Social media projects soft power in the Arab world

In the MENA region, social media appears to generate immediate public reaction to developments, creating “for” and “against” camps.
Sunday 14/10/2018
A woman uses her laptop in Istanbul. (AFP)
Between the lines. A woman uses her laptop in Istanbul. (AFP)

Jordanian Queen Rania al-Abdullah has 4.8 million active followers on Instagram. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is followed by little more than 7 million people on Facebook.

When public figures in the Arab world don’t have active individual social media accounts, they feature on social media by letting people take selfies with them, which subsequently get posted. King Mohammed VI of Morocco frequently poses with fans.

With the viral selfie, the pithy hashtag and the endlessly retweeted tweet, Arab leaders are visibly engaged in a new public relations strategy. PR professionals say the strategy is working to the leaders’ individual benefit and that of their countries.

Consider what government messaging is meant to do, said Ralph Sfeir, the Beirut-based founder of Barb Marketing and Communications. It’s meant to shape public opinion “and to produce emotional rather than rational reactions.”

Social media help achieve public relations objectives by creating sympathy for the leader and support for the cause he or she champions. So it is with Queen Rania’s regular visits to community organisations and support for women, children and young people. By bringing causes such as education and women’s rights centre stage, the Jordanian queen softens the image of her husband’s government. So does Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed when he highlights social and community milestones in his or any other emirate.

Sfeir explained some of the tactics commonly used by leaders to project soft power. These include the “high-frequency” use of social media, “an emotional rather than a rational tone in messaging (as well as) simple and repetitive messages” and allowing breaking news “to divert attention from internal issues.”

Gaining soft power through social media is not all about manipulation, however.

“Governments also communicate messages and share information with citizens (thereby) including them in the conversation,” said Tamirace Fakhoury, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. “This is the kind of positive soft power that uses social media as a vector of inclusiveness.”

That said, social media are increasingly seen as another tool for governments to advance their political agenda and grow soft power. This is hardly surprising considering social media’s growing prominence in the Middle East and North Africa. The “Arab Social Media Report 2017” stated there are 156 million Facebook accounts, 11.1 million Twitter accounts and 7.1 million Instagrammers in the Arab world.

Fakhoury said social media give governments “the power to propagate their own state-centric agenda. [Meanwhile] political factions circulate certain policy messages without evidence or accountability in contrast with traditional political platforms such as town hall meetings or parliamentary commissions that would require scrutiny.”

Nourhan, a 25-year-old Jordanian job seeker in Lebanon, confirmed the power of social media messaging, which conveys the illusion of transparency and accountability. “As I do not watch TV or listen to the radio, I am not really able to follow up what is happening in my country. Following politicians’ accounts enables me to get political decisions directly from the source,” she said.

Indeed, most Arab leaders’ social media avatars have a lively presence, which generates comments, shares and likes. In the MENA region, social media appears to generate immediate public reaction to developments, creating “for” and “against” camps and reaching millions of people, particularly the millennial generation. However, as some astute millennials note, there isn’t much interactive messaging between account holders and their followers.

“I used to believe that having politicians on social media would make them more aware of the realities lived by our people in our countries. I was wrong,” said Nagem, a 30-year-old software engineer from Cairo.

“Whatever comment or disagreement we leave on social media may even cost us. We could be arrested. The message of a crackdown works really well. Today, I use an account that does not contain my real information [about my identity].”

Nourhan, a 25-year-old Jordanian job seeker in Lebanon, said that, despite all the social media activity by regional leaders, she hardly ever knows the truth of what’s happening. “I have to say I have not learnt so much of what exactly happens when the law changes. What I hear is more of a political discourse that reaffirms who has power,” she said.

And that power, for all its fuzzy projection as soft, may really have a hardcore.