This article will argue that new media creates more of an opportunity for Islamic communities to carry out propagation through more than what is known as traditional media.
Firstly, it will shed light on traditional media and how it makes propagation of true Islam difficult. Secondly, it will introduce new media and specifically social media, highlighting the differences it has with traditional media. The three main differences that will be focused upon and discussed will be the closed platform nature of building a narrative in traditional media as opposed to the open platform on social media, the one way communication of traditional media as opposed to the open communication on social media and the effect of professionally made content on traditional media as opposed to amateur made content on social media. As a conclusion, it will highlight how these differences between traditional and social media actually benefit Muslims in our efforts to propagate the true message of Islam.
Problem with traditional media
The media has always been a very powerful tool to propagate any message. Governments and huge corporations have positioned their capital and power in such a way that they can have a big say, if not all-out control, of traditional forms of media to maintain situations and conditions for their own interests. GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time-Warner and CBS own 90% of media in the US with far reach into the rest of the world. That is 90% of everything that is seen, read or watched by the American public . In such a climate, how would it be possible to propagate the true message of Islam? Perhaps the answer lies within another form of media which has taken the world by surprise.
Social media: The flagship new media
Social media is a form of new media that has taken the world by storm. The best way to describe it would be a collection of online tools which is based upon open platforms, networking, content-sharing and collaboration. These come in many forms such as forums, blogs, social network platforms and wikis. Just to give an idea of the reach of social media, here are some statistics that may come as a bit of a surprise: Out of the 7.365 billion people on earth, 3.175 billion use the internet out of which, 2.206 billion are active users on social media. The largest social media platform being used in the world is Facebook with around 1.490 billion users with an average growth of around 6 new users every second .
As mentioned previously, social media is a form of new media. How does this differ from traditional forms of media, such as television, radio and printed materials? Arguably some of the most important differences between the two forms of media help us construct an argument for the involvement of the Muslim community on social media platforms on a larger and more organized scale for the purpose of propagation.
New media: new opportunities for propagation
Traditional media is a one-way form of communication based upon a closed system with content created by professionals. This closed system can set whatever agenda it likes. Rather than allowing a discussion or conversation to take place, the nature of traditional media allows those in charge to bombard whatever information they wish upon the public. To top it all off, to have a chance to be among the content creators for such forms of media, one needs to be a professional with years of experience. Even then, one must usually pass through a filtration system, which endeavours to have people with the same mind-set at the top, to have a chance of even scratching the door of important traditional media outlets.
On the other hand, social media allows for open conversations and is based upon an open platform where anyone can be a content creator. Platforms allowing open conversations open the door for discussions to take place and an opportunity to challenge what is being said without having to be as big or powerful as the people, group and institutions making all the noise. This is especially favourable to those who may not usually have a chance to present the alternative view of what is being propagated by traditional media. Social media being an open system refers to the fact that any and everyone can set up base, have their own agenda and try to reach out to the world. This leads nicely to the last point: one does not have to be a professional for their content to be able to reach the world. In fact, many videos that do end up going viral with an important story are filmed using mobile phones. A very good example would be the circulation of videos showing police brutality in the US.
The use of social media
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last few years can be seen as a case study, which highlights the importance of using social media by those struggling against the narrative propagated through traditional media. Over the last decade, Israel has intensified the censoring of media coverage during operations conducted in Gaza. Western foreign journalists were not allowed inside the war zone and Israel went as far as attacking journalists belonging to channels that went against its own narrative. In 2014, things began to change. What happened? Social media. Even in those rounds of attacks, different buildings being used by media outlets were attacked and out of the 2016 Palestinians that were killed, 14 were journalists . Another medium was needed to show the world what was happening in Gaza.
As soon as the Israeli war machine began pounding the Gaza strip in Operation Protective Edge, the hash tag #GazaUnderAttack went viral. For the first time, the Palestinians were sending second by second updates thought the use of pictures, videos, status updates and tweets to the world. The world not only listened but also shared those horror stories far and wide, leading to a much greater awareness of Israeli crimes than had ever been previously available. Israel tried to fight back on social media but failed miserably. Whilst the pro-Palestinians hash tag #GazaUnderAttack had 4 million Twitter posts, the pro-Israeli hash tag #IsraelUnderFire had about 200,000 . Another example from the same conflict is the story of Farah Baker, a 16 year old Palestinian girl, who tweeted about bombs falling around her house and saw her Twitter followers shoot up to 207,000 overnight . Israel has always taken its propaganda and image seriously, but it was losing for the first time.
The open platform nature of social media allowed for a different narrative to be created diametrically opposed to the narrative created behind the closed doors of traditional media. This open communication allowed the official narratives to be challenged and engaged people in active discussions and finally, content created by a young Palestinian girl with next to no resources showed the world what the Israeli war machine was doing to Gaza.
These case studies demonstrate the benefits of social media in propagating the true image of Islam against the narrative being pursued by traditional media, which at best, shows a watered down secular version of Islam and at worst, presents Islam as nothing but evil. Social media being an open platform empowers Muslims to be the authors of their own narrative. The open communication nature of social media on one side can allow Muslims to challenge those distorting the true image of Islam, and on the other side encourage others to have open discussions with Muslims. As shown, when it comes to effectiveness it is the message, the relevance and the delivery that is more important than the accumulation and investment of a vast amount of capital.
