In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, youth in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly communicating online
With almost 164 million users—up from 56 million in 2013—Facebook continues to reign supreme as the most widely used social media platform in the Arab world, according to a recently-released University of Oregon report titled, State of Social Middle East: 2018.
The increase in Facebook usage among Arab youth was especially pronounced, with just over 60 percent reporting greater activity on the platform over the past year. Almost half of this demographic—ranging from 18-24 years old—chooses Facebook as their daily news source, an increase of almost 15% over 2017.
“It’s a very different narrative to the challenges that Facebook has been facing in North America,” Professor Damian Radcliffe, who authored the study in conjunction with student Payton Bruni, told The Media Line. He noted that the opposite trend is occurring in the United States—as evidenced, for example, by the #deleteFacebook movement—with many young consumers quitting the site altogether.
The difference is partially attributable to the constitutional right of Americans to exercise free speech.
“In the West, you can choose [other places to express yourself besides] social media. In the highly dogmatic Arab world, it is your last and only resort,” AbdelKarim Benabdallah, co-founder of Social Media Club Tunisia, told The Media Line.
“In the span it takes to write one short sentence, Arabs can escape from an everyday life that is tainted by religious and state oppression,” she said.
Indeed, according to Noura Alzabie, a strategist and project manager at the Bahrain chapter of the Global Social Media Club, online collective platforms became staples in the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring upheavals that toppled numerous authoritarian regimes.
According to Prof. Radcliffe, Facebook’s widespread use in Arab countries also is due to branding, staying power and the ease with which the medium is used.
“If most of your family, friends and colleagues are using Facebook as opposed to another network—wherever they are in the world—then that naturally makes it the best [and most convenient] social network to communicate with them,” Radcliffe said.
Unlike platforms such as Youtube, operating Facebook does not consume much mobile data and is thus more widely accessible. Facebook also has created “lite” versions of its app, which uses even less data than the regular one.
Radcliffe notes that Youtube—whose user rate in the Middle East and North Africa has increased by 160% in the past three years—Snapchat and Instagram are flourishing in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar because people are wealthier and can purchase large data plans and faster internet service. In fact, the latest report found that Saudi Arabia led the world in 2018 in rate of growth of social media users.
Radcliffe attributes this to a variety of factors, including the huge number of cell phones in the kingdom; popularity among youth; and a desire to hold fewer in-person meetings.
According to Hootsuite and We are Social’s 2019 Global Digital Reports, social media is accessible to 57 percent of Egypt’s population aged 13 and up compared to 99 percent in the UAE. By contrast, social media is used by 40 percent of the total population of North Africa.
“The variance in social media use reflects the diversity of digital experiences in this far-from homogeneous part of the world,” Bahrain-based Alzabie said.
For his part, Radcliffe believes that in the coming year Instagram and YouTube “remain the platforms to watch” in the region.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)