In the Arab World, Social Media Has Fast Developed into a Medium for the Masses

During Tunisia’s revolution, Asma Mansour’s parents kept her locked at home for her own safety. But Mansour was continuously in touch with those on the street and from her computer, updated through Facebook and Skype on the latest. Being president of the Tunisian chapter of the Junior Chamber International (JCI) and an alumna of AIESEC, an international youth leadership development organization, she had a large network at home and abroad. She also sifted through reports of events to confirm their validity as she dispensed details from one area to another. When her father unplugged the Internet router, she turned to her phone, her friends adding credit to her phone remotely.

There was a time when Mansour had the chance to go overseas for her studies. But she decided to stay put. "Maybe if you want to change something, you have to be a part of it," she says. "I have to be part of the system and I have to fight for my Tunisia." She says after the revolution many people discovered poverty and lack of infrastructure, as seen in the country’s interior, and became motivated to volunteer. There’s more freedom than ever to act, as the country navigates the next phases.

In the months after Tunisia’s revolution, Mansour helped found the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Besides educating people about social entrepreneurship, the center serves as an incubator for social enterprises and initiatives while also helping to raise funds and promoting legislation that encourages such work.

"I’m against the idea that we go to the government, and we say, ‘Guys you have to find a solution for us,’" Mansour says. "I think we are able, we know more about our situation, and if we came up with ideas — not just ideology and they have to do this and they are paid for that — I think if every single [one] of us, it’s about personal responsibility and it’s about awareness and about the environment and so on; so I would like to push those people to think and to be creative."

Mansour is a member of the generation that took to social media and helped drive the Arab Spring protests, a movement that toppled longtime leaders in the Arab world and ushered in new political and social realities into the region. Fueled by idealism and technology, Mansour is among young Arabs who have sought change and better opportunities for a career and a life.

In a second interview with Arabic Knowledge@Wharton, researchers at the Dubai School of Government — Fadi Salem, program director of the school’s Governance and Innovation program, and Racha Mourtada, research associate — note that the use of social media has evolved since the Arab Spring revolutions began. The school has been conducting ongoing studies into the use of social media in the region. In just 12 months, the researchers have seen several new trends develop.

The exponential growth of social media continues, they say, as even governments and political parties take to Twitter. People have also realized that social media can be a tool for change at every level of society. But most tellingly, they say, the surge of Arabic language on social media suggests it is increasingly becoming a tool for anyone in the region to use.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What are the biggest changes in regional social media use in the last 12 months?

Fadi Salem: The growth is still strong, and the shift towards political and societal uses, rather than entertainment, is still going on. It’s more than doubled since the last time we published. We have 43 million users on Facebook in the region, as of May. The same trends that we’ve witnessed have continued. One major new finding is language — the majority of users across the different platforms now prefer Arabic. Arabic is now the fastest growing language across Twitter and Facebook globally. That meant effectively that it moved from elite, educated young groups using it, to a medium for the masses in the region. And that creates new challenges and opportunities as well.

Racha Mourtada: Also, there was a more subtle kind of change. It wasn’t just being used for the Arab Spring and political activism. It’s turned slightly towards social activism and civic uses, for instance against sexual harassment. So not linked to the Arab Spring, but rather an offspring as well.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: And what have been the biggest surprises, as far as the trends are concerned?

Mourtada: Even though women were very active during the Arab Spring using social media and on the ground that really didn’t translate to growth in female users in the Arab world. Female users in the Arab World constitute one third of Facebook users, whereas on a global level, they represent 50% of Facebook users. There have been very slight changes in that usage.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Are there any reasons why?

Salem: Our third report focused on women empowerment. We did a regional survey, and two categories of factors played into that. The first are personal factors for women not using social media, and then there are environmental factors. The major finding then was that the cultural and societal limitations and barriers that exist for women in the region, for participation in general — political, economic, and civic — these cause the number of women users to be less than men. So access, education, the sense of empowerment, all of these are factors.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What counts for the ongoing growth of social media use, which is much higher here than other parts of the world?

Salem: First, the convergence of social media and traditional media helped a lot. The fact that it is perceived by a majority of people in the region for playing a role in the transformations taking place, that invited and became an incentive for many to join these platforms, and to effectively to try to change things. One of the other major surprises we’ve seen this year, is that in addition to the transformation in the way people use social media, there was the evolution of a virtual civil society based on this original activist culture that was created online earlier. So now you have organized groups using social media to impact change, and becoming alternative civil society movements online. Given the fact that most of these countries don’t have free media or free parliament — that’s still the case even in countries that witnessed transformation — the influence of social media on these populations is still strong. They seek to mobilize in a more structured way. Instead of just to topple governments or protest, they aim to make an organized movement that influences change practically. Especially now that governments are listening; most of the governments are listening to social media, either out of fear or interest to learn more about what the majority of the population are doing.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: There’s been a divergence in how the Arab Spring has played out in the region. Has that resulted too in a regional divergence of approach and use of social media?

