Why you should care
Even as trust in social media news is falling in Western countries, other parts of the world are putting faith in it.
Ahmad couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the headline. It was December 2017 and Mada Masr — Egypt’s last independent outlet — published an investigation detailing how a front for the Egyptian intelligence agency bought seven of the country’s most prominent media outlets.
“I knew never to trust mainstream Egyptian media again,” says Ahmad, a 23-year-old activist who asked not to disclose his last name for fear of reprisal. “From then on, Facebook became the only place where I could get my breaking news, but I also check Mada Masr.”
Ahmad isn’t the only one turning to Facebook for news over mainstream Arab media: 80 percent of Arab youths say they get their news from social networks, up from just 25 percent five years ago. And, what’s more …
60 percent of young people in the Middle East say they trust social media as a news source, a 53 percent increase from 2014.
That’s according to the Arab Youth Survey, a poll of 3,300 people ages 18 to 24 across the Middle East. Reported levels of distrust in traditional media were 30 percent higher than in social media. Now, for the first time in this survey, young Arabs report that they trust social media more than traditional news. In comparison, a survey released earlier this year by YouGov and the Cambridge Globalism Project found that only 12 percent of Britons and 23 percent of Americans trust news they see on social media. The Reuters Digital News Report last year found a decline in the use of social media for news in the U.S., the U.K. and France. But the uptick in the Middle East may indicate that young people are disillusioned with a press that they see as mostly controlled by government leaders. Of the countries in the Arab Youth Survey, none scored high on the 2019 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, but the highest-scoring country — Tunisia, ranked 72 — saw the smallest percentage of people who’d commented or posted about news on social media, according to a separate 2018 survey of media in Middle Eastern countries from Northwestern University.
Relying on social media presents a whole new set of problems, according to Mark Daou, a professor of communication studies at Lebanese American University. “The problem is part of a global direction toward identity politics,” Daou argues. “By identifying with identities instead of with issues and political agendas that concern all of us, we’re missing out on a variety of news that Facebook thinks isn’t important to us.” Facebook’s tendency to show users stories they already agree with could increase political polarization in the Middle East, much as it has across the U.S. and Europe.
Daou acknowledges that social media offers youth a chance to maneuver around government propaganda. Still, he stresses that Facebook shouldn’t be celebrated as an answer to censorship: “Young people don’t want to be fed information anymore,” he says. “They want to engage with it.”
Verifying information across social media is another problem. It’s often tricky, and in times of war, nearly impossible. For example, the war in Libya has seen rival militias — both General Khalifa Haftar’s self-described Libyan National Army (LNA) and forces loyal to the internationally recognized government — post photos and videos of fighters they killed or imprisoned. Some of the content is real, but much of it is fake.
Twitter is also a black hole of information, yet the network has surged in popularity since the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia, where about two-thirds of the population is under 30, leads the pack. The ultraconservative kingdom registered the highest percentage of people on Twitter around the world in 2018, according to Crowd Analyzer’s State of Social Media 2018. “The Gulf is more repressive and more conservative, so many young women particularly prefer Twitter to Facebook because it’s not customary to show their faces,” says Taghreed El-Khodary, a veteran Middle East journalist and former Gaza correspondent for the New York Times.
El-Khodary adds that while social media allows all segments of society to engage and contest information, most people are reluctant to post anything for fear of reprisal. “Social media isn’t a positive story for freedom of expression in the Arab world,” she says. “People know they’re being monitored.”
Many young Arab activists have already paid a price for posting statements online. Emirati activist Ahmed Mansoor is one of them. Last year, he was handed a 10-year prison sentence and fined the equivalent of $272,000 for criticizing the UAE’s human rights record over social media.
Governments — especially Saudi Arabia — are also trying to counter dissent by dispatching an army of trolls to harass activists online. Before Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered, the Washington Post journalist would wake up to a barrage of hate messages on his Twitter feed each morning, which a New York Times investigation found were the work of government-operated troll farms. “Facebook and Twitter have a role as international companies to not allow the Saudis or Emiratis [to] control their platforms,” El-Khodary says. “These companies have a responsibility to protect free speech.”
For now, neither Facebook nor Twitter is assuming that responsibility, and Arab youth have little faith they will. They are merely turning to social media for news for lack of a better alternative.