Arab governments and the social media revolution

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn were all the preserve of geeks, young urbanites and celebrities before governments all over the world realised the potential of social media and started using it to engage with their people. Statistics speak for themselves: if Facebook was a country it would be the world’s third largest, one person joins LinkedIn every second, and one in five couples meet online. There are more than 1.5bn social networking users across the globe. The Arab Spring and the Occupy movement would probably have never existed without social media, which can no longer be left out of anyone’s communication strategy.

Fuelled by the use of mobile phones and tablets, the rise in social media over the last decade has been astonishingly fast and it is now part of our everyday life. New means of communicating instantaneously with millions of people around the world have changed the way we socialise, talk and, mobilise. According to Erik Qualman, author of international best-selling title “Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms The Way We Live and Do Business,” and one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subject, social media is the biggest shift since the industrial revolution.

In the case of the Arab Spring, social media tools are widely credited with igniting the widespread upheavals that brought down governments from Tunisia and Egypt to Libya.

“The legacy of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement offers an important lesson for governments. Social media and Web 2.0 technologies can transform everyday citizens into digital citizens. With convenient, accessible technology tools, digital citizens have instantaneous channels to speak, connect and act,” notes Accenture, the global management consulting and technology services company, in its recently released Digital Citizen Pulse Survey.

It would be incorrect to describe the Arab Spring as the pure byproduct of social media but there is no doubt the e-revolution that transcended class, gender, political and national boundaries, certainly helped to promote the cause that would instigate change. In their coverage of the events, traditional media like television and the press were far behind social media, which offered immediate on-the-ground perspectives, instantaneously transforming local news into international headlines.

In its Digital Citizen Pulse Survey, Accenture affirms that social media is reinventing government communication. Nearly 51% of respondents from its global survey believe the ability to interact digitally with the government will encourage people to be more engaged with government.

That is the double-whammy of social media: it helps both citizens and their governments communicate with each other. Little wonder then that Middle Eastern leaders have started to “tweet”, “like” and “share” left, right and centre. A study by public relations consultancy Burson- Marsteller entitled released “Twiplomacy” released last month shows that almost two-thirds of world leaders have a Twitter account. And of the G20 countries, 16 have a presence on Twitter.

“It is clear leaders in the region have realised that social media is an effective tool to engage with their people,” said Sunil John, CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. “Our 2012 ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey revealed that since the Arab Spring, nearly three-quarters of Middle East youth believe their government has become more trustworthy and transparent. They saw the Arab Spring as a positive development and now feel greater optimism about the future. In that context, it is extremely encouraging to see leaders from the region use Twitter as a platform to disseminate information and communicate with their audience.”

In the Middle East, although there have been some disputes about credence of some of the figures, the most active leaders on Twitter include: Queen Rania Al Abdullah (2,290,000+ followers); Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who has just crossed the one million mark in followers; Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki (76,000+ followers); Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati (59,000+ followers); Lebanese President Michel Sleiman (43,000+ followers); Palestinian Prime Minister Dr Salam Fayyad (1,700 followers); Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali (1,232 followers); and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki (905 followers).

Queen Rania is the fourth most followed world leader preceded by Barack Obama in first position (19,259,329 followers), whilst Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has 13 other world leaders following him, making him the most followed by leaders in the region. The “Twiplomacy” study identifies Arabic as the fourth most used language amongst world leaders: English is the main language, followed by Spanish and French.

Accenture’s survey notes that amongst the Middle Eastern leaders who “tweet”, the most conversational is Najib Mikati. The Lebanese Prime Minister regularly has one-hour long Twitter chats with his followers. Lebanese president Michel Sleiman is one of the few heads of state that occasionally tweets personally, from his Blackberry. According to Dubai School of Government’s recent Arab Social Media Report, the Arab region has close to 2.1 million active Twitter users tweeting almost 4,000 tweets a minute. The top five Arab countries in terms of Twitter users are: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Lebanon. However, they may be prolific social media users who crave greater transparency, freedom and dialogue, Arab youths’ goals are a lot more down to earth. Earning a fair wage and owning a home are their greatest aspirations, ahead of democracy, according to the findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey. In fact, the percentage of respondents who said that living in a democratic country is “very important” to them declined by 10% in this year’s survey to 58%. This is proof that the region’s governments still have a long way to go to appease the tension amongst the population. After all, what’s the point of Twitter if you can’t even pay for your internet connection, let alone get bread on the kitchen table?