By Stephen Dockery
BEIRUT: When Salma logs on to Twitter as salma17, she is looking for only one thing: What’s the latest message of 140 characters from her favorite politician, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri. She says she reads just about everything Hariri tweets and rarely tweets herself, but when she does its almost always @HaririSaad. Salma, who doesn’t want to use her last name because of family politics, is one of a large number of people in the country flocking to Twitter to follow the missives of their favorite politicians rather than to engage with the Twitter community at large.
A number of politicians have found success communicating via social media, answering questions, sending congratulations and making brief policy statements. President Michel Sleiman has 16,067 followers, Prime Minister Najib Mikati has 25,685 and Hariri has 78,185, making them among the most popular Middle East political tweeters. Their Twitter feeds are clogged with hundreds of general questions and greetings from Lebanese who joined the social media service just to be nearer to them.
Salma says she’s been logging on to check in on the former prime minister since he first joined Twitter with 150 followers. She only follows three other people.
“Other politicians are too formal and they have statements, they don’t chat like he does,” Salma says.
“I don’t ask many questions. I just read his answers and it makes me feel closer to him, it makes him reachable in a way,” she adds about why she follows Hariri.
Her sentiments seem to hold true for many other Twitter users following Lebanese politicians: The emphasis is on connecting with their leader.
But that seems to track a different course than popular wisdom about using Twitter as a positive political tool.
At a social media conference last month in Beirut, local experts emphasized the importance of challenging and debating on mediums like Twitter. Panelists at the event “Social Media Changing Lives” said such active tweeting leads to political accountability, more responsive decision-making and positive change.
What social media followers with a narrow focus means for the political health of the country is still being figured out.
The fact that politicians are going online is seen by some social media experts as at least a positive step, but the effect of one-track tweeters is another matter.
“First of all it’s really healthy to have all these politicians online, but we can judge it by seeing the results,” says Mohammad Najem, co-founder of Social Media Exchange, a social media organization in Beirut.
He says whether one-track users use Twitter to keep politicians in touch with their base and whether the politicians listen makes all the difference.
“To really see if Twitter is creating any change I think we need time,” says Najem, adding that it’s important to distinguish between broadcasting a message and engaging with users.
“I think we can see the results in the attitudes and the reactions and we can see if this is really changed in the propaganda use of either social or normal media,” he says.
Other experts see much more negative processes at work.
They warn that Lebanon’s system of patronage and blind political loyalty could be going digital.
Assaad Thebian, a popular Twitter user and blogger at the website Beirutiyat, said users with only one interest are a negative and unproductive development in the country.
“You are becoming a follower, you are following those politicians,” he says, using the term for subscribing to tweets derisively.
Thebian says people who rely on politicians for their financial future are using Twitter as a way to ask for favors and transfering the country’s patronage networks to the online world.
“It’s because we have fanatic love for those political sectarian leaders in the youth,” Thebian says.
“It’s basically using a new tool in order to ask for more,” he says.
“Whether it’s something financial or emotional,” he continues.
He says Twitter users are putting their priorities in the wrong place; they are ignoring activists in the country who are calling for meaningful change and instead they are reinforcing a broken political system.
“I think the politicians are smarter than the activists,” he says. “We are using Twitter as a tool to be more connected to the same political field.”