Salem: Not necessarily, in my view. There has been a divergence in the Arab Spring, but online, the spillover effect is between all these countries. It’s not defined to one geographic location. So people who are using social media in the United Arab Emirates are actually very influential in Egypt. Egyptians are influential in Tunisia, and so on. They are taking part of these movements online, effectively becoming members of it. It’s like this Pan-Arabism online, but it’s not an ideology. It’s more of a sense of unity among the online population. Another surprising outcome from the last survey, and we’ve even seen this in the most recent survey we’ve done, that social media has an equalizing factor among men and women. They’ve got the same reaction to issues, for instance related to women. But it’s not the case offline, where they have different opinions. It’s the same case even among users between different geographic locations. You would see more or less people thinking the same way across the region. You get almost the same reaction to everything you ask. People who use social media across the region, have almost identical points of view towards many things. It’s definitely not the case among those who do not use social media among these countries.

Mourtada: It seems to have a homogenizing effect; it brings people to the same points of view.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Perception — is it education, is it exposure, or is it access to technology?

Mourtada: It’s a combination of all of that. Again, when we looked at women and the reasons that stopped them from using social media, a lot of the personal factors, such as ICT education, tech savviness, or just general literacy doesn’t factor in. So most of the people it seems who are using social media are from a certain kind of tech savviness and educational level. That’s what brings everyone to the same point of view.

Salem: Additionally, the free flow of information, the awareness level increases in an expedited way. There’s a snowballing effect; people change perceptions: "Everybody is thinking about it this way, let me think about that then."

Mourtada: One of the top things we found from our research survey is that one of the more positive impacts of using social media is that people here are tolerating other people’s opinions more. That actually was the highest positive impact that people listed.

Salem: To clarify, the question was, ‘What’s the main impact of social media on your culture?’ The main answer across the region was that its made me more tolerant of other points of view.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: More tolerant of criticism and cynicism? That seems to have found a large audience with Arab social media users, especially in political commentary.

Salem: Yes that’s happening, and that will continue, but the reaction of the people in many cases — in previous cases, a reaction could take a diplomatic magnitude, with countries stopping relations with other countries because of a satire. Today they’re more okay with letting it go, accepting it as something that’s happening without the need for major consequences; sometimes learning from it, sometimes even laughing at it. This is not everybody, but this is the majority of the respondents we’ve got to this specific question. So, some people are open to accepting the other point of view, others are just as always. Such mediums have amplified extreme points of view also. But I think somewhere in the middle, there is a big group that’s changed their critical views, and are more open to hearing criticism again and again, realizing that nothing happens if someone criticizes my country or my religion.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Do some view social media as a safety valve? There is the online video recently of a Saudi woman defying religious police at a shopping mall. While arguing with them, she says she’s uploaded the video to Twitter and YouTube.

Mourtada: That’s one of the good things about social media that a lot of people have caught onto. It promotes transparency and accountability. You can pretty much post anything onto YouTube and show the world what’s going on. That’s what happened in the Arab Spring that brought the attention of so many people. So it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes, that you can’t hide things anymore.

Salem: In other words, the reputational damage that you can cause on Facebook, or other social media platforms, it’s a factor that many people take into account in this region.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: The idea of reputational damage from social media worries a lot of businesses in the region.

Mourtada: Yes, one of the main concerns for a lot of people surveyed was reputational damage on social media, and how to manage that.

Salem: We didn’t [study that as] this is a perception, again. But definitely, businesses and governments are working on minimizing or managing the reputational impact from social media. It’s a growing business. Many are taking advantage of this, trying to provide services to manage identity, and use techniques to delete things, or keep it under a pile of information. But, the major way governments are doing this is by regulation. They are regulating the use of social media by their employees and by the public. You see this in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region, where a structure for legal reaction to social media is being developed; to allow for a way to respond to something that is damaging on social media, whether the recipient is a government, a business or an ordinary person.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a differentiation across the Arab world, as far as government reaction and response

Salem: In the past year it has become clear that some countries — and this is changing in some countries over the year — but there were clearly at the beginning of 2011 some governments whose reaction was to pull the kill switch, stop the Internet, stop social media, criminalize it, monitor it, and block. So that was the first reaction of many countries. But the reaction by the public that was created in certain countries, made many governments think again. For example in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, people said that cutting the Internet was a positive thing, because it made them be active offline, not just online. That reaction made many governments in the region realize that blocking or cutting the Internet or access to social media is not the right way, because the cost would be higher. Since then, governments have been changing to a more subtle regulation. They monitor, they take things case by case, and they don’t publicize reactions, unless it’s a national security issue or a criminal issue that then goes to court. We’ve seen that, and I believe that will continue to be a trend, not only in the Arab world, but globally as well.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So have regional governments become more active online in the last 12 months?

