Social networking websites caught the attention of the people and governments of the Middle East after their impact and influence on the course of the Green Revolution in Iran, following the presidential election there in 2009. Such websites motivated the Iranians to protest against vote-rigging, and continue with their resistance against the savage and systematic “Basij” forces. These websites undertook the task of providing people with audio-visual dispatches of up-to-the-minute news and details of what was going on in the street, something that the regime’s traditional media would never allow.
Twitter functioned as the first stage for distributing media material, which was uploaded via YouTube.
We all remember the assassination footage of the young woman Neda Sultan during the Iranian people’s revolution. This scene made her an icon of freedom, although she was not a political activist and was killed simply for crossing the street at the wrong time, being shot in the neck by one of the Basij elements. Yet, thanks to a passing camera, the world watched the last moments of her life.
It was a pure coincidence that I was among the first people to view this painful footage, after it was uploaded on Twitter and YouTube. This gave me the opportunity to keep track of how people would interact with such exciting new ways to deliver news. In the space of one hour, the number of viewers had increased to nearly 5,000, and this figure continued to rise constantly so that within a few hours it stood at around 100,000. The surprise, however, was that only one day later the viewer increase rate had declined dramatically. As time passed, the number of viewers watching the footage came to a standstill.
What happened? Had people lost interest in viewing, or had the incident lost its value?
The only apparent reason was that Arab or Western satellite channels had picked up on the footage and displayed it in front of their audiences, but after adding analysis and commentary. In other words, these channels were not only filling people in on the incident alone, but also on its related consequences.
To those who are inclined to say that Facebook and Twitter have surpassed television in terms of influence, because these websites serve as the primary stimulant of Arab public opinion, I would say that they should reconsider their opinion. Let us begin the story from the outset: When the internet first entered the Arab region in the late 1990s, people rushed towards online forums that provided unprecedented room for opinion and expression. Some closed societies discovered that there were other people that existed with them on earth; people that were different from them, with whom they could communicate on the internet, removing any distances or barriers between them. Today, people have abandoned their old forums and migrated to Twitter, believing that it is an easier and more appropriate tool to express an opinion, obtain information and interact with others.
In reality, every technology has its lifespan, and every modern technology threatens the one that preceded it, meaning that these tools are unstable, and depend on the people themselves who feel bored, excited or influenced by them. Twitter can shape public opinion only in societies that lack a wider awareness of what is going on, because its credibility is doubtful, and it operates in a non-selective, unspecialized and irresponsible environment. However, Twitter functions as a very good distributor and a rapid means of publication. It is a suitable arena for gossip and venting anger, and a good indicator to gauge the public mood.
To provide two pieces of evidence, let us first recall the day when Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem came out in a press conference to show the world a video recording of killings and mutilations, claiming that the crime was committed by armed terrorist groups, which Syria claims to be fighting against. When people saw this footage screened on their television screens, they accused Muallem of lying, and exposed the truth, namely that the images were of crimes committed in Lebanon in 2008 that had nothing to do with the Syrian situation.
The al-Assad regime was successful in creating and promoting this news item on Facebook and Twitter, yet it failed to do so when it screened it on television.
The second incident also relates to the situation in Syria, namely when President Bashar al-Assad boasted of being strong and having control of the ground during the current crisis in Syria, meaning his military and security domination. Yet, he admitted that he had no control over “space”, meaning his inability to influence the satellite channels that stand against him and uncover the true state of affairs in Syria. Here al-Assad did not disparage Facebook or Twitter – as both of these tools are available to him in the same manner that they are available to anyone else – but with regards to television, the calculations are different.
Satellite channels’ dominant influence over Arab public opinion with regards to the situation in Syria frightens the al-Assad regime, and therefore it is striving to jam their broadcasts and hack into their websites. Al-Assad was right to consider the satellite media as a worthy adversary to his military operations, for what is happening in Syria is indeed a war between the Syrian regime and “space” [satellite television channels].
Without a doubt, television is still the giant in the media. It is a direct influence that has transcended living rooms to hair salons, medical clinics and airports, and has withstood all other modern communication equipment and technology. It has earned the trust of the people because its professionalism is subject to the assessment of its audience, in every minute of its broadcast. Therefore, respectable satellite channels must scrutinize and examine the news they receive before they approve or retract its screening, or comment upon, analyze or repeat the broadcast.
Any other media tool is in fact working to the advantage of television, consolidating and strengthening its hegemony.