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Social media as a political tool in the Middle East

Associate Professor with the Faculty of Education Norman Vaughan has been travelling between Calgary and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahad University the last few years where he has been consulting on program redevelopment.

The goal is to help create a more integrative, engaging and progressive type of curriculum that utilizes social media networking and tools.

Norm Vaughan at King Fahad University

Vaughan will be returning in April for three weeks to complete the project.

His work in that part of the world has given him a unique perspective on the role social media is playing in the recent political activism and upheaval in the Middle East and Eastern Africa.

FT: What fascinates you most about the role social media is playing in this historical wave of political activism?

NV: It's interesting to talk to my colleagues at KFU and to get their perspectives on all of the recent revolutionary activism in that area of the world. For sure these movements in places like Egypt are using social networking to mobilize but what's interesting that a lot of people might not realize is that it's being propelled by mobile phones.

They can be used for cell or internet connections and they're mobile and affordable — more so than a computer, by far — so they make it very easy for people to connect, to motivate each other and to mobilize.

FT: How is social media and modern technology changing the masses’ ability to protest and be active in that region of the world?

NV: Even many of these places when the government knocks out the internet, people have been able to still communicate via text messaging because the cell towers were still functioning. Government used to be able to kill revolution by controlling the flow of information but now, that's pretty near impossible.

FT: Is there a specific example about how social media has been used to ignite the people’s passions and anxiety?

NV: With most of these places a high percentage of the population is living in poverty. But, because the governments were making so much money off the oil industry they were able to subsidize the price of food to an extent.

The economic crisis of the last few years changed all that though and governments were unable to subsidize the food as much as they once did. This was the beginning of the end, so to speak.

A street vendor in Tunisia was so frustrated with the state of it all, he set himself on fire. Well, the video went on YouTube pretty quickly and a blogger in Egypt called Whel Ghonim, who is considered one of the leading provocateurs with his blog and Twitter accounts, picked up on it and used it to fan the flames of the masses' frustration and ultimately spark a lot of the activism in Egypt and that started in a completely different country.

FT: So social media is helping people in different countries realize many of us live with the same problems, that we aren’t all so different afterall, thereby making it easier for waves of political activism like we’ve seen in the Middle East sweep an entire region?

NV: In Libya, some of the activists even have portable cell towers so they can control how and when they communicate regardless of what the government is doing — that's the thing, Twitter can be used anywhere, you can punch in a message so quickly, anywhere in the world ... we don't realize how powerful it can be. Think about this — more people in the world access the internet via their phone than the internet. If you consider all that, think about how quickly you can mobilize a crowd as opposed to 20 years ago when say in China activists maybe got a handful of protesters out and they ended up getting shot or imprisoned.

Now you can get masses together and use that force to demand change in a hurry.