Facebook is the third most popular outlet for sourcing news in the Arab world, behind Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, according to a survey published today by Northwestern University in Qatar.
The survey, which interviewed more than 10,000 people from Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, revealed that news sources varied widely between countries. While Al-Jazeera was watched in every country, 52 per cent of respondents in Tunisia identified Facebook as their 'top' outlet for news, while in Bahrain 26 per cent listed Google.
"If you look at the percentages of internet users who are active on social media sites, it's much higher than the United States and Australia or Western European countries," said Justin Martin, journalism professor at Northwestern, speaking to Journalism.co.uk.
Al-Jazeera was a top news source for 26 per cent of respondents throughout the region, while Al-Arabiya was favoured by 16 per cent and Facebook by 10 per cent.
On average, television was considered the most "important" medium for news, followed by interpersonal relationships, both ahead of the internet, newspapers and the radio, although there is some variation between countries.
Among the eight countries that were surveyed, a large majority of internet users were active on social media, sometimes upwards of 90 percent, with instant messaging being the highest reported activity for internet users among the respondents.
"There's been research that suggests, rightly, the importance of interpersonal sources of news and information for people in the Arab world," said Martin, "and the number one reported activity online for people in the survey was instant messaging.
"Arabs, maybe more than any other culture around the world, have these anchored communities where they receive and share news and information and they tend to go there often for news and they tend to trust the information from their anchored communities."
Only a quarter of respondents from Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia believed the news media in their country was credible, while more than fifty per cent of respondents from other countries had faith in their national media.
Martin attributed this difference to the countries' recent or current experience of unrest.
"I think citizens in those countries are more scrutinising, they're more skeptical. There's more at stake, there's more being lost." he said. "Unemployment rates are higher than many other places in the region and I think in the case of Tunisia and Egypt you have populations which, really for the first time, are demanding a lot more from their news organisations. Really being skeptical consumers and not being satisfied with status quo."
This same pattern was evident in opinions on whether the quality of news reporting in countries had increased in the last two years, as nearly a third in Lebanon and Tunisia disagreed and fewer than 50 percent agreed. 21 per cent said they neither agreed or disagreed, and the remainder did not know or declined to answer. Across the region, however, 61 per cent of respondents believed the quality of the news reporting had improved.
Freedom of expression on the internet is still a contentious issue in the region, as while the majority of respondents felt people should be free to express their opinions online, more than 50 per cent believed that the internet should be more tightly regulated by their governments.
"I think there's a bit of respondents wanting it all, I think they want their online cake and to be able to eat it too. So they are favourable towards freedom of expression existing online but they are also wary of some of the wilder forms of speech that exist online and that might be sensitive to them in terms of sexuality or in terms of religion or in terms of family."
Martin said that internet penetration also played a large role in people's opinions as, in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, incomes and literacy rates remain low, therefore affecting people's engagement in different forms of media.
"Internet penetration in Egypt has been hovering at the low 20s for a number of years and most living Egyptians have never been online," he said. "So tens of millions of Egyptians have never used the internet."
Martin added that the research team had taken a more holistic approach to the survey compared to previous studies, interviewing a broad range of individuals from both rural and urban areas.
"In a lot of other research throughout the region it's common to see researchers just focussing on urban centres and not giving much or any attention to people in more rural locations," he said.
The full study, titled "Media Use in the Middle East – An Eight-Nation Survey", has been published online alongside a report.
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