This move comes a few months after the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) claimed the UAE is becoming a 'police state' after 51 activists were detained, including a number of bloggers, and more recently the ban of Guy Fawkes style masks being sold online ahead of National Day celebrations. The masks, popularised by the 2005 film 'V for Vendetta' and since used by hacktivist group Anonymous and 'Occupy' protesters, are a symbol of opposition to a ruling power.
The impact of social media, empowering and giving voice to citizens in the Arab world, has been well documented, and the adoption of social networking platforms has clearly impacted the business space, but aside from cracking down on dissent, it's now the turn of the public sector to find their own voice. AMEinfo spoke to Rishi Saha, Regional Director at Hill & Knowlton and former Director of Digital Communications for British Prime Minister David Cameron, about how GCC governments are adopting social media and joining the conversation.
"The current vogue for social media in Government circles, especially here in the GCC, is a welcome addition to the public realm. Used wisely, social media can enhance the quality of relationship between the people and their governing institutions; open up the range of voices that Government listens to when formulating policy; and help to forge stronger diplomatic links across the globe," says Saha.
Beyond the follow count
When it comes to gauging the success, or social influence, of a Twitter user, it often boils down to a numbers game. Being a permission based platform, you are only broadcasting to those who have subscribed, liked or in this case followed. As long as the numbers are made up of genuine accounts and have been acquired without using fraudulent means, scoring thousands of followers indicates you have valuable content.
"However, in the tactical race to stack up Likes and Followers, some of the longer-term opportunities can be missed," says Saha. "It was Roy Amara, the acclaimed scientist, who famously said, "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run". And when it comes to Government's use of social media, Roy definitely had a point."
"There is a tendency to focus on 'quick wins' - broadcasting news rapidly and cheaply to new audiences, placing job ads and sharing photo galleries of events and conferences. All are valuable exercises, which can help build the business case for broader adoption."
Such usage is merely scratching the surface as a means of PR, rather than as a tool for real engagement.
"I would call these activities 'secondary applications'. Fundamentally, they use social media to report or amplify, and it's often used as a mere displacement channel for more expensive above-the-line advertising," Saha explains. "The long-term trend is for social media to assume a more primary, strategic role in the delivery of government services themselves, rather than simply being a reporter of them."
Saha cites research from Harvard University Professor of Medicine, Nicholas Christakis, which shows the impact social networks have on corroborating poor lifestyle choices, thereby compounding harmful health outcomes such as heart disease and obesity - Christakis thereby coined the phrase, 'your friends can make you fat'.
"GCC ministries of health are using research of this kind to identify behavioural trends, creating interventions that leverage the power of social networks to try and promote more positive lifestyle choices around food, exercise and smoking. Similar examples abound in education, transport, trade, crime and justice and beyond," says Saha.
There is a motivation and a willingness to participate in the social movement; embracing the digital space and legislating accordingly. Saha points to the turnout and coverage to the recent GCC Government Social Media Summit as a testament to a peaking interest - and recent launches of Facebook and LinkedIn offices prove that big businesses understand the value of a Middle East presence.
"Let us hope this is not a passing fad and that the true extent of social media's potential can be explored beyond the follower count," says Saha.