25 Mar 2020

Social Media Platforms: an intricate role in the Arab world for a strong tool of influence

Dr. Ashraf Al Eisawy
Social media is no longer a mere window of communication, but a powerful tool that influences and shapes public opinion and educates the youth. Some analysts believe it can usher in a change in the Arab world. However, it has also become a platform for extremist and terrorist groups looking to spread their destructive ideas, and recruiting and brainwashing the youth.

This raises some important questions: What factors reinforce the role of social media? How far does it influence and shape public opinion? How does it affect the process of shaping awareness among the youth and enhancing their political participation? What challenges does it pose for the security and stability of Arab states? How can these platforms be regulated and controlled?

The growing impact of social media: Key factors

The impact of social media in the Arab region and the world has not grown in a vacuum. It is the result of a combination of factors, the most important of which are:

The rising number of users: This number has grown phenomenally in recent years. In 2017, there were fewer than 2.5 billion people on social media worldwide. In 2019 this number jumped to 3.5 billion, equivalent to about 45 percent of the world’s total population.1 A report by the Canadian Hootsuite organization says that in 2019, the number of social media users in the Arab world amounted to 136.1 million or about 53 percent of its population. The report pointed out that the Arab countries outperform developed countries in the duration of Internet use by at least one and a half hours per day, for the age group between 16-64 years. The average duration of browsing of the user in Saudi Arabia, for example, was four hours and 14 minutes. In Egypt, it was three hours and 55 minutes. It was three hours and 53 minutes in the UAE and three hours and 31 minutes in Morocco. All these figures are above the global average of three hours and 22 minutes2, indicating the growing importance of social media in the Arab countries. In other words, social media has become an expression of contemporary lifestyle and social and political marketing mechanisms employed in many areas.

 
  1. Influencing public opinion: Social media contributes to the spread of ideas and opinions to a large number of people in different regions. This helps crystalize public opinion in support of or against certain issues, which results in a transformation in some aspects of life.3 However, such platforms may, in turn, fall into the trap of disinformation and negative influence on public opinion. This happens when it is used to change the convictions of society on an issue, especially during elections or voting on crucial issues related to the future of a country.
 
  1. A paradigm shift in digital media: Social media makes the world a connected village as it allows for the creation and exchange of e-content (texts, photos, videos, etc.) through the Internet. This provides an important window for interaction between individuals4, which is why some describe it as the “globalized media”, as it does not adhere to the boundaries of the state. Instead, it presents invisible virtual boundaries, drawn by information networks based on political, economic, cultural and intellectual considerations, to make a world without a state, a nation or a homeland.5 It also plays an influential role in molding the behavior of individuals, the formation and modification of their attitudes, and in the development and generation of their ideas.6 Since this “globalized” media is free of charge, the invitation to participate in an activity on Facebook does not need financial resources. 7
 
  1. Intense interaction: Social media is characterized through highly interactive features in a short time, the ability to create group discussions with a large number of participants and enabling anyone to become an independent media outlet in his/her own right. Social media apps also offer ample possibilities to polarize, mobilize and rally the masses, as happened during the so-called Arab Spring. At that time, it played a vital role in political mobilization by helping the youth to call for protests, publish news and videos, express opinion as well as debating political issues away from the authorities’ oversight over traditional media.
  2. Trans-national reach: The influence of social media is no longer limited to the domestic scene within a country but extends to international relations.8 Therefore, they could be considered as non-state actors can influence regional and global events. Perhaps the revelation of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections is a vivid example of the impact social media can have in this regard. Cambridge Analytica is said to have exploited the data of 50 million Facebook users to help Russian companies influence the election.9 Although Facebook apologized, the incident continues to raise questions about the extent to which social media platforms are committed to protecting their users’ data, ensuring their confidentiality and not allowing companies or countries to exploit them.

French reports revealed that Cambridge Analytica had collaborated with Canada’s AggregateIQ in manipulating the vote for Brexit, with the two companies helping the movement win the referendum by a margin of less than 2 percent of the vote.10 Social media also played a significant role in the so-called Arab Spring, which erupted at the end of 2010 in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. On that occasion, social media helped youth to coordinate protests, incite against governments and call for the overthrow of regimes using slogans that appeal to the masses.11

These are clear examples of how social media can influence regional and international developments. Although it was not the most decisive factor in all of this, it contributed in one way or another to the outcome of these three events – the US presidential election, Brexit, and the Arab Spring. This demonstrates the influence of social media has become in various spheres.12.

