Thursday, May 05, 2011

Arabs Online: Between Fact & Fiction

For years I had grown concerned about the impact the infamous Arabic online forums has on forming public opinion. When many internet-users across the globe used this tool to create, innovate, engage and discover, we Arabs took it upon ourselves to turn it into one giant puddle of misinformation and abuse.

The forums are considered by many to be the only reliable source of information and news, which is remarkably ironic since it rarely ever basis it’s content within the realms of reality and fact. So much so, that it had managed to turn many myths into indisputable facts, be it in terms of political issues, religion, history or science.

One of the reasons behind this is the lack of serious investment in the Arab world – and the Gulf region specifically – in online content and the extent of the strict regulations and censorship imposed by the authoritarian bodies. By restricting the possibilities of creating serious, independent online sources, we have created a vortex that had to be filled one way or the other.

These forums had one characteristic in common, they had hardly any moderation and had high tolerance – if not even promote – hatred, racism and sectarianism. Users hiding behind their anonymity, with their colorful names and avatars, felt unchained and free to abuse such a platform to attack, demean and undermine anyone who opposed their own views.

As the Arab Spring finally hit our shores, we have witnessed that same abhorrent attitude transfer from the forums to other social media outlets that have become widely available to everyone.

In Bahrain in particular, Twitter users shot up by 82% over the past few months, a staggering statistic, considering the small population compared to other Arab countries that have witnessed similar unrest.

Many of these users took the same approach they had in their forums and applied them on these outlets, which have become synonymous with strong political and citizens journalism movements.

Trolling is nothing new in cyberspace. But we Arabs took it to the next level. In addition to bullying, we added the small matter of fabricating news, events and falsifying evidence, as well as prosecuting people for their views, opinions, accusing folks of high treason and advocating violence against them. And that’s not all of it.

We need to relook out relationship with the Internet in this part of the world and really calculate how its use (or abuse) can have a significant lasting impact on our lives.

I have always been shocked by the gullibility of some Internet users, who take anything they see on the Internet, and namely those infamous forums, for face value. I’ve heard people believing things they read online that are written as a hoax or a joke!

But now we’ve seen it all. Thanks to Arabs, the “Internets” will never be the same again.

And neither will we.


NonArab-Arab said...

Remember, many of those 82% of 'new' users were regime hacks trying to catch up to the new technology to try to undermine the uprisings. I don't dispute your point, but governments aren't just to blame for failing to invest properly or for censorship, but also for active disinformation and manipulation right alongside other people.

Ali Al Saeed said...

There is no denying that. But it also trickles down to public usage, and how many users lack the finesse and awareness of how to utilize such significant tool as the internet and social media, instead abusing it with a flow of negative content