I had the pleasure of sitting down and talking with Hala, Yale class of 2013, about her take on the protests that have been unfolding in the Middle East in the last few months (namely in Jordan and Bahrain). My goal was to gain an understanding of how she thought social media and new media sources have played a role in the recent revolutions and protests. It is really interesting to hear what her perceptions are on this issue due to the fact that she provides a native, authentic outlook on how media has truly impacted her and the people all around her home country.
Hala was born and raised in Jordan, but her association with recent affairs in the Middle East goes far beyond that. Her father, who is from Saudi Arabia, is the Jordanian Ambassador to Bahrain. Hala has family in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iran, so her family ties run deep throughout the entire region.
Hala shared with me her first hand experiences about the protests in Jordan, as well as how she has been impacted by the use of social media. She was also able to describe how Jordanians and Middle Easterners all over have made use of the advantages and tools that new media offers.
Zach: Being from Jordan, how were you affected by the protests in Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya – or any others that you see fit?
Hala: I have a lot of personal stakes in the process because I have a lot of family members all over who have been witnessing everything. To be honest, it is pretty dangerous to be over there right now because they have often been issuing statements of emergency that include curfews from being on the street, police patrolling everywhere, etc. I was there 2-3 weeks ago and I could not leave my house because of how violent and dangerous it was outside. It’s really scary to be honest. In fact, many embassies have been considering evacuation protocols.
Thankfully (while there are different views about his) external forces came into Bahrain and helped settle and control all the chaos. This forceful regulation may not be too great for freedom of speech and reformists, but in my opinion events got way too dangerous to really accomplish any political objectives apart from just being violent.
Being Jordanian, as a nation, we can see protests happening all around the country because people are beginning to feel like they are now able to make a difference. Jordanians feel this way because they witness other countries’ citizens’ apparent ability to make a difference. But I believe this effort is misguided in the sense that, for example, the protests in Jordan cannot be linked to those in Bahrain or Egypt because whatever the people in Bahrain or Egypt were calling for already exists in Jordan. So people thought “Oh other people are on the streets protesting so we should be doing the same.” But if you ask the people on the streets what they are protesting for, they would, for the most part, not be able to tell you because they have no idea. There are some exceptions to this, but it is not the norm.
Zach: How would you describe the role that social media, or any form of new media, has played in the recent protests?
Hala: I don’t think you can exaggerate the effect of media in shaping people’s opinions about what has been going on, or even delivering information. Specifically in Bahrain, there was the government-backed channel that was presenting everything in a specific light. But there was also the private, externally backed news agencies that were presenting things in a completely different light. We could not really trust either, so we would watch both sources and try to piece together different aspects to come up with the real, true information.
This is something that is really lacking in terms of aired media, because there is always some kind of agenda behind every single news agency. And for the most part, people know what these agendas are. Therefore you have to decipher the actual piece of news from the way they are presenting it. Even in terms of live coverage, I was right across the street from where some of the protests where going on, but I would view a certain news source to see what they aired about that specific protest and I would see that they were really manipulating what was going on. They would show footage that was not actually going on in order to provoke certain emotions that fell in line with their agenda. This really angered me to a great extent.
Zach: Has social media played a large role regarding how Jordanians have sought reform in the government and how they have organized their collective efforts?
Hala: Definitely. Many of the protests that went on in the streets of Jordan were organized via Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. In fact, many people are starting blogs and online groups to discuss up and coming issues and post articles, opinions, debates, etc about what is going on. It is interesting because you have people from all over Jordan and all over the world who all have different opinions who will not be penalized for saying whatever they think. They can actually say what they want to say and that is something that is unprecedented in Jordan, because media, and especially social media, did not used to be nearly as free and open as it is today.
Zach: Have you yourself used new media sources frequently to stay updated on recent occurrences and/or used them for your own participation?
