Mohammed Alhajji was in Tampa, Florida, thousands of miles away from his home country of Saudi Arabia, when building political unrest finally erupted.
In December 2010, a revolutionary wave of protest broke out in Tunisia and quickly spread through the Middle East, resulting in the ousting of four countries’ rulers. The movement, known as the Arab Spring, called for government reform and more democratic freedom.
The Arab Spring was also characterized by social media’s significant role in facilitating the protests. As Alhajji watched activists use Twitter to organize protests and spread information, he said he realized the power of social media.
“Social media was doing a lot better than traditional media,” Alhajji said. “The moment it happened, we know it has happened.”
Alhajji, a third-year social and behavioral sciences Ph.D. student, has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, where he shares articles about public health issues and writes in Arabic about his research on the role of social media in behavioral and social health. He also has about 90,000 regular viewers of his Snapchat stories, in which he discusses similar topics.
Though Alhajji originally gained recognition from a now-deleted viral video he posted in 2011 asking Americans what they knew about Saudi Arabia. He was quickly branded as a public health expert in Saudi Arabia.
He has made multiple media appearances to discuss public health issues in the Middle East. In October, he appeared on Kalam Nawaim, a talk show hosted in Beirut and broadcasted across the Middle East, to speak about his research on the effects of social media and cyberbullying.
One subject of Alhajji’s research is the phenomenon of FOMO — an acronym for “fear of missing out.” It describes experiencing anxiety, often brought on by social media posts, about missing out on experiences.
“It’s funny, I study this stuff but I’ve fallen victim to it,” Alhajji said.
Alhajji attributes his success to the novelty of studying social sciences in Saudi Arabia. While he said Saudi universities have begun to offer graduate programs in public health, the field is still not as mainstream as it is in the United States.
“It’s growing, but it’s new,” Alhajji said. “Public health isn’t really in the mind of the government or funding.”
According to the Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, the Saudi government has committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law and killed more than 5,000 people since 2015 in its military operations in Yemen.
The same report confirmed that the Saudi government accepts discrimination against women as the norm. Under the country’s male guardianship system, adult women must obtain permission from a male guardian to travel, rent an apartment, marry or leave prison.
Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2016 report ranks the country as the sixth-most restrictive for Internet access out of 65 assessed countries.
Failure to follow the government’s strict rules can have dire consequences, Alhajji said, which adds a gravity to the problem of cyberbullying that is not seen in the United States, especially for those active on social media during the Arab Spring.
“What people were doing, some really vicious people, would go back to your accounts in 2011 and reactivate some of your posts from back then,” Alhajji said. “They entice prosecution against you.”
In some ways, Saudi Arabia is changing. The country made headlines in September for allowing women to drive.
In his weekly column published in the Saudi national newspaper Makkah, Alhajji writes about social justice issues, like consequences of domestic violence. He said he keeps the column accessible by rooting his observations in science, not opinion.
“Without being divisive, he’s able to send that message across of important issues in healthcare,” said Khushi Malhotra, a third-year geography and urban studies Ph.D. student. “Even to people who might be conservative.”
Malhotra met Alhajji in a statistics class, where she noticed that he was always on his phone. When she brought this up to him, he confided he had a few followers on Twitter.
“He showed me his Twitter and I was like, ‘Whoa, are you famous or something? Should I know you?’” Malhotra said.
“It’s really cool that he’s advocating this approach to health and well-being that is being viewed in a positive light,” she added. “It really makes me appreciate him being on social media.”
In the future, Alhajji hopes to open a behavioral science research institute in Saudi Arabia. He said the country has many specific social phenomena that have not been studied, like the preference for faith healing over evidence-based, medical treatment for mental health issues.
“These are some of the issues that need better understanding,” Alhajji said. “They’re very nuanced. They kind of require people who understand the culture, such as myself. So hopefully when I go back I can study them further.”