Maysam Ali is Assistant Director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute, an international effort to connect youth in the Middle East and North Africa and the United States through education technology. She was previously Deputy Director of Middle East Programs, leading Partners for a New Beginning (PNB), a program promoting job creation in the Arab world, and launched PNB chapters in Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
“There are decades where nothing happens,” the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin once said, “and there are weeks where decades happen.” After decades of stagnation, the Arab world is currently undergoing an era of rapid and profound transformation. As the findings from the 9th annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017 reveal, nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the world of media and communications, where three major trends are visible.
The first trend is the transformation of Facebook from a social networking site into a news source. This is a departure from 2009, when the primary source of news for most Arabs was television, followed by online newspapers and radio shows. While young Arabs still watch Al-Jazeera and read Asharq Al-Awsat, they increasingly access these news outlets via Facebook. Thirty-five per cent of those surveyed said they get their news on Facebook, compared to 31 per cent who read news elsewhere online, 30 per cent who watch television, and only 9 per cent who read newspapers.
A little over two decades ago, the news diet of many Arabs was mainly reliant on government-controlled television, radio, and newspaper. By 2009, watching satellite television was by far the most popular activity for young people in the region looking for news. Today Facebook is king. As a Syrian friend in Dubai put it to me: “I go to Facebook to get personal insights, feelings, and opinions.” A business consultant who spends most of his time in Riyadh and Dubai told me he reads news from at least five new sources daily, all via Facebook. Many users today “follow” their favorite opinion leaders, receiving news from a mix of activists, newspapers, television channels, and analysts.
The second trend is the rapid rise of WhatsApp as the region’s key communications platform. WhatsApp – which was bought by Facebook in 2014 for $19 billion – was initially a means for Arabs to send cheap, instant, secure communications to friends and family, both locally and abroad. In time, however, it has evolved into a platform for videoconferencing, news dissemination, and mass communication.
In 2017, 68 per cent of young Arabs said that they visit WhatsApp daily, a rise from 62 per cent the year prior, and today matching Facebook for number of daily visitors, way ahead of other social media platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
WhatsApp has become an indelible resource for the millions of Arabs – particularly Syrians – who have become refugees, scattered around the world, due to conflict. WhatsApp has helped to lighten, however little, the overwhelming burden of displaced people through its free international voice and video calls and its ability to send private messages secured through end-to-end encryption.
Syrians abroad have dozens of WhatsApp groups where they exchange the latest information. Breaking news is quickly verified, editorialized, and shared; content that proves to be newsworthy is then posted on public platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and broadcast on mainstream media. The potential for growth is remarkable, particularly considering new features WhatsApp is introducing, including the ability to share content for a 24-hour period, rivaling Snapchat, which is used daily by 42 per cent of young Arabs.
WhatsApp is also growing in the news space. Media organisations have specialised teams that can be contacted through WhatsApp, and prominent journalists in the region curate content for their “subscribers”, who sometimes number in the hundreds. These groups are often local but subscribers can join from around the world. Immigrants who wish to receive news from home can easily do so.
The third trend – which has fueled the first two trends – is the remarkable proliferation of smartphones. What was once a luxury for the well-heeled is increasingly a necessity for everyone. The GSMA, which provides analysis on global mobile operator data, estimates that 65 per cent of people living in the Middle East and North Africa will have a smartphone by 2020 – the fastest adoption rate after sub-Saharan Africa. Smartphones have given virtually all Arab youth a video camera that allows them to instantaneously capture and upload videos on multiple platforms, drawing attention to under-reported stories, including human rights violations and poor provision of services by both the public and private sectors. The smartphone, coupled with social media, is enhancing both transparency and accountability.
The changing media and communications environment in the Arab world has rightfully been the cause of great excitement. Social media platforms are providing a generation of Arabs opportunities to connect and share opinions and content in a safe and effective environment. This is helping train a future generation of tech-savvy journalists and content creators. But, as in the West, the Arab world must contend with challenges posed by social media, including the tendency to consume news that reinforces one’s own beliefs and opinions. In a region increasingly divided along ethnic, sectarian, and ideological lines, without proper attention, social media platforms could serve to widen, rather than narrow, these divides.
THE EXPERT COMMENTARY
Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017.
Watch our panel of experts discuss the key findings of the ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2017. The wide-ranging conversation takes on hot-button issues facing youth today, including lack for job opportunities and the threats posed by extremism.