In one of the most dynamic and volatile regions of the world—the Middle East—the role of media only rarely makes headlines but warrants continuing attention as a window on what is happening among people, institutions, and society itself. What is known about the region internally and to the outside world is mediated by traditional news, opinion, and entertainment platforms—and increasingly by ever-changing social media. For the seventh time since 2013, we at Northwestern University in Qatar have conducted a far-reaching survey of media use in the region. We focus on seven countries from Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia in North Africa across to the continent embracing Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon to construct a representation of this very complex region that is so often stereotyped. With a prevailing image of the Arab region instability marked by conflict and disruption, this Media Use in the Middle East study paints a more nuanced picture that adds richly to the parameters defined by the dominance of the Arabic language and Islamic faith in the region.
These continuing studies originally inspired by the upheavals of the Arab Spring and a desire to take continuous soundings of how people use their media and what they think about them have proved useful as their findings offer intelligence in understanding change across the region—and country by country—accentuating both similarities and differences. Our studies which began in 2013 focus especially on news and information media in odd-number years (2013, 2015, 2017 and now, 2019) and more on entertainment media in even-numbered years (2014, 2016, 2018, and soon, 2020). Each year, we revisit many of the same questions to facilitate comparisons over time and add new ones reflecting important developments.
As we noted in our 2018 report: We chose to assess and report on communication in the region writ large as legacy and emerging media have interacted and change the face of the information ecosystem and landscape. Thus, serious attention to media use itself as media were transforming themselves, and people’s attitudes toward them have been essential to our storyline. Indeed, the MENA region and especially the Gulf States have experienced a variation of the same kind of media disruption seen in the other advanced information societies, and the changes reported here confirm that.
This 2019 report pays special attention to social media and social media influencers even as it focuses heavily on news media. As always, we look at media use by platform and content while also honing in both generally and in detail on the use of the internet. As a member of the World Internet Project based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, we contribute to that global survey and are the sole source of Middle East regional data.
When we began these studies, the concept of social media influencers had little currency. While a few notable internet opinion leaders at the heart of the various Arab revolutions gained some fame, the idea of such individuals having continuous impact or influence went mostly unremarked. Most often commentators imagined that high profile establishment individuals, institutions, and organizations would be vessels of messaging continuity given their larger resources and capacity for strategic communication. But social influencers were in plain sight the world over with popular culture celebrities and political leaders taking center stage. Given intense internet penetration and the role of social media in the Arab Spring and thereafter, it was natural that social media influencers, which we define as “social media users with established credibility in a certain industry or content type...with access to a large audience”, should be included in the study. Data in this study attest to the large and growing following that social media influencers have, with topics ranging from fashion and sport to women’s issues. While acknowledging the importance of such influencers, only a few named influencers were identified as standouts in contrast with the West where they are well known for consumer and social influence—or more viscerally in making news as is the case with U.S. President Donald Trump whose tweets are seen as an instrument of disruption, though his followership is much less than that of other famous people including former President Barak Obama. In Chapter Eight, we tease out the data on social media influencers and consider who posts and what platforms they use as well as the role of social media as a source of news and even notable social media influencers.
In this study and those that came before, we pivot from paying strict attention to indicators of media use and preferences in a comparative context to attitudes about media and their influence. This means considering the relationship between individual media users and accumulated audiences about free speech. As always there is a continuum between freedom on the one hand and control on the other, involving not just government constraints and discouragement but those in the private sector as well. It is important to note that censorship which is an instrument of the state blends with private sector enterprises in countries where much of media is subsidized by government, either directly or indirectly.
For the second year, we have conducted this research in the midst of the blockade of Qatar by several of its neighbors, a situation that has triggered a veritable information war that brings with it competing public relations campaigns between and among countries included in our study as well as disinformation including fake news. The media ecosystem we study is obviously affected by these conditions, though we’ve been able to conduct our work despite such challenges, opting to be the neutral observer listening to people across the region who agree to be respondents in this study.
While free speech in the broader context of freedom of expression is the organizing framework for our examination of the social fabric with which media interact, we take a deeper dive into digital privacy along with perceptions of bias and credibility. While broadly and specifically looking at media and perceptions of media across our conception of the region, we also drill down on differences between and across media. We also present a more comprehensive view of media use and attitudes toward media with a special focus on Qatar. We do this both because we are in Qatar and because Qatar has one of the highest internet penetrations in the world and by any measure warrants a closer look. Full disclosure requires we acknowledge that much of our funding for the study comes from the Qatar National Research Fund and other sources in the country where our partners include Al-Jazeera and Doha Film Institute among others. That said, no effort has ever been made to influence our research at any stage of its development, direction, or dissemination.
