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Sultana's Dream
August 2012


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Social Media and Minority Groups

The ubiquity of high speed Internet and the many social media tools that it has enabled to emerge have changed the way we communicate, connect and organise. Muslim women can use social media to instigate change, both within patriarchal societies or externally through connecting with non-Muslims around the world. For the first time, the power of social media can be used to instigate global change.  

Social media as we know it today is a relatively new occurrence in the history of human interactions. It shares its fundamental purpose – to communicate, connect and organise – with traditional media such as print newspaper, television or citizen assemblies. However, it becomes a different beast altogether when we take into consideration the anytime/anywhere convenience with which it can be accessed, the almost instantaneous speed with which it can spread a message, and its borderless grasp of a global audience.  

Social media is often lauded as a foolproof way for citizens or independent journalists to circumvent the bias of mainstream media and to mass communicate. I believe we should approach this with some caution. Increasingly mainstream media outlets are shifting their business models to suit the online environment. In June 2012, Fairfax media released a statement on the Fairfax of the Future. Fundamental changes to the Fairfax business model were meant to position the company to thrive in a digital-only environment, should this be required.  

Mainstream media outlets recognise this need to shift to online environments and increasingly use tools such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to convey messages. While it is true that social media provides, for the first time, an outlet for independent voices, powerful media establishments are also saturating this space. Importantly, in the Fairfax of the Future announcement, Managing Director Greg Haywood states ‘our investment in quality journalism and our editorial standards will not be compromised and will continue to underpin our success.’ Quality content is crucial to influencing and growing an audience, regardless of the medium through which it is conveyed. Even if print is dead (or dying!), in the words of Bill Gates, ‘content remains king’.  

In an online world, the effectiveness with which we can communicate content and harness audience attention also becomes important. Speaking at the Social Capital Conference in July 2012, University of Ottawa’s social media specialist Adrian Ebsary said, ‘with more than 500 million users sending out 50 million tweets per day on Twitter and some 901 million Facebook users inundating the net with posts and updates, it’s easy to get caught up in the chaos’. Communicating quality content effectively is the key to standing out in the chaos online.  

Connection is also a critical element of what spurs social media use. Several studies[1] have shown that minority groups in Western countries often rely on social media to a greater extent than Caucasians to ‘spread the word’ or as a tool for mobilising a cause. This particular use of social media by minority groups is not so surprising when we tie it into the ‘real world’ sense of alienation prevalent amongst minority youth in Australia and around the world.[2]  Using social media to ‘spread the word’ about a particular cause reflects the unwarranted expectation often placed on minority groups to justify or explain their place in the mainstream community.  

For Muslim women, the use of social media has also become an important mechanism to connect within patriarchal societies. In May 2011, Manal al-Sharif posted a video of herself driving the Saudi streets on YouTube where she openly flouted Saudi Arabian laws that prevent women from driving. Al-Sharif was jailed for nine days for her open disobedience. Saudi authorities did all they could to remove traces of the video, shut down her Facebook page encouraging women to drive, and altered tweets on her Twitter account. Nonetheless, she inspired other Saudi women who have since taken to driving through the streets, and using social media to document this, in support of al-Sharif and their own rights.  

Communicating and connecting via social media becomes especially powerful when it is used to organise a movement. The role of Facebook and Twitter in the uprising throughout Arab countries in 2011 was instrumental. There is debate about whether social media instigated the uprisings or was merely a tool to facilitate it, but nonetheless, it had an important role in organising people to take collective action. The world took notice. For the first time, social media was used to instigate a revolution.  

Finally, a study[3] that analysed social media usage by Muslim women around the world showed that Muslim women are a growing voice online. In assessing how Muslim women engaged with non-Muslims online, it found that Muslim women engage positively and are 27% more likely to respond to questions in blogs, news media and other channels like Twitter, than Muslim men. According to the study, Muslim women are also 62% more likely to maintain a positive, open dialogue than males.  

Muslim women are also using social media channels to discuss scripture and gender roles in culture and according to Islamic teachings. Social media is being used to allow diverse groups of women to engage with one another and play a lead role in changing the status of women in oppressive regimes, as well as in changing modern perceptions of women’s roles according to religious teachings.

It is safe to say that social media is as powerful as the person using it. When it is used to communicate quality content effectively, to create connections between minority groups and broader society, and to organise people into collectively advocating for change, it can be revolutionary. To me it is particularly heartening to see that social media is being used by Muslim women to challenge what is unjust and to instigate real change where it is needed most.  

Durkhanai Ayubi

[1] Like this study from Georgetown University, Centre for Social Impact Communication, Social Media Plays Greater Role in Cause Engagement For African Americans and Hispanics, 2011. Or this one from the European Centre for Journalism

[2] This sense of alienation was recently reported by The Age, in an article - Warning of UK-style riots in alienated pockets of Melbourne