Youth, the Leader and social media
Another important factor to take into account, when sketching a plan for propagation in the West, is to understand the target audience. The Leader of the Islamic Revolution addressed youth in Western countries at the start of last year with this message:
“I address you, the youth, not because I disregard your parents; rather, it is because I see the future of your peoples and nations to lie in your hands and the quest for truth to be more alive and conscious in your hearts. I do not address your politicians and statesmen either, because I believe that they have deliberately separated politics from honesty and truth.”
Many researchers have shown huge levels of engagement of youth in social media. According to one study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 92% of teenagers surveyed in the US log onto social media on a daily basis and of those between the ages of 13 and 17, 54% go online several times a day .
Perhaps it is no surprise then that the first letter that the Leader of the Islamic Revolution wrote to the youth in the West was initially published as a series of tweets on Twitter. Taking this letter as a guideline for who the main audience should be in terms of propagating the message of true Islam, and also taking into account the relationship between the youth and social media demonstrated in the stats above, it is essential to realize the potential which exists in social media in helping Muslims to achieve their objective.
Islamic propagation and social media now
So what is the current situation of Islamic propagation on social media? In terms of the general Muslim scene on social media, the top twitter account belongs to the Salafi sectarian scholar Muhammad al-Uraifi with 13.5 million followers, with more than 7 thousand added daily, ranking him 86th in the world. It really does not help having someone who uses rhetoric which may very well feed into bolstering the ranks of Daesh being in the lead of Islamic propagation on social media. This is worrying indeed for those wanting to present the true image of Islam to the world using social media.
This does however prove another very important point in regards to social media. Even if someone is a minority within a minority, a well planned and executed social media campaign can propel them to a position in which their reach can go beyond what was previously possible, or even available, with very little initial expenditure. Previously to reach a large audience, one way to go about it would be to host a channel on the UK’s biggest satellite channel provider. That would set one back half a million pounds annually before even spending a penny on the creation of content let alone marketing and other expenses. However, social media has the potential to reach millions all over the world at a fraction of the cost. In fact, there is no start-up cost to begin a social media campaign on major social media platforms.
A problem that arises from the above example is that when one has a platform in which so much information is being thrown around, the bad and the good, how can one ensure that the right message is propagated?
On the Shia scene, one of the oldest and possibly largest platforms for discussions has been ShiaChat, a forum in which people from around the world can participate in discussions ranging from theology and jurisprudence to sports and the weather. The forum format highlights the issue with social media mentioned above more than any other format. With a forum lacking the appropriate regulations, like ShiaChat, literally anyone can say anything they want. Unfortunately not everything is sourced back to the words of reliable scholars, and this can be very dangerous, especially if it becomes one’s source for all Islamic knowledge.
Social networking sites such as Facebook provide avenues through which such a problem can be avoided. A group or movement that aspires to present the scholarly opinion in regards to different discussions can create a page and set the setting such that who contributes what to the discussion is controlled. So for example, the administrator of such a group can create settings in a way that only the page itself can publish posts, therefore regulating content. This still allows room for discussion as the moderator can still allow comments and replies to be made under the posts. However, in reality, it is the actual posts that set the direction of the conversation.
One of the largest, if not the largest, online presence and activity in the realm of propagation on social media in the English language belongs to AhlulBayt Islamic Mission (AIM). Their Facebook page has over 400 thousand likes with participants from all over the world. The content is regulated by an online team consisting of members from all across the world who take their guidance from senior students studying in the Islamic seminaries. Discussions, albeit regulated for spam or inappropriate content, flourish underneath each post on various issues. Most of the content produced is the work of amateur volunteers or a production of other groups, which is then shared to a larger audience. AIM endeavours to use the benefits new media has over traditional media to more effectively approach a larger audience. The open platform allows AIM to set its own agenda, and the open communication allows AIM to engage its followers in dialogue, and the content can be created by anyone, professional or otherwise.
The way forward
This being said, one other very important element that needs to be taken into consideration for the planning of a successful online movement is the necessity of real world activism, specifically in its organization and mobilization. As this goes beyond the scope of our discussion, it shall suffice for now to take a glance at some case studies. Taking the #BlackLivesMatter online campaign as an example, it is clear that the online movement came out of the links and cooperation built upon real world activism. The same can be said of the #OccupyWallStreet movement and other such phenomena. In fact, it is very hard to point a finger at any successful online movement that was not built upon real world activism. One reason for this may be that people, consciously or subconsciously, understand the value of someone putting their time, money, energy and even security at risk more than someone whose activism is purely based upon sitting behind a computer and clicking. This should not undermine the importance of cyber activism, as there are countless examples of where cyber activism has helped amplify and magnify a cause onto the world stage, but it is difficult to argue that this could occur without any movement on the ground.
The open platform provided by social media, the open discussions that can occur and the ability for content to be created by the people seem like factors which can benefit an objective of propagation more than behind-the-doors, controlled one-way transmissions where only elite, professionally-created content exists. This should not negate the importance of real world activism which may even be a necessary component of making a cyber-movement successful. In conclusion it can be seen that as the world shifts towards new media, specifically social media, from the tightly controlled traditional media, the nature of it allows better grounds for the propagation of the true message of Islam.
Sayyid Mohsin Anwar Jafri,
3rd year student, Amir-ul-Mu’minin Islamic Seminary
Holy City of Qom
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