U.S. government broadcaster expands use of social media in Middle East

As social media becomes a primary tool for communication, organization and subversion across the Middle East, the U.S. government's foreign broadcasting arm is increasingly relying on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate with its audience.

The weekly program Eye on Democracy, which runs on the Arabic language Alhurra station, has had a social media presence since it went on the air in 2006 and has done significant reporting on the Arab world's use of social media both before and after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere.

In the early days, using social media meant posting content to the show's Facebook page and encouraging discussions there, the show's host Mohamed al-Yahyai said. As time went on, though, the show's producers began accepting video clips and story ideas through Facebook and Twitter and began mining other Facebook accounts and "influencer blogs" to figure out which news topics were most important to their audience.

Al-Yahyai often will incorporate Facebook comments into his show, he said, and use trending social media discussions to guide what he covers.

Alhurra is part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' Middle East Broadcasting Network division, which also includes Radio Sawa, the BBG's Arabic language radio station.

MBN has spent the past several months on a companywide "new media listening campaign," the company's new media director Ahmad AbouAmmo, said. That means AbouAmmo mines Facebook, Twitter and YouTube posts outside the show's own pages to assess the public mood on a certain topic or to find out what news is trending in certain countries and passes that information along to producers, he said.

AbouAmmo also is trying to raise the social media profile of MBN shows and reporters. In some cases, he's succeeded in raising unique visitors to the company's Facebook posts by up to 500 percent, he said, with some posts getting as many as 120,000 unique views.

Alhurra, which translates to "the free one," began broadcasting to the Middle East in 2004. The station struggled for the first several years to gain traction outside of Iraq where it's always had a strong viewership. Alhurra has gained popularity in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, though, especially in Egypt where it nearly doubled its weekly viewership to around 8 million viewers between 2010 and 2011, according to the Nielsen ratings agency. About 93 percent of viewers found news on the station credible, Nielsen said.

The largest share of visitors to MBN's social media sites are from Egypt, AbouAmmo said. Visitors from Tunisia are also high on a per capita basis, he said, though there are significantly fewer overall visitors because of the nation's smaller population.

It's difficult to tell how many visitors are coming from Syria and some other nations, he said. Because of restrictions on social media, most of those nations' visitors are using encrypted pipelines from other sites to reach the company's social media pages.

Al-Yahyai produced a documentary titled Tunisia: The Republic of Facebook, that aired on July 1, in which he interviewed many of the nation's leading online activists. About 90 percent of them told him the Tunisian uprisings would have been impossible without Facebook, he said.

Al-Yahyai agreed. He noted rumors that another young Tunisian man had set himself on fire several months before the fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi did so, in an act of protest that's been widely credited with sparking the Arab Spring. In the former case, there was no cellphone video to post and repost online and, hence, no national outrage, al-Yahyai said.

"Of course, the revolution's not from Facebook; it's from the street and the people and the political situation," he said. "There are people [who were] fighting for this for years, people in prison. But the Internet and social media and cellphones, this is about information. When people know what's going on, then they'll take action."

Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi who run Parazit, a Daily Show-style Persian language news parody rely on Iranians' Facebook comments and video links for most of their content.

"The issues and the content are coming from the people," Hosseini said. "The Internet is the only way they can reach out. We're doing commentary on it that they can't do themselves and projecting it back into society."

Voice of America's Persia News Network, which broadcasts Parazit, is blocked in Iran, so the show's viewers come entirely through encrypted pipes on the Internet, Hosseini said. As a result, it's impossible to say how many viewers the show has, but based on the posts to their Facebook page it's immensely popular. Hosseini and Arbabi learned recently that entrepreneurial Internet cafe owners have begun to preload their show onto USB drives and charge a premium for them so customers can save the time of downloading the show themselves.

"So we've created some jobs for [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," Hosseini joked.

Iranian officials have begun responding to issues they parody on the show, though never mentioning the show by name.

"They just say, oh, by the way, this issue has been out there and here's what we're doing to solve it," Hosseini said. "That happens five times and it can't be a coincidence."

The show has also received wide recognition in the United States, including an invitation to appear on the Daily Show.

Parazit covers some issues with an international character, such as the effect of sanctions on Iranian citizens and companies, but largely sticks to domestic issues such as labor disputes, economic woes and, in one case, new theocratic restrictions on hair length.

"These are very local issues we get fed," Hosseini said. "Things the state-controlled local media's not talking about."

The two originally had envisioned the show as largely focused on cultural issues, but when their 15th episode coincided with the Green Revolution protests that rocked the nation, they felt they had no choice but to cover it.

"The uprisings in 2009 were like 9/11 for the Iranian people," Hosseini said. "Everything changed after that. The meaning of entertainment changed. Young people got interested in politics more than they were before. And they didn't want to watch a stupid TMZ [celebrity gossip show] kind of thing."