Effect Of Twitter On Civic Engagement In Saudi Arabia Research Paper Example
Social media is a phenomenon which has changed society in ways that one can hardly imagine; and this change is still happening. New ways and new purposes for use are being evolved every day which changes social interaction – making things possible which were never before even conceivable. Politics is arena where social media has left an indelible mark. Over the past few years, as social media in the form of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and many other such portals have altered the way one approaches and engages in politics and social activism in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchal society in almost every sense. It is based on the sovereignty of the King and the royal family alone. Jeddah and Riyadh noted in their article ‘A Virtual Revolution’ that traditional media sources such as newspapers and the radio are sources for pandering to those in power. It consists of the usual run-of-the-mill praise for the policies being made with little or no critique. It is small wonder, then, that most Saudi Arabian citizens turn to alternate sources for light entertainment and social engagement (Jeddah & Riyadh 2014). The journalists go on to note how a large proportion of the citizenry look to sources like YouTube channels for more directly relevant needs.
Social media has infiltrated Saudi Arabian society in numerous ways ranging from Jihadists publishing news about their victories and beliefs on Facebook to teachers and professors being forced to use Twitter as the only way to get their students’ attention regarding projects and assignments. This new arena of public expression of emotions, beliefs and political stances has, as most social phenomena do, another side. Social media has the power to raise common citizens to an elite level by making them famous for their broadcasts and make the royal family common by publicizing their every thought and political move. This could have serious security implications and the Saudi Arabian government has not been blind to this.
Such a nexus of freedom and restraint has caused a unique situation to arise in the Saudi Arabian social media scene. One is strongly encouraged to participate in politics and decision making, especially the youth; while equally strong censure is maintained in order that security is not compromised. In all of this Twitter, with its ability to deliver sharp, clipped, ‘headline-like’ messages has risen to an extraordinary level of importance in the Saudi Arabian socio-political scene. To better understand how this works one must first better understand how the union of twitter and politics took place.
Firstly, Twitter is not as privacy oriented as other social media forums like Facebook. By this it is meant that before one can ‘tweet’ a message, one must be aware that absolutely anyone can access it. Unlike Facebook, where one must send a friend request and get it approved before one can see what someone else has posted, in Twitter, anyone can quite easily start following another person without that person ever realizing that they have a new viewer. This is especially important when considering the situation of Saudi princes – any one of them would have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of followers and any of them might join or leave without it coming directly to the knowledge of the prince. This adds a layer of anonymity and secrecy for the citizens. They can access information quite easily without fear of being discovered.
With this fact in mind, the more shrewd government-based users of Twitter can manipulate their audience to see only certain facts. In the book ‘Politics and the Twitter Revolution: How Tweets influence the relationship between political leaders and the public’, authors John H. Palmelee and Shannon L. Bichard discuss in detail how political leaders use Twitter to direct their audience’s attention to their own successes or their opponents failures. Extensive research has been done on the psychology of Twitter audiences and the likelihood of their following such tweets unquestioningly. However, the fact remains that whole societies can be mobilized and set in a particular direction by the right kind of tweets (Parmelee and Bichard 2013). This brings up the question of Saudi Arabia. How does the unique social nexus of Saudi Arabia create its own brand of followers and dissidents on Twitter?
Youth participation in Civic affair began in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s with the with the establishment of General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) in 1974. This was a scheme to foster boys’ interest in sports, literature, drama, art, folklore, and crafts among a host of other areas. Parallel to this, women were also given more and more opportunities and were encouraged to take a larger role in the running of the country. This, then, can be seen as the genesis of the spirit of civic engagement in Saudi Arabia because the children of the 1970s are the adults of today. As all facets of society, the notion of Civic Engagement has had to change and evolve through the years and now Twitter has come about as a major initiator for the youth of Saudi Arabia to engage in civic activities.
Twitter, with its image as a current and trendy social portal and its ability to transmit messages to millions in less than a second, has been used to further to cause of many social institutions in Saudi Arabia. But, as mentioned earlier, there is another side to this speed and convenience. There is both a notoriety and an anonymity present in Twitter which can be controlled by the user and thereby permits him/her a level of freedom simply not possible anywhere else. This freedom might initially seem a good thing, but it can be used dangerously. On the other side of civic engagement and positive social change, there is dissent and violent change. To better understand these, one must look into who uses Twitter and how they use it.
