BEIRUT – Young people in the Middle East and North Africa are increasingly using social media platforms to access information, in particular video and visually led social networks, a trend that is likely to grow in 2020, stated the eighth annual study on social network use in the region published by the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon in the United States.
“Social Media in the Middle East: 2019 in review” stated that nine out of ten MENA youth used at least one social media channel each day, although use of individual networks varies considerably across the region. Half of Arab youth said they get news on Facebook daily ahead of other channels, such as online portals (39%), television (34%) and newspapers (4%).
Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, has 187 million active monthly users in the region. Egypt was the largest market for Facebook in MENA with 38 million daily users and 40 million monthly users.
The study revealed that Twitter use among MENA nationals fell by half since 2013. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the fifth- and sixth-largest markets for Twitter with more than 10 million users and 8.3 million users, respectively.
The study said there were more than 63 million Instagram users with Turkey the sixth-largest market for the service, with 37 million members (56% penetration). Take-up is also high in Kuwait (54% penetration) and Bahrain (50%).
Saudi Arabia was found to be the fifth-largest market for Snapchat, with more than 15.6 million users. Turkey, with 7.5 million users, was the tenth-largest market.
The study said 60% of millennials in the region were YouTube viewers with 77% of Egypt’s youth watching YouTube every day. WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned service, had 75% penetration, although other messaging services such as Viber were also popular in some parts of the region.
The 11th annual Arab Youth Survey noted that social media had grown dramatically as a source for news among young Arabs, with 35% of Arabs aged 18-24 saying they update themselves daily on news and current affairs. Google said: “Millennials in MENA are twice as likely as their global counterparts to post content online and show others how to do things online.”
“Social media is now more popular among Arab youth than traditional media,” Iain Akerman said in a commentary published as part of the Arab Youth Survey. “It is also viewed as more trustworthy and has become their dominant source of news in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when the consumption of news was still dominated by television.”
The “Social Media in the Middle East: 2019 in review” said half of all mothers in the Middle East watched children’s content on YouTube and parents were increasingly using YouTube to bond and share experiences with their children.
Visitors of social media platforms witnessed a peak during Ramadan with users spending approximately 2 million more hours daily on Facebook. YouTube, TV dramas and soap operas saw a 151% increase in viewership during Ramadan.
The study noted that Facebook in the region removed 259 accounts, 102 pages, five groups, four events and 17 Instagram accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour.” Twitter suspended more than 4,500 accounts across MENA because of platform manipulation and state-backed information campaigns.
“This year’s report highlights the growing role played by social media in meeting the information needs of Arab youth and young parents, as well as the prominent role that social networks play in the media habits of the region during Ramadan,” said one of the report’s authors, Damien Radcliffe, a University of Oregon journalism professor.
“(While) social media usage continues to evolve, greater scrutiny by platform owners resulted in Facebook, Twitter and Telegram each closing hundreds of accounts in 2019 due to inappropriate use by state-sponsored actors and terrorist groups.”
Report co-author doctoral student Hadil Abuhmaid stressed the growing importance of visual networks and social video.
“In the last year, Snapchat introduced new advertising formats to the region, Google highlighted the importance of YouTube in supporting parents and parenting and, in major markets such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Twitter has emerged as a leading platform for online video consumption,” Abuhmaid said.
The trend of using social media platforms in MENA is expected to increase along with concerns about misinformation and manipulation.
“It will be increasingly important for social media users to develop their ability to discern bias, the differences between news and opinion and fact versus fiction,” Radcliffe said, adding that “governments, civil society, education providers and social networks themselves all have a role to play in increasing media literacy among social networkers.”