Social media changing face of Arab world

Friday 01/05/2015
More than 150 million internet users in Arab world

Amman - Social media are changing the face of the Middle East, where control of what peo­ple read and watch, and even media censorship, is no longer possible.
There are more than 150 million internet users in the 22 countries of the Arab League. This is coupled with a mobile penetration rate of around 110% on a regional level and more than 71 million active users of social networking technologies.
“It’s no longer possible for govern­ments to control people,” said Jawad Abbassi, founder and general man­ager of the Arab Advisors Group, a research and consulting company focused on the Arab world’s com­munications, media and financial markets. “The internet and social media opened a free and open plat­form for discussions, criticism, ex­pressing opinion and even incita­tion,” Abbassi told The Arab Weekly.
Social media makes up an eye-opening platform, viewed by many users as a tool for learning but many others use it to spread “poisonous ideologies and sow seeds of sedition in Arab society”, he cautioned.
Internet connectivity and the spread of mobile technologies in the Arab world are having major impacts on the region’s economies, societies and governance. The un­precedented political upheavals of the “Arab spring” in 2011, which toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, demonstrated that.
More and more countries realise that the “knowledge economy”, driven by the availability of infor­mation and communications tech­nologies infrastructure, is playing an essential role in growth and de­velopment.
Cultural shifts among the region’s youth spawned a tremendous crea­tive energy and demand for Arabic content that’s spurring the growth of the regional media, with Twit­ter, Facebook and others rushing to grab a piece of the Arab world’s huge potential.
Governments, human rights groups, non-governmental or­ganisations, individuals and even terrorist organisations are using social media in the Mid­dle East to make an impact on society.
The vast majority uses this for good causes but extremist organi­sations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) use it to propagate extrem­ist ideologies to recruit jihadists. In countries such as Syria and Iraq, many groups and individuals are us­ing social media to incite hatred and sectarianism.
But this network can also help campaigners who have been impris­oned for using social media to criti­cise the anachronistic practices of some Arab regimes.
One is the Saudi blogger Raif Bad­awi. In 2014, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, as well as being fined 1 million Saudi riyals ($267,000), on charges of in­sulting Islam and cybercrime.
He suffered the first 50 lashes in early January and was due to be flogged again but a series of online protest campaigns prompted Saudi authorities to announce the flogging has been postponed.
Social media need to be taken se­riously as the numbers of its users in the Arab world is rapidly growing. Facebook, with some 80 million us­ers across the region, 89% of who access it daily, is by far the most popular social networking tool in the region. A recent report observed that two out of every five Arab us­ers say Facebook is their top social website and WhatsApp the most fa­voured social tool.
The Arab Media Report was pro­duced by the Dubai School of Gov­ernment’s Governance and Innova­tion Programme, which analyses the role of social media in societal and political transformation in the region.
“Unfortunately, social media are not used properly in the Arab world,” Abed Shamlawi, former chief executive officer (CEO) of the ICT Association of Jordan (int@j), told The Arab Weekly. “It’s used to rally people for good causes sometimes but on many occasions it’s used to spread rumours and cause societal chaos.”
With social media usage ris­ing annually in the Arab world and with the rise in internet and mobile penetration across the region, governments have lit­tle choice but to accept the fact that social media are significant drivers of change, he said.
Experts say this phenomenon will expand even in a region like the Mid­dle East where dictatorial or auto­cratic regimes have long prevented the free interchange of ideas, with hard-line states like Syria seeking to block the social media with draconi­an laws. “No matter how many laws there are in the Arab world, it’s hard to control discussions and interac­tion on social networks,” Shamlawi observed.
Awareness is the key to educating Arab societies about the pros and cons of social media, said Abbassi of the Arab Advisors Group. “It starts with teaching students at schools and universities. It’s about raising awareness among parents who can influence their children,” he said.
Sociologist Hussein Khuzai con­curred. “The majority of social media users in the Arab world are young people,” he told The Arab Weekly. “They’re greatly influenced by their peers and what they read and watch on social media. Con­ventional methods of preaching and guidance don’t work anymore.”
Khuzai cautioned that it will take time to overcome deep-seated concerns that social media will be used for nefarious purposes and to ensure that it’s used to expand the free and untrammelled exchange of ideas across the region.
But, he emphasised, that pro­cess should start now with the in­volvement of all sections of soci­ety, whether religious institutions, youth centres or academic institu­tions.