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Social media will face more regulations, Abu Dhabi forum hears

Experts say its role in stoking Arab Spring may mean more controls are likely soon

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Abu Dhabi: The penetration of social media in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region and its role in the Arab Spring means that laws controlling social media posts and information dissemination are soon imminent, leading media experts said in the capital Tuesday.

However, these laws alone would not be enough to ensure the reliability of information on new social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and readers will need to discern for themselves the trustworthiness of published information, panellists at the day-long ‘Role of Media in Arab Societies' conference said.

The conference saw leading experts and government representatives meet to discuss the trends and future direction of media in Arab countries.

Attempts to block reports

While panellists at the forum agreed that there were no marked differences between Arab and Western journalism, they however pointed out that certain governments across the Arab World had tried to block reporting of events on the ground.

Speaking to Gulf News on the sidelines of the conference, Blake Hounshell, managing editor of Qatar-based Foreign Policy magazine, said people in the Arab region were now less willing to put up with censorship than in the past.

Airing their thoughts

"This has been enhanced with the proliferation of new social media. In addition, because more than half the population in this region is currently below the age of 30, they take well to new social media, which complements the fact that they are used to airing their thoughts," he explained.

He also said readers and information seekers in the region needed to apply the same rules as media outlets that disseminated information.

"Journalists in traditional media like newspapers and magazines are taught to verify their sources, and readers must adopt the same practices because they now receive information from social media websites, traditional print media, news channels and so many other sources," Hounshell said.

Need for professional journalists

Bill Spindle, Middle East bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswire, said this increased the need for professional journalists.

"People on social media often post false leads for various reasons. For instance, a post which falsely announces that a protest is occurring often causes people to gather and actually stage a protest. There is therefore still a strong need for professional journalists to be on the ground and report reliably and directly from the hotspots," Spindle said.

Such false reports are also not necessarily harmful, especially if they end up spawning more independent media organisations which want to present the real facts more reliably, the forum agreed.