Sitting at his desk with an open laptop in front of him, Palestinian journalist George Canawati cannot take his eyes away from his Facebook page for more than a couple of minutes. “In social media, there is always something new going on,” he says, before entering a few comments during our conversation.
For Canawati, the manager of Radio Bethlehem 2000, Facebook has become a vital tool to keep up-to-date with breaking news and the latest events happening in Palestine and across the region. He uses his Facebook account, which boasts 5,000 friends, to publish breaking news, gather information and follow-up potential leads. He also manages the station’s website and Facebook page.
“The majority of the radio’s website traffic comes from Facebook,” he tells me. “So, for me, not being on Facebook means missing a huge opportunity to give my audience the chance to consume news in the way they want.”
Over the past few years, social media tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have made a dramatic change to the way that news is reported, consumed and shared around the world; the news in and from Palestine is no exception. As the value of social media tools became ever more apparent with unlimited access to information, opinions and people, many major newspapers, local broadcasters and radio stations in Palestine have migrated to the internet and started to encourage their staff to use them in their daily work.
“A growing number of Palestinians are looking to social media as a primary way of getting their news,” notes Amon Al-Sheikh, social media manager at Zamn Press news website. “That being said, more journalists and news organisations in Palestine are embracing social media, especially Facebook, as a new tool to circulate their content and reach a wider audience.”
The battle is on
Palestine is ranked among the highest in the Middle East in internet penetration – after Israel and the Gulf – estimated at 8-10 per cent. According to the latest statistics provided by Ramallah-based Publicis Zoom Company, there are 1,380 million Facebook users in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; 59 per cent of them are male, 41 per cent are female.
“Social media gives journalists the opportunity to spread news to a wider audience, as many Palestinians now get their news from Facebook and other social networking sites,” says Ehab Jarriri, the director of Ramallah radio station 24fm. “This can be worked greatly to our advantage when it comes to spreading our news and getting feedback.”
For Jarriri, social media tools and, again, especially Facebook, have become essential for Palestinian journalists. “There is no question about it, if you are not on Facebook; you are not getting the whole story,” he insists.
Given the popularity of Facebook in Palestine, Jarriri notes that he has led a newsroom-wide effort to develop the usage of social media among his team members, with the site being used as the main tool to discuss story progress, review and approve news and photos before publishing them online. “We now use Facebook instead of email,” he says.
While Facebook is still the most popular tool in Palestine, Twitter is also gaining ground. Currently, there are 38,000 twitter users in Palestine, claims Publicis Zoom.
The reason for Twitter still lagging behind Facebook, according to Dr Mohammad Abualrob, assistant professor of Media and Mass Communication Studies at Birzeit University, is the fact that there’s no 3G or 4G network in the occupied Palestinian territories. For the past few years, Israel has refused to grant the Palestinian Authority a licence to launch 3G service in the occupied territories. This restriction has limited Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to 2G. Israel, on the other hand, has announced plans to launch a 4G service to its people this year.
“Twitter is all about breaking news,” explains Abualrob, “so reporters need to have an internet connection to report a demonstration or an arrest in real-time, otherwise, the whole point of tweeting loses its purpose.”
Ibrahim Husseini, a freelance TV reporter based in Jerusalem, agrees that Twitter plays a bigger role in breaking news and news gathering than Facebook, which is much more about discussion and opinion. “Contacts used to be vital to your work as a journalist,” he points out. “Now, journalists with thousands of followers on Twitter or Facebook have become a hot commodity for media organisations, which are looking to gain from their large pool of followers to reach a wider audience.” In short, argues Husseini, the success of a journalist is now determined by his or her online presence.
Many Palestinian journalists agree on the importance of social media to their work, but its impact is still being debated, with some doubts about its reliability and credibility. “Personally, I think social media has undermined the overall quality of journalism,” claims Abualrob. “There’s such a rush to be first to share news on Facebook or post a tweet that many journalists don’t have time to check their facts. Social media might be good for journalists but it’s bad for journalism.”
Husseini agrees with Abualrob and notes that, in some cases, citizen journalism has undermined the quality of journalism. “Now, anyone with a smartphone, internet access and a keenness to get a message out to the world can claim to be a journalist. Whenever I go to cover demonstrations, home demolitions or arrests in Jerusalem, there are always a group of youngsters taking photos with their mobiles to share them on social media sites. We, journalists, call them Facebook agents.”
Weapon of the masses
Although some journalists fear that social media sites are replacing journalism, others insist that they are just creating an extra layer of information. For Jarriri, what social media could be credited for is giving journalists more freedom when covering and reporting news stories. “When publishing stories on social media you create a degree of public support and awareness that make it more difficult for the government to silence you.”
There is no Palestinian law that permits web censorship, but Amon Al-Sheikh warns that Palestinian journalists could face prosecutions for their online posts. Nevertheless, she adds that, on balance, social media has worked out for the benefit of Palestinians in terms of creating a new political discourse and confronting Israel’s version of events.
Canawati agrees. “What social media could be credited with in Palestine is that it helped to overturn the traditional relationship between the political authority and the public making it easier for people to voice their concerns and giving journalists another layer of protection when reporting their stories.”
In fact, more and more Palestinians are now turning to social media as an alternative method of mobilisation away from the traditional political leadership. One example of a successful media campaign was “Salt and Water” which aimed at supporting Palestinian administrative detainees who are on hunger strike. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which targets civil society and the general public to act against Israel, is continuing to gain momentum on social media.
The latest Israeli war on Gaza also saw an important social media presence with many Palestinians and supporters of Palestine using the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack with great success; more than 4 million Twitter posts used it to disseminate information and distribute images showing the devastating effect of the Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian civilians.
While social media still inspires a mixed bag of reviews, its influence and the growing popularity among Palestinians is hard to dispute. “Social media is here to stay,” Canawati concludes, “but journalism is not going away. It’s simply the medium that is changing, very much for the better.”
 This Week In Palestine, June 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.