It has been six months since anti-government protests inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt first erupted in Bahrain. And as in Egypt, many Bahrainis used social media Internet sites such as Facebook to help organize the protests. The Bahraini government is now using Facebook, too – apparently to track down and arrest the protesters.
It is questionable whether the Arab Spring ever would have amounted to much without social media on the Internet. In most cases, as more and more frustrated youths turned to their computers to express their discontent, an increasing number of people left their homes to publicly demand change.
The term “Facebook Revolution” was coined after the successful ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. And in Bahrain, the social networking site also played a role in encouraging people to participate in the nation’s “Day of Rage” protests on February 14, and in the pro-democracy demonstrations that followed.
Manama’s Pearl Roundabout traffic circle quickly became Bahrain’s own version of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters, made up of mostly Shi’ite Muslims, set up camp and pushed for reform.
Unlike in Egypt, however, the demands of the Bahrainis were never met. The Sunni government, with military help from neighboring Gulf States, quelled the uprising and afterwards, reportedly used access to social media to help identify and punish those who spoke out.
Rights groups say that more than 1,000 opposition supporters have been arrested since the crackdown began. Today, many Bahrainis say they are apprehensive about using social media.
A recent documentary aired on the al-Jazeera television network describes how one Facebook page helped single out a 20-year-old Shi’ite woman who allegedly was arrested and tortured. Visitors to the page were told to reveal her name and workplace on it «and let the government take care of the rest.»
Another page displayed photos of other demonstrators that would be checked off once a person was detained by authorities.
According to Abdulnabi Alekry, chairman of the Bahrain Transparency Society, the government’s use of social media to help identify opponents has pushed the country’s Sunnis and Shi’ites further and further apart.
«It is causing a lot of damage to the national unity and it is causing even suspicion between people who work together or live together or are in the same society or club. It is a source of concern,» said Alekry.
Shi’ites are said to account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population and say they are treated like second-class citizens by the ruling Sunni minority. They have been demanding more equality, a more representative government and a new constitution.
But many agree that the situation is worse now than before the protests began.
One Bahraini who wished to have her identity kept secret and asked to go by the initials S.B., said the problems of some people have been made worse by using social media.
«I’m working with students who got expelled – over 100 in different institutes, who were all expelled and had their scholarships pulled for Facebook updates and Blackberry [smartphone] messages. Most of these Facebook statuses were screenshots taken from their friends and handed in to the investigative committees,» she said.
S.B. also said many people now living in Bahrain are finding it difficult to trust anyone.
«Most Shi’ites I know have removed all Sunnis [from their social media accounts] and vice versa. I have myself… there is no explaining the feeling when someone who you consider your best friend joins a Facebook page like “together to unmask the Shi’ite traitors.” It’s like the world you had before, all of this has ended and it was all a lie anyway,» she said.
Bahrain is not the only nation said to be using social media to track down dissidents. Syrian security forces also have been accused of using sites like Facebook and Twitter to identify activists and find out with whom they have been corresponding.
Carrington Malin, managing director of Dubai-based Spot On Public Relations, said it is a trend that is likely to continue.
«Certainly at the beginning of the Arab Spring many governments in the region were quite dismissive of social media and the online conversations, and today there is a lot more focus on monitoring public sentiment online, and in some cases, even monitoring individuals who authorities believe are associated with political activity,» said Malin.
But despite the risk of surveillance, Nancy Messieh, Middle East editor at The Next Web, said most anti-regime activists in the region will continue to use social media as a vital tool in their fight for freedom.
«Even if you look at the extent that people will go to, away from [outside of] social media, like what we are seeing in Syria at the moment, they know the consequences, they know what they’re getting themselves into and they’re still willing to do it, and I think even with social media it is exactly the same thing. If this is a tool that they can use, they’re going to use it, despite the risks,» said Messieh.
And so, apparently, will the government of Bahrain.