Social media feeds Middle East's appetite for news
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 fifth 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 (Egypt was surveyed in June/July 2017, five months after other countries, and is not included in regional average figures).
Data for the six key countries were collected prior to the diplomatic blockade of Qatar and thus predates recent PR and information wars in the region.
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 which were launched in 2013 to chart people's media use and involve more than 7,000 subjects 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
By contrast, Americans are less reliant on social media for news. A recent Pew Research Center study reported that in the US, two-thirds (67 percent) say they get at least some news from social media, including 20 percent who say they do so "hardly ever".
|Watch now: Video highlights of the report|
In the NU-Q survey of the Middle East, two-thirds say they get news from social media every day. Eight in 10 Arab nationals (79 percent) say 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 usership dropped in Saudi Arabia (76 to 55 percent), United Arab Emirates (83 to 70 percent), and Qatar (43 to 22 percent).
Overall, 40 percent of those in the countries studied get news from Facebook.
But there are stark differences. 67 percent of Arab nationals use WhatsApp, and 28 percent of the total population gets news from the platform - which Facebook bought for $19 billion in 2014. Pew's study shows only 11 percent of Americans use WhatsApp, and only two percent say 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, usership is more than 50 percent, while in non-Gulf countries it remains below 20 percent (in the US it is 18 percent).
News use on the platform is similarly divided - far more Snapchat users in the Gulf use it to get news (55 percent in Qatar, 51 percent in United Arab Emirates, and 37 percent 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, the picture changes. Trust in news from social media is lower at 47 percent region-wide. And gaps appear between age groups. Fifty percent of adults between 18 and 24 trust news they get from social media, compared with 36 percent of those aged 45 and above.
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 diploma, 50 percent say they trust news from social media; among those less educated, 36 percent trust news from social media.
Might it be that the people who say 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 even still bother to try driving traffic to their websites at all.
All respondents are still more likely to say they trust mass media 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 are also contributed 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 more than 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.
Everette E. Dennis has served as dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar since June 2011. He holds a tenured full professorship in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern's home campus in Evanston, Illinois, USA, and an appointment by courtesy in the School of Communication. Dean Dennis is a widely-known institution-builder, educator, and author having led several organizations over a distinguished career in higher education, foundations, and advanced study centers.
Robb Wood serves as director of strategic partnerships at Northwestern University in Qatar, where he develops university partnerships with leading media-related organizations in both the private and public sector. He is a co-author of the annual Media Use in the Middle East and Media Industries in the Middle East studies, and has spearheaded the NU-Q Strategy Workshops programme.