In the last few years, the internet, digital and mobile technologies and social media tools like blogs, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other user-generated content (UGC) have rapidly changed the way information is shaped, shared and spread. This shift in power from governments and traditional media to the people provides a window into the events and lives of people who in the past were distant.
Today, we know more about countries like Iran, Egypt and Yemen not only from what their respective state-run media wants to share or from selected western media but, more importantly, from the people. In this respect, social media has provided a new generation of opinion leaders with the means to express their views and reach out to a larger audience – instantaneously. Everyone with access to internet has potential political power.
Building respectful relationships with the Middle East continues to be important, and while cultural barriers and common misconceptions still exist, social media tools provide great opportunities to create and enhance respectful and long-lasting relationships.
On May 10, 25 high-profile opinion leaders from eight countries in the Middle East and North Africa arrive in Sweden to participate in the Young Leaders Visitors Program (YLVP), a leadership training that will equip them with the latest tools to help promote freedom of expression and social change in their respective contexts. They will be joined by five Swedish leaders. They are all young, they are passionate and they are people who want to change the world for the better.
In its three years of existence, YLVP has helped form strong relationships between the participants. Through social media these networks have expand and strengthened. However, in order to lay a foundation for dialogue, mutual understanding and knowledge-sharing among young opinion-makers from different Arab countries and Sweden, social interaction is critical. Because social media only connect people – it is real-life social interaction that changes people and the world.
YLVP is a Swedish Institute initiative, in line with the public agency’s goal to create mutual relationships with the Middle East. We call these efforts public diplomacy. The program focuses on improving the participants’ leadership and social media skills in order to empower them and help maximise their potential. Human rights, freedom of expression and democracy are some of the topics that are presented and discussed via lectures, workshops by prominent speakers and study visits. The participants are encouraged to come up with ideas for future social networking platforms that can help improve the level of freedom of speech and social change around the world.
The result is a passionate network of young leaders with sound social media skills that help them share and support each other through their own democratic endeavours in their respective countries. Anyone can listen to the dialogue between these young leaders on Twitter by searching for the “#ylvp” hashtag and by reading their blogs.
A recent Harvard University report shows that the majority of the Arab blogs surveyed are written in diary form, featuring personal accounts and observations on everyday life. When it comes to politics, however, Arab bloggers tend to offer a critical view of political leaders. In other words, bloggers play an important role in disseminating information on issues rarely covered in the mainstream press, such as police brutality, sexual harassment and torture.
Wael Abbas, renowned Egyptian blogger and a former YLVP participant, once said to me: “I envy you and your country for the freedom and democracy that you have. I wish I could have it for my country and for my people.”
In the West and particularly in Sweden we often speak about the lack of democracy in the Middle East. We claim that we need to do more to support democracy in the region. We do not need to support democracy; instead we need to support people who are democratic forces. Young men and women are risking their lives to get the free word out to the world.
Javeria Rizvi Kabani, YLVP program manager, Swedish Institute