He sits behind his office desk, opens his laptop, logs on to the Internet and immediately opens up various Facebook pages to read about the controversy swirling around the Palestinian singer Mohammed Assef, a contestant on "Arab Idol." He contemplates writing something on the matter [which would no doubt] be inundated with comments from his friends on his personal page. He reads posts and waits to see what a few write and comment.
Taher al-Nunu, the spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, is one of the officials (from the Hamas movement and the government) who uses Facebook to communicate with a wider public, especially the youth, that has come to rely on it more heavily than on traditional media outlets.
Nunu tells Al-Monitor that he has become convinced of the influence of social media outlets after the Arab revolutions. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, he thought of them as no more than another means of entertainment. However, he insisted on interacting [with the medium], plunging into the experience to put across his message and his opinions. According to him, it might not please many political rivals if [Nunu] is critical of them; similarly, he has sometimes irritated some of the Islamists "when I supported a position that they considered out of line with the program which the government in Gaza must adopt.”
In his words: “I believe that social media is extremely important today. Its importance lies in the fact that you can hear the pulse of the opinions of others — you can see their reactions immediately, without waiting for research, studies or opinion polls the way you have to with other forms of media. Very often I [use social media] to try and get a sense of how events are unfolding, and how people are thinking both here in Gaza and in the outside world.”
Despite the difficulty of conducting a precise statistical study, experts have estimated that there are more than 1 million Facebook users in Palestine, up to half of whom might be in the Gaza Strip. Many of those accounts are subject to surveillance by the security services [active in] both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
According to a study issued by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in May 2012, more than half of Palestinian youth (roughly 55%) have computers connected to the Internet.
Several activists have noted in statements to human rights organizations in Gaza that, when they are subjected to investigation and interrogation, the interrogator will often produce printed copies of recent posts from their Facebook profiles.
With the outbreak of the Arab revolutions that fundamentally depended upon social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others, many Hamas leaders and officials in the government in Gaza have turned toward establishing accounts on both Facebook and Twitter. Some have been established on behalf of government ministries, while others are personal accounts used to communicate with their community of users.
Activists in Gaza also used social media outlets to assemble the wider public that came out for the first time on March 15, 2011, in response to their call to support efforts at ending the schism between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This constituted a turning point in the use of social media by officials to communicate with the younger demographic.
It has become commonplace for traditional Palestinian media outlets to carry statements made by Hamas leaders or officials that originally came in the form of a Facebook page post or a tweet. This was certainly not the case before the outbreak of the Arab revolutions.
Blogger Ola Anan from Gaza attributed the reasons for the Hamas leadership’s turn toward social media in the following manner: In her view, it is one of the most critical and influential means of communicating with young people. In addition, it offers [Palestinian parties] unparalleled speed of communication with their constituency of supporters outside the Palestinian territories, especially in other Arab countries. It saves them from having to communicate their message through traditional media outlets that may well be biased in favor of existing Arab regimes hostile to Hamas' political orientation.
In Anan’s words: “The problem doesn’t lie in their presence on social media. That’s their right. But they rarely respond to the negative comments that appear on their pages or in response to their tweets, except for certain instances where they just want to add some further clarification of their positions.”
Anan pointed out that the presence of leaders and officials on social media forums has some positive aspects, insofar as an official can issue a statement without being twisted or “interpreted” by journalists and the general public. They now have greater capacity to express their opinion directly, without having to rely on other media outlets to convey their views.
Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government and the deputy head of Hamas’ political buro, possesses his own Twitter account with nearly 70,000 followers (he himself only follows one account: the head of Hamas’ politburo, Khaled Meshaal).
According to Nunu, “I would never have believed that what I post on my Facebook page could spread so quickly, that activists would circulate it so rapidly or [to see it] appear on the websites of [traditional] media. It drives me to dedicate some of my time on an almost daily basis to follow what’s being published, and to read some of the comments so that I can get a sense of the public mood both locally and in the Arab world.”
Hazem Balousha is a Palestinian journalist based in Gaza City, with a Master of International Relations from Turkey, as well as a BA in journalism. He has worked as a news producer for BBC World Service, as well as contributed to The Guardian (UK), Deutsche Welle (Germany), Al-Raya (Qatar) and many other publications. He has covered serious events such as the internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas in 2007, and the Israeli Operation Cast Lead war on Gaza in 2008-2009. Hazem is also the founder of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development (PICD). Twitter:@iHaZeMi