It’s well-established that trust in the U.S. media is at an all-time low, but that may be a sign that the press is doing its job.
In the Middle East, trust in the media is twice that – 66 percent. But higher levels of trust may actually be because Middle Eastern media is less critical and less controversial, according to Everette Dennis, the dean and CEO Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Qatar).
“U.S. media is so conflictual – which I think is a good thing, but it also makes them unpopular,” he said.
New statistics on media in the Middle East come from an annual report on media use in the region, just published by NU-Q. The study found that there’s now a more conservative stance toward media, with more tolerance for censorship — and less for freedom of expression. And Twitter — not Facebook — leads the pack for news consumption out of the popular social networks.
Changes Since the Arab Spring
Doha-based NU-Q published its first annual report on media use in 2013, shortly after the Arab Spring, a revolution that was notable for the way activists used social media to communicate. Dennis said it was clear there were changes in the way media was being consumed, but there was no systematic way to assess those changes. NU-Q students needed to know who their audiences are, and the study could help reveal that information, he said.
The results of this year’s study, based on 6,000 interviews with residents of Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, have implications for Americans, too. There is interest in the Middle East – and in knowing more about the people there and their interests – and the study offers a clearer and impartial picture of a region that is often maligned in Western media, Dennis explained.
“For anyone interested in the geopolitics of the rest of the world, this study is a window,” Dennis said.
The report also offers a separate section focusing on Egypt, where internet penetration remains low relative to other Arab countries.
Less Support for Freedom of Expression
Dennis said the study reveals that there is less support for freedom of expression and more tolerance of censorship in the Middle East than researchers expected.
“After the Arab Spring, everyone thought everything was going to change,” Dennis said. “There was a shift back to a more conservative posture in terms of relationships with governments.”
However, nationally and regionally, there are conversations happening “below the radar” that many people are not aware of, he said. Political debates are common online, and women feel empowered in a way they didn’t before the revolution.
“There’s this belief that the Arab Spring died and none of the embers are left, and that things are being run by totalitarian autocrats,” he said. “But we find the social media scene so alive throughout the region.”
Dennis said another huge change he has observed in the last five years is the rise of the smartphone: except for Tunisia, all of the countries included in the survey have higher smartphone use rates than the United States. The rate in the UAE is 99 percent. The Middle East historically did not have a well-developed landline system, which helped create a need for cellphones. And some countries in the region, Dennis pointed out, are wealthy, giving people more access to high-tech tools. Those numbers help counter stereotypes that portray Middle Eastern cultures as as primitive and restrictive, he said.
The Economic Blockade in Qatar and Fake News
The survey was conducted just before four Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – began an economic blockade of Qatar in June. The coalition severed diplomatic ties with Qatar after alleging that the country supports terrorism.
The diplomatic crisis has implications for the media: Saudi Arabia initially issued a list of 13 conditions that it wanted met in order to end the blockade. Those conditions included the total shutdown of Doha-based Al Jazeera. Those conditions were later withdrawn, but recently Snap Inc. agreed to block Al Jazeera on Snapchat in Qatar following the demands of the anti-Qatar coalition. Sixty-four percent of Qatari respondents use Snapchat – perhaps the highest penetration in any country in the world, according to the report.
The blockade has also resulted in the proliferation of fake news. Dennis said there have been a number of hacked websites and fake news articles circulating the internet, fueled by some of the coalition countries and by PR firms. And in the UAE and in Bahrain, internet users can actually be punished for posting something positive about Qatar.
Two-thirds of Arab nationals said they trust media from their own country, but only 52 percent trust news from other Arab countries. And fewer than half of Arab nationals trust news they got from social media.
As far as specific platforms, 65 percent of survey respondents get their news from Facebook; and use of Facebook is declining in Gulf countries while rising in non-Gulf countries. WhatsApp is currently the most popular platform among users, with 75 percent penetration.
The survey results indicate 39 percent of respondents are concerned about governments monitoring their online activity and 43 percent are worried about companies doing the same. Concerns related to companies monitoring activities has increased 11 percentage points since 2013.
To view the full report, as well as see interactive charts, visit http://www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2017.
Bianca Fortis is the associate editor at MediaShift, a founding member of the Transborder Media storytelling collective and a social media consultant. Follow her on Twitter @biancafortis.