This 2015 report features the first longitudinal view of media use and related political attitudes in the Middle East offered by this study, as it replicates many of the questions asked in our first survey conducted in 2013. It is, however, a first view. While comparing responses to questions at the bookends of a two-year period may bring into focus some notable insights, doing so is one step in observing a longer, incremental arc of social and behavioral change. To draw grand conclusions from these two points of reference may be a bridge too far, but we are able to observe patterns worth highlighting, discussing, and, we hope, investigating further.
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Takeaways - Freedom of Speech and Political Efficacy
Comfort with political expression dropped most in post-revolutionary countries. The two countries most affected by the Arab uprisings, Egypt and Tunisia, saw the biggest drops in individuals who said they felt comfortable expressing their political opinions. Tunisia had the biggest drop in respondents who said it is safe to say whatever one thinks about politics; in Egypt, authorities did not allow the question to be asked at all.
More Qataris and Tunisians worry about governments checking their online activity in 2015 than two years ago. A new omnibus cybercrime law was introduced in Qatar in 2014 which allows criminal prosecution for online defamation, even if the offending speech is true, and prison sentences for the vaguely-defined offense of harming, “principles of social values” with online speech. Prior to 2011, Tunisia’s online government surveillance and censorship was among the strictest in the world. It is therefore curious that Tunisians are increasingly concerned about online monitoring.
A belief that the internet can increase one’s political influence fell in Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE. Continued government persecution of online rights activists in Egypt since 2013 may have had a chilling effect on beliefs of the internet’s political utility. Qatar instituted a cybercrime law in 2014 with formidable criminal penalties for online dissent, and the UAE enhanced enforcement of a cybercrime law in 2012. In March 2013 (at least a month after our survey fieldwork was conducted that year), 94 political activists in the UAE were put on trial in a much-discussed ordeal in Abu Dhabi.
Takeaways - Social Media
Frequent users of social media give higher ratings to news media - a sign of discernment? Respondents cite social media as an important source of news but express reservations about the quality of the information. As social media contain content of all sorts, including both professionally produced journalism, amateur material that goes viral, as well as personal information and hearsay from friends and family, it is problematic to consider platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp a single source. The quality of the information one receives via social media is largely dependent on the associations made by the individual user. People who use social media the most rate the credibility of news media significantly higher — perhaps a sign that sourcing good information on social media is as much a skill as it is elsewhere.
Fear may thwart social media use. Social media use is positively associated with both a support for freedom of expression and a belief that using the internet can be politically empowering. At the same time, those who say they are not comfortable voicing their own political opinions are less likely to use social media. Similarly, those who say it is not safe to express political opinions are less likely to use social media.
Women report spending a greater portion of their time socializing with friends online, while men tend to socialize with their friends more in person. It may be worth considering the norm in some Arab countries, particularly the Arab Gulf, that encourages women to spend less time in the public sphere, while groups of men will gather in cafes and plazas.
Takeaways - Credibility of News Media
More people say national news in their country are credible than did in 2013. At the same time, fewer people said the quality of news reporting in the Arab world had improved. Some may argue we are seeing evidence of an orientation away from pan-Arab content and toward a more insular nationalism, others that national news organizations are finally starting to match the quality and sophistication of pan-Arab channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya.
Prosperity and stability may be linked to perceptions of national news credibility. Egyptians, who have experienced years of political turmoil including infamous crackdowns on journalistic organizations, are less confident than others that the news media in their country are credible. In contrast, those in stable and prosperous UAE hold extremely positive views of their news media and also feel they receive favorable coverage in the international press.
After years of turmoil, crackdowns, and tough coverage, Egyptians hold negative views of many news media. It is not just their own media that Egyptians hold in low esteem, they are also the least likely to believe that people benefit from consuming news produced by foreign organizations. The long and politicized ordeal of Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolution and counter-revolution must be considered.
Perceptions of national media credibility and independence have declined in Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally or not, Saudis are more likely to prefer news organizations from outside the country.
Takeaways - Profiles of Media Users
Nationals are nearly as likely to see international news bias as being tilted in favor of their country as against it. Lebanese are most likely to see bias against their country. It is possible that Lebanese feel the country’s unstable political environment obscures the many desirable aspects of Lebanon which, for example, make Beirut one of the most vibrant capitals in the region. In the small, stable, predominantly wealthy Gulf countries of Qatar and UAE, nationals are more likely to think international news bias works in favor of their countries than against it.
