LONDON—A strong preference for visual content, coupled with better broadband connections, is fast making Instagram a bigger player in Arab social media, although Facebook continues to dominate the arena.
But regardless of the medium, Arab social media users are fearful of saying everything that they want to say.
Those are a few findings from the latest report in a series of annual reviews on social media in the Arab world written by Damian Radcliffe, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon.
Radcliffe pulled data from a number of different sources together with anecdotal evidence to provide a snapshot of Arab social media use. This has been a popular topic of research since the Arab Spring, where many commentators have attributed the swift spread of uprisings to social media—though Radcliffe says that’s an oversimplification.
“My report offers a chance to step back and be able to go beyond all the hyperbole,” he says.
There are now about 25 million Instagram users in the Middle East and North Africa. The photo and image-sharing platform has proved especially popular in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.
Instagram use has quadrupled in just two years: Saudi Arabia alone has seven million monthly users. Snapchat, the video and image messaging service, has also grown in popularity at a similar rate.
“To be able to get the most benefit out of those platforms, you need a smartphone with a good camera and an affordable data connection,” says Radcliffe, “so their use tends to grow in more affluent countries.”
Fadi Salem, a fellow at the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai and author of the similar Arab Social Media Report, says that improvements in Internet availability have helped to fuel Instagram’s progress.
Predictions indicate that there could by as many as 197 million Internet users in the Arab region by next year.
“The growth of bandwidth in the region means more people have access and the cost is going down,” says Salem. “Image- and video-related apps are bandwidth-heavy. More people are able to use these platforms because the Internet connection is less cumbersome.”
Visual apps still have some way to go before they peak, says Salem, because while the region’s bandwidth has improved, it remains relatively poor. “If there were no limitations, we’d have even more usage,” he says.
These findings are important, say Salem and Radcliffe, because they help other academics using social media to gather data. Big companies are also thirsty to know more about how to reach the Arab audience.
“Brands are always chasing the youth market. They want to know what platforms are best to do that,” says Radcliffe.
But for users, freedom of speech is still a major concern. Just 43 percent of social media users in the Middle East feel that they are able to say what they want, compared to 71 percent in the United States.
This sentiment isn’t uniquely Arab; government censorship of social media is also high in Turkey. Radcliffe says Twitter received 477 takedown requests from the Turkish government in the second half of 2014. That’s more than all other countries combined.
Radcliffe also highlighted specific cases of government suppression of social media users in his report—not the least that Saudi Arabia’s supreme court upheld a sentence of 1,000 lashes on the blogger Raif Badawi for insulting Islam through electronic channels.
This hasn’t deterred all social media users from satire. One example was #RiyadhLife, which trended on Twitter and Snapchat. People used the hashtag to poke fun at themselves and their fellow Riyadh dwellers.
Users don’t have to reveal their real name on those platforms, which can give them the confidence to say things they wouldn’t normally, says Radcliffe. “It’s a fine line to walk, and users will be aware of that.”
“The amount of comedy that came out of the hashtag was wonderful,” he says. “Outsiders don’t always think of the Arab world as an area of humor, but you see the playfulness with that hashtag. It shows a wonderful side to the region, that people are self-deprecating.”