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Heyday of digital activism?

Communications researchers discuss digital literacy in Beirut

Beirut, 31 October 2011

By Marius Dragomir

Traditional media have maintained a stronghold on news consumption in many countries in the world, but the internet is increasingly entering the battle for audiences. In the Arab world, it remains the only space for critical voices and is driving civil society activism. These were some of the conclusions of a panel of Mapping Digital Media researchers on 31 October 2011 at the conference “Digital and Media Literacy: New Directions” organized by the Arab-US Association of Communication Educators (AUSACE) at the American University in Beirut. The event took place between 28 October and 31 October 2011.

Turkey, a country where the YouTube was blocked for some two years because of videos defaming the legacy of the founder of the Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, is seeing a boom in mobile and internet penetrations, Asli Tunç from the School of Communications at Istanbul Bilgi University, the lead researcher for Turkey in the Mapping Digital Media report, said.

Some 24 million Turks are on Facebook and three million Turks are tweeting today, she said. The Turkish blogosphere became the space where people discuss topics that are taboo in the Turkish society.

Bouziane Zaid, who authored the Moroccan report in the Mapping Digital Media project, put the growth of digital media in the context of legal, economic and political environments in his country. Legislation is still restraining freedom of the media while in terms of economy of the media, the state maintains a major role. However, Mr Zaid said, in political terms, Morocco has seen in recent years a certain opening.

Although television remains the most important source for news in Morocco, internet surfing is growing. The internet penetration is low, at some 4% of the total population by number of subscriptions, but usage is quite high, one of the highest in the Arab world, Mr Zaid said.

He went on explaining that generally the internet is used largely for entertainment purposes in Morocco. When it comes to the most searched words, the Barcelona footballer Messi comes way ahead the Moroccan prime minister.

On the other hand, the internet in Morocco has helped create a dynamic and networked public space where lively debates on issues not covered by traditional media take place. The internet has also led to the revival of the watchdog function of the media through, for example, close monitoring of political abuses made by the regime.

Rana Sweis, the author of Mapping Digital Media: Jordan, a country with the highest Facebook membership of under 25 years of age, warned that we have to look beyond numbers.

Rana Sweis, lead researcher Mapping Digital Media: Jordan

“It is not important sometimes how many people use social networks. It matters also who is using these networks,” she said referring to the fact that the use of Twitter by influential and active people is significant when it comes to impact of various online campaigns. Twitter’s penetration in Jordan is still low, at some 2% of the 6 million or so inhabitants.

Ms Sweis gave an example of a successful campaign aimed at protecting the country’s already scarce forest stock from the government’s plans to pull down more trees to make room for building a military academy.

Sarah Mallat, one of the researchers who produced the Lebanon report in Mapping Digital Media, to be published by the end of this year, said that political activism is leading in Lebanon, but forms of social activism on the internet are emerging at a fast pace.

Traditional media are still leading as a source of news and information in Lebanon as well. But the internet is primed to spread in the coming years, particularly to rural areas. We are at the moment when we adapt new technologies to the local context, she aid. There are still some five to 10 years down the road for this process to reach completion. “Translation from online presence to offline activism”, as Ms Mallat put it, is what we aspire to.

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