The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018.

Arab youth want independent sources of news and
alternative narratives

Maysam Ali

Iain Akerman

Iain Akerman is a writer, journalist and editor based between Dubai and Beirut. He writes for magazines across the Middle East and Europe and was editor of the Middle East edition of Campaign for six years prior to going freelance in 2014. He primarily reports on the region’s creative industries, with a special focus on media and advertising.

Social media is now more popular among Arab youth than traditional media. It is also viewed as more trustworthy; has become their dominant source of news; and has overtaken TV as the most important news medium among 18-to 24-year-olds in the Arab world. This is in stark contrast to just a few years ago, when the consumption of news was still dominated by television.

There are two immediate – and conflicting – reactions to this. Firstly, that such trust in social media is surprising in a global context given the recent backlash against tech companies. And, secondly, that the findings are generally in line with global trends for this age bracket and are therefore only to be expected.

For the former, the view that tech giants have become too big and too powerful remains incredibly persuasive, and at the heart of that concern is the belief that they not only distort markets and political systems, but can’t be trusted either. The results of the Arab Youth Survey 2019 fly in the face of this belief.

In a wider global context, however, the results of the survey match trends elsewhere in the world. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center in the US, for example, found that social media dominates as a news source for Americans aged 18 to 29, with 36 per cent obtaining their news via social media, compared with 27 per cent for news websites and 16 per cent for TV. Similarly, according to a Reuters Institute survey of 74,000 people in 37 markets last year, 53 per cent of 18-to 24-year-olds globally said they had used social media as a gateway to news in the past week – the highest percentage across all age groups and all gateways.

All of which plays into the narrative of a demographic shift towards mobile and social platforms. After all, technology has eliminated traditional distribution barriers and transformed the way people consume content.

Nowhere more so, perhaps, than in the MENA region, where its youthfulness is only accentuating this trend.

None of which should come as a surprise. Twitter penetration in Saudi Arabia stands at more than 66 per cent and the GCC represents some of the MENA region’s most active users. Since opening its MENA headquarters in Dubai in 2015, the Middle East has seen accelerated revenue growth for Twitter year-over-year, with MENA’s revenue peak currently at an all-time high.

Snapchat, meanwhile, has more than 12 million daily active users in the GCC, with over nine million of those in Saudi Arabia alone (up from seven million in April 2017). There are also more than one million daily active users in the UAE, and when Snapchat’s Shows was launched in the region last year it did so with 33 series produced by more than 20 media partners, including MBC, Abu Dhabi Media and Dubai Media Inc.

Video plays a big part in all of this. Although reliable data is hard to come by in the Middle East, we do know that video formats account for the majority of Twitter’s advertising revenue in the MENA region; that the Jeddah-based Arabic entertainment network UTurn has hired an all-Saudi team to create videos just for Snapchat; and that MBC is including vertical cameras on set in order to create Snapchat and Instagram-ready videos for its productions. There’s also the much touted statistic that Saudi Arabia has the highest YouTube watch time per capita in the world. In short, millions of dollars are being ploughed into video in the region and that is benefitting social media companies more than traditional broadcasters or newspapers.

All of which goes someway to explaining Arab youth’s preference for social media. Let us not forget, too, that traditional media is often tarnished by state control and publishers frequently shoot themselves in the foot.

Take Kuwait as an example. Last year five of the country’s leading newspapers joined forces to deny editorial coverage to companies that do not advertise – a move that did nothing for their credibility or trustworthiness and made editorial subservient to both marketing and sales.

Then there are the perennial issues of political bias, censorship and the repression of journalists, all of which contribute to a general sentiment of distrust towards the region’s traditional media, particularly among the youth.

All indicators, therefore, point towards a continuation of the shift towards social media, although the Reuters Institute noted a fall in the use of social media for news in several key markets last year, including the US, the UK and France, mainly due to a decline in the dissemination of news via Facebook. That doesn’t necessarily mean good things for other media, with news sharing moving to messaging apps such as WhatsApp due to the desire for increased privacy and an aversion to online trolls.

What is clear, however, is that youth across the region are consuming more content than ever before and that the next generation will be more connected than previously thought possible. That means the consumption of increased amounts of content across multiple platforms and devices. It also means a youthful population that has little patience for mainstream regional media and a desire for both independent sources of news and alternative narratives.