Arab nationals are more likely than Americans to get news from social media, and younger Arabs are more likely to trust it than their older compatriots. These are some of the findings from the 5th annual Media Use in the Middle East survey conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).
The study covers media use and public opinion in seven key nations in the region: the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Tunisia and Egypt. The latter was surveyed in June and July 2017, five months after the other countries, and is not included in the regional average figures. Data for the six key countries was collected prior to the diplomatic blockade of Qatar and thus predates recent PR and information wars in the Middle East.
In a region grappling with issues of an evolving and often restricted media system, there may be signs for encouragement in the high levels of use – and, among more sophisticated users, trust – of news from social media.
The studies were launched in 2013 to chart people’s media use and involve more than 7,000 subjects; they are the most extensive surveys of their kind and among the few such regional longitudinal studies in the world.
How news is consumed on social media
In contrast, Americans are less reliant on social media for news. A recent Pew Research Centre study reported that in the US, two-thirds (67 per cent) say that they get at least some news from social media, including 20 per cent who say they do so “hardly ever”. In the NU-Q survey of the Middle East, two-thirds say that they get news from social media every day. Eight in 10 Arab nationals (79 per cent) say that they get at least some news from social media.
The Middle East and the US have similar rates of Facebook penetration and similar rates of users who get news on the platform. This is despite a general decline in Facebook use in the region, led by sharp declines in the Gulf. Since 2015, Facebook use dropped in Saudi Arabia (76 to 55 per cent), the UAE
(83 to 70 per cent) and Qatar (43 to 22 per cent). Overall, 40 per cent of those in the countries studied get news from Facebook.
However, there are stark differences. Sixty-seven per cent of Arab nationals use WhatsApp, and 28 per cent of the total population gets news from the platform, which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014. The Pew study shows that only 11 per cent of Americans use WhatsApp, and only two per cent say that they get news that way.
Use of video-first, closed-network Snapchat is divided between the high-connection-speed, privacy-concerned Gulf countries and the rest. In the Gulf, use of the platform is more than 50 per cent, while in non-Gulf countries it remains below 20 per cent (in the US it is 18 per cent). News use on Snapchat is similarly divided; far more users in the Gulf use it to get news (55 per cent in Qatar, 51 per cent in the UAE and 37 per cent in Saudi Arabia).
Trust in news in general, and on social media
Trust in mass media is high. Overall, Arab nationals are twice as likely as Americans to trust mass media. This level of trust is generally consistent across age groups and education levels.
When asked about trust in news from social media, though, the picture changes. Trust in news from social media is lower at 47 per cent region-wide and gaps appear between age groups. Fifty per cent of adults between 18 and 24 trust news that they get from social media, compared with 36 per cent of those aged 45+.
People who trust news on social media are not only younger but also better educated. Of those who have at least a high school-level degree, 50 per cent say that they trust news from social media; among those with less than a secondary degree, the figure is 36 per cent.
Might it be that the people who say that they trust news from social media are not ignorant of or indifferent to quality information, but in fact are more sophisticated users of social media, with better-curated feeds containing more reliable sources? Social media and mass media are not mutually exclusive. Traditional journalism outlets rely heavily on social media referrals for their site traffic, if they still even bother to try driving traffic to their websites at all.
All respondents are still more likely to say that they trust mass media more than social media, it’s just that news from social media is more likely to be trusted by younger, better-educated people, which is to say more native, sophisticated users of the medium.
The report is conducted each year with multiple purposes in mind; as an impartial assessment of media use aimed at academics, industry professionals and others. The data is also a contributor to the World Internet Project, conducted by the USC Annenberg School, of which NU-Q is a member.
In a region where censorship and free speech can be controversial, the study is used as a template for discussion and debate that might not otherwise be encouraged.
To read the full report visit mideastmedia.org.
Findings reflect nationally representative samples of over 1,000 respondents in each country. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in most countries, and by phone in Qatar. The study was led by NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis and researchers Justin Martin and Robb Wood. Field work was done by the Harris Poll.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.