July 24, 2012

There’s no doubt that social media played a big role in the Arab Spring’s toppling of oppressive regimes. But now that Twitter and Facebook have helped ordinary citizens get rid of leaders they despise, how might they put social media to work shaping the sort of leadership they want? A new site created by a couple of twenty-something Egyptians is about to shed early light on the question.

Morsi Meter, a watchdog service modeled on Politifact’s Obameter, is tracking 64 promises by the new Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi. “This was a very unplanned project,” one of the founders, Amr Sobhy, told me in a Skype interview last week.

“When I saw Morsi being declared the president of Egypt I was really excited because, finally, we have a civil president. It was an historic moment. From that moment, I was all over this project!”

A friend had suggested the meter to Sobhy, 24, and his co-founder, Abbas Adel, 28, a couple of days earlier.

But Sobhy said it was the actual declaration of a democratically-elected president that elevated the idea to a must-do. And it was social media that elevated it from a personal passion to a viral phenomenon.

All it took was a nod to his half-million Twitter followers from Wael Ghonim, the 29 year-old Google marketing executive who had become a major catalyst in the Egyptian uprising.

The onslaught of traffic shut down the Morsi Meter, but it’s since been restored. The site has not evaluated any of the president’s campaign promises yet, but will begin doing so as soon as his government is in place, Sobhy said.

In the meantime, Egyptians have begun using the meter’s Facebook comments system to assess their president on promises including: “Increasing the productivity and nutritional value of the flour (used in Egyptian bakeries).”

And: “Appointing a PR officer in every (police) station to deal with citizens and direct them and make sure their problems are dealt with.”

And: “Re-plan the city’s main squares and provide it with modern traffic lights to guarantee a fluent traffic.”

As Sobhy points out, “These are the kinds of promises that would attract the average citizen and not the intellectual. These are the main things that people suffer from on a daily basis … Traffic is horrible, especially in Cairo.”

Amr Sobhy

Politicians “sometimes use a lot of abstract language,” he noted. “Some of their promises are really broad, sometimes like a fairy tale, not really achievable or attainable.” But, he said, the Morsi Meter focuses on the sorts of promises that can be evaluated in specific terms by the people they were aimed at during the campaign.

Unlike the Obameter, which assigns specific ratings (“promise kept,” “promise broken,” “compromise,” “stalled,” “in the works”) to the American president’s more than 500 promises, Sobhy anticipates a less formal assessment system for the Morsi Meter.

“My bet is that information will be pushed to us rather than us searching for information,” he said in the interview.

He said he’s been contacted by Morsi’s staffers and expects they will try to make the case whenever they believe a promise has been fulfilled. He said he’ll publish the evidence provided and invite the site’s users to vote on whether the promise should be regarded as fulfilled or not.

“We’ll ask them, ‘Are you satisfied? Do you feel progress has been made?’ ” said Sobhy.

Some skeptics have challenged the capacity of the meter’s founders to deliver on their own promise to keep the site maintained and updated.

“Morsi Meter requires some degree of crowdsourcing, and crowdsourcing requires significant staff time if it is to work,” analyst Susannah Vila wrote in a June 25 blog post.

She said she was disappointed by an earlier crowdsourced service created by the meter’s founders that was aimed at enabling Egyptians to plot various civic problems on a map.

Sobhy acknowledged that the earlier service “was not really successful” and described it as part of “a learning experience in creating Egyptian community, trying to find out how to empower citizens through information.”

He also acknowledged that the Morsi Meter is just a start on a “long-term process” aimed at involving Egyptian citizens more personally in the evaluation of their leaders.

He traced its roots to popular disaffection with the country’s media, followed by the discovery that real power could found by individuals and communities sharing information.

“We wanted to replicate that model,” he said. “Instead of people talking on their phones, how about putting in on an [online] platform … and exploring what’s involved in turning knowledge into action?”

“The change is happening,” he insisted. “You can see it.”

He cited the Egyptian armed forces as an example.

“The military is usually perceived as rigid, traditional and a little bit arrogant without any feeling of the need to compromise,” he said.

But the military’s decision to create a Facebook page, he argued, reflects “significant change.”

Sobhy said he believes it will take a while for Egyptians to get comfortable with the Morsi Meter. Some users, he said, have mistakenly assumed it represents “a channel to the president.”

Sobhy stressed independence as a core value he brings to the project. He told CNN.com’s Josh Levs that he voted for Morsi, but that he is not a political activist.

“We are not for criticizing the president or advocating for him,” he told me this week. “We are an information tool.”

As for some of PolitiFact’s more creatively-worded evaluations of politicians’ claims (e.g. its “pants-on-fire” rating for especially outrageous untruths), Sobhy said he would leave it to his users to come up with such assessments.

“We’re just presenting information,” he insisted. “We’ll let people use it in whatever way they want.”

Disclosure: The Poynter Institute is working on a training project involving social media in Egypt, sponsored by the International Press Institute and funded by Google.The Institute owns the Tamba Bay Times, which operates PolitiFact and the Obameter.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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