The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged twitter
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.

Hits

Some of Mujtahidd’s tweets suggest access to clear insider sources. This occurred on 10 July, when he published a sting of negative information about the climate inside the Saudi Intelligence Agency. According to his sources, the Director did not understand the intel trade, employee morale was low, and the quality of the analysis being produced was frequently poor:

 

 

Shortly after, the Royal Court announced a change in leadership at the top. Whether his description of the situation inside the agency was accurate or not, the timing appeared to indicate advance knowledge of a major cabinet shift well before it happened. 

Moreover, Mujtahidd seems to have good sources inside King Abdullah’s entourage and frequently provides credible information about his health and travel schedule. For example, when Crown Prince Nayif died in early June of last year, Mujtahidd decisively predicted that the King would be too sick to attend the funeral, something that also proved true:

 

 

Misses

On the other hand, while Mujtahidd’s anonymity offers him a layer of protection from both the embarrassment of being wrong and lawsuits from the targets of his trash talk it also encourages at times sensationalism.

Take a series of tweets last Fall claiming that the Ministry of the Interior knew about certain planned terrorist attacks, yet did not stop them because Prince Mohamed bin Nayif, then Deputy Minister and responsible for counterterrorism, wanted to increase his influence within the Royal Family. When readers asked for supporting evidence, the all-too-convenient response was that doing so would put his sources in jeopardy:

 

 

Frequent exaggeration also undermines his credibility on certain issues.  One area where this occurs is on the issue of economic inequality. The gap between the super rich and average Saudis is in fact huge and no one disputes the stratospheric wealth of the most senior Royals but according to Mujtahidd’s “inside” information, the late Crown Prince Sultan left over $200 Billion to his heirs, which would have made him the richest person in the world: 

 

 

Another is the issue of land ownership. It is true that the accumulation of large chunks of land in the hand of a small group of elites over the last several decades is a factor in causing the lack of affording housing for average Saudis. Yet Mujtahidd’s tweets gives the impression that it is merely a few greedy Royals hoarding the best land and engaging in land speculation. The reality is that there are many factors causing the problem as the often highly nuanced discussions on Saudi television shows indicate.  

Overlook the Sensationalism and Understand the Agenda 

The key to analyzing the information in publicity-seeking Mujtahidd-style social media accounts is to put everything in the context of the broader political agenda. My guess is that Mujtahidd is a lawyer or perhaps a group of lawyers, who hope to push the Kingdom through their Twitter activity towards a more institutionalized, non-personality-centric system of government, in the form of a constitutional monarchy. 

This is probably the purpose of the constant broadcasting of detailed descriptions of the luxurious lifestyle of Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, a son of the late King Fahd and a minister without portfolio in the Saudi cabinet, covering everything from the size of his entourage to his Yachting schedule. Yet there are plenty of wealthy Saudis -- both Royals and commoners -- who live in similar luxury and are never the target of Mujtahidd’s wrath. Why the intense focus on one person?

Upon closer look, the point seems less about the travel per se, and more an indirect critique of the political system. What he really seems to be angry about is that the Prince is a member of the Saudi cabinet who (according to Mujtahidd) neglects his duties by spending so much time abroad. By focusing on the lifestyle details he is trying to get people to think more about what good governance entails. See this telling tweet where he basically says the scandal is more about a system where the King and Crown Prince are unable to remove an (allegedly) non-performing official:

 

 

The Ugly Truth about Saudi Political “Analysis”

It may be easy to dismiss Mujtahidd as a rumor-monger, but the simple fact is that nearly everything written about Saudi high politics is based on speculation.

Saudi Arabia does not have established institutions with centuries of precedent that provide rough guidelines for commentators to make reasonably accurate predictions about political trends. Instead its highest politics is effectively dictated by a small group of insiders who often have little interest in sharing their thoughts with outside academics or journalists. Unless one is part of that group, definitive statements about the Kingdom’s high politics are at best guesses.

Mujtahidd, however, seems to be close to members  of the Saudi elite and because he is willing to broadcast the information he obtains, is one of the best public sources on the Kingdom’s politics, even if everything he says has to be treated with extreme skepticism.

Also, the account’s analysis on less sensational topics often seems reasonable and can be a good window into the thought process of Saudi political insiders.  

An Insider or An Outsider? 

Nor should Mujtahidd automatically be viewed as a hard-core opponent of  “the system.” In some ways he even serves a useful purpose for the government.  

Most Saudi policymakers view the adoption of global standards of transparency and openness as critical to achieving the Kingdom’s ambitious long-term economic reforms. Certainly this is necessary for attracting the foreign partnerships and technology needed for large-scale projects like the Economic Cities or the development of manufacturing clusters. And on that basis, Mujtahidd’s is probably seen by many elites forces as helping foster a climate of an increased expectation of transparency and openness at the higher levels of business and politics.  

And Mujtahidd frequently encourages people to email him on an open Gmail account. If he were truly a rebel despised by the status quo, does anyone doubt that the authorities couldn’t shut him down?

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic.  Contact him at Nathan@industryarabic.com.

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 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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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!