How social media can help understand the world. The case of the Middle East

Ghazal Poorhasan e Alessandro Tomat

It is no mystery that the advent of social media has shaped a new way in which we access a variety of information, and most notably the way we consume news in order to know and understand what is happening in our world. How Social Media is changing the interactions and lives of people in this sense can be seen especially in the Middle East, which can provide an ideal test ground for observation of the trends of news consumption.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is comprised of developing countries which exhibit a steady increase in the usage of social media platforms in general, for a variety of purposes. These countries have an average young population, more familiar with digital media, which accounts for a growing mobile and social media penetration in the region. According to Google, “Millennials in MENA are twice as likely as their global counterparts to post content online and show others how to do things online”. Lastly, the people living in this region often need to find alternative sources of news to make sense of the world around them, because of a strict state control by the local authorities on the flow of information from the official channels.

According to the most recent survey from the Northwestern University in Qatar, in the MENA region traditional, more official media like TV are no longer the main source of information for daily news among Arab nationals, who resort considerably also to messaging apps and social media. Public trust in news from social media grew markedly between 2017 and 2019 in countries such as the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. As an example, 63% of young UAE nationals consider these channels as their main source of news.

It is also worth saying that this circulation of news and other content through social media in the Middle East is often subject to a close scrutiny by the local authorities. The already restricted media in the Middle East have become even more vulnerable to more control since the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2010. The undeniable role of the social media (especially twitter and Facebook) in sustaining what Al Jazeera had started in the beginning of early Arab uprisings, caught the regimes by surprise as they were so unprepared to cope with such methods of protesting and sharing information in time of crisis. Later on, it was then very obvious that social media could be considered as a threat to the national security if left unchecked and not properly managed. From filtering any messaging apps to shutting down the whole internet in the times of any uprising, light or intense, most of the Middle Eastern regimes managed to create a short time buffer for damage control. The short period to plan and react fast to the explosive power of social media, a non- traditional medium that gives every citizen the ability to post and share in real time what he or she was witnessed.

In some way, although certainly misused by the regimes in the case of the Middle East, this need to keep an eye on the news circulating on social media at the source reminds of the debate, now just started in the Western countries, around the spreading of fake information or hate content, with the due differences.

Could the Middle Eastern trend in the news consumption through social media potentially serve as an indicator of how the circulation of news might change in a near future plagued by the uncertainty brought by the Covid-19, to a more general extent? The pandemic has shown that, whenever there is a critical happening that affect everybody’s life, the more people talk about it the more the proliferation of fake facts and the spreading of fake news.

If, from one side, this determines the need to rely on official sources, often conveyed through traditional mass media channels, it may also create mistrust due to enormous confusion about which information are correct and which not (a fact that has proved to be possible even in relation to sources of the highest official nature). Thus, the need for the public to make sense of what is really happening around them using alternative sources of information (and potentially mixing them together) might increasingly become a trademark of news consumption habits in the future of our society.

(You can read the last article by Ghazal Poorhasan here)

Ufficio stampa e Comunicazione dell'Istituto per la Competitività (I-Com). Nata a Roma nel 1992, Giulia Palocci si è laureata con il voto di 110 e lode in Scienze Politiche e Relazioni Internazionali presso l’università Luiss Guido Carli con una tesi sul contrasto al finanziamento del terrorismo nei Paesi del Sud-est asiatico.

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