How has social media changed in the Middle East since the Arab Spring?
is professor of journalism, Univ of Oregon @damianradcliffe
Where Twitter once held sway, Facebook video, visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, and - amid privacy concerns - closed networks like WhatsApp are now the social media of choice in the complex Middle East and North Africa region. Content producers aiming to reach this audience may need to reset some of their assumptions, says Damian Radcliffe:
Video appeal: a YouTube series about empowered Arab women had 26 million views
It’s now six years since the Arab Spring rocked many parts of the Middle East, resulting in regime change in the North African nations of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The ramifications of this turbulent period continue to be felt in these countries and others across the region, perhaps most noticeably in Syria.
The pioneering work by NPR’s Andy Carvin, during this time, ushered in a new era of social media newsgathering, with Carvin notably harnessing Twitter as a source to identify, share and verify stories in a breaking news environment.
Social media also played a discernible role on the ground too, with Facebook and Twitter being used by some protestors as organising tools, as well as platforms to share news and opinions.
The extent to which these social networks drove political change is open to debate.
Perspectives range from Malcolm Gladwell’s Small change - why the revolution will not be tweeted, through to John Pollock’s Streetbook - how Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring and Clay Shirky’s essay on Technology, the public sphere, and political change.
I would argue that although valuable for some groups, the low levels of take-up for these networks in 2011 means that the extent of their impact risks being overstated.
Jump forward to 2017, however, and we see a different story.
Today, social media in the region reaches a far greater audience than it ever did at the time of the Arab Spring. The number of Facebook users in the region, for example, has tripled in the Middle East since 2012, driven by the growth in smartphones (93% of users now access the social network by mobile).
But the nature of social media usage has also changed and evolved. This means that our assumptions about how the Middle East uses social media need to be updated.
Facebook feeds have developed - as they are everywhere - so that they are now full of videos and images, rather than wordy status updates. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the fastest growing consumer of videos on Facebook, with social networkers in MENA watching twice the global average.
Text-heavy Twitter, which was at the heart of our understanding of the upheaval of 2011, seems to have had its moment in the sun. Instagram now has more users than the micro-blogging network, according to a 2016 survey of Arab Nationals in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and UAE.
Visual-led social networks, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are growing fast, especially in the more affluent Gulf region where smartphones predominate. Lest we forget, Snapchat didn’t even launch until September 2011, several months after the main events of the Arab Spring.
These types of service are reshaping the social media landscape, tapping into consumer preferences for a more visual experience, and encouraging older social networks to follow in their footsteps.
YouTube, a more established visual medium, has been well placed to benefit from this trend. As a result, it continues to grow in popularity and impact. YouTube is home to online stars such as comedy duo The Saudi Reporters (2.4 million subscribers) and other content designed specifically for the medium. One example of this is an award-winning webisode series about empowered Arab women - sponsored by food company Maggi - which enjoyed over 26 million views in its first few months after launch.
Meanwhile, Mosalsalat - which went live in late 2016 - serves as a YouTube hub for archive content featuring classic TV drama and serials of yesteryear. It’s home to more than 500 iconic Arabic TV series from across the region (the oldest dates back to 1962), with content searchable by both genre and country of origin.
If it’s not already, the popularity of visuals and video therefore needs to be at the heart of any strategy to engage audiences in the Middle East. Post-Arab Spring, the popularity of these genres has grown dramatically, as access to smartphones, Wi-Fi and data grows.
Privacy concerns were shared across MENA countries in this Northwestern University survey
Journalists and news organisations also need to be aware of ongoing privacy considerations, as governments and regulators in the region continue to enjoy an uneasy relationship with digital technologies.
In 2016, services were restricted on a temporary, or permanent, basis across the Middle East. This included blocks on services like Skype, Viber, Tango, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger in Morocco, the closure of multiple services in Turkey during July and November, as well as a new law banning the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) in UAE.
In response to privacy concerns, some audiences are even more inclined to gravitate towards closed networks like Snapchat, or WhatsApp, which they feel are more private and easy to control in terms of what you share, and with whom.
As Northwestern University in Qatar reported: “Nearly seven in 10 national internet users say they changed how they use social media due to privacy concerns.”
Journalists and news organisations need to recognise that this will impact newsgathering and distribution, so we can expect to see increased interest in encrypted services like Telegram and WhatsApp. Networks with functionality akin to the alleged favourite of White House staffers - Confide - may also grow.
The social media scene in the Middle East, as elsewhere has continued to change and evolve since 2011. Many users are more conscious about managing their online privacy, whilst they display a veracious appetite for consuming social video and visually-led social content. Recognising and adapting to these changes, should be at the heart of any social media strategy for the Middle East for some time to come.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon and an Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University. Social Media in the Middle East: The story of 2016 is his fifth annual study on the state of social media in the MENA region.