Internet connectivity and spread of mobile technologies in Arab world are having major impacts on region’s economies, societies and governance.
Social media are changing the face of the Middle East, where control of what people read and watch, and even media censorship, is no longer possible.
There are more than 150 million internet users in the 22 countries of the Arab League. This is coupled with a mobile penetration rate of around 110% on a regional level and more than 71 million active users of social networking technologies.
“It’s no longer possible for governments to control people,” said Jawad Abbassi, founder and general manager of the Arab Advisors Group, a research and consulting company focused on the Arab world’s communications, media and financial markets. “The internet and social media opened a free and open platform for discussions, criticism, expressing opinion and even incitation,” Abbassi told The Arab Weekly.
Social media makes up an eye-opening platform, viewed by many users as a tool for learning but many others use it to spread “poisonous ideologies and sow seeds of sedition in Arab society”, he cautioned.
Internet connectivity and the spread of mobile technologies in the Arab world are having major impacts on the region’s economies, societies and governance. The unprecedented political upheavals of the “Arab spring” in 2011, which toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, demonstrated that.
More and more countries realise that the “knowledge economy”, driven by the availability of information and communications technologies infrastructure, is playing an essential role in growth and development.
Cultural shifts among the region’s youth spawned a tremendous creative energy and demand for Arabic content that’s spurring the growth of the regional media, with Twitter, Facebook and others rushing to grab a piece of the Arab world’s huge potential.
Governments, human rights groups, non-governmental organisations, individuals and even terrorist organisations are using social media in the Middle East to make an impact on society.
The vast majority uses this for good causes but extremist organisations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) use it to propagate extremist ideologies to recruit jihadists. In countries such as Syria and Iraq, many groups and individuals are using social media to incite hatred and sectarianism.
But this network can also help campaigners who have been imprisoned for using social media to criticise the anachronistic practices of some Arab regimes.
One is the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. In 2014, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes, as well as being fined 1 million Saudi riyals ($267,000), on charges of insulting Islam and cybercrime.
He suffered the first 50 lashes in early January and was due to be flogged again but a series of online protest campaigns prompted Saudi authorities to announce the flogging has been postponed.
Social media need to be taken seriously as the numbers of its users in the Arab world is rapidly growing. Facebook, with some 80 million users across the region, 89% of who access it daily, is by far the most popular social networking tool in the region. A recent report observed that two out of every five Arab users say Facebook is their top social website and WhatsApp the most favoured social tool.
The Arab Media Report was produced by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Programme, which analyses the role of social media in societal and political transformation in the region.
“Unfortunately, social media are not used properly in the Arab world,” Abed Shamlawi, former chief executive officer (CEO) of the ICT Association of Jordan (int@j), told The Arab Weekly. “It’s used to rally people for good causes sometimes but on many occasions it’s used to spread rumours and cause societal chaos.”
With social media usage rising annually in the Arab world and with the rise in internet and mobile penetration across the region, governments have little choice but to accept the fact that social media are significant drivers of change, he said.
Experts say this phenomenon will expand even in a region like the Middle East where dictatorial or autocratic regimes have long prevented the free interchange of ideas, with hard-line states like Syria seeking to block the social media with draconian laws. “No matter how many laws there are in the Arab world, it’s hard to control discussions and interaction on social networks,” Shamlawi observed.
Awareness is the key to educating Arab societies about the pros and cons of social media, said Abbassi of the Arab Advisors Group. “It starts with teaching students at schools and universities. It’s about raising awareness among parents who can influence their children,” he said.
Sociologist Hussein Khuzai concurred. “The majority of social media users in the Arab world are young people,” he told The Arab Weekly. “They’re greatly influenced by their peers and what they read and watch on social media. Conventional methods of preaching and guidance don’t work anymore.”
Khuzai cautioned that it will take time to overcome deep-seated concerns that social media will be used for nefarious purposes and to ensure that it’s used to expand the free and untrammelled exchange of ideas across the region.
But, he emphasised, that process should start now with the involvement of all sections of society, whether religious institutions, youth centres or academic institutions. The Arab WeeklyBy: Raied T. Shuqum is based in Jordan, where he has been covering business issues for eight years.