Risks of social media abuse in MENA region

MENA is overwhelmingly young, increasingly tech-savvy and markedly prone to surfing internet.

2016/11/27 Issue: 83 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly

Widespread “fake news” is one of the biggest stories to come out of the US presidential election. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the problem of inaccurate content in social media designed to incite is much more chronic and is potentially more dangerous.

MENA is overwhelmingly young, increasingly tech-savvy and markedly prone to surfing the internet, watching videos, making calls on WhatsApp, sharing images via Snapchat, posting photo­graphs on Instagram and engaging with other people and the world on social media.

According to industry announcements as well as the first report ever compiled on social media in the Arab world, the picture in 2015 was as follows: With 80 million users, Facebook continues to be the most popular social network in MENA. Egypt’s 27 million users make it MENA’s largest Facebook population, followed by Saudi Arabia (12 million) and Iraq (11 million). WhatsApp, the popular messaging service, is the leading social media platform in Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where it is used to discuss topics as diverse as religion and recipes, as well as conduct e-commerce. MENA is the fastest growing consumer of videos on Facebook — it watches twice as many as the global average. Saudi Arabia and the UAE dominate MENA’s Twitter usage with 53% and 51% of social media users respectively claiming a Twitter handle.

The region’s people have never been so interconnected. Add to that social media’s potential for stimulating cross-cultural understanding with people from beyond the region. Apparently, Snapchat, the self-deleting image-sharing mobile app, started a whole new conversation among non-Muslims by featuring Mecca on its “Live Stories” feed during Ramadan. Many in the West were ecstatic about the rare insight into a city that only Muslims can visit.

But if social media has the potential to be a force for good, it can also scramble the truth, actively encourage dark forces of hate and bigotry and influence public opinion in an ugly way.

The risk is very real in the Middle East and North Africa where a whopping 87% of social media users are on Facebook; 84% of them access the network via mobile devices. A massive 89% of MENA Facebook users log on to the site daily.

In a region plagued by civil strife and violence, social media can only amplify the ills of divided societies and the shortcomings of their educational systems. All too often, they become a rumour mill and a venue for sectarian and ideological sniping instead of genuine dialogue. Conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated accusations abound. The conjunction of smart phones and social media is changing the political and social debate in many Arab countries.

In a new welcome development, officials who accept bribes can no longer remain faceless. But in many other cases, witnesses and even victims of terrorist attacks unwittingly give extremist groups more publicity with the spread of every shocking image.

The onus is on us all to be aware of the perils of social media abuse. Communication education should be part of the school syllabus in MENA countries. That would be a useful start.

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