Hala: Definitely. I personally am a member of many groups on Facebook that discuss many issues about what is going on. I actually join groups even if I do not agree with what the group stands for, simply to see what people are saying about different issues. I don’t write as much on the groups or blogs because I would much rather read the opinions of others and then form my own beliefs. A lot of times, people misconstrue what other people say and that just leads to unnecessary discourse. For the most part, I look to social media and websites that are not official government websites to find out what is actually going on. Sometimes I will actually read the political gossip columns to get a feel of what citizens really think about everything that is going on because those people are brutally honest.
Zach: Has your father’s responsibilities or actions been affected by the public’s use of social media? How so?
Hala: Yes. As a politician it is really hard not to be affected by it because of how integral social media is in affecting people’s opinions, especially in the Middle East right now. For any politician working in Bahrain, or anywhere where these protests are occurring, it is really difficult to avoid people’s opinions and what people think – the fact that the media has such a strong influence on people’s opinions and actions, it really can’t not be involved. But, as for him going onto Facebook and Twitter and reading or posting about issues, that does not really occur as much as it does by politicians in the United States.
Zach: Does any specific form of new media stand out to you in connection with the recent protests in the Middle East (in terms of its causal relationship)?
Hala: The fact that social networks provide a platform for discussion and what usually leads to argument, that can inherently lead to a lot of discourse. But at the same time, people get together on these social networking platforms and then eventually get together on the streets based on whatever is expressed on these websites. For example, many of my friends who currently live in Jordan often get text messages about rallies and protests that are going on in public. Also, a lot of Jordanian Facebook groups advertise rallies and protests, whether they be anti-government, pro-government, anti-reform, pro-reform, loyalists, what have you. But I think that to some extent it has gotten out of hand. This is because this ability for organizing collective action has made it really hard to get around Jordan due to the fact that people are so excited about expressing their opinions – thousands of people are out on the street every day, regardless of whether they are fighting for a cause or not, they are just there. In fact, the King of Jordan actually banned loyalist rallies recently because they have became way too problematic for the cities.
Zach: How do you think, or do you think, that recent protests would have unfolded differently without the tools of social media at many protestors’ disposal? And how so?
Hala: That’s a really good question. I personally do not think these protests or revolutions would have unfolded in nearly the same way or as quickly as they did without social media. Social media played such a huge role in the delivery of information and the means for people to communicate. I think that protests would have eventually happened, but social media has definitely catalyzed a lot of action that has occurred to a great extent. An important thing to consider is that it would have taken people a lot longer to realize the extent of the difference or affect they can have on government policies. When they saw that people could actually make a difference by way of the tools that new media gives, it really motivated them to get involved. Older forms of media were controlled by the government whereas social media networks are not.
Zach: Did you ever feel that your safety was at risk at any point throughout the recent events that have conspired in the Middle East?
Hala: Yes. Because many people are passionate and heated about these issues, it has been really hard for them to draw the line as to what they are willing to do about their strong emotions. A couple of days ago there was a huge protest that occurred near my house. The next day my sister was at her car and people were still on the streets, and suddenly a group of about 7 guys started to kick her car and hit it with baseball bats. This shows that people are passionate to the extent that they do not know what they are really doing. For all they know, the people who they are dangerously affecting could have nothing to do with anything relevant to what they are protesting for. People are so excited about the fact that they are doing something that they would almost do anything.
Zach: Do you have any final comments you would like to add about the protests and/or how you would like to see the future develop?
Hala: I think that what is going on in the Middle East right now is an extraordinary thing. I think it has been a positive series of enlightenments about what collective action can accomplish. But, people have really misconstrued the concept of constructive protests and how constructive protests should work. People are so passionate or have been so oppressed with regards to what has been going on for such a long time that it has lead to violence, which has been really counterproductive for what they want to accomplish. At the same time, I am not sure how much you can blame people for being violent about how much they have been oppressed for such a long time.
You really cannot exaggerate the influence of Facebook, Twitter, and all the blogs that people have been posting on. I also feel like they have been an amazing outlet because people have been given a platform to truly express themselves without having to resort to confrontation and violence. I believe that clashes of arguments are going to make us understand what we really want, and that concept and ability is completely new to the Middle East – they have never been able to experience that before. Now that we are experiencing that opportunity, I think it really has a chance to change a lot of things.