Media Use in the Middle East, 2015

Media Use in the Middle East, 2015 is the third iteration of an annual study by Northwestern University in Qatar that studies media use and cultural and political attitudes in Arab countries. More than 6,000 respondents across six Arab countries were selected and interviewed via randomized sampling procedures, constituting nationally representative samples in Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. 

The 2015 survey replicated many questions asked in 2013, so for the first time in the life of this project, we are able to see how things have changed over a two-year period. As in any longitudinal study, the historical context in which the data were collected should be considered. Examples in our case would include the intensity of political turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia in 2013, and the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in 2015, which occurred approximately two weeks before our fieldwork began.

With that historical context in mind, we do see significant changes not only in how people use media, but also in attitudes toward related cultural and political issues. Our powerful interactive interface displays these changes with clarity and precision, and allows the reader to explore and discover results customized to any specific interest, and is available to anyone interested in making their own discoveries in these data.

Among the findings that stood out most was a strong and consistent rise in the number of respondents who said they thought their country was headed in the right direction: Between 2013 and 2015, agreement with this statement went from 42% to 64% in Egypt, and 27% to 42% in Tunisia. Saudi Arabia was the only country in which this number decreased (from 79% to 67%), but responses to this question may have differed prior to the death of King Abdullah just weeks before. Notably, cultural conservatives are far more likely to say their country is headed in the right direction than progressives (57% vs. 35%), while cultural progressives are far more likely than conservatives to say their country is on the wrong track (54% vs. 33%).

Along with region-wide optimism about national progress came a general decline in comfort with individual political expression. Support for the idea that people should be able to criticize governments on the internet also fell, and remains the lowest among all nations as reported by the World Internet Project in recent years.

This report explores how diverse countries in a volatile region are turning toward national media, content shared via social media networks, and the Arabic language, and distancing from pan-Arab news and English language content:

  • Saudis are twice as likely to say international news is biased against their country vs. toward it (38% see bias against, 17% toward), with similar views in Lebanon (48% see bias against, 26% toward); in the Gulf nations of Qatar and UAE, more say their countries are recipients of favorable bias than negative bias (in Qatar, 19% see bias against vs. 7% toward, UAE 48% vs. 3%, respectively).
  • Perceived credibility of national news media rose 5 percentage points since 2013 (39% to 44%), and the belief that media in their country can operate independently without interference from officials rose 7 percentage points (35% to 42%). At the same time, 6 percentage points fewer saw improvements in the quality of reporting in the Arab world (56% to 50%).
  • Use of media in English has decreased among all age groups, especially on the internet; fewer people (by 8 percentage points) say they use English to access the internet (41% to 33%).

Findings may reflect a general desire for stability among people in the region who have seen the Arab uprisings go increasingly sour, alongside resilient, connected, and politically empowered online cohorts:

  • Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation among the total population (42% to 49%).
  • People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: nationals who think online activity can increase political influence are 12 percentage points more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet (62% vs. 50%). 
  • Those who consider the internet a source of political empowerment may still be exercising that power, as they are more active on social media (13 percentage points more likely to post on social media daily: 71% vs. 58%) and are 18 percentage points more likely to share news content on social media than those who don’t (68% vs. 50%). 

The report contains a wide range of new information about the changing nature of social media use in the region:

  • Facebook and Twitter users each declined by around 5 percentage points, while Instagram users more than quadrupled.
  • The direct messaging service WhatsApp is not only the most used social media platform in most countries surveyed, it has been adopted in equal numbers across all age groups.