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Communication Scholar Discusses Impact of Social Media in Middle East

Posted on: October 04, 2012 08:00 EDT by Jessica Clark

Dr. Babak Rahimi, associate professor of communication, culture and religion at the University of California in San Diego, spoke to midshipmen, faculty and staff Oct. 4 at the U.S. Naval Academy about the role social media plays in political movements, particularly in the Middle East.

Rahimi focused on the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, during which large political rallies were organized through social media. In response to allegations of election fraud, hundreds of thousands of people rallied in support of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

"The focus here is how people in the Middle East are using social media to communicate with each other - mostly for political reasons," he said.

He also mentioned the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and the role social media played in bringing people together.

Rahimi said there is an ongoing argument on whether social media really had an impact on these events. Some say that social media is empowering people to challenge those in positions of political power, while others say this is an exaggerated claim - that the internet is actually being used by authorities to gather information and lock down protesters.

Rahimi believes both of these things are true.

"The state can use social media to get information in order to close down the public sphere, but at the same time, we cannot deny how powerful social media has been in these different social movements we have seen in the Middle East," he said.

Rahimi described social media as "self-generated journalism" that creates transparency by revealing what the state is doing to a global public. In the case of the Iranian elections and the protests that followed, videos uploaded to YouTube and Facebook revealed to the world the brutality of the Iranian regime.

Once online, these videos are captured on traditional news outlets like CNN, said Rahimi.

"So you can see the interesting connection between new and old media," he said.

He also discussed the power of social media to mobilize street protests and compared the Internet to taverns or pubs where, historically, revolutions are started.

"Internet is space where you can explore and think about things in alternative ways," he said. "Political movements usually use these spaces to collaborate, to keep the movement's hopes and desires alive, and they do it through discourse that appeals to emotions."

This is probably the most powerful dimension of new media, but many people see social media as more of a functional tool and ignore this emotional aspect, said Rahimi.

Rahimi encouraged his audience to consider how social media is actually changing our behavior.

"Social media is so embedded in everyday life, and it's changing the way we look at politics in so many significant ways, we still don't understand it," he said. "There is something fascinating about the way we are now networking. The question is what is the political potential of that. It's unknown, but I'm predicting we're heading toward a really interesting digital era, and we've already seen the political impact of that."

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