Social media shaping norms of expression in the Arab world

Of the biggest social networks, WhatsApp has 95% reach in the United Arab Emirates and 88% in Saudi Arabia.
Sunday 27/05/2018

ABU DHABI – Since the “Arab spring” in 2011, social media have taken the Middle East and North Africa by storm, changing its collective and individual communication landscape.

The “7th Arab Social Media Report,” put out by the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai, states that Facebook remains the most popular social media platform in the Arab region. The number of Facebook users in the region has steadily increased, reaching more than 156 million in 2017 — a year-on-year increase of nearly 41 million from the beginning of 2016.

“The results from last year’s study ‘Media Use in the Middle East 2017,’ by Northwestern University in Qatar, found that only 5% don’t use social media in Saudi Arabia and 0% in the UAE,” said Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. “Usage among Westerners, Arab and Asian expats is similarly high.”

Of the biggest social networks, WhatsApp has 95% reach in the United Arab Emirates and 88% in Saudi Arabia. Facebook enjoys an 84% reach in the United Arab Emirates and 60% in Saudi Arabia.

“What’s interesting about Facebook, however, is that numbers are considerably lower among nationals — 70% in the UAE and 55% in Saudi Arabia — and much lower than they were in 2015, perhaps as a result of users migrating to newer social networks,” he said.

He said “Snapchat is the real success story” with the percentage of users in the United Arab Emirates going from 8% to 35% and from 4% to 40% in Saudi Arabia.

Privacy and the user experience are concerns for social media users all over the world. As Sarah Vieweg, a user experience researcher at Facebook, said, social media use in the Middle East is often different than in other regions.

Cultural sensibilities, such as whom to friend, the pictures shared and profile pictures, shape online behaviour, often in a manner that people from outside the region would be unaware of.

“Similarly, social media in the Middle East and particularly the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council countries] are very innovative,” Radcliffe said.

“The use of WhatsApp and Instagram as market places for small businesses, often those created and run by women, are uses of these networks that their creators probably never imagined. It shows how the community is able to harness these platforms to meet their own needs.”

Whether social media change the terms of political and social debates depends on the context of individual countries, experts said.

“Many GCC countries have cyber-security laws, which can be a little ambiguous in terms of ‘do’s and don’ts’ on social media,” Radcliffe said. “This can make users wary about what they say online. We also know that many users support regulation, aren’t tolerant of government criticism of their government and, as I found and reported on in 2014, online users across the region want governments to block harmful material and keep their children safe.”

In practice, this means there can be a lot of self-censorship online and people do not always use their real names. They share and participate in closed communities, such as forums or WhatsApp groups, which can be more difficult to “check the temperature” of a country by surveying social media.

“That’s the case everywhere,” Radcliffe said. “Social media users and their opinions are not a representative sample of the overall population but that’s especially true in the Middle East.”

He said it helped both break and enforce conservative taboos. “Social networks have created a platform for people to express their views and opinions, which can often be critical, such as Facebook in Iraq or an opportunity to express support,” Radcliffe said. “It’s a space where people have been very entrepreneurial with women, in particular, often taking advantage of this to create and market their own businesses, while platforms like YouTube have led to the emergence of online comedy stars in the region.”

Social media offer opportunities for creative expression and interaction, which were not previously possible. This takes place within a cultural framework shaped by the traditional and conservative values of many countries. Radcliffe said the two can be compatible, as witnessed by the growth of social media usage and the breadth of activities, ranging from news to comedy, sport and discussion of religion, that people in the GGC engage with on these platforms.

Technology is transforming the way people meet their needs for peace, dignity and community. Tom Fletcher, a senior adviser at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and former British ambassador to Lebanon, said this will shatter the global political equilibrium and shift power from governments towards individuals.

“We now face a century of change like no other in history,” he said. “States, ideas and industries will go out of business. Inequality could grow.”

He said the internet has changed the world faster than any previous technology. “The smartphone has given a super power to much of the world’s population,” Fletcher said. “For many, the web is no longer for our downtime but for all our time. We have access not just to more information than we can process but more than we can imagine.”

He spoke of social media as new frontiers for digital diplomacy, including using social media to gather information and connect and to influence on a massive scale, building campaigns and coalitions.

“Diplomacy is no longer an elite pastime,” he said. “It will become more open, democratic and inclusive. If diplomacy did not exist, we would need to invent it. Now, we need to reinvent it.”