Judging Anonymous Tweets: The Case of @Mujtahidd

This post about the Saudi tweep Mujtahidd is contributed by Nathan Field, who has lived several years in Saudi Arabia. Here's an interview with Mujtahidd for more background.

An important ongoing development in the Arabic Twittosphere is the surging followership of a Saudi user known as @Mujtahidd. With daily tweets ranging from sensational rumors and gossip about the Royal Family to credible-sounding inside information about the Kingdom’s politics, he has quickly gained 925,000 followers – nearly half during the last six months, and is becoming one of the most followed feeds not just in Saudi Arabia, but increasingly the wider Middle East.

The caveat, however, is that Mujtahidd operates anonymously and there is no way to verify the accuracy of many of his dramatic claims, which poses a challenge for commentators looking to Twitter to glean insights into the region’s politics.

While some may dismiss the information coming from such a site as unreliable --- social media’s version of the National Enquirer --  a close survey over time shows that, in balance, they can offer good insights into the politics of closed and heavily censored countries like Saudi Arabia.

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The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

The Egyptian Twittersphere, 18 Months Into the Revolution

Lisa Goldman, for TechPresident, on where Egyptian Twitter is at:

But over the last eight months things have changed. Once prominent voices have become subdued, or gone mute. New personalities have risen to prominence. Once unified in their opposition to the Mubarak regime, the January 25 activists are now divided by public ideological spats. Nearly all the Egyptians who tweeted exclusively in English before and during the initial months of the uprising are now communicating at least part of the time in Arabic — and not the formal written language that is understood by all literate Arabic speakers, but colloquial Egyptian dialect.

In many cases, the early participants in the discourse are burnt out, turning inward and becoming absorbed in their own careers. But there are other significant causative factors at play.

For politically engaged Egyptians online, the Twitter discourse has shifted, several well-known commentators told techPresident. Once it was about reporting and participating in the revolution; now it is about discussing the revolution and debating political issues. Twitter is now hosting a vigorous debate about Egypt's future. After months of fighting the entrenched remains of a decades-old regime, on the streets and in public opinion, revolution fatigue has set in for the January 25 activists. Rather than demonstrating on the streets, they are exchanging ideas online. But the discussion does not include the majority of Egyptians who lack Internet access. This fact has not escaped those who are most intensely engaged in the discourse, even as they wonder whether their digital debates are an echo chamber or a means of effecting change.

Conclusion: the real action is on the street. 

A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at SciencesPo Paris on my experience running this site and my perception of the role of social media in the Arab uprisings. My take then, and now, is that Twitter was far more important in shaping a narrative for the outside world then shaping a narrative for the Arab world (where Facebook was much more important for the connected and al-Jazeera the major influence for most of the others). Twitter is a emotive communication medium, what many Arab tweeps did — as well as relay information — was communicate an emotional state (excitement, fear, courage, etc.) that enabled a global audience to feel like it had a front seat to events and that allowed it to bypass or supplement traditional information sources (television, newspapers, websites). It was a mobilizer of international public opinion with many tweeps acting as propagandists and cheerleaders (this was particularly evident in the more calculated efforts to use Twitter in Libya, Bahrain and now Syria) for their cause. That's why so much of it is in English.

In my talk, since I was in Paris, I echoed Jean Baudrillard's theory that "The Gulf War did not happen" — i.e. the "Arab Spring" did not happen. I mean this in the sense that the global/Western experience of the Arab Spring, often fed by Twitter soundbites that were largely recuperated by traditional media (remember how common quotes of tweets were at the time) because Twitter is, in this sense, the ultimate infotainment, because it provides so much emotional punch. It was a spectacle. Much of what was out there was a mise-en-scene of the events, with the tweep as hero. I think a lot of the "disappointment" one reads in Western commentary about the "Arab Spring" turning into an "Arab Winter" (because of violence, Islamists, etc.) is because they believed in that narrative of January-March 2011. It's their own stupid fault for believing in it, the reality was always a lot more complex — their problem was to allow themselves to be caught in the enthusiasm of those experiencing the events and casting themselves as characters in them.

