Facebook's Growth in the Arab World Is Surging with Demands for Political ChangePublished: March 07, 2011
In an interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, researchers at the Dubai School of Government -- Fadi Salem, fellow and program director of the school's Governance and Innovation program, and Racha Mourtada, research associate -- note that the way social media tools like Facebook and Twitter have been used in the past few weeks to organize protests in the Arab world has forever changed social and political culture there.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: We've seen the toppling of two governments by protestors organizing through social media in the Arab world. Was this expected?
Fadi Salem: I think it was, if you look at the events taking place in the Middle East over the past year. If you look at our report, we highlight some of the countries where people used social media tools to mobilize and engage in civil movements, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, or Tunisia. It was expected that social media would be part of any engagement that took place. But the extent has been surprising. The fact that there were problems existing, and people were discussing them online, made social media the platform of choice. The Arab world lacks channels for youth to communicate their problems. This was a medium people felt empowered in. Maybe if other channels existed, social media would have been less of a platform.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Given that these social media tools were developed in the West, how have the youth localized these platforms for their use?
Salem: Let's go back to the role of the media and the role of the channels that already exist in society. People for the last 50 years didn't see in the mass media a tool they could use to interact with the government. The media are mostly state-controlled, and people tended to overlook them because of their low credibility. In the Arab world, the average person's consumption of news, the decision-making process based on news, involves going through at least five different sources. You check BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera of course, and the local news. And then based on that, on a specific issue, you consume information from all these sources and you make a decision. So when social media became the platform of choice over the last five years, it was very natural for young people to choose this platform to influence their decision-making [as a tool for filtering numerous sources].
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What were the main factors that led to a broader adoption of these social media platforms?
Salem: In our report we looked into factors such as age, gross domestic product, Internet freedom and the country in question. For example, one of the surprises was that Internet freedom is not related to the degree of Facebook penetration. Even with countries with lower Internet freedom, they had high Facebook penetration, or large numbers of Facebook users.
Mourtada: We had the youth factor, where 75% of Facebook users are the Arab youth. There was the gender factor, which wasn't the same as the rest of the world. Globally, it is about 1:1 when it comes to males and females on Facebook, whereas in the Arab world, it is closer to a 2:1 ratio, with a lot more men than women on Facebook. We think that has to do probably with factors such as political participation, participation in the workforce, education, and access to health care. This part of the world doesn't have the highest figures when it comes to women's participation in these indicators. The top three countries with Internet penetration are Gulf countries, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Qatar. They don't have very high Internet freedom ratings, yet they boast some of the highest Facebook penetration ratings in the world.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What has made social media grow so fast in this region?
Salem: One of the primary reasons is that the regional population is young. In most of the countries in the Arab world, the age group under 30 makes up 50% to 70% of the total population. This is the group that feels empowered by the [social media] platform. It didn't start that way -- it originally was a way to connect with others in countries where it is not that easy to connect with the other gender. But then, the usage trends shifted towards more politically active, more socially active ways of use. The trend is visible all over the Arab world. Just scan comments from Facebook profile updates or from Tweets. You will notice the shift from, 'This is what I am doing tomorrow,' to, 'I wish I was in Tahrir Square.' I'm not sure this will last, but we'll see.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Are there things that you learned that surprised you, either positively or negatively?
Mourtada: One positive thing is that in all Arab countries, the rate of growth of new users to Facebook is huge, for example in places such as Iraq. I believe it had 300% growth over the past year. Even countries with lower rates of Facebook penetration are all getting into the social media movement, much faster than any country in the West. That isn't surprising, since those countries may have reached a plateau, while Arab countries are just beginning to take off.
Salem: One thing I found surprising was the rate of Arab women using Facebook. I was expecting it would be more, not less. I was expecting, given that this is a society where it is not easy to connect with the other gender. But that wasn't the case. Only Lebanon has about an equal number of men and women. In Jordan and Bahrain the ratio of men and women who use social media tools is close.
Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Did social media spur these young people to action, or was this unrest simply looking for an outlet?
Mourtada: It's a combination, a perfect storm. All these social and political issues were bubbling under the surface. Then you also happen to have all these social media tools available. These tools were perhaps the catalyst for the unrest, but not necessarily the actual instigator. There already was this social revolution going on, and it just found its outlet. You can't ascribe too much power to these tools, as ultimately the people using these tools drove this revolution.