The question of who uses Twitter is quite easily answered. Lori P. Boghardt noted in her paper ‘Saudi Arabia’s War on Twitter’ that of the 4.8 million active users of the social portal, the vast majority is the youth. The youth of Saudi Arabia are avid consumers of social media in almost any form. Twitter then becomes a powerful tool to influence the minds of the young. For example, Boghardt noted that one of the most used hashtags in the past year or so was – ‘The salary not enough.’ This raises two fundamental questions – what does this message mean and what effect will it have?
As mentioned earlier, the demographics of Twitter are vast and varied. No clear generalization is possible without running the risk of ignoring vital information. What then can a hashtag like ‘the salary is not enough’ tell? Certainly one cannot assume that everyone who tweets this hashtag means that they are fundamentally dissatisfied and upset with their salary. Instead, looking at it from a more sociological point of view, it is a matter of fashion rather than actual fact. But such imitation can lead some to believe that their salary is really not enough, even if it is not true.The hashtag is an especially interesting feature of Twitter as it allows people to search and find information regarding certain topics as one would search for any other information on the internet. This is a phenomenon seen quite strongly in Canadian politics, and can be said to be true for the Saudi Arabian scenario as well (Small 2010).
This brings up the second question – what effect will it have? It could contribute to a common belief that Saudi Arabia in general does not pay its citizens well enough. Whether or not this statement is true or not is a question for another paper in another field of study. But for this paper, it must be considered that the creation of such a belief is very much a possibility on social platforms such as Twitter.
It is to be noted that the previous paragraph only speaks of belief, not action or engagement of any sort. Boghardt noted early in her paper that while Twitter in Saudi Arabia has a vast and very active community, it is more suited to voicing opinions than starting large-scale social change. She noted that only a few citizens use Twitter to try to bring about social change and an equally few number of citizens respond to this. As such, Twitter in the realm of social change and civic engagement has met with limited success in Saudi Arabia, however, it has proved to be a very powerful weapon in other ways. So much so that Saudi Arabian government has actually begun, as Boghardt says, waging war on Twitter.
Particularly in the spheres of governance and religion, this facet of twitter is being actively battled. Although Saudi Arabia cannot be called a theocratic state, religion figures very prominently in all of the country’s social, economic, political, and legal enterprises. Most importantly, Sharia law is followed which makes religious leaders nor merely spiritual guides but also legal advisors, practitioners and, most significantly, judges and dispensers of justice. Given this powerful influence religion has over society, it has a high stake on the actions of media like Twitter in their attempts at social change. Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah al-Sheikh has made it clear that he is hostile to Twitter and the possibilities it presents to social change and civic engagement. He viewed Twitter as a source of political estrangement through constant bickering and trouble mongering. He believed that it undermined authority and disregarded the traditions and customs of Saudi Arabia. This characterization of Twitter is clearly because of the possibility Twitter gives users to engage in non-religious modes of critique of power and authority. The Grand Mufti also said that Twitter was a threat to national security owing to its feature of giving people an unbridled level of freedon and liberty to say what they feel rather than what is needed.
This conflation between the powers of social media and the good and evil of the world is one which many religions have done. The difference is that in Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment has the power to do more than voice their opinion about it. In this confrontation between social media and the religious establishment, social change and civic engagement take on a new hue as certain forms of engagement are deemed unlawful and others are not. The blanket denouncement of Twitter as a force for destroying people in this world and the next clearly does not detter people from using the social website, rather it causes them to do so in more subtle ways, if they do, in fact, intend to use it to critique the government or cause any kind of social change. This need for subtlety could be the reason for the general ineffectiveness of Twitter to spawn any truly large-scale social change or civic engagement.
As mentioned earlier, Twitter gives its users a certain level of anonimity which allows them to function more openly online, stating things which they would not otherwise say. In Saudi Arabia, it is the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information which is tasked with the regulation of Twitter. By their own account this is a behemoth task, if not one which is simply impossible. Boghardt noted that the ministry’s chief – Abdel Aziz Khoja had voiced just such opinions regarding his job of keeping Twitter under check.