Shaping public opinion

Social media plays an active role in shaping public opinion, contributing to the promotion of ideas espoused by the elites, which, in turn, helps gain popularity among the ordinary people and influence their approach to issues of social concern. According to the theory of social marketing, this role is very similar to marketing campaigns aimed at convincing consumers to buy a particular commodity.

This objective is achieved mainly through the ability of social media, and the new media in general, to have a quantitative impact when social media relays frequent messages on an issue. Such a campaign convinces members of the society in the long run.13 In other words, social media has become a major contributor in shaping public opinion by playing several roles, such as:

  1. Influencing awareness: A group of intellectuals and thinkers can promote their ideas through social media platforms and work to manipulate the awareness of users through media campaigns. They can modify their audiences’ behavior by increasing the dosage of information sent to influence them. They can also shape their awareness regarding different issues.14 Indeed, social media has contributed to the emergence of influential opinion leaders in the Arab world who have their media platforms, followed by millions of users. They can easily influence their followers on the issues they choose to highlight.

  1. Individuals influencing public opinion: This is done through various social media channels and platforms. Here the individual plays an important role in producing, editing, and disseminating news as well as influencing perceptions. This has contributed to the emergence of “citizen journalism”, which allows anyone with modest skills and knowledge to write news material to have an account on social media and express a point of view. However, the problem with this type of journalism is that it often lacks accuracy and credibility. Some people mix their opinion with news or events they publish or share with the mainstream media.15 Citizen journalism has evolved with the growing demand for alternative media to make ordinary people’s voices heard after some governments and businessmen in the Arab world monopolized traditional media.16 A citizen journalist is not subject to the restrictions imposed by traditional media regulatory authorities. Digital space allows citizens enormous freedom making it difficult for authorities to control or influence one’s orientation. This poses challenges to the authorities as it defies the state’s monopoly on the media and enables the citizens to respond when the state uses its media to justify and explain existing policies. Moreover, this type of journalism practices a kind of oversight on the performance of governments and exposes corruption in some sectors.17
 

The role of the individual in shaping public opinion has also been demonstrated through blogs, an important outlet for publishing information and opinion.18 The importance of blogs in influencing public opinion is evident in their significantly increasing numbers. More than 409 million people read over 20 billion blog pages per month while users publish 70 million new posts and 77 million new comments each month. Another report states that of the 1.7 billion websites in the world, about 500 million are blogs.19 This shows that the impact of blogs in influencing public opinion may be as profound as traditional social media. Blogs constitute one of the best sources of information across a wide spectrum of economic, political, cultural and social issues.

Studies reveal that blogs and social media, in general, have greatly influenced public opinion, either directly through their followers, or indirectly through their influence in traditional and electronic media. This is especially compounded by their rapid response to events and their ability to spread significantly.20 Social media has become active in shaping a unified international public opinion as a result of interaction between users from different cultures, who believe in a common set of values. Perhaps a good example of this would be the response to the terrorist attack on two New Zealand mosques in March 2019. Social media users called it an act of terrorism and forced Facebook and Twitter to remove hate speeches and content against Muslims in European countries.

 
  1. A contributing factor in effecting change: The role of social media is not limited to shaping people’s attitudes toward specific issues but has evolved to drive the movement of change in some countries. The so-called Arab Spring is the most obvious example. The calls for protests in many Arab countries toward the closing days of 2010 were launched via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, as well as blogs. They played a major role in exposing the many flaws in the performance of some Arab governments, particularly issues related to political corruption, lack of transparency and social justice. It was essentially these factors that prompted the youth in these countries to stage demonstrations and call for regime change. The protestors called for change based on the point of view developed under the influence of social media.21
Impact on socialization

Many researchers in political sociology agree that social media has greatly impacted social and political socialization, particularly among the youth who use it the most. Yet there are disagreements among them about the nature of this effect. While some describe this impact as positive because social media can be a tool to instill positive values such as loyalty, sense of belonging, and active participation in nation-building and development.

Others argue that social media has contributed toward the decline of the roles of institutions such as the family. They argue that the family is no longer a “reservoir” of values as social media has taken over the minds of the young people to the point of addiction. This threatens many of the values that the family stood for and the youth have become susceptible to the values of the virtual world promoted by social media around the clock.22

Social media has become the main source of youth socialization, and this may lead, in the long run, to the decline of the traditional culture in favor of a more globalized culture, which promotes a different set of values and customs.23 The danger, however, is that social media ingrains the idea of connecting human beings not to the nation-state or the national community but the world at large, reinforcing the idea of a narrow and limited society. Such ideas risk neutralizing the national identity and character in the face of a universal identity and character in which the individual loses his roots and abandons his loyalty and sense of belonging.24

Education and political participation

Numerous studies indicate that social media has become a major contributor to political education, with its diverse digital content discussing various theories, ideas, and political ideologies.25 Young people are the most heavily influenced by this content because they are more open to global cultures and political experiments in governance in different countries. This shows that social media, in its various forms, represent an important tool for political education and increased awareness of the importance of political participation. The multiple messages published and shared on social media can develop political knowledge and contribute toward the political upbringing of the young people.26 It also leads them toward political participation. This explains the growing role of young people in global politics as many of the world’s leaders and political activists come from the younger generation.

