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May 29, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How the Middle East’s Al-Hudood eases even its haters into reading its irreverent satire

Its Facebook chatbot asks angry readers what insults they want to level at the publication, then ends up looping them into a conversation. It’s also building a network of satire writers by training members of its community, who then train others.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories on how online satirical outlets around the world develop their shows and sites under difficult national conditions and repressive, authoritarian governments.

Effective satire can shake power and can speak truth to power, and in some countries, humor is one of the remaining avenues through which those things are possible, María Teresa Ronderos, director of the Program on Independent Journalism at Open Society Foundations, pointed out at an ISOJ 2018 panel she convened on these issues. Satire and humor, Ronderos said, offer “the last resort in many ways,” and can become incredibly high stakes when the work ends up offending those in power. (Disclosure: Nieman Lab has received OSF support.)

This series highlights several of the organizations that gathered at ISOJ, including material from their presentations and from additional follow-up interviews with presenters and with additional writers and producers of the efforts profiled. The text that follows is in the humorists’ own words.

Check in each day this week to see how the Middle East’s Al-Hudood, Venezuela’s El Chigüire Bipolar, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Šatro Info, Kenya’s The XYZ Show, and Zimbabwe’s Magamba TV develop new audiences, how they’re thinking about the humorist gender gaps in their countries, and how they work journalistically, in many ways achieving the types of impact often associated with traditional news. Up first: The Onion of the Middle East.

I co-founded Al-Hudood, the political satire magazine of the Middle East and North Africa, which we consider basically the Onion of the Middle East. We write from a perspective that aims at the whole of the Middle East, and we have writers and readers all over the region. The team is seven full-time people, two part-time people, and around 20 freelance writers, plus 10 interns. We don’t have bylines, which we thought would protect us, to an extent. It didn’t. I’d be arrested in lots of different countries if I even come close to the Middle East. Everyone’s always on edge. We’re left to see how long we can make it until authorities decide they want to end what we do.

Our readership peaked at the end of last year at over a million uniques, but we [took a hit to our Facebook traffic], as everyone else did. Our largest readership on a normal month can come from any of 10 top countries that follow us, but we also have a large readership in the U.S. and Europe.

Contrary to what most people think, it’s more the people than it is the government in the Middle East that doesn’t want to hear satire. Satire is more of a liberal thing. Conservatives don’t appreciate it as much; by the nature of it, they have more lines, and satire tends to break lines.

From our contributors, there’s about 10 percent women. It started with zero percent at all times. This comes down to that conservatism in the region. Even when we tried to hire people who weren’t comedians, just to do some work with our teams, the sense of association with us was enough for some women to run away, and we haven’t found a way to work around that yet. We’re still trying to lure people slowly into it.

As satirists in the Middle East, if we want to aim at a liberal, Arabic demographic, we’d be talking to a tiny circle of people in our tiny echo chamber. What we wanted to do wasn’t just create satire or stand up to authority, but also open conversations.

We created a chatbot. We get contacted a lot on Facebook, hundreds of people every week. They usually do that for the same reasons, either they love our work and want to tell us that, or they are angry. So when someone starts chatting us, and opts for the second option, our chatbot asks them how they want to express that. They then get to choose from the most popular ways that people did before the chatbot was created, which was to call us liars or to swear at us, though we left out the option of sending us death threats. At that point, if they choose to swear — and a large number do — the bot asks them what kind of insults they want to send to us: above the belt, or below.

Then we ask them why they chose that, and we ask them what makes them angry about what we’re doing, and in that process we explain what we do and why it matters. The bot also offers content subscription, in addition to its other functions.

Obviously someone who is coming to swear at us wasn’t coming for a conversation, but we opened a conversation despite that, and now these people, instead of swearing around aimlessly at us, are now commenting on our articles and arguing about what they think of them. We forced them to articulate their anger into actual conversations. In the end, a chatbot can only take so much abuse. And these chats are closed conversations. So to have a proper conversation, we needed to have a more public one.

So we created an online community and invited our readers to join us, to propose ideas, tell us what they think of our work, and to discuss other people’s work. We started by doing a call to all of our readers, which said: Whatever you are — a Muslim or a Christian, an atheist or a Pastafarian, a Salafi or a vegetarian, as long as you’re funny, your contributions will be taken into account (a Salafi is a follower of a very conservative form of Islam).

Over the next few months, over 1,000 people joined us from 40 countries. The community was so engaged that when we sent them a 50-question survey, 700 finished that to the last question.

The group was very diverse. Men and women, loads of refugees, journalists, students, people from all sorts of backgrounds, some pro-Assad, or anti-Iran, or pro-Erdogan. It was a whole minefield of views. A lot of them disagreed with our perspective, and disagreed with our satire, and disagreed with each other, and they all got in there to talk about that.

Truly the most interesting thing was that a Salafi actually joined us. He came in and was hitting right and left all sorts of jokes, from politics to hypocritical religious leaders. We thought then, anyone can embrace satire, because satire is not just about irreverence and making fun and breaking lines and challenging authorities. It’s about being able to laugh at yourselves, being able to see your own mistakes. It’s about accepting criticisms. It’s about not treating leaders as untouchable entities. It’s taking things less seriously, and paradoxically, taking things a lot more seriously, because you’re engaging people in topics they’d stopped caring about.

If you have an interesting angle and something powerful to say, it comes down to sentence construction. We actually created an in-depth guide to satire, which guides people on how to write comedy, but more importantly, how to use satire to say what they want to say. Then we asked our community which of them wanted to take their craft more seriously and work with us directly. We got masses of applications, interviewed over a hundred people, and worked with 16. These interns are just as diverse as the original group. Some of them have PhDs, some of them are 18-year-old university students. Each of our in-house writers is working hand-in-hand with all of them on a daily basis, and the aim is after a year some of these people will become editors in themselves and train others under them.

I don’t think I’m overly ambitious when I say, if we continue at that rate, we’ll be able to create about 1,048,576 Arab satirists!

For the first few years, we were solely foundation-funded. We already started diversifying and have over 20 percent of our income from traditional native advertising and other forms of native content created for organizations, rather than companies (for example, producing content highlighting the situation of migrant workers for an organization that has a project which aims to shed a light on certain issues).

But we are now also building a subscription platform, to launch in the next two months. Our content is free, but we are offering other perks, which will include a monthly print magazine to be sent to those subscribers — the print version is more like a perk than a subscription. We are also working on distributing this print version in select pockets around the world.

We are working on doing events, which revolve around one of our other projects, Al-Hudood’s Award for Worst Arab Journalism, which will be announced at the event. We are doing a micro event this year in Jordan, and working on a larger one next year in London.

POSTED     May 29, 2018, 10:51 a.m.
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