Mourtada: A lot of government officials are now online. The attitude may be, we can’t beat them, so join them. We might as well be online too, engage with citizens and deal with their problems. I’m Lebanese, and we’ve seen a lot of ministers are now online, and they are quite quick to answer any questions or criticisms.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: There is also the example of the Saudi Twitter user Mujtahidd, who challenged officials there with such information that they had to respond, even on social media.

Salem: It goes back to the question of reputation, and how it can be damaged online. This is a reason why so many government entities or officials want to either join or block social media. The changes started with, ‘Let’s block it and stop it,’ that was the original way governments in the region used to manage media issues. That wasn’t working so what’s next — join the discussions, and try to do reputational damage control, or try to influence the discussion one way or another. So Mujtahidd is a case, and it created a reaction, where the government decided they couldn’t stop the information, so let’s talk to him. It made it clear that was a policy that could work.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: But in the case of Bahrain and Syria, it seems there is a third response, which is, find the people behind the social media posts, and punish them.

Mourtada: That’s another extreme. But I don’t think its ultimately going to be useful, because it attracts a lot of international attention. Also, a lot of government officials realize they cannot afford not to be on social media, and that’s the right way rather than to monitor or suppress people for being online.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Perhaps Bahrain and Syria are still behind in the revolutions compared to Egypt or Tunisia.

Salem: Personally, in the case of Syria and Bahrain, it’s very different than Egypt or Tunisia in one major way. A majority of people within Egypt and Tunisia had a similar point of view about the governments, while in Syria and Bahrain you have a clear split in the opinions of the government. That created more discussions and low-level tensions online between the two groups that influenced all the discussions on social media, and created the Syrian Electronic Army, hacking, counter hacking and online mobs, blacklists. Because there is a split in society, it explains the governments’ reaction, that they have support and can utilize these measures.

One of the major findings of our research on Twitter, for example, the regional discussions on Twitter are always about what’s going on with Arab Spring, where is the revolution now. Always, since we started our research, Syria and Bahrain are among the top five discussions. This last research we’ve done, Syria and Bahrain hashtags, in English and in Arabic, are the top two. Not because everybody in the region are talking about Syria and Bahrain — they are, but they are also talking about Egypt, and other countries — but because Bahrainis and Syrians, or those involved in the two conflicts, are talking a lot to each other.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Switching topics to demographics, since the growth is so dramatic, have there been changes in who is coming online in the past 12 months?

Mourtada: They haven’t really changed, mainly because the Middle East is such a young region. It’s mainly the youth who are driving the growth of Facebook and Twitter. They constitute 70% of Facebook users, and they are such a large part of the demographic in general. They really are the drivers of growth.

Salem: The online population of Facebook is between the ages of 15 and 30. These are the majority of the users. So that didn’t change from last year. The gender breakdown didn’t change from last year. What changed is the language of the users. Which means that the users are now different. They are still 70% young, but they aren’t necessarily the elite, Western-educated or who have access to better education. It’s just the normal public. It increased over Twitter and Facebook; it’s an increased number of users across several countries, using Arabic rather than English, which is the opposite at the beginning of 2011.

Today we’re talking about a growth inside the Arab region, in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. Egypt has about 10 million Facebook users now. That means that of the 2 million users that existed at the end of 2010, this is not just those young Egyptians with access to good education, but also those who can only access Facebook in Arabic.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: We asked previously about the notion that Twitter and Facebook are regarded as Western, and therefore there was this element of mistrust among Arab users. Is that still the case?

Salem: The trust in these platforms has been built further. Twitter launching its Arabic interface obviously helped.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Last year, the top performer was the UAE.

Salem: It is still the top in terms of penetration. But that was based on population figures on the time. It still remains the top performer in that category, but the penetration rate is less. But by numbers, the top performer is Egypt, representing 25% of the Arab World’s entire Facebook user base.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: With the elections in Egypt, how have political parties approached social media?

Salem: All political movements since last year have been quick to jump on the bandwagon and use social media, or different platforms of social media, to push their message or agenda. Whether you are government, semi-government or opposition, you are on social media trying to influence discussions. It’s the young population you are targeting, and the growth is huge. So you might as well be there as soon as you can to influence the political agenda, like in Egypt. This core group is influential, not necessarily because they do things. They might not be the ones who voted in Egypt, but they definitely influenced the vote.

Mourtada: Even in countries without an Arab Spring effect — Kuwait for instance surprised us with the number of Twitter users and tweets, and I used to ask Kuwaitis why. It turns out the parliament is very active on Twitter and they make up the bulk of what’s going on there, and people do interact with them. It’s a very active political scene, but not in the revolutionary sense.