Meanwhile, social media offers young people multiple opportunities to express their opinion on local, Arab and international issues. Some analysts argue that social media is no longer a platform for providing political information but has become a breeding and training ground for the practice of politics.27 This is evident in the fact that social media has produced a new elite among Arab youth in recent years who have millions of followers and the ability to convince and influence others.

Pernicious roles

While social media plays several positive roles, raising awareness, influencing public opinion and defending public freedom issues, it is also being misused in a way that undermines peace and security in some Arab countries. Extremist organizations use social media as a tool to help spread their destructive ideas and incite violence and hatred, spread rumors and create chaos and disorder. This is the pernicious and dangerous role of social media, which can be summed up as follows:

  1. Misleading public opinion: Social media can sometimes become platforms for disinformation and manipulate public opinion in some countries in a way that serves the interests of certain states or groups. Disinformation can also be spread through fictitious accounts operating abroad, which serve an agenda and influence public opinion in a specific country.28 According to a study released by Oxford University in June 2017, social media has turned into tools at the hands of some governments to influence the elements of public opinion at home.29 Disinformation occurs when social media is used to generate rumors during elections attempting to either divert attention from the issues being raised in the election or to tamper the image of one party to benefit the other.30
  2. Spreading extremism and promoting hate speech: Terrorist groups often misuse social media platforms and websites to spread their extremist ideas. They find it relatively cheap, convenient and safe to deliver their messages using photos and multimedia tools.31 Extremist and terrorist organizations also exploit social media using fictitious names to promote their destructive and subversive ideas. This is an ever-growing threat as it harms national security and sows seeds of chaos.32

Some of these outfits have routinely used Twitter to interact and coordinate as it provides access to virtual communities. These groups exploit the space to recruit, coordinate and plan terrorist operations.33 With the collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2018, social media became a key component of the organization’s survival technique. ISIS relies on it to recruit new supporters benefiting from the diverse digital content on various social media platforms. Researchers call this strategy a “force multiplier”, or using social media to make the organization appear stronger than it really is. It also gives a sense to its supporters that the group is still able to rally and mobilize people.34

Spreading rumors: One of the major risks the social media brings is rumor-mongering. The growing phenomenon of fake accounts, which cannot be easily controlled, and the ease and speed of social media in publishing and circulating information, due to the lack of oversight or rules and regulations governing publication, makes them a potent threat to any society.35

The tools available help in fabricating images and videos, which make the rumor more credible and hence spreads quickly.36 Egypt, for instance, has been exposed to more than 21,000 instances of rumor-mongering during 2019 alone. They were all meant to throw the state into a state of confusion and frustration and seek to implode Egyptian society.37 Rumors have also spread in the past few months to offend political figures and leaders in many Arab countries. Last December, a social media campaign was launched calling for the boycott of the UAE’s products, claiming them to be of “poor quality”. It was a deliberate attempt to damage the country’s economy using nefarious rumors.

Perhaps the most recent example of how social media platforms are used to spread rumors is the ongoing coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis. Misinformation about the number of people infected with the virus spread on some websites in a few Arab countries. They not only called into question the health and preventive systems but also claimed incompetence and accused them of a lack of transparency and credibility. The Muslim Brotherhood has also used social media to spread rumors to fuel panic among Egyptian citizens. It has offended the government and criticized its response to the pandemic.38

  1. Causing unrest: Social media has become one of the most critical tools that can cause chaos and disorder in many Arab countries. A study39 shows that if it were not for social media, the so-called Arab Spring would not have happened and extended from one country to another. The trouble that occurred in these countries was the result of the mobilization via social media and TV channels, which led to protests against the ruling regimes.40 These events have demonstrated the ability of social media, particularly Facebook, to help mobilize millions of demonstrators, as well as rallying support through groups, pages, comments, calls, and incitement to topple regimes. These statements, published online, attract thousands of followers within minutes.

