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Egypt's opinion leaders using social media

No medium matches Facebook and Twitter for quickly spreading information during crisis situations, such as in Egypt. But there are dangers with everyone sharing their own version of the truth.

Sami Magdy describes how the Egyptian news portal Masrawy receives dozens of emails daily with photo and video material from the press bureaus of the military and the Muslim Brothers. "Our accounts are overflowing - both sides are trying to influence our coverage," said Magdy, who is the portal's editor-in-chief.

This battle has also largely been playing out over social media. Since Morsi was removed from power, pro-Morsi Muslim Brothers and Morsi opponents have been engaged in a verbal war, above all on the social network Facebook and the micro-blogging service Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter for politicians

But it's not only citizens discussing amongst themselves. Anna Antonakis-Nashif, a political scientist who researches social media in the Arab world at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said that Internet discussions in Egypt have become more strongly led by political party interests since the 2011 revolution. "Political representatives have recognized Facebook and Twitter as important, powerful tools," she said.

The Egyptian military as well as the Muslim Brotherhood already in the 2011 revolution opened their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. According to the "Arab Social Media Report" and the website Internetworldstats.com, total Facebook users in Egypt alone nearly doubled from April 2011 to December 2012, from 6.5 million to more than 12 million.

Screenshot of @Ikhwanweb Twitter feed

The Muslim Brothers tweet in English as well

Images of blood-drenched demonstrators and videos of shootings and street fighting between security personnel and Islamists have also been circulating on social networks. One such video is of Ahmed Samir Assem. In it, a shooter fires numerous shots from a roof, then turns his weapon toward the camera - and then the video abruptly ends.

The video was posted on the Web and went on to become the subject of numerous articles. In it, Assem apparently filmed his own death. The 26-year-old photojournalist worked for the official newspaper of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The video was supposed to demonstrate how military sharpshooters shot Assem this past Monday (08.07.2013). According to official figures, on this day alone, 51 people were killed and 435 more injured in clashes between Islamists and the military. But it's difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened on that day, based on the video.

A video by the Muslim Brotherhood honoring Assem has also made the rounds online via the Twitter account @Ikhwanweb (Ikhwan is Arabic for brother). It shows photos to music and ends with a close-up of Assem's corpse and the blood-smeared camera.

The military's response was not long in coming - it, too, published videos via Facebook and Twitter. In one, a general threatens to imprison anyone who incites people. In another, a man in black clothing and a black facemask is shown targeting security personnel. There was no arbitrary shooting - the military was just defending itself, the message was. Yet it's never clear from the videos who started the clash.

Verifying videos

Antonakis-Nashif explained how such videos present the problem of being difficult to filter. "Users post photos and videos to mobilize followers, very quickly updating their pages," she said.

Magdy is familiar with this problem, as well. One editor with the portal has the job of reviewing such material. There are plenty of fakes used for propaganda purposes - for example, photos of dead children recently circulated by the Muslim Brotherhood intended to show how the Egyptian military killed with impunity. It was quickly established that the children in the photos were Syrian.

Reaching international media

There are plenty of English-language tweets used by citizens, the military or Muslim Brothers, for example under the hashtags #military_coup, #police_state, #morsi and #muslimbrother. Such English entries "serve the international public," Antonakis-Nashif said, including diaspora communities or international media.

Users of the DW Facebook pages in various languages have attempted as well to use the sites to share photos and videos of violent scenes of conflict in Egypt.

It appears the moderate voices have little space in today's social networks. Take the website "We are all Khaled Said," which was created after the killing of a food stand worker in Alexandria by police in 2010 and played a major role in mobilizing Egyptians during the 2011 revolution. When administrators urged users to remain neutral after Morsi's deposition, they responded with a storm of indignation.

Antonakis-Nashif said that online debates, though often nuanced, can also reinforce the opinions of users as they choose feeds that fit with their views. And this can polarize split societies even further.