Networks, Social Media and Political Change in MENA

Michelle Zilio

Published: December 2011

Keywords: social media, governance, twitter, MENA, Fragile / Weak States, Human Rights


Executive Summary
Conference Report (DRAFT 2)
The University of Victoria's Centre for Global Studies hosted the Networks, Social Media and Political Change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) conference from November 29 to December 1, 2011 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. A group of 27 academics, activists, government and private sector representatives, and social media experts gathered for three days to discuss this timely subject matter. The conference was structured into five informal discussion forums and included a web conference with individuals from the MENA region.
The conference began with a review of the role of social media in MENA since the start of the phenomenon known popularly as the Arab Spring. After canvassing the types of hardware/software which might be characterized as constituting "social media", participants agreed that the role of those media varied from country to country, largely depending on the degree of Internet penetration. A lively discussion ensued on the relationship between traditional (printed press, television networks) and new/social media in MENA over the last year. Participants agreed that the old and new media were interacting and evolving in relation to each other. A combination of old and new media often significantly affected specific event outcomes, although the level of impact depended on circumstances. They also agreed that the media as a whole contributed to a demonstration or cascade effect from one country to another. The role of journalism in MENA was examined, including the differing practices and approaches of the two Al Jazeera networks.
The general parameters of social media effects were agreed upon. These included - various types of organizing function; an important "witnessing" function, which served to draw global attention to events in a specific country at critical times; and the mobilization of outside expertise, so that the social media could be used to encourage or facilitate transnational collaborative problem solving.
After reflecting on the role of social media and their underlying social networks in MENA, three current initiatives were presented: Cloud to Street (a Canada-based collaborative project which seeks to mobilize expertise to help Egyptian activists maximize their political power), Ushahidi (a non-profit tech company which develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping), and MediaBadger (a Canadian social and media commercial research firm providing critical actionable intelligence to
Michelle Zilio - Rapporteur December 16, 2011
government, IGOs and the private sector). All three groups have generated tools which are currently being used to analyze and build civil society and democracy in the region.
Victoria participants were joined by 13 individuals in remote locations in the Middle East and elsewhere in North America for further discussion, mostly focussed on possible future activities. The general conclusion was that outsiders could be a useful resource, although the priorities would have to be set by the people of the MENA region themselves. The discussion also canvassed the limitations of the social media and the issues raised by the involvement of large, for-profit enterprises in Internet-related businesses. Taking into account these areas of concern, the larger group brainstormed a number of ways in which they could personally assist with political change through the use of social media and personal networks.
The group concluded that future meetings would be beneficial. The focus of this next tranche of work should be on how social media can be used to root democracy in the region and to foster the development of democratic institutions.

Disciplines: Governance, Human Security, Security and Conflict

Publication: Consolidated-MENA-conference-report.pdf