Rumors spread through social media can also devastate economies of large countries. Rumors about transcontinental companies could plunge their shares in the stock markets, spreading falsified news through unreliable websites, those publishing secret information such as WikiLeaks, or to perpetuate divisions within states and their governing institutions. Hence, those with a better social media mechanism in place achieve their goals and influence the behavior of other actors.41

Regulating social media in the Arab world

If modern theories of communication and media agree on the growing role of social media, especially with the digital revolution in today’s world, it is important to work toward maximizing its benefits. It is necessary to control and regulate social media so that they do not become platforms for spreading extremist and violent ideologies or rumors that undermine the security and stability of societies. Here are a few recommendations to achieve this objective:

  1. Training the youth in Arab countries on how to safely use social media and benefit from it. This can be done by designing tailor-made courses, supervised by experts and specialists, to draw the attention of the young people toward the dangers of the ideology that extremist and terrorist groups spread on these platforms.
  2. Addressing the rumors circulated on social media by penalizing rumor-mongers. While social media plays an active role in spreading rumors and lies, it also provides solutions to combat and contain them. A Facebook paper, Information Operations, in April 2017 explained the use of algorithms that can monitor organized campaigns to spread rumors. These algorithms detect systematic behavior meant to spread the news and can block fake accounts by spotting repeated dissemination of the same news or suspicious correspondence.42 There is also a digital tracking tool, which not only spots rumors, their spread, and source but also checks their elements immediately and systematically. The most prominent example is Emergent, which is part of a research project of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. The website red-flags rumors and alerts people. It explains the source and the size of spread with the click of a button.43
  3. It is also imperative to use social media to counter extremist ideologies and destructive ideas targeting the youth. Numerous important initiatives have been taken, such as the Sawab Center, which was established in cooperation between the UAE and the US in 2015, to counter misconceptions and correcting them through social media. Such initiatives allow more room for moderate voices and those who reject extremist and deviant ideas promoted by misguided followers.
References:
  1. Maryam Mohsin, Social Media Statistics You Need to Know in 2020, Oberlo, 7 Nov 2019, https://bit.ly/3d5W2AI
  2. Digital 2020, A comprehensive look at the state of the internet, mobile devices, social media, and ecommerce, Hootsuite, https://bit.ly/33EOGjs
  3. Ibrahim Al Abaidy, the Pros and Cons of Social Media, Mawdow, 25 February 2020: https://bit.ly/2IWGO3c
  4. Ambady N.and (Others): On Judging and Being Judged Accurately in Zero Acquaintance Situations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (Washington, DC :American Psychology Association,1995)pp 69-70
  5. Amjad Arar, Media in the Age of Globalization, Albayan newspaper, 19 March 2015.
  6. Muatasem Mahdy Abu Shetal, the Role of information in raising awareness regarding security, combating terrorism: Obstacles and Naif Arab University for Security Sciences, Riyadh, 25 June 2012, p.15.
  7. Khaled Harby, The New Media: A challenge to the values, Arabic Magazine, 14 August 2015:  https://bit.ly/2QqFAkH
  8. Sinan Saleh Rashid Al-Salehi, the role of social media in international politics, Itijahat Syasya, 1st edition, December 2017: https://bit.ly/3941jpd
  9. Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach, the guardian, https://bit.ly/2QtDb90
  10. Cambridge Analytica played a crucial role in Brexit, France24, 27 March 2018: https://bit.ly/3dcjn3N
  11. Harlow, Summer, It Was a "Facebook Revolution": Exploring the Meme-Like Spread of Narratives During the Egyptian Protests". Revista De Communicacion, 2013, Vol. 12, pp 59-82
  12. Alejandra Guzmanm, 6ways social media is changing the world, World Economic Forum, 07 Apr 2016, https://bit.ly/2IXZH5A
  13. Izdihar Maatouq, Social media and shaping the public opinion, Al-ehda Al-Islamya magazine, Lebanon, edition (181), January 2017:
  14. Moatasem Babaker Mustafa, the ideology of social media and public opinion, Al-Tanweer Center, Khartoum, 2014, 1st edition, p.191-192.
