Middle East Awakening: Turkey and Social Media by Sameh A. Habeeb

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altLondon, (Pal Telegraph) – After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s role in the Middle East diminished. In the late 1990s, its role was viewed negatively among the Arab states and Arab Street due to its flourishing relations with Israel. Many joint projects between the two were launched in the industry and water sectors; and, numerous military and tourism deals were conducted. The increased relations and apparent closeness between Israel and Turkey left many in the Arab world disappointed and puzzled.  It was not until a few years ago that both Turkey’s role in the region and the view within the Arab world began to change.  This change coincides with the rise of the AKP to power in Turkey.  For many in the Arab world, the AKP is seen to have more in common with the Arab countries and people than the previous secular governments, which saw Israel as its best ally in the region.

There are, however, two contradictory perspectives that coexist in the Arab world’s view toward Turkey.  The first considers it as the greatest ally and friend that aspires to play a greater role in all issues regarding Middle East. Whilst, the second one considers Turkey a threat to Arab National Unity, which never truly existed!  Consequently, it behoves Turkey to do to convince those who are cynical about its role.  The recent launch of the Turkish-Arab News channel will help to bridge the gap, but it is only one step of many that are needed in a world that has seen drastic and revolutionary changes in the production and distribution of information via social media. Turkey’s use of and engagement with the growing online global community via social media outlets and platforms will enable it to bridge the gap between communities, civilizations and people far more than the traditional media and education platforms.  Social media’s importance to Turkey and its public relations campaign can be highlighted by looking at a few examples.


Gaza War 08/09: A Turning point for Turkey

In previous campaigns of violence waged by Israel, international public opinion was shaped largely by western mainstream media outlets.  Mainstream western media outlets are well known for their adherence to and reporting of the Israeli government’s rhetoric, while failing to present the Palestinian side or perspective.  Palestinians were always characterized as the aggressor rather than the victim of Israel’s disproportionate use of force.  An excellent example would be the coverage of the start of the Gaza War in 2008/09.  It has been well documented that Israel was the first to break the ceasefire in November of 2008.  Yet mainstream outlets and allies of Israel towed the Israeli government line that claimed it was Hamas that violated the ceasefire in December, which sparked the criminal Israeli offensive and subsequent war crimes.  Unlike the past campaigns of violence, live feed was fed to the international community via social media tools such as Blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.  Consequently, the biases of existing western media outlets were highlighted and the disproportionate level of violence used mobilized hitherto untapped segments of a truly global international community.

Social Media has also played a great role in improving and promoting the image of Turkey in region.  Yet, it is recognized this could never have happened without another very important factor.  In particular, it was the solid stances of and positions taken by the current Turkish leadership.  The AKP’s positions were clear regarding the Gaza War and what followed.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan criticizing Israel and then leaving the meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres was the turning point for Turkey in the Arab Street.   This incident also coincides with the start of Arab awakening and mass mobilization among a global activist community via Social Media.  Hundreds of thousands visited the YouTube video of the Prime Minister and circulated links thereto on Facebook.  In a short span of time and in the hearts and minds of those within the Arab Street and the global activist community Erdogan became a key player in the Middle East, especially in the absence of any real Arab leadership.  Tens of Facbook pages, groups, Fan groups and other application were launched and all of them carried the name of Erdogan or praise of Turkey. The Arab Street aspires to have a great leader, someone who represents their cause and finally gives voice to their interests.  For so many Erodgoan and Turkey, under the leadership of the AKP, seemed to be what the region needed.  This again came from the fact that Arabs aspires to have a great leader that speaks on their issue.

While Turkey has not engaged in or used Social Media enough, the Arab and global activist communities have. It was Turkey’s positions on Arab causes that were spread via social media.  Thus, it was the juxtaposition of the two that can be said to have propelled the image of Turkey as a leader within and among the Arab Street in such a short period of time.  Social media alone is not sufficient; vision and leadership are also necessary.   This should serve, however, as a reminder for Turkey that it needs to do more to reach those in the Middle East and beyond.

Mavi Marmra and Aiding Gaza

As Gaza continues to undergo the harsh Israeli siege, efforts from Europe were extended to help the people while Arabs stayed silent. Some Arab regimes like the Egypt under Mubarak were even willing participants in the besieging of the Gaza Strip and the bombing of its people.  The convoys from Britain carried not only basic aid to the people, but many British-Turkish activists.  After the initial set of convoys, the IHH organization decided to join the ground aid convoy organized by George Galloway. As the convoy arrived in Egypt, clashes erupted with Egyptian security who tried to stop them. Many Turkish were wounded. Tweets were all over the place, while the Facebook became busier with photos and videos. People circulated thousands of times what happened. The incident was parented to Arab audience through two samples. The first is the Egyptian, which represents the Arabs; a very fragile position seemed to be pro-Israeli. The second is very national and bias toward Arab aspirations, which is lifting the siege on Gaza.  IHH participated again participated heavily  in the Mavi Marmra, where 9 Turkish were killed by Israel. Indeed, such participation came as part of Turkish foreign policy.  The amount of such participation could never happen apart from the government’s tacit support.  Consequently, the image of the Turkish government under the AKP and Turkey as a leader within the region was further solidified in the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world and promoted through Social Media tools.

Turkey and Arab Revolution 2011

Where there were some notable differences in the image of Turkey via Social Media was in regards to its position on the Arab Revolutions of 2011.  Turkey’s positions were sometimes clear and at other times vague. Its position on Egypt was very clear and supportive of the pro-democracy movement, while it was less supportive in the early stages of the people’s movement in Libya. It was also less clear and almost silent in regard to the outbreak of violence in Syria, which happens to be a good friend of Turkey. These positions were either praised or criticized on Social media venues.  Thus, it can be said that the echo of Turkey’s stance on Arab revolutions remained less effective on Social Media compared to its position regarding Palestine. Maybe this is because Palestine is still the core issue despite the on-going revolutions and that which unites the Arab world.

In conclusion, Turkey should invest more in its use of Social Media regarding Middle East and its causes. Turkey is one of the biggest investors in Arab states economies and has started to become more effective in the politics of the region as well.  A focus on the Palestinian cause could help Turkey to regain its vital and essential position that it held long ago. Regaining and maintaining its position in the region and as a global player will not occur without a big media push and an effective public relations campaign that combines the use of traditional and social media platforms. More efforts and emphasis on Social Media must be undertaken, as it is the latest technological fashion.  Turkey, therefore, should launch very specialized units in each Arabic state that address certain issues; language should be Arabic and English in all social media websites; and, extensive work on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Digg and Friendfeed should be launched.  In undertaking such global and regional media initiatives, there will be no doubt in Turkey’s rise within the Arab world and particularly in the hearts and minds of the Arab Street.

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*Sameh A. Habeeb is a Palestinian journalist from Gaza and founder of the UK based, The Palestine Telegraph Newspaper.  He covered the on-going siege on Gaza and 2008-2009 War where he reported for many International media outlets including BBC, SKY, Al Jazeera and Dutch TV Network.

 

This article was published on Encompassing Crescent Journal. 

 

 

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