DUBAI: Social networking sites have allowed young protesters behind the "Arab Spring" revolt against the old guard to break a state monopoly on information, even if credibility is at times in question.
Activists using Facebook and Twitter have been taken aback by the extent that these internet sites along with YouTube have broadened their reach.
Such sites have "helped to create space for political and social communication that did not exist in most of the Arab world," said Ziad Majed, a Middle East lecturer at the American University of Paris.
"When we launched our first call for demonstrations on Facebook at the end of January, we had no idea about the number of people who might respond," said activist Hashim Al-Sufi, an organizer of anti-regime protests in Yemen.
"But we were happily surprised to see that hundreds of youths gathered in front of Sanaa University well before the set time," he said.
The youths have since late January demonstrated each day outside the university despite harassment from loyalists of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and have spurred street protests across the impoverished nation.
Yemeni protesters took action soon after a popular revolt in Tunis forced the north African nation’s long-time President Zine El-Abdine bin Ali to flee the country on January 14.
Egyptian protesters started rallying on January 25 in answer to a call by Facebook activists, highlighting the key role of social networks in mobilization and spreading information.
Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 18 days of protests, as uprisings intensified in Yemen and spread to Libya, Syria, and Bahrain.
Unlike in most other Arab countries, Bahraini protesters were blacked out by the main pan-Arab satellite televisions — Qatar’s Al-Jazeera and Saudi-financed Al-Arabiya, both from fellow Sunni-run Arab states in the Gulf.
The protests in Bahrain which broke out on February 14 "started on a Facebook page and became a real revolution," said one Bahraini activist who requested anonymity.
"Satellite channels, including Al-Jazeera, did not support our movement for political reasons and mainly to avoid upsetting Saudi Arabia," she said, although the channel had played a major role in supporting uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Bahraini protesters resorted to uploading to the internet footage of their demonstrations, of speeches delivered at Manama’s Pearl Square protest epicenter and of casualties at the hands of security forces.
And in the absence of Al-Jazeera, Iran’s Arabic-language channel Al-Alam and Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s Al-Manar stepped in to provide full coverage of the protests dominated by their Shia co-religionists.
Libyan rebels also relied on YouTube to broadcast footage of their revolt, which broke out in mid-February in the eastern city of Benghazi, while Arabic news channels complained of jamming by Libyan authorities.
Syrian protesters were quick to capitalize on their government’s decision to allow access to Facebook after their protests against a regime known for its brutality took off in mid-March.
While Syrian authorities have kept the foreign media at bay, protesters have flooded the internet with footage of the deadly government crackdown.
"The internet in Syria has become the only weapon that journalists and activists have against the government’s tanks and bullets," said Mohammed Al-Abdallah, a US-based Syrian internet activist.
"Social media became the main and almost the only source of information. Needless to say that YouTube has defeated the Syrian government," he said.
Abdallah said he was surprised by the "level of professionalism" demonstrated by Syrians uploading videos, including efforts to add credibility by showing the date on a daily newspaper and proof of the location.
"Sure, there is a problem of credibility because of the virtual-world nature that leaves space for faking and exaggeration," said Majed, the university lecturer.
He pointed out that Arab regimes, mainly the Syrian authorities, have realized the "importance of casting doubt over the credibility of social networks," through leaking fake footage.
The uncovering of the fake writer behind a blog titled "gay girl in Damascus" this week dealt a further blow to the authenticity of information disseminated on the internet.
A US student based in Scotland admitted that he was the writer of the blog detailing the life of "Amina Arif," whose alleged arrest in Damascus was reported worldwide based on writings on the fabricated page.
"This was a catastrophe in the full meaning of the word," said Majed.