At this point, the most logical thing for the government to do is to narrow down their list of people they need to monitor. This is exactly what the government has done by focusing much more on people in power than the general citizenry. This makes good sense – without a strong head not organized form of dissent can survive long. Clearly this is yet another reason why Social change and civic engagement have not fully grown in Saudi Arabia – those who attempt to use these platforms in such ways are not those in power, or those who can influence the people. These users rarely ever make over-bold statements for fear of being reprimanded – the Al Jazeera media network noted that three lawyers, Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan, and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih, were prosecuted based solely on the comments they made on Twitter which were alledged to be against the sovereignty and independence of Sharia Law in Saudi Arabia.
A curious fact, however, is that such repressive measures have not, in fact, mamaged to repress the the use of Twitter in such ways. Certainly, there is no possibility of mobilizing a large-scale, physical social gathering for change, but by unyieldingly using Twitter and other similar sites to voice opinons of what might subsequently be branded dissent or even rebellion, social media, especially Twitter, become platforms for beginning social change by simply talking about it. Even if nothing concrete can be done, the sensitization of thousands, if not millions of Saudi Arabian citizens to social issues can be called Civic engagement. Earlier in this paper, it was mentioned that the hastag ‘the salary is not enough’ could be used to spawn awareness, now one can say with confidence that this is in fact what it does.
More recently, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information has begun employing experts to intercept encrypted messages from social media such as Twitter. Naturally, it is impossible to have the required number of these experts to turn these random sweeps into an organized cyberpolice unit but such random monitoring does cause people to become more and more aware of the possibility of being caught. This possibility causes people to be more careful as to how they go about using social media, Twitter is more and more being used carefully so as to not incur the wrath of the authorities.
Despite some Twitter users (quoted in the Al Jazeera article) stating that the laws of Saudi Arabia were relics of the middle ages, the favoured course of action for offenders relating to social media in the country is imprisonment (after lengthy courtroom proceedings). Political activists, social critics, and semipublic figures who are seen to hold influence over any significant number of people are the main targets of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
One particular reason for discontent is the use of vague language and easily manipulable words in crafting legal documents pertaining to internet regulation. One particularly important legal document is the 2007 Anti-Cybercrime law which has subsequently been used ruthlessly to imprision many social critics in Saudi Arabia.
A common feature of all these points is that people are punished for acts which are deemed to undermine authority, particularly the authority of religion and the prevailing Sharia Laws. It is at this point that one must draw a distinction between social change and civic engagement to clearly understand where Twitter stands. Social change is, as the authorities of Saudi Arabia fear, that which can undermine authority, whereas civic engagement simply implies participation.
The real problem one can see after all this is that there is no clear distinction between these two (social change and civic engagement). The censors of Saudi Arabia wholly cover and rejet Twitter and other social media without drawing distinction between the various ways in which it can be used. This creates a problem. As Parmelee and Bichard noted in their book, Twitter is space for political activism, whether it is in the form of politicians speaking to their voters or the people speaking to eachother regarding their politicians. Once this space is created it cannot be shut down very easily. Despite the best efforts of the Saudi Arabian government, Twitter remains a powerful tool, if not for social change or civic engagement, at least for creating awareness. This awareness, moreover, is Twitter’s unique brand of Saudi Arabian social change and civic engagement.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the functioning of Twitter in Saudi Arabia is quite different from anywhere else. It is a curious mix of attempted restriction and freedom which causes people to have both anonymity and noteriety depending on their own status as either public (or semipublic figures) or private citizens. Twitter as a force for civic engagement cannot be sstudied in the traditional sense, that is, by looking for physical manifestations of this engagement. One must look into cyberspace alone to see how well and how far such engagements have penetrated into the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Twittersphere. of course, much more research can be done on various parts of this paper such as the distinction between social change and civic engagement, how this plays out in Twitter and if there is any true or material difference between them in the Twittersphere. Regardless of these distinctions, Twitter is clerly a force here to stay and act in many unique ways.
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