Iraqi Activists, Politicians Joining Facebook — With Mixed Results

Iraqi Activists, Politicians Joining Facebook — With Mixed Results

A man surfs the Internet at a cafe in Baghdad's impoverished district of Al-Sadr city. (file photo)A man surfs the Internet at a cafe in Baghdad’s impoverished district of Al-Sadr city. (file photo)

March 21, 2011
By Courtney Brooks, Moyad al-Haidari
A skyrocketing number of Facebook users in Iraq over the past two years has encouraged social activists to use social media to rally support and has opened a staticky line of communication between constituents and lawmakers.

But there are concerns that politicians who use the social-networking giant solely for their own agenda, rather than listening to the concerns of citizens, could be widening civic divisions rather than bridging them.

And with disillusioned protest organizers gaining access to a growing segment of Internet-savvy and frustrated youths, experts warn that protests like the ones that resulted in 16 deaths in late February — marshaled online — could mount.

Storming In

An Arabic version of Facebook came online in March 2009, attracting only around 400 Iraqis in its first two months, according to the independent monitoring group Inside Facebook. By August 2010, fueled in part by the buzz surrounding national elections five months earlier, the official figure had shot up to 270,560.

Now, Iraq-based social-media consultant Haidar Fadel says, that number has more than doubled to around 650,000, forcing politicians to get involved in the movement as well.

“Iraqi politicians didn’t like the activists on the Internet and Facebook before — even the Iraqi prime minister [Nuri al-Maliki] said that the website was a dustbin,” Fadel says. “But later on they discovered how important web and Internet activities are.”

As a result, “since they can’t go to the street and see people directly because of security concerns — and since the demonstrations are now being mobilized through Facebook — they have to use it to understand the demonstrators’ needs.”

Internet penetration in Iraq is among the lowest in the Middle East, at just over 1 percent of the population. But nearly everyone in that group is on Facebook, according to numbers showing 0.9 percent of the population on that social network.

Iraq’s recent “days of rage” protests have painted a telling portrait of social networking in the country, with activists using Facebook to galvanize thousands of protesters. Masses of frustrated citizens gathered at a bridge connecting Baghdad’s Tahrir Square to the Green Zone, where the national parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located. They threw stones, shoes, and plastic bottles at soldiers and riot police, trying to make their voices heard by politicians they believe are turning a deaf ear to their struggles.

No Such Thing As Bad PR?

Political science professor Al-Naser Duraid says that, unlike much of the unrest rocking the Middle East, Iraq’s demonstrations aren’t meant to take down the government. He suggests they may be a warning to those in power that the current joblessness, lack of services, and corruption won’t be tolerated forever.

He questions lawmakers’ frequent use of Facebook as a public-relations tool rather than a means of communication, adding to people’s frustrations.

“[Politicians] use Facebook partly as propaganda and partly to track the dangerous protest movements in the Middle East,” Duraid says. “The main issue is that when they go to Facebook or Twitter to follow the people’s complaints, they are portraying themselves as tackling the problems — but then they don’t actually do it.”

He says lawmakers shouldn’t even need Facebook to understand constituents’ needs, as “the problems people face are clearly visible every day.”

Not that everyone wants the problems on public display. Journalist Abbas Hayawi says some politicians simply delete negative comments posted to their pages.

“We notice that a big number of people visit the pages of those politicians and post comments about the problems they are facing, and saying what they need,” Hayawi says. “I do not believe that there is a real response from officials. They say they’re going to take care of something; they say, ‘OK,’ give us a letter and we’ll see, and then they don’t take any action. And many of the comments are deleted.”

‘Window Dressing’

Moustafa Ayad, a social media consultant in Iraq and Egypt, says that Iraq’s recent protests — both on- and offline — encompass all religious groups rather than divide along sectarian lines, as so often happens in the country. He says Iraqi politicians that he sees on Twitter are hardly following anyone, hinting at their disinterest in interacting with constituents.

“There is a little bit of a window-dressing in terms of social-media use,” Ayad says.

He adds that as more Iraqis get active on Facebook, politicians who already use it “a little bit” to respond to complaints and demands will have to improve the way they use the site.

“The amount of debate that’s going on online surrounding basic services — electricity, sewage, you know, the things that matter to them the most — is amazing. And that’s galvanized this protest movement, online at least,” Ayad says. “It’s happening in the streets, but I know recently the protest movements in the streets have been waning a bit. But Facebook is becoming more and more a tool for mobilization, and for dialogue.”

Blogger Fadel says that while opening a channel of communication between politicians and frustrated members of society is almost always good, lawmakers need to work harder to communicate with all voters, not just an elite group with Internet access.

“It’s a good phenomenon that politicians are using Facebook, but I don’t think it’s enough to solve the problems of Iraq,” Fadel says. “We have to know that only 650,000 Iraqis have joined Facebook, and only 100,000 are active. So that means that the politicians are not communicating with all 30 million Iraqis.”

with contributions from RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sultan Sarwar and Joseph Hammond

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