Story by Hannah Martin // Photo by Rob Sansone
AMMAN, Jordan – When protests at the border turned violent on May 15, the 63rd anniversary of the creation of Israel, Ghifar Alem, 23, wasn’t watching the news. He was following the Twitter feed on his Blackberry.
“Can barely open my eyes or breathe,” he reads, scrolling down for highlights.
“There is shooting in Karama area.”
“A rock thrown at my car.”
With one click, he downloads a picture of the rock, the size of a football. The tweet was posted by a Palestinian protestor in Ramallah three minutes before.
Alem is following the 140-character “tweets” posted under the hashtag #Nakba – the Palestinian name for the anniversary that directly translates to “catastrophe.” Protestors in Karama, who organized through a Facebook event called “the May 15 Youths,” tweeted their activity, creating a play by play for others to follow online.
In a country where laws governing mainstream media demand a carefully tailored picture of society, activist-run websites and social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter are telling a different kind of story. Now with a forum to communicate the truth, young activists are able to discuss, organize and react in a way that was once impossible.
“A lot of people feel certain things for certain causes,” said freelance photographer and videographer Mazen Al-Ali, 27. “But they don’t know the channels to go through to apply their passion in a tangible way. If I support a certain cause and I find out that there are 20,000 other people in Amman that share my opinion, then I’ll be more driven to do something about it.”
When it comes to this activism, Jordan has two distinct pockets of discontent: the conflict between the “Palestinian Jordanians” and “Jordanian Jordanians,” as they’re called here, that emerged from the wave of Palestinian refugees in 1948, and; the more widespread movement for policy and economic reform that has gained momentum during the recent “Arab Spring.”
With 70 percent of Jordan’s population under 30, social media plays a key role in the political campaigns of young activists. In fact, as Alem followed the clashes in Karama, he was volunteering at a Nakbeh awareness event in Amman that he heard about on Facebook and was being broadcast live through Skype to Gaza.
Rana Sabbagh, executive director of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, said that the limitations of mainstream media make these new mediums increasingly important for disseminating news.
“There are 24 laws that govern the lives of journalists,” she said. “Journalists are so low paid they don’t want to fight. It’s like a cat and mouse game…Reformists are seen as trying to upset the balance of power.”
Within such a society, social media allows Jordanians to propagate what they deem newsworthy, encouraging their peers to advocate causes that might have remained otherwise under the radar.
Al-Ali and Sabbagh both speak to the unifying ability of 7iber.com (pronounced hibir), a pioneering center of social media in Amman. Founded in 2007 by Naseem Tarawnah, 28, the blogger behind The Black Iris, 7iber publishes firsthand accounts from everyday Jordanians and emphasizes their lack of political agenda.
“Not everyone has a blog, but everyone wants to express themselves in one way or another,” Tarawnah explains. “The beauty of it is that it’s not a news outlet. We don’t produce news. What we concentrate on are the voices of the people.”
The site, run by seven editors, covers Jordanian politics, society and culture in both English and Arabic. Their main point of view: no censorship. As long as it’s an opinion of value, it’s publishable. This stance was especially important during their coverage of the March 24 protests in Dakhliyeh Circle that added Jordan to the “Arab Spring” list of wobbling nations.
“If they wanted to publish their articles elsewhere I doubt any of the mainstream media would have.” Tarawnah said. “We hosted both sides of that debate and it helped fuel but it also helped the conversation. These are conversations that don’t take place in the mainstream or any medium that has some sort of agenda.”
For 7iber, the main object is dialogue. Beyond the articles posted on their site, in February they started hosting a series of Hashtag Debates – a forum for people to get together in person and discuss what’s being written on Twitter and Facebook, focusing on Jordan’s main activist Twitter page, #ReformJO.
“The Twittersphere and blogosphere was really lighting up in the Arab world,” Tarawnah said. “Everyone was talking about what was happening – that was the only thing on people’s minds. It brought about a debate that was bold and very courageous.”
For Jordan, this cyber debate included criticism of government policies and security forces, and a push for economic reform.
“I think we all felt that what was being said had never been said that loudly and publicly in the country and by so many people,” Tarawnah said.
The most recent Hashtag Debate was held at the Makan House on May 25, featuring economists Ibrahim Saif and Yusuf Mansur who discussed economic policy in Jordan. Roughly 30 gathered to bat around questions and ideas. Typing in both Arabic and English, attendants tweeted their reactions to #Hashtagdebates from iPads and smartphones as the event transpired. The feed was broadcast on a screen at the front of the room and the debate was streamed live for debaters not physically present.
Jordanians have mixed opinions on the effectiveness of social media in pushing reform.
Al-Ali cites the administration’s reaction to social media activism as proof of its efficacy: In 2008, King Abdullah II commented on one of Tarawnah’s blogposts on The Black Iris encouraging people to speak up without fear. After the March 24 uprising, King Abdullah has been meeting with the National Dialogue Committee to revise laws on elections and a better system of checks and balances.
“Sure we have the Dakhliyeh Circle events. Sure there’s some excessive force used in certain scenarios. But I like to think of them as separate incidents,” Al-Ali said. “The norm is that we’re too afraid to speak up. However, what’s happening because of social media is that now the person that says something is not just saying it on his own, he’s saying it with 100,000 other people or 10,000 other people or even 200 other people. The fear factor is smaller. And the government is hearing it.”
At 7iber, Tarawnah is slightly less optimistic about the difference he’s making. Compared to Egypt, he said Jordan doesn’t have the numbers – that the administration thinks social media activists are “talking to themselves.”
“I’m really not sure about mobilizing on a large scale,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with luck and getting the critical mass. I think [King Abdullah] has taken it a little more seriously, but usually that just means more monitoring.”
Ultimately, he said, Jordanians must decide what they want offline, before they can power their move with online tools.
“If people, offline, are really serious about doing A, B, C, and D, then they’ll be able to go online and make it happen,” he said. “But it’s a much more muddied offline situation here. They’re not looking for the overthrow of the monarchy, they’re looking for reform. You can’t do a sit-in for reform.”