrophe” of the State of Israel’s founding.

Jihad Shajaeha is suspicious of Facebook. A 20-something project coordinator for a West Bank youth forum, Shajaeha said he used to regularly upload photos and videos of Israeli attacks on Palestinians and write political status updates.  One day the site's administrator suddenly closed his account.

"Social media are not free, it's monitored," he told The Media Line on the sidelines of the conference. "If you want to organize a revolution, you can't sit in front of the computer. You need one hour in front of the computer and 10 hours on the street – that's where the real power base is

The Palestinians’ other problem may also be an overload of national politics. Unlike Egyptians and other, whose right to organize and express themselves politically was severely constrained, Palestinians have been fighting an open and upfront battle against the Israeli occupation for decades.

No one at last week’s conference, which numbered about 50 people, would admit top political exhaustion. But a group of teenagers sitting on the sidelines admitted that even though they were heavy users of Facebook, they employed it for fun and social purposes, like campaigning against the high cost of weddings.

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