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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Fouad is back, Why are we never ready?

  • My good friend and fellow blogger Fouad al-Farhan has finally decided to restart his blog after more than two years of hiatus. During these two years, he experimented with Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, but he eventually admitted that there is nothing like blogging as a platform for personal publishing. Fouad is one of the most prominent people in the Saudi blogosphere, and I’m sure the whole blogging community is delighted to have him writing at length again. Welcome back, Fouad! You have been missed.
  • Abdulrahman al-Hazzaa, deputy minister of information and culture, keeps pushing for MOCI’s proposed law for regulating news websites in this column for Okaz daily. His latest argument: we are not ready for the freedom offered by such websites. We’ve heard this argument before. Government officials like al-Hazzaa keep telling us that we are not ready for civil society, not ready for elections, not ready of democracy, etc. We are pretty much not ready for anything, until they say we are, which, depending on their whims, can be next decade, next century, or sometimes never.
  • A little housekeeping note: the short linky posts are open to comments again. When I redesigned the blog earlier this year, I decided to close comments on these posts as an experiment. As part of the experiment, all posts are open to comments now. Let’s see how that goes.

Thoughts on Jeddah

Three weeks have passed since the Jeddah catastrophe. People now are eagerly waiting for the verdict of the investigation commission. While we are waiting, it might be useful to look back and reflect.

The heavy downpour has exposed some nasty things such as the nonexistent infrastructure and the abundant corruption. But like what happens with many other things in life, sometimes we need to see the ugliness before we see the beauty. There are at least two good things I saw coming out of this disaster: the great spirit of the people, and the power of social media.

In the days and nights following Black Wednesday, we have seen more than 7,000 persons who volunteered to help in any and every way they can. I’m proud of Ibrahim al-Kushi who opened his house to shelter the displaced. I’m proud of Bassem Kurdi who decided to stay at the hospital when everybody else told him to go home. I’m proud of so many young men and women who, despite the harassment of some self-appointed guards of morality, rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours at al-Harthi Exhibition Center to organize, distribute, and deliver the donations to those who need them in the most damaged areas of the city.

The relief efforts have been largely coordinated using the internet and social media tools. One Facebook group in particular was central to these efforts as it acted like an umbrella and a gathering point for volunteers. The group is called Rescue Jeddah, and it boasts more than 9,000 members. The content there is all in Arabic but you don’t need to read anything to see what they have been up to. Just look at the pictures and the videos and you will get a good idea on what they have done so far.

Beside Facebook, people were using blogs, Twitter, and SMS to circulate the latest news. They were also using Flickr and YouTube to document what was happening in real time. Some of the pictures, like the one of the dead little girl covered with mud, were really disturbing. But I think that in crises you need shocking images to make others understand the gravity of the disaster.

As for videos, estimates say more than 400 videos have been uploaded over the past three weeks. Most of these were taken by citizens using their mobile phones, but I have also seen some well-produced videos like this one by Mohammed al-Rehaili. In the end, I will leave you with this short film by Bader al-Homoud, who captures the tragedy but instead decides to focus on the bright human side of the story:

Read more:

  • One of my favourite blog posts about the disaster is this by McToom in which he offers an illustration on the basics of drainage systems. You know, because our officials are too busy to read long blog posts like mine.
  • Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, wrote a letter to Makkah governor. “At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain,” he said.

Facebook Friends and Colorful Circles

Fellow blogger Roba al-Assi and I have quite a few things in common: blogging, Riyadh, admiration for Andy Warhol, a passion for the interwebs and stylish geekiness… and, among other things, 17 mutual friends on Facebook.

But Roba and I never actually met in real life.

We keep talking about possible chances to meet, but these chances never seem to come. Ah well, I’m sure we will get to meet some day. Until then, I will kindly ask you to go and check out this awesome post she wrote illustrating the fascinating overlapping of her social circles online.