  15. For mor details about the citizen journalism, please see: Jamal Ezz Al-Din, Lina Malkawi, Citizen Journalism: Does it has negative effects on the reality of the press? Al-Hurra, November 12, 2013: https://arbne.ws/2TXOb0n
  16. Noha Belaid, New Media and Political Change in the Time of the Arab Revolutions, Observatory of Arab Press, 29 July 2016: https://bit.ly/2xI5WYY
  17. Ammar Ali Hassan, New Media and Social Change, Al Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), 20 December 2018: https://bit.ly/3d8fVHo
  18. For more details on the role of blogs in shaping public opinion, see: Fathi Hussein Amer, Online Public Opinion, (Cairo, University Publishing House, 2012), first edition, p. 164-165.
  19. Karam Neama, Ideas on blogs despite the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter, Middle East Online, October 21, 2019: https://bit.ly/2QpwKUC
  20. 20- For more details on the role of blogs and social media in shaping public opinion, see: Donald K. Wright & Michelle D. Hinson, How Blogs and Social Media are Changing Public Relations and the Way it is Practiced, Public Relations Journal Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2008, https://bit.ly/3dea2sn
  21. Noha Belaid, Ibid.
  22. For more details on this aspect, see: Fahima bin Othman, The role of social media in changing family values: Facebook as an example, Magazine of Human and Social Sciences No. (47), p. 99.
  23. Ibrahim Yahyaoui, the cultural effects (value and behavior) of the new media on users, Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Issue (50), Algeria, March 5, 2019: https://bit.ly/3dbMB2z
  24. Khaled Harbi, Ibid.
  25. Anthony Downey (editor), Uncommon Grounds: New Media and Critical Practices in North Africa and the Middle East (London, I.B.Tauris, December 2014) pp 256.
  26. Daniel Halpern, Sebastián Valenzuela, James E. Katz, We Face, I Tweet: How Different Social Media Influence Political Participation through Collective and Internal Efficacy, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 22, Issue 6, 1 November 2017, Pages 320–336, https://bit.ly/2U2YBMt
  27. Segaard, S. B., Perceptions of Social Media: A Joint Arena for Voters and Politicians? Carlsson Ed. NORDICOM Review; Oct 2015, Vol. 36 Issue 2, p66-78.
  28. Muhammad Ali Saleh, when social media turns into misinformation platforms, Asharq Al Awsat newspaper (London), issue no (14188), October 2, 2017.
  29. For the findings of this study, see: Ilona Turtola, How do social media build the professional identity of journalists?, University of Oxford , June 2017, https://bit.ly/33ziRZ6
  30. How does social media affect electoral benefits? Future center for Advanced Researches and Studies (Abu Dhabi), May 18, 2017: https://bit.ly/2QxmI3s
  31. Philip Seib and Dana M. Janbek, Global Terrorism and New Media: The Post-Al Qaeda Generation, (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 44
  32. Fake accounts on social media, Al-Shahid Magazine (Kuwait), 19 September 2019: https://bit.ly/33duUtM
  33. Geoff Dean, Peter Bell, Jack Newan, The Dark Side of Social Media: Review of Online Terrorism, Pakistan Journal of Criminology, Vol. 3, No. 4, April – July 2012, pp 194 – 195.
  34. Thomas Elkjer Nissen, Terror.com - IS’s Social Media Warfare in Syria and Iraq, Contemporary Conflicts: Military Studies Magazine, Issue 2, Volume 2 (Denmark: Royal Danish Defence College, September 2014).
  35. Fatima Al-Zahraa Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Exposure to social media and its implications on spreading rumors among university youth, (field study), Faculty of Arts, Department of Information, South Valley University, Qena: https://bit.ly/2WIqBnm
  36. Fatima Al-Zahraa Abdel-Fattah, “Electronic Sharing: Mechanisms for Combating Rumors in Cyber Space”, Future Center for Advanced Studies, Abu Dhabi, May 29, 2017: https://bit.ly/2o5KiJg
  37. Fathi Hussein, Combating prejudiced rumors in social media, Al-Bawaba News, (Cairo), 20 September 2019: https://bit.ly/2QxK5tK
  38. Sabri Abdel Hafeez, Brotherhood resorts to Coronavirus to topple the Egyptian regime! Elaph news website, March 17, 2020: https://bit.ly/2vHxeOE
  39. Anthony Downey, op. cit
  40. Ahmed Abdel-Hamid Hussein, (Other Editors), The Diaries of the Egyptian Revolution, Al-Jazeera Center for Studies, Arab scientific Publishers, Beirut, First Edition, 2011, p. 4
  41. For more details about the role of electronic media in international conflicts, see: Ehab Khalifa, e-power and the dimensions of the transformation in the elements of power, Alexandria Library, Alexandria, No. (12), 2014, p. 7
  42. Fatima Al-Zahraa Abdel-Fattah, ibid.
  43. For more details, see Karyne Levy, Emergent debunks internet rumors in real time, October 14, 2014, https://bit.ly/2o5Ym5w
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