Social Media and Middle Eastern Politics

A professor of mine when I was in graduate school commented that one could more openly and objectively discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict in a café in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than in the United States.  Teaching courses on the Middle East I find one of the biggest challenges is replacing students’ assumptions and mythical beliefs with what actually has happened.  Generations of conflict have led to the impression that current Middle East conflict reflects millennia of perpetual warfare rather than a result of the messy and complicated transition from empire to nation-states in the last century.

I was intrigued, therefore, when invited by several Israeli colleagues to have students in my course participate in an online role-playing simulation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including its wider political context, using Facebook.  Dramatic images of technology seem to emanate from the region:  Israel’s Iron Dome defense shield, Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Hamas’ new longer range missiles, and Egypt’s ‘Facebook Revolution’.  The focus on the technology can obscure the perspectives and motivations of the actors involved.  Using online social media seemed like an interesting experiment to allow students to step into someone else’s shoes.

The simulation took place over the course of several weeks, and brought students together from Arizona State University, Bar Ilan University  and Sapir College  in Israel.  While the Israeli students played Palestinians, Americans, Syrians, and Egyptians, the American students played Israelis, Iranians and Lebanese, with the main leaders from these countries represented.  Reversing roles as much as possible allowed students to explore how the issues appeared from the view point of, in some cases, a perceived enemy.  Students from Sapir College, located near the Israeli border with Gaza, played Palestinian leaders as shells from Hamas forced the closing of their college, displaying an extraordinary amount of empathy with the people of Gaza.  American students playing Iranian leaders expressed frustration with feeling backed into a corner by the U.S. and Israel.  An American student playing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed irritation at being Facebook messaged one day continuously by U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, played by an Israeli student.

How closely did the simulation replicate reality?  There are always contrived aspects to educational simulations, but one thing it did appear to do was to bring American students closer to the actual realities of conflict.  I received several emails after the first real time simulation meeting on Facebook, which occurred just after the Israeli strike in Gaza that killed Hamas leader Jabiri; they were realizing that while we were playing a game, for the students in the Middle East it was anything but a game.

There has been much speculation and optimism about the potential role of social media in allowing wider political participation and freedom; the reverse has also been observed with governments blocking internet freedoms.  From an education perspective, however, the internet allows us to connect students and faculty across oceans and countries to interact and exchange ideas.  While it may not preclude conflict (in fact the evidence suggests that conflict occurs more often amongst groups that share much and communicate often), offering students this sort of international collaboration online affords them the opportunity to see the world in a new way, arguably a useful ability for future policymakers.