Twitter Active Users in Arab World

Twitter Active Users in Arab World - English

Source 

No wonder activists like Aalam Wassef have quit Twitter as a wasteful diversion: penetration in a place like Egypt is only 0.26%. Much more important in the Gulf.

Twitter down, but not just in Egypt this time

They're having outages everywhere, apparently. But for those few minutes I wondered if it had been banned in Egypt, so that all those rumors (in which are hidden kernels of truth) could stop spreading.

Once bitten, twice shy.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Twitter and the Gaza Flotilla

Above is a dynamically updated chart from Trendistic.com, a service that tracks trending topics on Twitter. It shows how much Twitter users have been using the hashtag #flotilla over the course of the past week, and naturally this includes a peak since this morning. According to Trendistic, #flotilla is one of the top trending topics at the moment, accounting 0.78% of tweets worldwide.

But you wouldn't know that from Twitter itself, which has #4wordsbeforedeath trending. It was popular last night, but as this time only accounts for 0.18% of tweets. So what gives?

There is some speculation that Twitter may be banning #flotilla from its trending calculations. Twitter can ban common words so as not to give false results. But #flotilla is hardly a common word. Last June, Twitter intervened (at the request of the State Dept.) to keep its servers going when #iranelection was trending. It was rightly applauded for doing so. So what's up with not allowing #flotilla to trend, and redirecting searches on the word to the homepage (just try it from your account.)

Update: There have been suggestions that Twitter's recently announced new rules on trending may be to blame. On Twitter's site, it says:

UPDATE: Recent Trending Topics Improvements

5/14/2010:

Twitter is about what is happening right now, and we have recently updated our trending topics algorithm to reflect this. The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the "most breaking" news stories from across the world. (We had previously built in this 'emergent' algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting. While this is very much a work in progress, with this tweak we have taken a big step toward capturing how trends quickly emerge and grow on Twitter.  We also think it's compelling to know what the "most popular" topics are, and we will look to capture this in some way in the future.

It is important to note that this new algorithm does not "block" any topics from trending. If topics you saw regularly in your Trending Topics menu have disappeared or are not showing as consistently as before, do a saved search for them on your homepage. That way, in one click, you can view search results for topics that matter most to you. Also consider localizing your Trending Topics menu, as shown below.

These changes do not really help explain why #flotilla is not being allowed to show as trending. First, it is a recently popular topic. Second, Twitter's website does not allow you to do a saved search for them — when you enter flotilla or #flotilla as a search term, it returns the full latest twitter feed, not tweets with these words. The system has clearly been set up to ignore "flotilla" both in trending and in search. I've asked Twitter for an explanation, which I'll post here if/when I receive it.

I should also note that #freedomflotilla is now trending.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.

Twittered out of trouble

Yesterday's detention of Wael Abbas at Cairo Airport, as he returned from the Tallberg Forum in Sweden, is now resolved. (Rather troubling is Wael's claim that pro-NDP Egyptians at the conference may have reported him to the authorities.) But Wael still had his laptop and papers confiscated, and is having trouble filing a complaint with the police. It was interesting to see the story unfold from the early morning, when Wael started posting what was happening to him on Twitter, the reaction of the Egyptian Twitosphere, most notably that of Hisham Kassem, the president of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR), a prominent commentator on Egyptian politics and publisher (he was the CEO al-Masri al-Youm at its launch in 2004 till 2007 and previously owned the Cairo Times). Hisham is also a Twitter addict, and it was fascinating to see him provide Wael and the wider community dispatches about his efforts to dispatch EOHR lawyers, talk to security, and try to get Wael out of his situation. It may not be a Twitter revolution, but it's a very practical, transparent and engaging way to rally people around a cause. Congrats to Hisham on getting Wael out of trouble and letting us know how it's done. And Wael, rest well and I hope you get your laptop back soon!
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