The overall usage of social media across Middle Eastern regions in 2015 is still lower than the global average, a report published last week has shown.
The study, authored by Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers professor in journalism at the University of Oregon, is a curated round-up of findings from three main sources: a survey conducted by the Northwestern University in Qatar; We Are Social's Digital, Social and Mobile 2015 report; and the WPP Arab Social Media Report – as well as other reference materials.
"We've heard various talks both in the Middle East and elsewhere, about social media creating revolutions, which could be a bit of an overstatement," Radcliffe told Journalism.co.uk.
"But it can have an impact and there is a huge interest in that part of the world, given its history and what's going on in the social space."
Radcliffe's "Social Media in the Middle East: The Story of 2015" provides a "curated experience" of data about the reach and use of five social platforms in the region and how this has been influenced by political and economic factors.
Here are three key findings from the report:
Facebook still dominates
Facebook is still the most used social network in the region, with 80 million users at the start of 2015. Some 87 per cent of social media users have a Facebook account, of which almost 9 out of 10 log onto the platform on a daily basis.
"The main Facebook platform itself looks like it's starting to lose a little bit of its audience, and some previous research suggests there were concerns around privacy on Facebook, particularly amongst Arab nationals.
"But when you look at the strength of WhatsApp and Instagram, both of which have bigger reach and are continuing to grow really quickly, then Facebook, as a group, has an incredible presence and footprint within the region."
Messaging service WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in 2014, was highlighted in the study as the leading social media platform in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
"[WhatsApp's] group function has really been actively embraced in the region, so people have groups for talking about religion, cooking, fashion and even debunking and discussing rumours that are floating around on social media," Radcliffe said.
"It's interesting how users have taken this technology and tweaked it to suit their own particular needs and aims, so the conversations that would have previously been happening on Twitter, Facebook or on forums, are now moving to WhatsApp and Instagram."
This can bring about challenges for journalists looking for sources and eyewitness media, as these conversation would be harder to access if they take place in a closed environment like WhatsApp.
"It could make it increasingly difficult to really take the temperature of what's going on in a region – not that social is ever a full window on the world, but it does give you a sense of what's happening when you're not physically on the ground."
The region has a 'strong visual culture'
The use of Instagram among Arab nationals has grown exponentially in the past few years, according to the report, from 6 per cent of internet users in 2013 to 28 per cent in 2015. The platform now has 25 million users in the MENA region.
YouTube was also highlighted as one of the top three social media platform in the United Arab Emirates (used by 73 per cent of people), Tunisia (58 per cent), Qatar (52 per cent) and Egypt (49 per cent).
"Visual communication is an incredibly powerful tool and one that consumers really like to embrace in the region, so they're much more likely to send messages in visual form than text form," said Radcliffe.
People in the Middle East and North Africa are also the fastest growing audience for Facebook videos, the report found, with consumption per head in the region equal to twice the global average.
Ongoing concerns around freedom of expression and governance
However, the region has faced an ongoing struggle with state censorship and limitations over freedom of expression and the use of certain social platforms.
For example, in April 2015, the Turkish government blocked access to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook to prevent images from a hostage siege in Istanbul from being shared.
Globally, Twitter also received the most requests for content removal from Turkey, with 477 requests submitted between 1 July and 21 December 2014.
Figures from a Pew Research Center study about the global support for free speech, and press and internet freedom, cited in the paper, showed 43 per cent of respondents in the Middle East thought people were free to say what they wanted, while 45 per cent agreed that media can report the news, and 44 per cent said people have access to the internet.
The numbers ranked below the global median across all three categories.
Data from Pew Research Center
"This past year, there seem to have been a lot more stories about the challenges faced by social media users in terms of government clampdowns or new laws being introduced to try and curtail the sharing of incorrect information via social," Radcliffe said.
"Arguably, you could say they have laudable aims, but I think creating laws that are ambiguous and confusing for users is not the way to do it.
"The way to do it is to educate people to make sure they have a stronger media literacy and social media skills to be able to discern between truth and fiction online."
The full report is available here.
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