Social media augur a bumpy ride and the Middle East is no exception
Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, explained at a conference in Philadelphia how the company set out to create an addiction. Facebook’s first calculations on how to suck in users looked at dopamine, the chemical released when users click “like.”
“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” Parker said. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Separately, at the Rolling Sun Book Festival in Westport on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, Aine Kerr and Mark Little offered insights on how much and how fast the social media giants were changing the world.
Kerr previously led global journalism partnerships at Facebook, which involved her persuading traditional media newsrooms to train journalists in using Facebook. If you can’t beat them, join them. As Kerr said, 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook.
Little, who has been a foreign correspondent for Irish national broadcaster RTE and vice-president of Twitter’s European media partnerships, said a heavy smartphone user checks in 5,000 times a day. The dopamine hit, he half-joked, can bring “misinformation on steroids.”
If that sounds overly ominous, remember the plaudits for Facebook in the “Arab spring”? Remember how, just a few years ago, social media were supposed to herald a new age of citizen journalism?
In practice, the technology has empowered corporate giants. Billions of people cheerfully surrender personal data and information. They leave trails of their online behaviour. The results are analysed and monetised, enabling Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, to take half of worldwide online advertising revenue.
It’s made them rich. Facebook recently announced quarterly profits of $4.7 billion, up 79% year-on-year. Overall, tech giants Apple, Google’s parent Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft have $560.1 billion in cash reserves.
Social media do more than just empower salesmen. They energise political manipulators. This has Western countries worried, especially about Russia. In November, British Prime Minister Theresa May accused Moscow of trying to “weaponise information.”
Researchers at Edinburgh University said Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) has run 419 Twitter accounts for British politics. Many encouraged Brexit.
IRA is based in St Petersburg and employs hundreds of trolls. The aim seems to be fostering divisions. One IRA Twitter account posted a picture showing a Muslim woman ignoring victims of the March attacks on Westminster Bridge with a caption saying she revealed sympathy for the Islamic State (ISIS). It was widely circulated on social media and published in traditional outlets, although the photographer later explained the woman was as terrified as everyone else.
Twitter told a British parliamentary committee it suspended 2,752 accounts tweeting on the US presidential election controlled from Russia. A US congressional investigation said that from June 2015-August 2017, 126 million Americans probably saw material from Facebook accounts associated with Russia’s IRA.
Even as politicians and policy advisers in Britain and the United States wake up to social media’s immense influence, Facebook’s active users worldwide increased from 360 million in 2009 to 2.1 billion today.
Social media’s popularity is growing especially fast in the Middle East and Africa, where 58% of the population is expected to be using the internet next year, up from 41.9% in 2013. The United Arab Emirates has 8.7 million Facebook users, Saudi Arabia 17 million and Egypt 35 million. Of 800 million Instagram users worldwide, 63 million are in the Middle East.
That’s a lot of dopamine. Jonathan Labin, Facebook’s Middle East managing director, recently called Facebook “one of the best lead generation platforms in the region.” In plain words, that means it’s one of the best ways to influence people’s behaviour.
As elsewhere, that can be in shopping or politics. The Middle East has its share of tech business conferences, especially those that extol start-ups. It also has its share of political extremists.
Its leaders have offered piecemeal responses to the great potential — and peril — of social media. At a recent meeting of the UAE Federal National Council, Saeed al-Remeithi of Abu Dhabi urged Awqaf, the Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, to counter extremists active on social media.
Northwestern University in Qatar’s fifth annual “Media Use in the Middle East” survey, published in September, said Arabs were more likely than Americans to get news from social media. It also said that younger Arabs were more likely to trust social media than their elders.
Should the Arab League emulate the European Union and at least investigate? This is a bumpy ride and it’s only just beginning. Should its only fuel be dopamine?