Home » Uncategorized » Sultan Al Qassemi- Making a difference on Twitter

Sultan Al Qassemi- Making a difference on Twitter

SultanLast summer I had the pleasure of meeting Sultan Al Qassemi (@SultanAlQassemi) when he joined my Public Diplomacy class at Emerson College. He was in Boston for a few days attending events and Dr. Payne (@JGPAYNE) somehow charmed Sultan and convinced him to join us in class that evening.

At the time, Sultan did not mention that he had been named one of TIME Magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds in March 2011. Since the summer, he has also been named one of The Most Influential Non-Celebrity Users of Twitter by UK’s The Independent. But you wouldn’t know any of these things when you meet Sultan. He’s incredibly humble and doesn’t seem to believe that he has “tweeted up a revolution,” as the UK’s Guardian says, nor that he is the Twitter King of the Arab Spring, per Chatham House. It wasn’t until I began my research for this blog post that I began to understand fully the influence Sultan has had.

Sultan currently has 96,840 followers. He is a thirty-three year old fellow at the Dubai School of Government and a freelance columnist, raised in the United Arab Emirates and educated in Paris, per TIME Magazine. Sultan made such an impact because he took the time to translate everything that was happening in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria into English. He translated all of the information like full speeches by Muammar Gaddafi, not just providing two sentence summaries as many Western newswires were doing (Chatham House). That and he removed opinion from his tweets, saving it for his longer articles (Guardian).

At one point he accounts that he was tweeting a new update every 45 seconds (TIME Magazine). For three weeks he wasn’t eating or sleeping (Guardian). Sultan took time off work and was tweeting over 20 hours a day (Chatham House). His following exploded once world journalists began to retweet him (Guardian). When asked what the impact of social media has had on the revolutions he said, “I think that the revolutions would have happened anyway, but I think social media was a tool, a mobiliser, a conduit, that people found each other through” (Guardian).

When asked about his current interests in the area, he sites Egypt and Saudi Arabia, saying “If Saudi [Arabia] changes, then everything changes. If Saudi empowers women, the rest of the region empowers women. It’s a multiplier effect. Saudi is on the cusp of major change – and it has nothing to do with people marching in the streets” (Guardian).

Some of you mentioned earlier that you did not understand the impact social media was having in the Arab Spring or that you thought it was over-credited. After reading this post and seeing all of the articles around one man, have your thoughts changed?

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9 Comments

  1. andreslmc says:

    Jackie–I think the credit that social media was given as a ‘mobilizer’ during the Arab Spring is certainly warranted. Undoubtedly the courage, will, and vision of these revolutionaries is what carried the Arab Spring forward. However, social media tools such as Facebook allowed these revolutionaries to broadcast their message and enlist support for their cause all while being able to circumvent their government’s attempt to crack down on their movement.

    Ultimately I think that it’s difficult to measure how consequential social media was in the daily grind of the Arab Spring, Nevertheless, I think that social media became a symbol of resistance; a symbol that autocratic regimes cannot control the will of the people; and more importantly a symbol of hope that social progess is possible.

  2. Boon Han says:

    I would like to share a story on the origins of the the Mid-Autumn Festival which most Chinese around the world celebrate on the 15th day of the 8th month on the Chinese calendar.

    It commemorates an uprising in China against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century. As group gatherings were banned then, it was very difficult for the people to make plans for a rebellion. Noting that the Mongols did not eat mooncakes, Liu Bowen, an advisor to the Chinese rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang, came up with the idea of timing the rebellion to coincide with the Mid-Autumn Festival. He sought permission to distribute thousands of moon cakes to the Chinese residents in the city to bless the longevity of the Mongol emperor. Inside each cake, however, was inserted a piece of paper with the message: “Kill the Mongols on the 15th day of the 8th month” On the night of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the people rose up and the rebels attacked and overthrew the government. What followed was the establishment of the Ming Dynasty. Henceforth, the Mid-Autumn Festival was celebrated with moon cakes on a national level. (mostly extracted from wikipedia)

    My point is that the role that social media played in the arab spring is like the note in the moon cake used by the Chinese more than 700+ years ago to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. It was a “tool” and not the key reason for the arab spring.

    I agree totally with Sultan Al Qassemi when he said in the interview that: “Social media were a tool used by activists who paid for their opposition to entrenched regimes by being jailed or even killed. The Arab uprisings of 2011 would have occurred anyway due to the flagrant injustice, entrenched corruption and brutal dictatorships throughout the Arab world.”

    I just feel that the newspapers (and probably the big technology firms in the silicon valley) seem to be over-glorifying the role of the social media in the Arab Spring to advance their individual interests and boosting their bottom-lines.

    • Jacki says:

      Hi Boon- I love this story. Thank you for sharing. It really explains that what we do on social media is something that people have been doing for hundreds of years, just in a different (and perhaps faster and easier) way. I also love the donuts picture you linked to below. Everyone has been sending that to me this week, including my CEO. It’s so funny and true at the same time.

  3. Boon Han says:

    On a lighter note, check out the photo below which explains social media:

  4. Alex says:

    I think this is an interesting commentary of the effect of social media in different social environments, and this definitely elaborates on Jacki’s previous post about the different culture codes of social media. I have to admit that I just had to Google “Arab Spring” to find out what it referred to. I have heard the term before, and Dr. Payne did in fact reference it in a previous class, but I never knew what it was referring to. Taking into account this one man’s influence via Twitter during a time of unrest, I think it is worth crediting social media as the tool which drove people to rise up. The functions of social media are certainly different in various cultures. Going back to the idea attribution to the use of social media in the U.S., I think it would be more common for people in the U.S. to share news via social media to “Wear pink to stand up against this,” or “Wear blue to show support for blank,” which is an idea more so than a blatant act of “freedom” which seems like what is happening in other parts of the world, such as in the case of Sultan Al Qassemi.

  5. andreslmc says:

    Hi all, I had one other thought about this topic. I just remembered that the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) has revolutionized political discourse in Colombia through his Twitter account. President Uribe has become a highly polarizing political figure in Colombia; he probably has as many detractors as he has supporters. However, whether or not one agrees with his political views, Uribe continues to shape public opinion and set the agenda of political news coverage. As of today Uribe has 929,068 Twitter followers. Uribe’s Tweets often result in heated political exchanges between rival political parties.
    http://twitter.com/alvarouribevel

    • Jacki says:

      Hi Andres- Thank you for sharing this. That is such a large amount of followers that President Uribe could probably be described as a “political celebrity.” It also sounds like this is something that he was doing on his own. I think many of our politicians in the US are on social media, but it is likely that few are actually the ones behind the Twitter handle. In order to really influence it is so much better to share unique and less filtered ideas.

  6. meredithmckenna says:

    Although I do agree that the uprisings would have occurred anyway, I believe social media had a major impact creating awareness, and uniting people during the Arab Spring. Journalists turned to social media during this time period, largely in part because traditional forms of media were unavailable. It served as an outlet that the government could not control and sensor. This created awareness not only in the Arab countries, but around the world as well.

    Social media was not the only reason the uprisings occurred, but I think it made it easier for people to connect with each other and organize more effectively.

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