Read this in Arabic

Science revolution via social media

Published online 3 August 2015

Nature Middle East speaks to the region’s most prominent science communicators about their efforts to spread knowledge and debunk myths in the Arab world.

Nadia El-Awady

Left to right: Nidhal Guessoum, Alyaa Gad, Islam Hussein, Maan Kattan, Mohamed Elnazer, and Mohamed Qasem
Left to right: Nidhal Guessoum, Alyaa Gad, Islam Hussein, Maan Kattan, Mohamed Elnazer, and Mohamed Qasem
The announcement in 2014 that Egypt had invented “devices” that could diagnose and cure AIDS and hepatitis C virus in more than 90% of cases came as a great shock to Egyptian virologist, Islam Hussein.

The Engineering Authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces made the spurious claims before an audience that included the interim president Adly Mansour, the former -commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces and soon-to-be president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

The new cure would be available in military hospitals on June 30, the authorities claimed.

The news created a storm on traditional and social media platforms in Egypt attracting the attention of Hussein who at his base at MIT in the US. “After watching the press conference and the huge media propaganda that followed, I realized that something terribly wrong was going on. I have never felt that disappointed in my entire life,” he remembers. “I knew these devices lacked any sound scientific basis. I also knew the impact would be huge given how widespread hepatitis C infection is in Egypt.”

Hussein scoured journal articles and the Internet for information on the devices and the team that claimed to have invented and patented them. He produced a PowerPoint presentation, stood in front of a video camera and, using his expertise as a virologist, proceeded to discredit the claims. Within three days, his 80-minute YouTube video had been viewed 50,000 times. 

I want to make the world a better place and this is my contribution. Education is the key to change. Nothing else can improve our situation before education.

“All of a sudden this guy comes out on social media with a calm, confident and professional tone and firm promises to deliver a neutral scientific critique of the Armed Forces’ claims,” Hussein says, explaining why he thinks his video became so popular. 

Hussein says he was told by the eminent Egyptian historian Dr. Khaled Fahmy that his video had changed the course of action. “My video paved the way for a healthy public debate away from the overheated media propaganda. Talking science and only science made a lot of difference, even to those blind supporters who had strong political agendas.” 

Although the public communication of science comes in many forms in the West, it lags behind in the Arab world. “Traditional Arab media, particularly TV, have failed to communicate science well to the general public,” says astrophysicist Nidhal Guessoum from the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “We do not have our Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox.” 

Through his Twitter feed which is followed by 18,000 people and his 8,000 Facebook friends, Guessoum communicates about astronomy and other scientific topics he feels are relevant to Arab audiences. Guessoum has also produced 52 YouTube episodes on astronomy. “It could have been done even better, but with a total budget of exactly zero dirhams, I am very proud of what we produced.”

Swiss-based Egyptian physician Alyaa Gad has taken her self-funded science communication initiative a step further. Together with a Swiss producer, she launched the online media platform Afham.TV in Arabic in 2013 and later launched iUnderstand.TV in English. 

The goal is to spread health education for disease prevention in the Arab world and to answer “embarrassing” medical questions that Arabs often refrain from asking due to cultural barriers, she tells Nature Middle East. The channel, which has more than 200 informative videos, all paid for by Gad, has nearly 150,000 subscribers and more than 30 million views, she says.

“I want to make the world a better place and this is my contribution,” says Gad. “I don’t believe in bloody revolutions, so I’m leading my own quiet one. Education is the key to change. Nothing else can improve our situation before education.”

The uptake of social media use has been one of the best assets science has had in this region, says Kuwaiti electrical engineer Mohamed Qasem. “Without it, we would be left with very few options, if any.” 

Qasem says it’s disappointing to see how few people follow well-known, non-scientific figures through social media in the Arab world, compared to the Western world, indicating that Arabs perhaps tend to veer away from science discussion. “Maybe that’s due to regional instabilities. I’m just glad that we are able to use these tools to deliver science,” he says.

Qasem produces self-funded, semi-regular podcasts on Sciwarepod.com covering many topics including physics, health, technology and biology. In some podcasts, he develops a titillating narrative to grab listeners’ attention. In others, he brings in guest experts to answer questions related to their fields.

“The evolution episodes were a hit. Listeners loved them despite it being a controversial topic,” he says. “For a long time I avoided talking about it because I feared it would alienate listeners.”

Qasem was forced to place a cautionary statement at the beginning of each episode “to defuse the emotional backlash,” he says. “My goal was to explain evolution truthfully without requiring that anyone listening should believe it. I think that this approach put listeners in their comfort zone while I was able to tell them how it worked.” 

In fact, Qasem didn’t receive any complaints about his evolution episodes, despite how controversial the topic normally is among Muslims. Some listeners told him they were extremely grateful because he explained evolution without any biases. “Some of them were shocked that they had been lied to all this time about evolution. They were quite angry… about the misinformation they had been fed all their lives.”

My goal isn’t to turn people into evolution believers. My goal is to educate people, then they can decide for themselves.

A few voiced their reservations, but they remained polite. “This is understandable,” Qasem says. “It’s hard to unseat misunderstandings. However, my goal isn’t to turn people into evolution believers. My goal is to educate people, then they can decide for themselves.”

Egyptian dermatologist Mohamed Elnazer who started publishing short five-minute YouTube videos on a variety of health issues in Arabic in November 2014 has many similar positive experiences. Not only has he received messages of gratitude from viewers, but he says 90% of patients who visit him in his clinic got to know him through his videos. “People tell me, ‘At last we found someone who is explaining things honestly,’” he says. 

But it’s not all positive. Two of his videos, which happen to have the highest viewings, have also caused him the most trouble. In one, Elnazer explains how different hair-straightening products work and their drawbacks. Hairdressers were not happy. “One of them came to me in my clinic to tell me that I’m misleading people with this information,” he said. 

Another video debunked common cultural misconceptions that masturbation has negative health effects, such as causing knee pains. Elnazer has received many insults through social media because of this video, with people calling him a liar, “anti-Islam,” and “Shiite.” “But at the same time, the positive feedback I get on both videos is a lot more than the negative ones, which encourages me to continue,” he says.

Despite the time and cost of their communication efforts, they all plan to continue and would like to develop projects for more mainstream media. 

Saudi anaesthesiologist Maan Kattan uses Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat to talk about anaesthesia and pain management, in addition to a variety of other health-related topics. He collects it all in Storify, making it easy for Arab audiences to access the things he talks about by topic. He has around 32,000 followers on Twitter and just under 5,000 followers on other networks. “I think going more mainstream media would increase the impact,” he says. They all agree.

In the meantime, Islam Hussein continues to film videos from the small studio he established in his basement. “My Ebola video series was recorded in my home office before moving down to the basement,” he says, “and my son was the cameraman and director.”

Click on the following link for the full profiles of each science communicator, including links to their social media pages:

Six science communicators to follow in the Arab World