Our work benefits from a unique collaboration with The Harris Poll, which has been our vendor for data collection and fieldwork since our first study. Our relationship with Harris and notably Kerry Hill and David Krane, along with the wise counsel of Humphrey Taylor is akin to a continuing seminar in which members of our research team discuss matters ranging from the scope and purpose of the study with changes each year to refinement in question construction and considerations about navigating authorities in the various countries where the study is conducted, itself a lesson in geopolitics for us all.
As we scope out and develop the study each year, we engage our colleagues from NU-Q’s faculty, staff, and students who generously attend a public meeting to discuss the study and offer suggestions for new questions and other keen observations that help us calibrate the questionnaire to reflect needed changes that require adjustments as we refine continuing questions and add new ones. Faculty and staff bring their own expertise from a school dedicated to media and communication with considerable attention to digital media. Students play an important role as heavy users of social media whose insights are often telling and extremely useful. To all we are grateful.
This year our research team was joined by Professor Ilhem Allagui of NU-Q’s faculty of Journalism and Strategic Communication as a Principal Investigator in the same year she authored a book titled Advertising in MENA Goes Digital (Routledge, 2019). An expert on media and strategic communication with long experience and expertise in the Middle East, she brings new strength to our team.
As always, the work represented here has several distinctive features as a longitudinal study with more than 7,000 face-to-face and telephone interviews, the only such study in the Middle East and one of the few continuing research projects of this scope and rigor in the world.
We can again report that this study and those that proceeded it are directed to students, scholars, media professionals, social institutions, and the general public. In 2019, we were pleased to see data from previous studies featured in NU-Q’s Media Majlis, a museum of communication, journalism, and media, whose first exhibition was “Arab Identities: Images in Film” and where several panels included data sets from these media use studies.
The executive summary that follows summarizes overall findings while paying special attention to changes from data collected in 2017 and previous years. While there is some consistency, even stability, in some of the findings, the continuous interplay between media platforms whole reach and penetration do vary from year to year, it is in the realm of social media where change is most often observed. These calibrations tracking the ups and downs of familiar social media platforms are especially useful as these new and young media emerge and evolve.
--Everette E. Dennis, Lead Principal Investigator, Dean & CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar
For any enquiries related to this study, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Everette E. Dennis is dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar. He has extensive international experience with media in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia as having had assignments in Africa, Russia and Western Europe. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and has served as a trustee of the International Institute of Communications. He has held professorships at four US universities and is the author of some 45 books on media industries, media law, freedom of expression, journalistic practice and related topics. He was senior vice president of the Gannett and Freedom Forum foundations and is a past president of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. He holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota and has advanced fellowships at Harvard, Stanford and the East-West Center.
Justin D. Martin is an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar who studies media and politics in the Arab world. A Fulbright scholar, he speaks multiple dialects of Arabic and has lived and worked in Jordan, Egypt and Qatar. He is a former columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, who reported on journalism and freedom of speech from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Martin's PhD is from the journalism school at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. email@example.com, @Justin_D_Martin
Fouad Hassan is the research study coordinator at Northwestern University in Qatar. At NU-Q he works as a member of the Research Office to coordinate the collection, analysis, processing, and reporting of data in NU-Q's NPRP projects. He also coordinates NU-Q's IRB documentation in compliance with QNRF, Northwestern, and the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) regulations. Hassan received his bachelor’s of science degree in communication from Northwestern University. firstname.lastname@example.org, @Fouad_hh
Conducting this annual survey of media use and public attitudes toward media is akin to taking the temperature while preparing a weather report over time. Changes are usually incremental with an occasional dramatic variation. As with weather, in media soundings sometimes the reason for an unexpected shift or lurch may be obvious or it may require an explanation well beyond what the thermometer says. The numbers generated in survey research tell only part of the story based on what people say they do—and what opinions they express within the confines of a questionnaire. It is important, though that we be faithful and impartial reporters of what we learn through the survey, though we and others can analyze, project, and speculate about the meaning of our data after the fact. Sometimes juxtaposing one finding on another or looking at it in a comparative light, reveals an insight otherwise shrouded from view. Research on survey research suggests that people usually respond quite literally to the questions they are asked, though some may be reticent about specific queries or reluctant to respond to questions they see as potentially threatening, which gives the survey researcher the challenge of calibrating the survey instrument to elicit the most accurate responses. Awareness of the cultural, economic, and political climate is essential. During the time of data collection on our 2019 study, there were no new, notable upheavals or radical changes in the countries we studied of which we are aware. Others did come later such as the 2019 demonstrations in Beirut and others outside our scope in Iraq and Turkey. Regional threats and other conflicts continued.
