By RAYNALD C RIVERA
Like in some other Arab countries, in Qatar social media, especially Twitter, has become the most important platform for the local community to convey news, express its views and voice its concerns on issues that concern it — be they social, educational, political or any other. Gone are the days when the traditional media — both print and electronic — had to be relied on to get news and views. The public is fully aware that the traditional media have severe limitations and cannot cross red lines while reporting on events. This is where social media — where there are no boundaries, no censorship and which is more popular than traditional media — comes in.
The popularity of social media among Qataris can be gauged from two facts: First, the huge increase in the number of its users, and secondly, the kind of issues discussed on this platform.
According to the Arab Social Media Report, released by the Dubai School of Government, the total number of Facebook users in the Arab world at the end of May 2013 was 54,552,875, up from 45,194,452 in June 2012.
Out of 22 Arab countries, Qatar ranked fourth in Facebook penetration, with the United Arab Emirates occupying the top position. A big chunk of Qatar’s population used Facebook, and 54 percent of them were aged between 15 and 29 years, with the majority (72 percent) being male.
The total number of active Twitter users in the Arab world, the report said, was 3,766,160. Qatar ranked fifth in both Twitter penetration and number of tweets in the Arab world. And the number is rising dramatically.
As people have easy access to the Internet, they are getting aware of the importance of using social media as a source of information and a means of socialisation, providing services and addressing issues.
In a poll conducted by the Dubai School of Government, 28 percent of the respondents said their main source of news was social media while another 28 percent preferred traditional media.
Giving his views on the use of social media in the Arab world, Qatari novelist and columnist Abdulaziz Al Mahmoud says unlike in the West, Arabs lack confidence in traditional news sources, and that’s why they give comments after reading the news through social media.
“They have to express their ideas, whether they agree or oppose or add or correct information,” he noted.
Though social media includes both Facebook and Twitter, it is Twitter that is widely used by Qataris. “Facebook is seen as catering more to the youth, while Twitter is more serious and used by most people to raise issues and express opinions,” said a Qatari journalist.
In Qatar, no issue has been left untouched on social media — be it social services, education, health, municipalities’ activities, traffic, and projects and issues that affect people’s daily lives. Events in Egypt, Iraq and Syria are discussed on a daily basis and people freely express their views.
For example, more than 4,000 tweets in a few days led to the removal of French artist Adel Abdessemed’s “Coup de Tete” statue from the Corniche. The large sculpture showed Algerian-French football player Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head butt against Italian footballer Marco Materazzi. Faisal Al Marzouqi, prominent Qatari writer and active Twitter user, believes social media has been very influential and effective in Qatar and other Arab countries.
“This means social media has exceeded the traditional media, political organisations, political parties and civil organisations because just one tweet can affect economic and political activity and invite immediate reactions on issues,” he said.
The social media works fast, Marzouqi added, “something which could not be done by traditional media or political organsations. Therefore, the social media has changed perceptions about the media and is affecting the decision-making process because of its huge influence.”
Sometimes people from different Arab countries take sides on Twitter and engage in heated arguments. For example, after Dr Yusuf Al Qaradawi’s critical statements about the UAE in a Friday sermon in Doha, people supporting and opposing his views were engaged in an angry and heated debate on Twitter.
One advantage of the social media is that it builds common understanding and creates awareness through open discussion of issues of common concern.
“I don’t agree with the idea that social media is the source of rumours because the immediate reaction from Twitter users on a specific issue prevents the spread of rumours and corrects wrong information immediately,” said Al Marzouqi.
Many GCC citizens use social media because smartphones provide easy Internet access and they feel free to talk through social media, he added.
At the same time, the huge influence and the increasing popularity of this medium has sparked concern among governments, which have been taking measures to minimise its use and control its influence.
In December 2012, the UAE government issued an anti-cybercrime law which carries a penalty of three years’ imprisonment for anyone who criticises the president, his deputy or the governors of the seven emirates online. In July the same year, the Bahrain government took action against activists using social media. Also the same year, a Kuwaiti court sentenced a social media activist to 10 years in prison. Saudi Arabia also has an anti-cybercrime law that is being implemented strictly.
According to Al Mahmoud, the anti-cybercrime laws issued in the UAE and Saudi Arabia did not take into consideration the real nature of social media and the Internet. “They are dealing with social media as if it were traditional media like newspapers. Social media users are clever enough and use fake names to avoid the law,” he said.
Governments also resort to social media to directly or indirectly find out people’s opinions, which is a good thing, he said.
“Some officials think that social media users are in conflict with the government, but the fact is that they are concerned with issues affecting their daily lives, such as government services. If there are enough means of communication with different government bodies, people will not resort to social media,” he said.
He cited the case of Malaysia and South Korea, where government entities have social media accounts, so people can communicate with top government officials and express their opinion and the government considers their opinion.
Al Marzouqi was of the same view, saying, “if there is a means that facilitates communication between officials and society members, people may not need to use the social media widely.”
He said it would not be easy to control social media with laws because people would resort to using codes and different names, and this could lead to misuse of social media.
However, a few believe social media plays a negative role in family affairs and harms relationships.
One of the negative influences of social media on Qatari society has been that it has reduced the frequency of people visiting relatives and joining social gatherings, according to Dr Munira Al Rumaihi, professor of sociology at Qatar University.
During holidays like Eid, people use text messages and social media instead of visiting relatives. Even when they are together, social media becomes the subject of discussion, she observed.
She recommends parents closely watching their children’s use of social media to ensure their behaviour is not affected negatively. “Not only does social media affect relations in life, but also occupies the third position among things people spend their time on, after home and work or school.”
One negative effect of social media on couples’ lives, she stressed, is that it keeps each of them busy instead of giving time to each other, which frequently causes mistrust and sometimes leads to divorce.
In addition, social media affects people’s habit of reading books and newspapers, she said.
Dr Moza Al Malki, psychiatric consultant, said social media’s positive and negative aspects depend on the person using it.
Regarding social media’s effect on couples’ relationships, she said when TV and mobile phone first appeared, people blamed them for their problems, and the same is happening with social media.
“The problem is not modern technology but rather the user’s behaviour. Keeping away from these devices is not the solution because people have to use them, but they have to use them positively.”
At a recent conference, Ibrahim Al Naimi, chairman of the board of directors of Doha Centre for Interfaith Dialogue, underscored the important role played by social media in people’s lives, in particular its role in Arab Spring.
He said social media must not be used to create hate, discriminate and destabilise communities, and urged respect for all faiths in social media.
In the coming days, the role of social media is expected to increase in Qatar and the region and people will express their views more freely and without fear. According to a New York Times report, in Saudi Arabia, a campaign that supported women’s right to drive generated more than 600,000 tweets, attracting international attention.
A third of Saudi Internet users access Twitter each month, the largest proportion in the world, according to data from PeerReach. YouTube and Instagram are the other two most popular social media sites in the kingdom. According to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the influence of Twitter and Facebook and the change taking place in Saudi Arabia via social media has never been seen before in the kingdom.