The greatest increase in national optimism occurred in countries most affected by the “Arab Spring.” Egyptians and Tunisians recorded the largest increase in belief that their country is headed in the right direction. Greater pessimism existed in Egypt in 2013, it appears, before the coup and ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. For its part, Tunisia has been considered one of the few success stories produced by the Arab uprisings (data were collected in 2015 before the terrorist massacre of 24 people at the Bardo Museum in Tunis), which public opinion may corroborate.
There is a dissonance between supporting free speech in principle and exercising free speech in practice. More educated nationals tend to support online freedom of speech in principle, but in practice they are far less likely to say that they are comfortable voicing their own political opinions. More educated elites in some Arab countries may also have a heightened sense of the negative consequences of political dissent, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, where dissenters are frequently under duress.
Young adults are more willing to pay for all manner of news content, despite the fact that they consume less of it than their older counterparts, they. One possible explanation for this surprising finding could be that eighteen to 24 year-old respondents mostly missed the online honeymoon years when most online news content was free, and are using smartphones and tablets that cloister news behind app paywalls.
Takeaways - Key Indicators of Media Use
The internet may be starting to chip away at the dominance of TV. While TV is still cited as the an important source of news more often than the internet, the margin is shrinking. In Qatar and Saudi Arabia, two of the three most wired countries, “only” 90% and 93% (respectively) of 18-24 year-olds say they watch TV at all, compared to nearly 100% in other countries.
Comedy is the most popular TV genre in all countries except Qatar and Tunisia, where news is more commonly watched. Notably, when asked about online video, more Tunisians and Saudis say they watch social satire than news, or even comedy itself.
The internet is mobile in the Middle East, too. As in many parts of the world, more people access the internet on a phone than on a computer in all nations except Egypt, which has the lowest internet penetration of all countries surveyed.
Book-reading is on the rise. 36% of nationals said they read books, a considerable increase from 25% in 2013. Coupled with a decline in the use of English on the internet that was especially pronounced among those without a university diploma, one might consider whether these are results of improved national education systems, Arabic literacy programs, or a growing embrace of national or Arabic culture.
Takeaways - International Comparisons
Respondents in Arab states do not necessarily consider criticism of governments on the internet to be an assumed right. While respondents in the Arab states are among the most likely to say it is safe for individuals to discuss politics online, they are also among the least likely to support open criticism of governments on the internet.
Internet users in Arab countries are less likely to fear governments or commercial entities surveilling them online than in countries like the US and Spain. In 2013, western nationals were more concerned about online surveillance by private companies than by governments, which was not the case in most Arab countries. The 2013 data were collected before the revelations of US surveillance programs by Edward Snowden.
As a news source, Arabs have not abandoned television. Much more of the Arab world turns to television for information than in other regions. Television has decreased in importance from 2013 to 2015 in all Arab countries except in Qatar and Tunisia. But still more than eight in ten internet users in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE cite TV as an important source of news.
People in restrictive countries rely heavily on the internet for videos and music. Internet users in China and the Arab world, where regulation of content is far stricter than in Western countries, are more likely to download or stream music or play games online than internet users in many other countries.
Takeaways - Focus on Qatar
Female Qataris watch considerably more religious content on TV and online than males. In Qatar, as in other conservative Muslim countries, men tend to have more social and physical proximity to religious figures such as imams and sheikhs. With fewer opportunities to access or engage religious leaders in person, it may be possible that Qatari women seek religious programming to compensate for this lack of physical proximity.
Facebook is much less popular among Qataris than other nationals surveyed. Like many Gulf societies, Qatar is socially conservative and places particular value on familial and individual privacy. Facebook, with its reputation for lack of privacy controls, is less popular in Qatar than in other countries, and Snapchat, which presumably has greater privacy protections, is appealing and growing. Privacy has an even more important social value for women in Qatar and, correspondingly, Qatari women use Facebook less than men.
Fewer Qataris are using English content on television and online than did in 2013. This reduction of English use was observed in Lebanon and Tunisia as well, and could be associated with increased availability of high-quality Arabic programming.
Qataris support online freedom of speech but also want tighter regulation of the internet. People often support freedom of speech conceptually but are more supportive of abridgment of speech in their own communities or countries. The regulation question asked whether respondents want the internet to be more tightly regulated in their country, and two in three survey participants said yes. Qataris seem to support free speech online, but with limits.