Social media platforms reflect crises and conflicts in the Arab world

Social media usage is growing in complexity and misuse of these platforms is on the rise.
Sunday 01/04/2018
A youth logins to the Facebook social media website inside an internet cafe in Cairo. (Reuters)
Different uses. A youth logins to the Facebook social media website inside an internet cafe in Cairo. (Reuters)

The topic of social media platforms is often brought up to illustrate changes induced by the digital revolution. One can say the phenomenon is, to a large extent, driven by imitation in the sense that people tend to reproduce each other’s experiences in dealing with new technology. It is not surprising, therefore, that a platform such as Twitter can be widely popular in one Arab country and less so in another.

The same is true for all other digital platforms. Facebook, for example, has more than 160 million users in the Arab world and that number grows as internet services become available to more potential users.

About 40% of Facebook users say the platform is ideal for staying on top of the latest news and trends in a variety of domains. In the Arab world, however, that does not seem to be the case.

Social media users in the Arab world have different uses for these platforms and exhibit sharp contrasts in usage patterns, ideological tendencies and regional trends. The digital picture of the Arab world reflects the crises and conflicts of real life. It is not surprising, then, that social media platforms are sometimes turned into stages for debate in the Arab world.

At the same time, there is a growing interest among Arab users in using social media platforms for commercial and advertising purposes. This is good news for the platforms, which have encouraged this type of usage. Facebook and other platforms reap billions of dollars annually in advertising revenues.

It has become quite common in the Arab world to use Facebook for advertising. This reflects quite dramatically the sudden realisation of the power of this medium to reach millions of users.

The problem remains that Arab use of social media platforms ranges from the pursuit of purely personal interests or for staying in touch with friends and relatives to using them to interact with the various ads and offers to pop up on social media pages.

There is another popular use of social media in the Arab world: political expression. Social media platforms are replete with endless debates about government policies, living conditions, unemployment, celibacy, political failure, et cetera. Many users look at social media as appropriate platforms for expressing political opinions and ideological convictions and often use them as publishing platforms for essays, articles or books, which defeats the original purposes of these platforms.

The wide use of social media platforms for political and ideological purposes leads to questioning their reliability as trustworthy news sources. In fact, they have become widely used to disseminate rumours and false news.

As an example, not long ago, a photo showing women protesting in a certain Arab country appeared on social media. The source, however, photo-shopped the banners. Instead of showing demands for basic women’s rights and condemnations of violence against women, the banners carried provocative statements many of which were simply rude.

This is just one example of the many transgressions committed via social media by irresponsible users. If such irresponsible use has become widespread, it is because there is no oversight on the content published on social media. If this goes on unchecked, we will see an alarming increase in cases of online sexual harassment of women. Women in many Arab countries must endure widespread harassment on the street and now they risk being victims of similar behaviour online.

It is obvious that social media usage is growing in complexity and misuse of these platforms is on the rise. It has got to the point where the platforms have lost their bearings.

From potential sources of useful and entertaining information, they are being transformed into wastes of time and sources of dangerous ideas and manipulation.