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Can MENA’s social media influencers change politics?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

What do Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US-President Donald Trump have in common? They heavily relied on social media to get them elected - the same tool that took down former Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak.

Social media usage has penetrated the region – over 88 per cent of Internet users in the region are active on social media. Although the vast majority (84 per cent) of these users use it just “for fun”, there is a key 5 per cent of the population that are interested in using it for political activism, according to a survey.

The ‘fun’ that Arab users refer to is predominantly based on using social media to interact with their friends and family, but increasingly, social media has turned into an active engagement tool used by so-called ‘social media influencers’, who receive thousands of dollars in brand endorsements to showcase products and experiences.

The ‘fun’ that Arab users refer to is predominantly based on using social media to interact with their friends and family, but increasingly, social media has turned into an active engagement tool used by so-called ‘social media influencers’, who receive thousands of dollars in brand endorsements to showcase products and experiences.

Yara al-Wazir

Considering Internet penetration and the population of the Middle East, the power of social media influencers can be likened exactly to that of Trump or Justin Trudeau’s. They have amassed a large following of people who are prepared to believe anything they say. What these influencers have done so far is great – they have gained followers (of over 16 million in the case of Huda Al-Kattan), succeeded in increasing their rates of user interaction – much to the like of Trump. What these so called self-dubbed “influencers” need todo now is to utilize this engagement for the greater good: social justice, not just social media.

The true power of social-media influencers for social change has been evident in the past. Hamad Qalam, an Instagram personality has previously spoken out about the state of orphanages in Kuwait. The authorities quickly responded by inviting him to visit one of the local orphanages and vowed to take positive action to further support orphans even after they reach the age of 18.

Realizing the power of being in the public eye

Understandably, general users of social media may be reluctant to voice their political, cultural, or social concerns on social-media. The reasoning behind this is a mixture of self-censorship coupled with fear of being reprimanded by local governments due to the limit and fragility of ‘free speech’ in the region.

In fact, cybercrime laws are being specifically developed and amended to target politically active users.

However, the reality of how the legal system works in the Middle East is that it exists, but is not necessarily implemented, and a large factor that determines whether or not it is implemented is whom the law targets. In the case of influencers with millions of followers, the risk of public retaliation may indeed be considered too great for the law to be implemented.

I am not calling for social media influencers and fashion bloggers to call out specific people or governments, rather specific issues that affect them. The fashion industry in the region is booming – there are opportunities to ensure that those who work in the retail sector are granted solid workers rights, included the right to freely change ‘kafeel’ (sponsor) without the approval of their primary sponsor.

Under the current system, some migrants revert to using back-alley methods to secure sponsorships organized by businessmen. The links are there – all social media influencers need to do is to realize their power and speak out for the issues that affect them and their followers.

Influencers can be more efficient than NGOs at accelerating change

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have utilized social media to bring forward social change. In Lebanon, a charity called KAFA has been instrumental in addressing social issues that affect women by creating strong hash tags that are carried forward by thousands of users. The difference, however, is that NGOs rely on a physical presence, such as a protest, and simply utilize social media to showcase their actions. This is how the “#noLawnoVote” hash tag campaign started.

From a time and efficiency standpoint, this means that NGOs have to spend a lot more time organizing these physical events to gather attendees. Conversely, all social media influencers have to do is point a camera at their faces in their bedrooms and speak.

If the region wants accelerated change, social media influencers must use their powers to speak out about issues that upset them as much as they speak out about products that they love. Sure, this may be less lucrative to their bank accounts, but it is substantially more influential in the long-run.

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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.