It’s now eight years since the Arab Spring rocked many parts of the Middle East. At the time, social media was identified as a major factor in the geo-political upheaval seen across much of the region.
With hindsight, that was probably overstated. Nonetheless, social media did play a role in bringing awareness of these protests to a global audience, and it also helped to provoke discussions about the role that social media can play as a driver for change.
I’ve been covering this topic since 2012, and earlier this year — with University of Oregon student Payton Bruni — I published my seventh annual report on social media in the Middle East.
Here are five ways we found that social media in the Middle East differs from other markets like North America and Europe.
(1) Young people are still using Facebook
In contrast to the #deleteFacebook movement in the United States, as well as wider stagnation in many Western markets, not only is Facebook usage continuing to grow in the Middle East, but Arab youth are using it more than ever.
More widely, nearly half of young Arabs (49%) say they get their news on Facebook daily, up from 35% last year; and 61% of Arab youth say they use Facebook more frequently than a year ago.
(2) Saudi Arabia continues to see massive social media growth
With a population of 32 million, Saudi Arabia (KSA) is the second most populous country in the region (behind Egypt, now home to more than 100 million). Social media use continues to grow rapidly across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a trend of interest to brands, agencies and media companies alike.
Data from We Are Social and Hootsuite found that social media users in KSA grew by 32%, compared to a worldwide average of 13%, from January 2017 to January 2018.
Moreover, “In 2018, YouTube upstaged long-time leader Facebook to become the most popular social media platform in Saudi Arabia,” reports Global Media Insight, a Dubai-based digital, interactive agency.
Insights shared by the agency showed 23.62 million active YouTube users in KSA, with Facebook coming in second with 21.95 million users.
(3) A third of the population in Saudi Arabia use Snapchat every day
Snapchat, a highly popular platform in the Kingdom, witnessed a level of growth similar to YouTube, in contrast to other markets where it has struggled to grow. Saudi has the highest market adoption of Snapchat (i.e. percentage of the population using the app), anywhere in the world.
According to Ampere Analysis, usage of the multimedia messaging app grew by 30%, with more than a third of Saudi respondents saying they use Snapchat every day.
Residents of Saudi cities Riyadh and Jeddah spend 35 minutes a day surfing snaps, and using “the camera, on average, 40 times a day.”
Across the wider region, of the 12 million daily users of Snapchat in the Gulf, 9 million are in Saudi Arabia and 1 million in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising that in November, Snapchat announced that more than 30 shows, from 20 popular MENA brands, would be launching on the platform, capitalizing on its popularity in KSA and beyond.
“Each Show averages five minutes in length with about 10 second frames that can be swiped like a magazine,” explains Joseph George at TahawulTech.com.
(4) In Egypt, accounts with more than 5,000 followers can be monitored
The Egyptian government has passed legislation that places all social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers under government watch. The legislation also created wider online restrictions, such as requiring new websites to receive a license from the Egyptian government before they can go live.
Journalists and activists in the region have also faced challenges. Human Rights activist Amal Fathy was arrested last year and fined for “spreading fake news” after she posted a Facebook video criticizing the Egyptian government for not doing enough to protect women.
(5) UAE-based social media influencers must obtain a license
Social media influencers continue to emerge and grow their platforms in the Middle East, as elsewhere. Huda Kattan was ranked number one on CNN’s list of the Top 10 beauty influencers in the Middle East. She has over 30 million Instagram followers, and an estimated net worth of US$550 million.
As their impact and importance grows, some countries have sought to control the expansion of this sector.
In 2018, the UAE National Media Council passed a law requiring social media influencers who promote or sell products online to acquire a license from the government. The license costs 15,000 AED (roughly US$4000) and is valid for one year.
The types of posts that many Middle Eastern influencers share will look familiar to other audiences in terms of content, tone and aesthetic. However, the cultural context in which they operate can result in opposition to usage of social in this way.
A former Miss Iraq pageant winner with 3.7 million Instagram followers, Shimaa Qasim, received death threats days after another Iraqi model with 2.8 million Instagram followers, Tara Fares, was killed in Baghdad by an unknown gunman.
Social Media in the Middle East, as elsewhere, continues to grow and evolve.
It’s popularity with younger audiences, the continued pivot to more visual content, and the response of government agencies across the region, are all trends that journalists, news organizations and brands must continue to observe.
The potential of these platforms to reach women and young audiences, and to tell stories in new ways, continues to provide great opportunities for content creators. However, social media does operate in a different context — both in terms of the platforms used and the material which can be distributed through it.
Understanding this is essential if the full potential for harnessing social media in the region is to be realized.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism, and a Professor of Practice, at the University of Oregon. He has produced an annual report on social media in the Middle East since 2012. He tweets at @damianradcliffe.
Payton Bruni is a student at the University of Oregon, School of Journalism and Communication, majoring in journalism with a minor in Arabic studies. He is also a freelancer for Gather and KVAL CBS 13 news, and photojournalist for Ethos Magazine.