Salem: It’s safe to say this is also happening in Bahrain, not just the political movements, or the civil movements, but also the government level and the parliament.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Are government officials from different countries in the region being compared on social media?

Salem: It is happening, but on the local level. On a regional level, there are few examples because of the old rivalries, but on a local level, there is a lot of that. The religious ones too, which is another trend, there are a lot of religious celebrities on Twitter, and that is influencing a lot of the discussions, especially in Saudi Arabia, and they have a huge following base in the larger Gulf too. The comparisons are what is their following, what did they do, what did they say or not say. Religious figures in the Gulf definitely have taken the spotlight in the last few months.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In this region, discussing religion is culturally the last frontier, but now the topic has been injected into this sphere where anyone can comment on it.

Salem: That will increase, as social media becomes more of a tool for the masses. It’s very similar to when satellite dishes came out in the Arab world more than a decade ago. First it started with news channels targeting the elite, and then as more dishes were installed in the region, there was an explosion of religious channels and shows. It’s new groups joining the discussions. There is a need for those discussions to take place in this region online, and somebody is fulfilling that need.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Has there been a change in the level of discussion about Iran since the first report?

Salem: Definitely, it’s been decreasing. It fluctuates, but there are many priorities that people are talking about online in the Arab region. There are several countries going through transformation, several countries going through revolutions, political processes taking place, societal changes. Yes, Iran is part of the discussion, but its not a top topic.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: What’s driving traffic on different platforms?

Mourtada: It depends on the situation or the cause. I think Twitter is good for mobilizing people for a cause. Facebook, because there is no character limit, you can have a more sustained discussion and actual pages. We’ve seen examples of causes going on both, such as a campaign against sexual harassment out of Egypt called HarrassMap. Different things drive people to different platforms, but each has its own unique characteristics.

Salem: There are countries with a majority of Twitter users in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain. These Gulf countries in general, these are the countries that generate the discussions. About 80% of Twitter interactions are taking place in six countries. Kuwait generates one third of Tweets in the region.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Are these discussions still largely anonymous?

Salem: We didn’t measure this, but Twitter is public, and more public figures are joining Twitter, and its becoming more of a celebrity thing, even online. Many people are joining in their own personal capacity. However, I think that will be reversed slightly, after we have seen several accounts closed because of criminal issues or Twitter users breaking some sort of law. On Facebook, the agreement that you sign up is that you have to use your own real name, which isn’t always the case, especially in countries where revolutions are going on. In Syria, probably everyone has two accounts, one in their name, and one just in case.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: After leaders were toppled in some countries, what kind of sentiment did you see? Was there a spike in enthusiasm?

Salem: I think it matured. It’s not just an impulsive thing, there are much more organized efforts. On certain issues and topics, there is a small level of change happening. In other countries, I would say there is full-fledged civil society movements that are getting hundreds of thousands of people joining for a specific cause, whether its governmental or societal. It’s very much more structured now in some countries with more people joining, but its still fluctuates on a weekly basis. The fact that governments are changing their reactions to these movements all the time — especially if it’s disruptive — it causes these movements to find a creative way of doing it on another platform. New users are still more enthusiastic about what they can do, and this is a big portion of those who have joined social media in the last 12 months.

Mourtada: I think the hype might have died down a little bit, but people are realizing that you can use social media to create social change, to do something about your community, that you can start an enterprise. People are realizing the potential of social media beyond the revolutionary aspect of it. A lot of people thought this would be a spike, and then people would forget about social media when the revolutions were over. But I think it has sustained interest and people are being more innovative about how they use social media.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Is it feeding a desire for social entrepreneurship?

Mourtada: People are starting to realize if not implement that yes, they can use social media for social entrepreneurship, to create social change, to start their own business or create awareness in their community. There are all sorts of things with a positive impact that can come out of the use of social media.

Salem: This is across the region, not one country or another, not the ones that managed to use social media to topple governments or the ones that didn’t. Across the region the reaction was positive to influencing societal changes, or the changes taking place in their culture.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: It’s ironic you talk about these ‘older’ users when it’s a period of just 12 months. But do you see a difference between them and ‘newer’ adopters of social media?

Salem: In Syria for example, there is a fatigue among older users, that you cannot do anything anymore online, its risky because people have been put in jail because of their online usage. It’s not just the risk, but also that it is not impactful enough, that their cause is not going anywhere. However, the newly joined are more empowered. Many of the ‘older’ users have stopped using Facebook.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: So are you seeing a higher awareness of how to use these technologies than literally 12 months ago?

Salem: Absolutely, especially among the older groups, which is surprising to me. The younger users are naturally more tech savvy. But this past year, people in the older generation — officials, practitioners, businessmen, and academics — are joining, and they are learning fast. Everyone is joining, and they are adapting. Many of these people never thought they would be on Facebook, because they thought it was a childish thing before 2011. And now they are pushing for more followers on Twitter.

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