The Expert Commentary

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

Democratisation of information has transformed
our media landscape – for better and for worse

Khalid Al Maeena

Khalid Al Maeena

Khalid Al Maeena is a political and media analyst and Managing Partner of Quartz Communication Company. He has held a broad range of positions in Saudi media for almost 30 years, including CEO of a PR Firm, Saudi Television news anchor, talkshow host, radio announcer and journalist. As Editor-in-Chief of Arab News, the largest English-language newspaper in the Middle East, Al Maeena steered the paper through the Gulf Crisis and it was the only Saudi newspaper to have a reporter in Tahrir square during the Arab Spring. He is a visiting non-resident scholar at the University of Central Florida.

Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, acknowledged by Lord Beaverbrook as “the greatest figure who ever strode down Fleet Street” famously observed that, “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

The problem was though, how do we distinguish between what is advertising (or propaganda) and what is news; and does it even matter? Those questions remain relevant. The difference is that in the past, few asked that question and the number of news sources was very few compared with what is available over the Internet today.

Our diversity of ‘news’ sources now ranges from the opinions of a keyboard warrior closeted in a dark bedroom in rural Arkansas to the most eminent and publicly lauded investigative journalist – and the democracy of the Internet has allowed the opinions of both to be expressed equally.

As a boy, I developed an addiction to news. It was an innocent addiction in far less complicated times. I used to devour news and would wait patiently to have a glimpse of the paper before my grandfather delved into it with his morning tea. News and media became embedded in my DNA from the age of seven. That early addiction was always dormant, reinforced by the newspapers, radio and later television that became a part of our household. When I was asked to head Arab News in Jeddah in 1982, although I had never worked for a publication I took up the challenge. For ten years it was print, print and print.

Reflecting on the media from a variety of perspectives, I am amazed at the speed of change over the last few years.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent rise of CNN and later MBC added a new dimension to news gathering and viewing. For the first time the public saw wars and brutality live on air. This did not greatly affect the print media, though, as it was still considered a part of the larger communication medium; each complemented the other.

The rise of digital technology, however, saw momentous changes. Telex and fax machines were discarded as fibre optic technology crept in. There was a new lexicon. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and a host of other platforms became part of our lives. Citizen journalism was born and it stumbled blindly into a brave new world.

No longer were censors capable of handling this.”If you can’t print, tweet!” became the motto. Many Arab writers would tweet and publish their stories on Facebook with a note saying that the editor had spiked the piece. Notoriety or censorship is a powerful advertisement; consequently, they got more readers.

As a result, the media has changed irreversibly because of the democratisation of information, whether the information was true or not. Anybody with a connection can put words and pictures on the Internet. The problem is, it has become increasingly difficult to find out what the truth is.

The 10th ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey shows that young Arabs trusted CNN most as a news source and Al Jazeera least. It also shows that there had been a substantial shift towards social media as a source for news. Moreover, young Arabs interviewed say they get more of their news from social media than television. This was a substantial shift from the 2015 position.

Augmenting this shift, 49 per cent of young Arabs say they get daily news from Facebook. Given the recent exposures concerning Facebook and Cambridge Analytica – news of which broke after the fieldwork for the Survey was completed – one has to question the veracity of any news sourced from that platform and ask what is Facebook’s real purpose in life? The dissemination of news it is not. Perhaps social control?

Tweeting has become if not ‘the sport of kings’ then certainly that of heads of state. They have used Twitter to expound their views and at times present the news firsthand, bypassing their own official media channels. Trump of the US, Erdogan of Turkey and many Arab rulers, too, use Twitter for speedy dissemination of their views. The downside to all of this is the total lack of reliability and accountability. Traditional news sources are bound by codes of practice – admittedly sometimes broken. However, you cannot fire a Twitter ‘journalist’ for inaccuracy.

This opening of access to Internet-wide exposure gave rise to the new media bogeyman, Fake News. If a statement, a Photoshopped image, or an outrageous tweet could cause a sensation, then many young people jumped on board. They got followers but the damage they were doing was virtually irreparable.

In a few short years, we went from newspaper journalism, subject to fact checking and heavy editing, to blogs, stuffed with opinions, to tweeting, where you can say anything and it gets serially repeated. The oft-quoted Joseph Goebbels line is as true today as it was in the 1930s: “If you tell a lie big enough and often enough, it will eventually become the truth.” Then it might have taken months or years; now with the speed of the Internet, it takes minutes.

And so, Arab Twitter users, young and old, spread division, hatred and malice among the Arab people, even if they did not explicitly mean to. Many of the young thrived on spreading fake news. Instagram began to be used extensively and, with the removal of several taboos, young women and men created a reality show of themselves. Their followers increased by the thousands.

This ego trip had some positive aspects: it helped spread Arab fashion, food, adventure and sports. But a new breed of “media Influencers” in the Gulf began to acquire a revenue stream that made them financially independent; this hurt mainstream media and I observed this shift in both circulation, subscription and advertising.

The digital bubble has now burst and its overflow has affected us all. However, the majority of young people in the Arab world are mature and would like to use these new tools to improve society. They also strive to use them as a vehicle for the promotion of goodwill and progress.

The young, as always want their voices to be heard. Never before have they had such a ready worldwide platform on which to express themselves. Young people, through these new forms of media, have exhibited more maturity than many of those before them who led traditional media.

Watch Findings Debated

Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including how they view their future, the digital revolution and shifting attitudes to the region’s friends and enemies.