Can social media help bridge divides between diverse Muslim and Western communities? The World Peace Foundation at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy addressed this issue on January 14 during a special panel discussion featuring Farah Pandith (F95), U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities, and Riyaad Minty, head of social media at Al Jazeera. In keeping with the spirit of the topic, the conversation was broadcast on Twitter via @WorldPeaceFdtn, @FletcherSchool and #tweetingforpeace.
“There has been a decentralization of gatekeepers of information facilitated by platforms like Twitter,” said Minty, to the crowd of Fletcher students, faculty and staff that gathered in the Ginn Library’s Reading Room for the event. “The Twitter ‘hashtag’ is one of the most powerful tools of communication in the world today that allows individuals to move from a face-to-face conversation to a collective discussion.”
This idea of collectivity was echoed by Pandith, whose position was created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to help engage civil society through tools of soft power, working with U.S. embassies around the world. In an interview with the Fletcher Forum last year, she explained the importance of “relationship building” between the United States and Muslims after 9/11, to create an idea of “we” rather than “us and them” – an effort that is made easier by social media platforms.
“My mandate is primarily to engage younger generations at the grassroots level: a staggering 62 percent of the world’s population is under 30 years of age. They probably are among the top constituents in social media platforms as well. It is possible, therefore, to facilitate a conversation among them and reframe the way in which we think about the world,” she said during the event. “Social media helps put ‘we’ at the center of the conversation,” she explained.
Pandith noted that young Muslims have been using social media tools to push back against narratives predominant in their communities. “Young Muslims are asking themselves right now: how can I be modern and Muslim? The question is not being asked in places of worship, but on online platforms. The youth are not waiting for people who possess microphones to define who they are.”
Minty exemplifies this generation. In his late twenties, Minty heads a team of young innovators navigating the complex world of social media for Al Jazeera, and strategically positions the broadcaster as a “convener” of the many debates that take place in the digital landscape. “Mainstream media is still mostly a one-way route,” he said, in which “people are talking at you, not to you.”
Minty was studying in high school in South Africa when the 9/11 attacks took place; he subsequently enrolled in a university to study law, but found himself more heavily involved in activism. He soon left, and in his words, “moved to the digital space,” where he felt he could have a greater impact.
“Al Jazeera, it seemed, provided the only counter-narrative on Iraq [at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003] – and so I was keen to join its team,” he said.
Al Jazeera has emerged as a prominent media outlet around the world especially after the channel’s coverage of the Arab Spring protests, which included a focus on social media. “We were able to cover them better, because we were prepared for it,” Minty said. “We captured the essence of debates that were doing the rounds on Twitter and Facebook.”
Minty is nevertheless cautious about the potential of social media platforms to engender discussions among diverse communities. “There is a lot of noise and disinformation on such platforms today; people are more comfortable aligning within their own communities, or those who represent or agree with their point of view,” he said. “There are fights over digital space, which often tend to be attacks on a person as opposed to criticisms of his/her views.”
Its pitfalls notwithstanding, both Minty and Pandith agree on the revolutionary scope of new media. Pandith also highlighted how social media platforms democratized the discourse on Islam after 9/11.
“Looking back after 10 years [since the 9/11 attacks] it is tough to find a hierarchy among voices – the debate on Muslim identities has been spread out. The most active participants in this debate, not surprisingly, have been the younger generations,” Pandith said. “They have grown up reading, almost on a daily basis, the words ‘Islam’ or ‘Muslim’ in the front page of print and digital publications.“
“Citizen Diplomacy” is another area that Secretary Clinton has placed on her list of high priorities, according to Pandith. For instance, the U.S. government has conceived the “Viral Peace” project aimed at “mobilizing individuals and communities against hate and violence through the use of social media.”
“Muslim women in particular have had the opportunity to air their views and contribute to the public discourse. Social media provides a more protective space for this conversation,” said Pandith.
From the media’s perspective, there is another important question: what information shared on social media platforms can be treated as reliable? “I have an equation, or more specifically, a rule of thumb that I stick to: information – noise + context = accurate reporting,” Minty said. “Information is abundant online, and therefore news outlets have a greater imperative to verify what is accurate and what is not.”
As the discussion opened up to the audience, Minty addressed a number of questions about the editorial independence of Al Jazeera. “We [Al Jazeera] have a responsibility to report accurately,” he explained. “Al Jazeera may be state-funded but it is not state-controlled, and works under an independent editorial team.”
If anything, according to Minty, citizens living in the West need outlets like Al Jazeera streaming news and views to their televisions at home. “If you’re going to follow the English language press,” he said, “you’re only going to get one side of the story.”
-- A student correspondent