As uprisings continue across the Middle East, media outlets have been quick to hit upon the idea of "internet revolutions", as blogs, Facebook and Twitter have been key to organising and driving the opposition.
Local bloggers and activists have been sharing news of events on the ground, but for the most part, they've been reaching a limited audience, while also going out on the streets demonstrating and taking down dictators. For the international audience, it's the bloggers beyond those countries' borders - especially those in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom - who play a critical role in aggregating news from across the Middle East and spreading it far and wide.
It isn't any one blogger in the US or UK that's played that part, but rather, credit is due to the body of unpaid contributors who promote and deliver news from their contacts on the ground to the millions of users devouring those updates on a minute-by-minute basis, said Ahmed Tarek, a San Francisco blogger and software developer.
He believes that US-based blogs, at least in part, have been able to transform global public opinion of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
“While I don’t blog under my own name, I have a lot of followers, and people during these two uprisings were coming to my site on a regular basis in order to understand and know what is going on,” he said. “In many cases, they wanted to learn about the struggle from an Arab [perspective], not the mainstream media.”
Bloggers have had a tough time winning legitimacy in the US, with US President Barack Obama only fielding the first question from a Huffington Post reporter at a White House briefing in 2009. But for Arab-American bloggers, the credibility they've earned writing about the "Arab Spring" is self-evident.
One such blogger is As’ad AbuKhalil, who runs the The Angry Arab News Service. The Lebanese-born blogger has such disdain for American mainstream media – he was a freelance consultant for NBC and ABC news – that his writing has garnered the attention, as well as respect, of almost all commentators on the Middle East and Islam.
AbuKhalil has appeared on numerous news programmes and has had his work published across international news outlets. One thing that separates him from others, is that “he is able to capture the sentiments of so many people on the ground in the region and has become almost a calling point for so many young people, including myself, who want to speak out,” said Ismail Hassan, another US-based blogger who writes under an assumed name.
Before the success of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, many Arab-American bloggers were afraid to write under their own names, and for Tarek and Hassan, the situation remains tenuous.
“We have long been anonymous because traveling back to see our family would have been a nightmare with the governments,” said Tarek. “You have to look at it this way, we are still very critical of the Egyptian military, and after one blogger was sentenced to prison for his writing, I personally can’t take the risk.”
Breaking down barriers
Dan Evans, a media studies professor at the University of California - Davis, who has spent much of the past few years working on studying Middle East media and new media in particular, believes that what Arab-American bloggers have been able to do is break down a number of barriers that were previously separated them from their fellow bloggers in the region, and on the ground.
“What we have witnessed in the past few months is the culmination of how new media can create new bridges between two worlds and deliver information and ideas across borders,” he said.
For him, and other analysts who spoke to the Doha Centre for Media Freedom, it is essentially a democratic effort to force ideas into the public’s gaze. Without ideas, democracy is dead, he said.
“What Arab-American bloggers did initially is to write what their friends and families were saying, and this created a means for dialogue that governments in the region could not attack and arrest,” added Evans.
Hassan said that while he appreciates the support he has received from media outlets in the United States and commentators who have asked for his opinion on certain political and social matters, he believes that what is important for Arab-American, or even Muslim American bloggers, is the creation of a space where their views are heard, especially on domestic issues.
“There is a lot of antagonism towards Muslims in the United States and often people forget that as American[s], we are strongly supportive of making our country better and developing the tolerance and understanding that is important to the US’s future,” he argued.
One of his posts in recent weeks has centered on how to develop a module for Americans to understand what life is like for Arabs living in the country. For Hassan, it is an important step toward greater understanding and a discussion between the two sides.
Tarek, an avid follower and friend of Hassan, said that ultimately, this is the goal for all Arab-American bloggers.
“It is nice the attention we have received throughout the revolution period, but at the end of the day, we are here to help talk about the issues that affect us on a daily basis. A good Arab-American blogger is someone who is able to discuss issues here in the States and those affecting our families back home in a way that does not alienate the rest of Americans, because we are not radical crazy people, we are Americans.”
A number of bloggers we spoke with refused to go on record due to fears that their words could be used out of context, but they all agreed that much of their frustrations stem from how media and commentators use their blogs as platforms to support their ideas.
One of those bloggers, who asked not to be named, said that “if we are going to truly accept and integrate blogging - real factual blogging - into the mainstream of our societies, then we cannot stop at where we are at. We must push on forward, and force those commentators to understand the realities we face and the realities that people in other parts of the world face.”
For now, Arab-American bloggers have found their niche as a bridge that has broached the divide that often exists between East and West, but there is still much work to be done and those such as AbuKhalil, Hassan and Tarek are unlikely to stop their push to get their writing heard by the country and the world.