The downside of social media

Hurriya Ziada leads a protest in Ramallah's Manara Square. Photo by Niharika Mandhana.

By Niharika Mandhana

RAMALLAH — A door of unprecedented communication opened among Palestinian youth as they watched the revolutions unfold in Egypt and other Middle East countries. Taking a page from their Arab neighbors, young Palestinians adopted the tools of their generation – the Internet, Facebook and Twitter – to discuss everything, from their vision for Palestine to the logistics of their newborn movement. They set March 15th as the common day for protests in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nablus and Gaza City as well as New York, London, Beirut and Rome, calling for an end of division between the political establishments in the West Bank and Gaza.

The protests launched a new and ambitious movement among Palestinians, but the leaders of the movement quickly found that the technologies they employed had definite downsides.

“These networks are open,” said Fadi Quran, a 23-year-old activist from Ramallah who liaisons between youth groups. “So the fact is that if you can reach a lot of people, a lot of people can reach you too.”

Quran first learned this lesson when he created a Facebook event in January calling for a demonstration to express solidarity with the Egyptian revolution. A few days later, he recalled, three Palestinian intelligence officers in plain clothes barged into his house and interrogated him for 11 hours before forcing him to close the event, claiming they had orders from President Mahmoud Abbas.

Activists like Quran who are spearheading the movement’s social media presence by creating events under their names and acting as online administrators say they have often been singled out for questioning and arrest, even among large crowds of protesters.

“The police say to us, ‘We know you started this on the Internet,’” said Quran. “Obviously, they are following what we are doing on social media websites.”

Despite the fallout, the leaders of the movement applaud the role that Facebook and Twitter have played. Hurriyah Ziada, 21, believes that it was social media that brought the Palestinian youth together in the first place. In February, when YouTube videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were fresh in their minds, independent groups from the West Bank and Gaza began creating Facebook pages announcing protests on different dates, from March 12th to the 21st. Each group stumbled on the other, divided by territory but united by ideology.

“Our situation is very different from Egypt or Tunisia,” said Ziada, pointing out that the people from the West Bank and Gaza can’t meet each other because of the restrictions on travel. “If it wasn’t for the Internet, it would have taken too long, and it would have been very difficult and expensive for groups from the two sides to get together and organize something on this scale.”

The Palestinian admiration of social media has since been tempered with caution. They have learned that if the World Wide Web can be can be used to unite, it can just as easily be used to divide. Facebook pages dedicated to the movement are littered with comments aimed at intimidating protesters. “Who is brave enough to go on the streets? Hamas are the best,” Ziada pointed one out, translating from Arabic. But the bigger problem, she believes, is the possibility that the political parties, Fatah and Hamas, are using social media forums as their political playground.

“You never know who is really posting the comments and messages,” she said, conjecturing that some anti-protest posts under Hamas’ name had been planted by Fatah to make their political opponents look out-of-tune with the people. “Political parties have quickly understood how to use social media for their benefit.”

In the last few years, social media has been celebrated as the force behind many of the world’s revolutions. In 2009, when a people’s movement erupted in Moldova against the re-election of the country’s communist party, it was widely dubbed as a “Twitter revolution,” a moniker that reflected the role of the micro-blogging site in mobilizing support. In the same year, a “Facebook revolution” broke out in Iran where hundreds of people took to the streets protesting what they believed to be fraudulent elections. More recently, the uprisings in the Arab world have been considered a testament to the power of a networked generation. Such widespread influence has led to the belief that social media has crafted a new era of social and political activism.

But the Palestinian experience suggests otherwise.

Quran, who describes social media as a microphone, says it can be self destructive if relied on too much. He has learned over the last few months that no amount of tweeting can have the same effect as a passionate speech in the middle of a square or the sight of a hunger striker in a tent on the pavement. He quotes American author Malcolm Gladwell, best known for his books “The Tipping Point” and “Outliers: The Story of Success,” who wrote in a New Yorker article last year that “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties” and “weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Quran believes that to build a successful people’s movement in Palestine, its youth leaders need to shed the complacency that comes with social media activism and cultivate personal relationships.

“It takes 10 minutes to create a Facebook event and a couple of seconds to click the ‘like’ button,” said Quran, who has in the past been deceived by the high numbers of supporters on Facebook that translated into very small numbers on the ground. “It takes a lot of work to develop personal bonds, but you can’t speak to the hearts of people on social media.”

Young activists in Palestine have started using Facebook and Twitter to collect phone numbers and email ids, and are reaching out to people personally. They have also begun organizing lectures and discussions that bring together small groups, 10 to 20 Palestinians from the same neighborhood, so that they are known by face, not just by their Twitter handles.

Part of the reason for this return to the traditional approach is the movement’s long road ahead. Unlike the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that were centered on the ubiquitous demand for democracy, the goals of the Palestinian movement are multi-pronged and long-term. They encompass a range of reforms, from a new Palestinian National Council that represents all Palestinians including refugees and those abroad to the ouster of the Israeli occupation that has lasted for 43 years. Recognizing this breadth of their demands, activists are using the March 15 movement to unite the Palestinian people over a more immediate agenda: the end of the bitter divide between the Fatah party that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and its political rival Hamas that controls Gaza.

They have organized a series of “end of division” hunger strikes, non-violent protests, musical events and community-building measures, many of which have been carried out in the face of arrests and police intimidation. Leaders say they’ve changed their strategies along the way.

“We are now learning how to balance the good and bad parts of social media,” said Nidal Atallah, a 23-year old member of Hirak al-Shabad, an independent youth organization at the forefront of the movement. “But in the beginning, there was so much chaos.”

Atallah, a part of the group’s social media crew, was stationed in an apartment overlooking Ramallah’s Manara Square as over 2,000 Palestinians gathered on March 15th. Many of his colleagues were scattered in neighborhood banks and cafes. Confusion spread as protesters ran back and forth and those “on the ground” sent a barrage of messages with snippets of information to post online. By late afternoon, many from Atallah’s team had given their locations away, inviting what they described as “disruptive” visits from Fatah party workers and undercover Palestinian agents.

Atallah now works exclusively from private houses whose locations are kept secret. He is in- charge of tweeting using the handle Palestine15Mar and posts messages on Facebook as Sawt al- Manara. There are seven others on his team, all of whom have defined roles: they discreetly relay information “from the field;” take photographs and shoot videos; retweet relevant news; and monitor mainstream and social media to track how their message is being portrayed.

“We are still using social media to express the voice of the youth,” said Hazem Abu Helal, a 27-year-old activist from the group Sharek. “But we are being very careful.”

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