On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

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7 thoughts on “On Being Hashtagged

  1. Ahmed.. great article
    For me the last statement summarizes the whole thing, twitter now is the main hub for social change in Saudi Arabia, the kitchen of food for thought if you well. It is where citizens, whether they are students, activists, columnists or opinion leaders, congregate (virtually) to talk freely about wide range of issues, especially the ones traditional media can’t cover.
    One thing that explains the campaign lunched by some journalists against activism in twitter is “control”. Government controlled media is losing control over the dissemination of info and setting the public agenda. In fact, many Saudi columnists are using twitter for new ideas and stories. Most recently Albilad newspaper has recruited some of the most followed Saudi twitters as journalists and columnists?

    Aldossaay and befor him Arayess and Aldhahri, they all want to say one thing “we are better than them, we are more credible because we obey by the rules and we are still in control” .. they are dreaming off course

  2. your article came in the right time for “me”!

    I’ve just started using twitter a few days ago and I was shocked by the amount of -what I innocently call- “backbiting”..

    I felt some relief for being a free-roaming, invisible or “unknown” person!

    For a while, Ive developed certain philosophies regarding writing:

    – know your audience and tailor your message accordingly.. for it is this audience who will be coming back to you..

    – to avoid being criticized by the general public, do not address the general public, or issues that concern them!

    – Writing in English about a predominantly Arab society also limits your audience to the ones who can actually understand English, thus less غوغاء are likely to respond to you.

    I wrote with the three layers of discussions in mind:
    1. small minds discuss people
    2. medium minds discuss events
    3. large minds discuss ideas.. (ref: E. Roosevelt)

    although the lower layers guarantee popularity in search by the average-mo audience, they will often subject you to “gog and magog” wrath attacks, should you say anything controversial..

    for the time being, i’ll rest away in my bubble of philosophical musings and ideas that they will probably not understand..

    :)

  3. Media is somewhat free and they point most important issue that are better for Saudi Interests. Also if we take a look at International media, that is also work for money. Fulfilling the interests of rich people and multinationals.

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