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Between Twitter and ignorance - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The virtual world, also known as cyberspace, is vast, and social media is considered its most prominent tool these days. However, there is a considerable difference between the developed world and the Third World in general, and specifically the Arab nations, in terms of the way each uses the virtual world. Here I am talking about one of the most effective forms of social media today, and this is “Twitter”, rather than the more widely known “Facebook”.

The Twitter website, which coined the term “tweet” – a comment consisting of 140 characters or less that is instantly uploaded to a user’s page – has now become the fastest-growing and most effective public forum due to its ability to publish a quick and a brief idea in a timely and direct manner. This has forced people to practically apply the famous saying “less is more”. In the West, in most cases, Twitter is used to express personal opinions, report light news, make acquaintances, initiate discussions and adopt ideas or causes with what is known as the “Hashtag”. In the Arab domain, Twitter discussions and tweets can take on a more unpleasant form; full of suspicion, accusations of treason, and sentiments of concern and insult. Consequently, various social ills are brought to the surface; from abhorrent sectarianism to racial hatred, blind fanaticism to glaring ignorance, all clearly reflecting the existing political, social and cultural reality. This is due to the lack of existing platforms in the Arab world, which must be present in any civil, free and modern society in order to absorb such sentiments.

Governments seem comfortable about the existence of this cyberspace, believing that it functions as a place for people to “let off steam” and get negative feelings off their chest. However, the reality shows the existence of genuine crises and huge social cracks that suggest imminent and looming problems. Heated virtual confrontations are left hanging in space, in the modern version of sweeping problems under the carpet until they pile up and grow into small mountains. It is natural for there to be different opinions within one society, and for each side to have its own arguments, evidence and proof to support its positions, but this should remain within the boundaries of a wider collective identity, and the boundaries of the homeland and religion. The problem lies in the lack of natural platforms that can transform such disparities into constructive opinions to formulate policies and legislation later on.

An observer of the Arab tongue-lashing on Twitter would be horrified and shocked at the amount of rage, hostility and despair evident amongst the majority of users, a majority that is supposed to be knowledgeable, informed and educated. This majority is supposed to have the minimum tact required to engage in dialogue, accept other opinions, and adopt democracy and pluralism in its different forms. Yet, the reality is completely different, for we find a repressive, despotic, arrogant and authoritarian language, full of accusations of blasphemy, treason and dishonesty, alongside ethnic and sectarian slurs and other heresies. These all reveal that despite the latest tools of communication and technology, the virus of ignorance still exists, even though it belongs to the ancient age of the dinosaurs, not the modern age of the internet. Even cyberspace, with its modern tools and distinguished means, can function as a means to spread poison and hatred, and intensify our political, social and cultural concerns.

We should not be amazed by the immense number of users in cyberspace, who are busy using its millions of different websites, but rather we must be concerned by their means, sayings, opinions and tendencies. Cyberspace is a ticking time bomb, which will impact upon everyone if it explodes.

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi

Hussein Shobokshi is a businessman and prominent columnist. Mr. Shobokshi hosts the weekly current affairs program Al-Takreer on Al-Arabiya, and in 1995 he was chosen as one of the "Global Leaders for Tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum. He received his BA in Political Science and Management from the University of Tulsa.

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