Standing back from the data reported here tells us that the robust media ecosystem of the region continues to change with a sometimes dramatic and steady growth in internet use in some countries, such as Egypt and Tunisia, from the time when we first began to collect data in 2013. Internet penetration is up and the most modern digital devices such as the smartphone and smartwatch are readily available to many. The smartphone outdistances the personal computer for most nationals across the region as 96% report they access the internet on that handheld device. The notion of media-poor and media-rich countries is now less relevant from the time when some nation-states had only 20% internet penetration to percentages in the 70s in Egypt and Tunisia and much higher in the other countries under study. Of course, there is variation by country related to local conditions, relative wealth, and other factors. Depending on the country, the medium/platform is also subject to variation, especially among the traditional print and broadcast media. People are engaging with games, online coursework, and other distractions as well.
There is something of a continuing triumph for the Arabic language with a rise of internet use in Arabic, at 79% up from 69% in 2018, for example. Greater amounts of Arabic content across several platforms were also reported. Social media, while profoundly popular and the métier for youth and young adults, has seen fluctuations with Facebook falling in most Arab countries since 2014 with some growth in 2019 especially in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. With competition from Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Twitter as well as gaming options on Facebook, social media now occupies a larger universe than it once did, but users can be fickle. However, even tiny social media variations can help chart change as the competitive landscape is considered.
Among legacy media, television which has held its own and been resistant to the downturn elsewhere in the world has begun to see falling viewership with a drop from 98% among Arab nationals in 2013 down to 86% in 2019. Netflix penetration is up slightly while Shahid is down in several countries. Binge-watching has also declined. Music services like Anghami also provide entertainment options.
In an era of self-referential social media, it may be notable that Arab nationals report spending less time with friends and family both online and in-person each week. In Qatar, the amount of time Qataris spend in person with their families each week has declined dramatically from 43 hours to 11 hours per week. This seems extreme and may bear greater analysis. The decline in family time is higher in Qatar than in some other Arab states, and Qatar has often evidenced trends in advance of others in the region. Whether this signals a decline in family life or is simply a reflection of new social and cultural diversions in a country with a robust sport, recreation, and museum milieu is yet to be determined. Notably, large numbers of respondents say they trust news from social media.
On matters of free speech, opinions about what should be permissible continue to shift with less support now than in 2017 for government preventing people from criticism of government itself, religion, or minority groups. At the same time, respondents in several countries, most notably Qatar and the UAE, say they do not feel comfortable speaking out about politics. In each instance where that is true, there may be quite different reasons for such reluctance or reticence. In Egypt government crackdowns on journalists and social activists may be an explanation while in Qatar, which is enjoying a period of national solidarity related to support for the government in the continuing blockade, there may be yet another rationale. Concern about intrusion on digital privacy by other internet users parallels concerns about intrusion by private firms and government Over several years, the degree to which citizens accept or fear state censorship or regulation versus constraints on speech and privacy from the private sector seems to move along a continuum no doubt related to such personal experiences as internet or email hacking, identity theft, and others.
As noted in our introduction, our study examined social media influencers for the first time. The emphasis was on how and how often people connect with or engage these individuals. While this is heavily a youth phenomenon with the youngest nationals attending most to influencers, significant attention across other age groups is also evident, only declining slightly with people over 35 and much more so for people 45 or older. Three out of 10 nationals report that they look at posts from social media influencers at least once a day, more than they say they check email or play games. It does appear that social media influencers are relied on for news even more than newspapers in some countries. Such comparisons could be misleading however, as many social media influencer posts are brief snippets vs. more elongated stories in newspapers or other legacy media. Of course, social media influencers also drive traffic to these and other sites.
Ultimately tracking media use has the most value over time with reports from each year in this dedicated, longitudinal study adding texture and complexity to our understanding. And like taking the temperature day after day, year after year, it is trends over time that tell the most compelling story. For us, in 2019, we look back on both dramatic change since the first study, especially in internet penetration that has itself affected various media platforms in this region as they have elsewhere. Traditional publishing and broadcasting are still a small but robust presence though somewhat conflicted by their subsidized business model. Television remains stronger than in most societies but is showing signs of decline with digital platforms in hot pursuit. Although our study does not track and trace the number of media outlets, websites, or publication titles, we have a sense that the media scene in the region is robust and growing overall as people have more and more options for news, information, entertainment, sports, games, commercial transitions, and other fare. Technologies have leapfrogged taking most media into the digital age with considerable speed and effectiveness. In such an environment, our data show that competition has considerable effect on whether social media or more traditional outlets are locked in battle with each other.
The interplay and digital convergence between all media even amid disruption and disarray give media users broader choices and more to ponder as they consider their options and attitudes about the media they prefer.
--Everette E. Dennis
Dennis, E. E., Martin, J. D., & Hassan, F. (2019). Media use in the Middle East, 2018: A seven-nation survey. Northwestern University in Qatar. Retrieved from www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2019
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Fouad Hassan. Media Use in the Middle East, 2019: A Seven-Nation Survey. Northwestern University in Qatar, 2019, www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2019.
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Fouad Hassan. “Media Use in the Middle East, 2019: A Seven-Nation Survey.” Northwestern University in Qatar, 2019. www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2019.