The Impact of Social Media in the Arab World
By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer
The number of accounts on social media in the Arab world has doubled in the last three years, according to a recent Arab Social Media Report. This number especially expanded during the Arab Spring. Most notably, the rise in use of social media is because of the large percentage of youth in the Arab world. Around 60% of the population is under 25 years old, which is also the prime age range for Internet users.
Social media’s presence in the Arab world has also been growing because of an increase in the use of Arabic online. At the beginning of its inception, the keyboard was in English. However, young Arabs took this obstacle and created a new way to communicate: Arabizi. This technological language combines the Latin letters and numbers with Arabic sounds, eliminating the need for an Arabic computer.
However, this innovation was mainly limited at first to people who knew English. It has since grown, and even more importantly, an Arabic keyboard has been created. Now, almost 3/4 of tweets and more than half of the posts on Facebook from the Arab world are in Arabic.
Now, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the most active on Facebook. These two countries post the most and have the most amount of accounts, respectively. On Twitter, Kuwait has the most active users, and Saudi Arabia is home to the most amount of accounts in the Arab world. The widespread use of social media is increasing tremendously in these four countries and the rest of the Arab world each year.
Social Media’s Advantages
Because of social media, people can communicate across borders and across any other kind of boundary. Citizens can keep in touch with family members and friends, no matter where they live. They also can share and see important news and events in their lives and the lives of others. Social media has opened doors to a new kind of communication, especially in regards to information sharing.
This kind of information sharing was crucial to the start of the Arab Spring. People across the Arab world wanted a larger voice in their government, and many countries in turn revolted and demanded democracy. These countries include Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, with Tunisia starting the revolution in 2010.
Other countries found out about these protests and subsequent democratic elections in Tunisia, through social media. Facebook and Twitter, have driven an increased interest in the civic life and also a more transparent view of the government’s dealings; therefore, many citizens realized what they could have from their government and knew that others supported their vision as well. People could engage with others around the world on a personal level and encourage each other’s political outrage. Through social media, several governments no longer had a monopoly over information sharing.
Social Media’s Disadvantages
Due to this kind of informational monopoly, there are plenty of places where the force of the Internet still has not reached its potential. However, in the countries in the Arab world that do have an active social media presence, there is still some danger. Sixty-five percent of Arabs think the government is collecting information about them from social media. Therefore, they are careful about what they post online and ultimately are censoring themselves.
However, there is another kind of censorship happening called blacklist. This is essentially an access control mechanism on the Internet that blocks certain people from appearing under a search engine.
Blacklisting someone is not the only way those in power can control the narrative. Several governments throughout the world have figured out how to change the discourse on social media with trolls and fake news. This has enabled them to indirectly threaten people who criticize their governments or spread false rumors about integral issues.
One Saudi Arabia activist who started a women’s driving campaign is afraid of the consequences from her Twitter account. Manal Al-Sharif used to tweet about women’s rights frequently, but now she knows the government is watching her. And not in a positive way.
“I had more than 295,000 followers, and I am disconnecting from them for good,” Al-Sharif wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post.
She fears for her safety and that of her family. Khashoggi’s murder made her realize that no matter where she goes, the government will always be monitoring her activism. Even Twitter was not safe for her.
“We had lost these social media platforms to the dictators,” Al-Sharif said in response to her decision to stop tweeting.
Even though Al-Sharif and several other activists are experiencing this kind of fear, social media is still one of the best ways someone can spread their political message. This tool helps shape revolutions and also notifies the rest of the world about what is happening. Like any other new innovation, there are some obstacles, such as censorship and trolls; however, overall, social media has made a positive impact on Arab society.