Do all Arabs hate Americans? Can Arab women work? Are there any YouTubers in Jordan? Queen Rania of Jordan wants to know.
In a slickly produced black and white video released three weeks ago, Queen Rania asked viewers to send her e-mails and videos describing their stereotypes about the Arab world, saying "YouTube is a great platform for dialogue, and I believe we need to use these tools to get these messages out there." From now until Aug. 12 (International Youth Day) the Queen has pledged to post people's video responses to her questions on YouTube, all in an effort to dismantle Western misconceptions about the Middle East.
Much has been said about how the digital revolution created new avenues for ordinary individuals to create and communicate. But recently, governments have also taken to using these tools, and Jordan's Queen Rania is just the latest public figure who has used YouTube to communicate directly with constituents, citizens and a broader global public.
Yet, Queen Rania's instant, global YouTube popularity (due in no small part to her good looks) doesn't necessarily correspond with public opinion of her back home. And maybe it's because people expected her to focus on topics more in line with her role as the Middle East's UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children. In Jordan -- a country where economic disparities between rich and poor are ever growing; freedom of assembly is restricted; women face legal discrimination in matters involving inheritance, divorce and child custody; and government pensions and social security benefits favour men -- many see the queen as doing little to reform her husband's soft dictatorship. And given that she has family members still living in the occupied Palestinian territories, Queen Rania's Palestinian people have also criticized her for failing to use her high profile position to help improve the plight of Palestinians.
Still, Queen Rania's attempts to promote cultural dialogue are making waves on the web. Her first video generated over a million views and 4,500 subscribers to her channel. And the hits for her second and third videos continue to climb. The actual impact of her social experiment remains to be seen, but the Middle East's YouTube queen is not the first (or likely the last) monarch to make an appearance on the site.
It was Queen Elizabeth -- who just two years ago admitted to Bill Gates she had never used a personal computer -- who was the world's first royal to drink the techno Kool-Aid. The Queen used YouTube for her 2007 Christmas address, uploading her address to the site 50 years to the hour following her very first televised Christmas broadcast.
And the Royal Family has kept at it: today the British Royal channel features 35 videos, including such old family chestnuts as footage from the Queen Mum's wedding, Queen Elizabeth's first Christmas address, and Queen Alexandra's attendance at a service at Westminster Abbey. Popular contemporary offerings include Prince Charles' "A Day in the Life of the Prince of Wales," a video of Prince Harry speaking from Afghanistan while on tour with the British Army, and a sneak peek into the Queen's exclusive garden parties (eat your heart out, TMZ!). The Royals' YouTube forays have inspired other prominent Brits like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who released a New Year's address on YouTube, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who started his own channel. (So far, he features no video -- yet, strangely, one subscriber.)
With France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, American presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain, and our own Stephen Harper all hosting their own channels, it seems YouTube is helping plenty of leaders boost their image -- or at least get their message out. But for all these world leaders, smiling so earnestly into their cheap digital cameras, there are still more censor-happy governments that have banned (then un-banned, and banned again) YouTube in their jurisdictions.
Selling sex, getting votes
Governments in Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Turkey, Thailand, China, Pakistan and Indonesia have all -- at one time or another -- banned the site for eccentric reasons and varying periods. This practice, though, appears to be changing: recently, several countries seem to have realized that forcing major Internet service providers to ban sites like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Amazon and Google merely serves to draw more attention to them, eliciting negative propaganda in the process. Many now opt for an alternative, and engage in closed-door negotiations with the Internet's tyrannosaurs to use geo-locational technologies to keep certain videos off limits to their citizens.
Instead of trying to control the zeitgeist, these dictators might look to Israel's Tourism Ministry for another approach to solving PR problems. In an attempt to counter "negative, biased press coverage" relating to Israel's decades long conflict with the Palestinian people, Israel's Tourism Ministry earlier this month launched a video campaign to help promote the area as a desirable vacation getaway. YouTubers have been asked to contribute their own "positive" videos to accompany the ministry's PR vids, in what is just the latest effort to sex up Israel's image.
In this light, although YouTube and related sites present opportunities for governments to communicate directly with a global public, the results have so far been underwhelming. While few -- like Queen Rania -- have tried to use the opportunity constructively, others have unimaginatively followed the lessons taught by their PR lackeys, using sex to sell tourists on a country in conflict. Noble or not, however, the sheer number of video views and channel subscriptions GovTubers are attracting (Gordon Brown aside) would suggest these efforts are having some effect -- yet they're a long way from must-see TV. YouTube's reigning king and queen can feel safe, for now.
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