Internet users in the Middle East are becoming more concerned about online surveillance and many are worried that governments use social media to check their online activities. The use of Facebook has declined significantly across the region in the last two years, with more users turning to encrypted platforms, such as WhatsApp.
There has also been a marked decrease in the number of people who watch televison, listen to the radio or read newspapers, as consumers increasingly use their smartphones to access the Internet and consume more news online.
The Arab world has seen dramatic changes in media use and attitudes towards issues such as free speech and online privacy since 2015, according to a new study by Northwestern University in Qatar. Conducted in the summer of 2017, the large-scale survey asked around 5000 people in seven Arab countries (United Arab Emirates (UAE), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Egypt). The final report sheds light on the media and Internet use, as well as attitudes to key issues such as free speech in a region usually underresearched in this context. Below are some of the key findings.
Internet use is increasing, newspapers on the decline
- Compared to media consumption during the last five years, the number of Arabs who regularly watch TV has declined modestly since 2013 (98% in 2013 compared to 93% in 2017), while the percentage of people who read newspapers and magazines and listen to the radio decreased suddenly (newspapers: 47% in 2013 against 25% in 2017; magazines: 26% in 2013 against 19% in 2017; radio: 59% in 2013 against 49% in 2017). However, Internet penetration rates have increased in the seven countries studied, particularly in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia.
- The amount of time spent online is positively correlated with the experience of the user. Those who are new to the Internet (1 year or less) spend about 8 hours per week online, while those who have been online for 2 years spend about 14 hours per week on the web. Users who have had web access for up to seven years spend around 21 hours per week online and those who have been connected to the Internet for 10 years or more spend about 29 hours per week online.
- Arabic is more frequently used on the web, pointing to the increase of Arab-speaking Internet users. Yet, the use of English on the Internet in the region has remained stable (25% in 2013 against 28% in 2017).
Smartphone use is widespread, news app use less so
- Since 2015, the number of smartphone users has increased against a decline in the number of laptop or desktop PC users.
- All surveyed Lebanese, Qatari, Saudi Arabia and Emirati citizens had a smartphone, whereas only 83% of Jordanians and 65% of Tunisians had a smartphone at the time of the survey.
- Just over half of the respondents use news apps and just over a quarter use them on daily basis. News apps are more popular in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Use of news apps: 85% Saudi Arabia, 86% UAE, 52% Jordan, 49% Tunisia, 42% Lebanon, 33% Qatar).
New forms of news consumption
- In Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, Internet users receive more news from television than from online sources, whereas Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis turn to the Internet as a primary source of information.
- Online consumption of information in the Arab region is higher in 2017 and is growing continuously. More than three-quarters of the respondents receive news on their smartphones.
- Many are reluctant to pay for media content. The majorities in Jordan (74%), Lebanon (75%), Qatar (71%) and Tunisia (61%) do not want to pay for news, whether it is online or via TV, newspapers or magazines. This is a slump in comparison to 2015, particularly in Lebanon and Qatar.
- Regarding their preferred source of news, 62% of all respondents prefer to get information from local media. Trust in media is moderate to high. 66% of the surveyed trust the media in general, with an emphasis on local media (66%). When it comes to national vs international news sources, 52% responded that they trust the Arab-speaking media of their countries and 49% the Western media. Trust in social media as a news source remains low at 47%.
Social media use in the Arab world
- WhatsApp is the dominant social media service used in the Arab World, compared to other social media (67% use WhatsApp, 63% Facebook, 50% YouTube).
- Facebook use has decreased by at least 10 percentage points since 2015 in every country, with decline rates of more than 20 percentage points in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Only in Lebanon Facebook use remained stable.
- Facebook users in the surveyed countries are more concerned about their governments checking their online activities than those who mainly use WhatsApp or Instagram.
Online protection of privacy
- About half of the respondents support the idea of stricter regulation of the Internet with respect to content related to the company’s policy or values, while nearly six in ten prefer stricter regulation to protect the privacy of online users.
- Overall, only one in five respondents said that their concerns about privacy have changed their way of using social media (25% Jordan, 30% United Arab Emirates against 14% Lebanon).
Online freedom of expression
- The majority of respondents think that it should be possible to publicly criticize the government and its policies. However, only a minority thought that others should be able to make offensive statements about their religion and beliefs.
- Across the region, the least educated people are the least likely to criticize the government or government policies on the web.
- While younger respondents are more likely to support online freedom of expression, a high percentage of youth express concerns about online surveillance by governments and corporations.
What the study clearly shows is that the media practices in the Arab world have changed considerably in recent years. Both the spread of the Internet and of digital tools including the smartphone have likely contributed to this development. It remains to be seen how the current developments will play out in the future and how they will affect traditional media namely TV, radio and the printed press.
Image: Development Initiative, Flickr CC license
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Tags: Facebook, Freedom of Expression, freedom of speech, Internet use, media consumption, Middle East, news app, News consumption, Newspapers, Online media consumption, online privacy, Social media, TV, WhatsApp