Since the uprisings of the Arab Spring and the resulting spike of social media as a communication tool, media consumption in the Middle East has gone through rapid and unpredictable changes. To keep up with these changes and systematically assess their evolution, Northwestern University in Qatar began an annual survey in 2013 titled Media Use in the Middle East. In February and March of this year, they conducted their 5th annual survey across six countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE). The survey presents, in numbers, the widespread impact digital technology has on the ways the general population receives and spreads information.
The public can access the findings via the official website. The site’s interactive feature allows users to explore and compare findings within each survey topic based on categories and subcategories. The categories include, among others, Media Use by Platform, News Consumption, Free Speech, and Online Privacy. Within the Free Speech category, the user will find stats on what percentage of the country’s population believe in the individual’s right to criticize the government, along with who supports stricter internet regulation, and how age and generation dictate these outlooks. In News Consumption, users will find where populations are getting their news from, and who is willing to pay for news content. There are ten categories total, with each exploring a different sect of digital technology.
For an even more in-depth look, the user can separate the data based on age, gender, nationality, education, and conservatism. For example, the user can find the percentage of young, high-school educated women in Saudi Arabia using Whatsapp (84%), or of conservative, middle-aged men in Lebanon on Instagram (19%).
The findings have, over the years, highlighted patterns of the changing political climate. This year in particular, the phenomenon of fake news and distrust in mainstream media was evident. Only 47% of respondents said they trusted news stories they saw on Facebook. Even fewer (42%) said they trusted western media outlets. Acceptance of government censorship has also increased in 4 of the 6 countries (Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia, and the UAE), signaling a possible turning away from freedom of expression. “After the Arab Spring, everyone thought everything was going to change,” said Everette E. Dennis, dean of Northwestern Qatar, “but there was a shift back to a more conservative posture in terms of relationships with governments.”
Researchers compiled results from 6,169 interviews (about 1,000 respondents per country), conducted between February 1st and March 29th, 2017. The interviews averaged at 30 minutes, with the amount of questions varying based on participants’ responses. The age of respondents also varied, from 18-79. Respondents held diverse political beliefs and religious affiliations but split almost directly down the middle in terms of gender; fifty-two percent of respondents identified as male and forty-eight percent as female.
One cannot understate the usefulness of this information’s ability to shed light on media trends in a region that has historically been politically volatile and hard to predict. “Our study reinforces the value of longitudinal research,” said Dennis. “In the last five years, our analyses have gained currency in the region and internationally, and has been used by scholars, journalists, as well as media entrepreneurs.”
This survey is the most extensive of its kind in the Middle East and presents information that is crucial to understanding each country’s internal news consumption mechanisms. By understanding how the region is consuming and sharing information, the outside world can begin to grasp the workings of an area that has often been bogged down by government censorship. The findings are a bridge to understanding technology’s increasing impact on day-to-day information consumption in the Middle East, and identifying patterns in the reworking of political and social landscapes.