Maha Abouelenein is head of global communications and public affairs for the Middle East and North Africa region at Google. An American Egyptian, Abouelenein has worked in communications in the Middle East for the past 15 years, and her role at Google offers her unique insight into the region’s dramatic adoption of digital media, exemplified best by the tumultuous events of the Arab Spring.
In the following interview, Abouelenein discusses Google’s role in the upheaval, and explains how social media is transforming political communication in the Middle East.
How would you characterise the changes in how people are using digital and social media in the Middle East?
It’s changed dramatically. The Arab Spring sparked that. People are more open to sharing opinions. The barrier of fear has been broken. People were afraid to share their ideas publicly. They are now using the tools in very creative ways - not just in what they post, but they are creating new content online. There’s a lot of parody videos of political stuff, a lot of people are creating Youtube channels. There has been a huge explosion on the cultural side. Graffiti, songs and cartoons. It’s not just for politics, but for news, entertainment and information.
There is some scepticism about the government using social media to spread disinformation. What’s your view on this?
I guess we don’t know what they are doing. We’ve heard that is happening but I don’t have any measurable data to say that these counter-campaigns are being initiated by the government. We have the Transparency Report - if a government asked us to take down content, or remove IPs or block data - we report that online. There are ways to remove content but it has to be a violation of some laws or policy.
There seems to be a residue of distrust. Does that surprise you?
I don’t know that there is mistrust. A lot of these governments are embracing it. Look at the case of Egypt: the Supreme Council issues all of its updates on its Facebook page. And the Muslim Brotherhood has a Twitter feed.
Given Google’s own role at the heart of these shifts in digital media usage, does the company ever face opposition from governments in the region?
I wouldn’t say Google is at the heart of the revolution. Google had nothing to do with it. It’s a search tool for the internet. Revolutions don’t happen on the internet, they happen on the street. The internet helped them to organise. Having said that, if you look at tools we have - search, email, blogger - those are free tools that everybody has access to. As a company we want everyone to have access to the internet, we don’t believe in censorship, we believe in access to knowledge. We want to give people access to that information - that’s what we are really focused on.
But you do have tools that can be used to help people share opinions more openly. Does that result in any pressure from governments?
Google has good relationships with the governments. We haven’t had any issues. We created Speak2Tweet and YouTube played a big role in helping people share information. It has had significant growth in the last year in the Middle East - it’s one of the hottest regions in the world for YouTube - that’s a big change that has come out of it.