Tweeting for change: Professors say social media is pivotal in the Middle East

‘Blogger activists’ and social media are driving forces in the changing social climate of the Arab world, said several professors who spoke last night in the second-to-last installment of the Foley Institute’s Coffee & Politics lecture series.

“The media in Egypt now, the mass media, and across the Muslim world have now become weapons of war,” said Lawrence Pintak, a former CBS News Middle East correspondent and the dean of The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.

The lecture, titled “The Media and Political Transformation in the Arab World,” also featured visiting professors Deen Freelon and David Faris.

Freelon, an assistant professor of communication studies at American University and author of the 2012 Blogs & Bullets series, focused his research on political communication via Twitter in Syria. Specifically, he assessed the number of retweets that contain the keyword ‘Syria’ in both English and Arabic.

“The reason we focus on retweets is because retweets act as social signifiers of attention,” Freelon said.

Retweets, more so than original tweets, show true interest from a population, he said.

Twitter users generated 25.4 million retweets regarding Syria between Jan. 1, 2011 and Aug. 13, 2013, he said.

“Syria is one of the most, if not the most, socially mediated conflicts,” he said. “Nearly everything everyone outside of Syria knew about what’s going on inside of Syria is due to some form of social media.”

Faris is a professor of political science and public administration at Roosevelt University and the author of “Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt.”

He focused his research on the influence of social media in the Egyptian uprising of 2011. He said one of the first turning points in that conflict was the rapid growth and popularity of blogging that started in the early 2000s.

“There was no other way at the time to express your political viewpoints,” Faris said, noting that the popularity of blogs grew into close collaboration between Egyptian newspapers and the bloggers themselves.

“They became blogger activists,” he said. “The blogs became kind of a source for the traditional journalist.”

The blogger activists were effective because they were willing to push the boundaries that impeded traditional political journalists, he said.