Arab World’s Leaders Are Facebook Fans, Too

Source: David E. Miller, Arab World’s Leaders Are Facebook Fans, Too, The Media Line, 2 March 2011

Social networking isn’t just for the opposition, but managing rulers’ pages is tricky

“Dear Queen Rania, what’s happening with the revocation of my father’s citizenship? For god’s sake, we were all born in Jordan. Please hurry up and help us get our Jordanian citizenship.”

This personal letter sent from Ibrahem Al-Gbale, most likely a disgruntled Jordanian of Palestinian origin, to his queen, would until recently have been dealt with quietly through private appeals to the well-connect officials. But these days Rania and a few other Middle East leaders are using Facebook to reach out to the public, subjecting themselves to open criticism as much as praise in the process.

Facebook has been hailed as a tool of revolution that has spread across the Middle East, the means by which young Tunisians, Egyptians and others spread their message and organize their rallies. But when they are not banning the world’s favorite social network, the region’s rulers are learning to use it, too.

“Facebook can be a great public diplomacy tool. It becomes a way to communicate with the masses and gain popular support. This was demonstrated most sharply by [U.S. President Barack] Obama during his election campaign,” Andre Oboler, an Australian expert on social media, told The Media Line.

Two weeks ago, the Saudi royal court opened a dedicated page on the social network where citizens can forward their grievances to King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud with the click of a button. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad last week announced he was using his two-year-old Facebook page to help him out of a deadlock in forming his new interim government.

The catch is that Facebook in a Janus-like device, a conduit for polishing the leader’s image and letting the public praise him or her, but also a place for people to direct their grievances and stage personal attacks. Rulers’ pages have to strike a balance between looking real and personal while not letting negative sentiments overwhelm them.

With Libya spinning out of control over the past week as rebels battle government troops and close in on the capital Tripoli, harsh abuse has filled the Facebook page of Saif Al-Islam Al-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader’s best-known son and – until he delivered a blood-curdling speech threatening the opposition last week – the one family member seen as the most progressive and tech-savvy.

One post claimed that the wife of the Libyan dictator and two of his children had fled to Austria and called on readers to protest across their Vienna hotel.

“Saif, your credentials as a reformer have been flushed down the drain,” one commentator wrote on the wall. “Be careful and remember what happened to Qusay and Uday Hussein,” a harsh reference to the slain sons of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps one of the most unexpected Facebook pages is that of Asma Al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Facebook had been banned in Syria until a month ago, with users forced to log in through proxy servers overseas. Internet World Stats estimates there were only 30,000 Facebook users in all of Syria, a country of 22 million people, as of August 2010.

More modest than Queen Rania’s Facebook page, it displays intimate photos of Asma dining with her husband in a cozy Paris restaurant and a jeans-wearing Bashar planting trees in the Qatana region. Even in this tightly regimented society, criticism of the regime slipped through onto Asma’s Facebook page, alongside the predictable salutations.

“We don’t deny that we love Bashar Al-Assad and don’t want any other president,” a Facebook user named Samer Faad wrote on Asma’s wall. “But we want speedy reforms and an end to corruption, especially that of Rami Makhluf [Assad’s cousin] and the thieving officers who constitute two thirds of the Interior Ministry. We want the entire government to be changed as well.”

Media Line’s attempt to contact Al-Assad’s page administrator was unsuccessful, but the page seemed professionally managed, feeding viewers with high-quality personal images of the Syrian first lady and her family.

“No public figure should be engaged in on-line public relations without monitoring and editorial ability,” Oboler said. “The real secret is that during a crisis, the posts can be managed by professional staff while continuing to masquerade as a particular individual.”

Oboler noted that Facebook has a built-in bias in favor of positive feedback, because “liking” content takes one click whereas no similar facility existed for “disliking” content. With nearly 600,000 fans, Queen Rania doesn’t have to worry much about brickbats.

“Negative feedback can be left as comment, but this requires a greater amount of effort,” Oboler said. “The effort required to remove a comment is far smaller than to post one. Hence, provided they play the game right, Facebook can be manipulated and the message controlled.”

Fayyad, the Palestinian premier, has pioneered a new function for Facebook, as a way for soliciting candidates for ministerial posts as he reshuffles his cabinet. His team stepped down at his behest February 14, but Fayyad struggled to reconstitute it in the face of opposition from Hamas Islamists and Left wing factions.

“In light of the ongoing consultations aiming to form a government, which people do you consider credible, have excellent leadership and scientific skills, and can be relied on to hold a ministerial portfolio?” Fayyad asked on his page last week. Public responses immediately began to flow.

Jamal Zaqout, Fayyad’s media and civil society adviser, said his boss’ Facebook page was started privately by a Palestinian citizen because he appreciated the prime minister’s work. In an unusual arrangement, the page is still operated privately but with the full cooperation of the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The page was opened some two years ago and is not the result of the so-called ‘Facebook revolution’,” Zaqout told The Media Line. “It’s one of many tools the prime minister uses to stay in touch with the people. It doesn’t replace tours on the ground and regular meetings with civil society groups.”

Zaqout praised Facebook as an effective tool of communication, but it’s not the only on-line conduit: The Prime Minister’s Office operates a digital media unit, which conveys his messages through Twitter and a personal blog.

“Five minutes after the prime minister makes a public appearance, photos of the event are disseminated online through Google and news aggregates in the United States, which reach millions of people,” Zaqout said. “We try to move with the times and maintain contact with the public.”

The Saudi royal court opened a Facebook page earlier this month, calling on citizens to voice their grievances directly by posting them on the page’s wall or sending them by fax or e-mail to the court, the numbers of which appear on the page.

Oboler said that Facebook is an effective tool only when it appears to be honest, a test he said Queen Rania’s page appears to pass. No doubt some outside comments are censored, but all Facebook users, even ordinary people, engage in that kind of censorship, he said.

Indeed, one response appearing on Queen Rania’s page is even more surprising than the original protest letter posted on it.

“The King and Queen should apologize to you, Ibrahim, for the difficulties they caused you,” a user titled “New Jordan” wrote. “The King and Queen are those who left the country to mental patients and haters who unjustly strip people of their nationality.”

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