5 Takeaways on Social Media in the Middle East in 2018 According to Oregon’s School of Journalism

Published February 17th, 2019 - 12:54 GMT
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
(Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)


A new report by the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication detailing the Middle East’s social media use has revealed just how embedded platforms like Facebook, SnapChat and Twitter have become in the region. It is the seventh such annual report released by the University of Oregon.

“Notable trends from the past year include the continued popularity of Facebook and Facebook-owned products, especially with Arab Youth, as well as increasing challenges to online freedom of expression in many parts of the region,” Damian Radcliffe, one of the report’s co-authors said.

Among other insights, the report shows Facebook is subtly transforming from a social network to an algorithm-powered news aggregator. It also finds that Saudi Arabia is quickly emerging as one of the most active and engaged markets for social media.

“What the study shows is that social media in the region continues to be complex, complicated and fast changing. Keeping up with the latest developments is essential for brands, media companies and governments across the region and beyond,” Radcliffe added.

Here are the top 5 insights from their annual report.


  1. Facebook has 164 million active monthly users in the Arab world

According to the report, “across the wider Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, 265.4 million people now use Facebook,” which is up from 164 million active monthly users in 2017 and only 56 million in 2013.

Egypt came out as the region’s most dominant country for Facebook usage with 24 million daily users and 37 million monthly users out of a population of roughly 98 million. Egypt’s annual growth rate of social media users was 11 percent in 2018, compared to the global average 14 percent.

The U.A.E. meanwhile, only had an user growth rate of 2 percent. This may not be because people are tuning out of social media entirely, but rather because an overwhelming majority of the country already uses social media platforms.


  1. Saudi Arabia has the world’s highest social media growth rate

Saudi Arabia’s annual rate of social media users grew by a stunning 32 percent; the highest in the world in 2018.

As its leaders continue to market the country as an innovative tech hub, its people are drawn more than ever to using social media to stay connected with each other and the world.

“Saudi Arabia continues to be a social media powerhouse, being one of the biggest national markets for Snapchat and YouTube in the world,” Radcliffe said.


  1. Social media platforms are now the arbiters of news

Facebook and Twitter are transforming from networking sites that allow individuals to connect with one another into fully-fledged news aggregators that shape worldviews. The report’s finding that almost two-thirds of young Arabs rely on Facebook and Twitter reflects a global turn to social media platforms as arbiters of news. Nearly half of young Arabs, 49 percent, reported they get their daily news from Facebook, up form 35 percent in 2017.

As such, the algorithms building individuals’ news feeds have been scrutinized by promoting conspiracy theories, which once read by an user, drive even more conspiracy theories into their feed. Facebook earlier this year pledged to remove such articles from its site, but critics remain skeptical as to how effective Facebook will be at policing its own platform.

The report honed in on the ongoing war in Yemen and the role social media has played in informing or misinforming news readers.

“As the war in Yemen rages on, the role, and importance, of social media has increasingly come into play in the past year,” the report finds.

The biggest controversy came when Facebook blocked an image of an emaciated Yemeni child, citing rules barring images of nude children.

“Yes, Tyler’s [the photographer’s] images are hard to look at. They are brutal. But they are also brutally honest,” Times journalists wrote in defense of their colleague. They reveal the horror that is Yemen today. You may choose not to look at them. But we thought you should be the ones to decide.”

Facebook eventually capitulated to the wide backlash and allowed the image to be posted and shared.

Houthi authorities meanwhile have begun monitoring WhatsApp groups to detain journalists and activists critical of their rule in the country’s northwest.


  1. Middle Eastern states continue to try and control social media platforms

The growth of social media sites into news aggregators has prompted authoritarian regimes around the region to attempt and control information flows by tightly monitoring and controlling popular platforms.

“Several Middle Eastern countries were ranked by the World Press Freedom Index “to have some of the worst press freedom in the world. For example, of the 180 countries studied, the report placed Yemen at rank 167, Saudi Arabia at 169 and Syria at 177.”

The report cited a Forbes article saying “news reports in the Middle East [which] can sometimes feel like an echo-chamber for autocrats,” which in turn “can be a challenge when journalists face prosecution from government authority.”

Syria is mulling a ban on WhatsApp, a messaging app used widely throughout the country and especially relied upon in war-torn regions like Raqqa, whose cell towers have largely been destroyed.

Egypt passed a new social media law allowing the government to monitor any social media account with more than 5,000 followers and requiring websites to attain a license from the state before they can be launched.

The U.A.E. has banned WhatsApp’s voice calling function.


  1. The GCC loves SnapChat

Out of a population of 32 million, 9 million Saudis are active on SnapChat. The temporary image-sharing app also reports record growth in Saudi, with a 30 percent increase in users for 2018. Another million SnapChat users come from the U.A.E.

According to the report, “residents of Riyadh and Jeddah spend 35 minutes a day surfing snaps,” using their camera 40 times a day on average.

The 2018 annual report on the State of Social Media was produced by the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication. It was written by Damian Radcliffe and Payton Bruni. 

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