Analysis: Social media sparks change in Middle East, helps spread Gospel
by Chris Forbes
(BP)—Events in the Middle East are throwing the spotlight on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter as tools for communications in political uprisings.
Social networking sites, though relatively new, already are veterans of social and political revolutions. In fact, revolutions are being revolutionized by them. Social media also are helping Christians and ministry leaders living amid the turmoil.
Social media connectivity has positive implications for Christians within predominantly Muslim countries —such as Egypt and Tunisia —which recently have been affected by protests. Three areas impacted by the use of social networks: evangelism, communications and ministry worker security.
Secure evangelism: In places where evangelism has to be done discreetly to avoid exposing and endangering seekers who are exploring the Gospel, Twitter and Facebook easily create small networks that allow users to determine who participates. This enables believers to quietly share the Gospel with the unreached in private direct messages. These networks of contacts give nonbelievers access to Christ-followers, normally outside their social circle, who can answer their questions about faith in Christ. Seekers are able to anonymously explore the meaning of the Gospel online in links, Tweets, videos and wall posts.
Communications: Socialized sites enable Christ-followers to stay in touch with one another securely within countries with little religious freedom. Believers can use such sites to communicate to the outside world the persecution they face. Christians can use social media to conceal their identities where security is an issue.
Monitoring Christian worker safety: Social networking sites help ministry leaders stay up to date with rapidly changing situations.
“The best way to keep up with what was going on (in Egypt) was through Twitter when events started to escalate,” a Christian worker in the region said. “We were following some of the news guys who’d Tweet what was going on, then we’d see them on air five minutes later reporting the same thing.”
The situation in Egypt has many people discussing the role of social media in political and social movements. Social media proponents believe these movements are facilitated and accelerated through the use of socialized networks. Skeptical commentators point to other social movements and political movements that didn’t need social media to succeed. They claim social change is more a product of face-to-face relationships—not video clips, tweets and wall posts.
Even though governments attempt to block users—as was the case in Egypt—social network users find creative ways around government intervention. Egyptian hackers created dial-up access lines to feed posts to social networks. Programmers created a bulletin board discussion forum that formats and publishes content.
It’s not just hackers and information leakers who are creating censorship countermeasures; the networks themselves are assisting cyber-activists. Google recently launched a voice-to-Tweet application that turns recorded phone messages into Tweets. Twitter postponed network updates to keep potential crashes from interfering with protest communications.
The cyber-activists’ medium of choice used to be the weblog (blog). Since social media come with built-in networks of people, however, they are more likely to rapidly multiply and go viral. Socialized networks also attract a rapidly expanding tech-savvy generation.
Research shows an exponential increase in the use of mobile devices and social media in North African and Middle Eastern countries, where the collective median age of nine key countries is roughly 23. They use YouTube and comments on Twitter or Facebook to instantly inform the world, to the point that major news organizations monitor these sites for breaking news.
For Christians, social media have opened up broadly available socialized networks that can be used for evangelistic outreach, advocacy for believers, missions strategy and Christian fellowship.
Will the next spiritual revolution be Tweeted? The answer: It already is.
Chris Forbes, co-author of Guerrilla Marketing for Nonprofits, has pioneered social-media initiatives for various organizations within the Southern Baptist Convention. His website is ChrisForbes.org.