DUBAI: Social networks are no longer just a secondary means of communication. In recent years, it has become a powerful tool that can influence public opinion and educate and influence young people – facets demonstrated over the past decade by the impact of networks on major political and social events in the Middle East.
In the early years of the Arab Spring, even before Instagram was as widespread as it is today, activists took to Facebook and Twitter to amplify their demands.
During the Beirut explosion on August 4, 2020, Lebanese at home and abroad took to social media to describe the aftermath of the destruction and call on the world for help, as well as to mobilize their community. at home and abroad to help those in need. .
It could be argued that the violence that took place in Palestine, the Gaza Strip and Israel in May gained international visibility through social media. The pleas were heard, the violence was seen and even experienced by proxy thanks to a wide sharing on social networks.
In such events, critical and verified information was shared as well as news that misinformed and relayed falsified data – the double-edged sword of social media.
Global reliance on social media has continued to increase in recent years, particularly during the coronavirus disease pandemic. According to the July 2020 Hootsuite Report on Global Digital Growth, since COVID-19, digital adoption has increased by 10% compared to 12 months earlier. Almost 51% of the world’s population currently uses social media, with a rate of 1 million new users per day, according to Simon Kemp.
As for the Arab world, the 2021 Arab Barometer report on the digital divide in the region confirmed an increase in internet use for all countries in the Middle East and North Africa during the pandemic, which Daniella Raz argues in The digital divide of the Arab world has fostered “a digital divide which is affected by the economic situation of the country and the level of education of its citizens”.
According to the 2021 Arab Youth Survey, 61% of young Arabs use social media as a source of information, compared to 34% who consume information online and 9% in newspapers, making social media the main source of information. information for young people.
MENA’s youth population is increasingly dependent on social media platforms for accessing information, especially video and visual social media, said Fares Akkad, director of media partnerships for market news. growing in Asia-Pacific, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Turkey. to Meta.
“This is a trend which has raised the bar for overtime and has been stepped up especially during the pandemic and it is likely to grow at a faster and faster rate,” he told Arab News.
âWe have seen the strength and scale of the digital world, providing a platform and a voice to millions of people who might not otherwise have it, providing an open and accessible place through which ordinary people can log in, access a plethora of information from politics to lifestyle and fashion.
During COVID-19, there was a noticeable change in the way the Arab public collects information, from traditional media to new media, especially social media. This has led many Arab governments to redefine the way they use networking platforms as a means of communicating critical information to their populations.
The World Health Organization has also launched its official pages on social media platforms, including WhatsApp – an action that recognized how, during the pandemic, social media became a primary source through which information and data official documents have been released.
However, the same 2019 Arab Youth Survey showed how 80% of Arab youth use social media as a source of information, compared to the internet (61%) and newspapers (27%).
The decline in the use of social media as a source of information – from 80% in 2019 and 79% in 2020 to 61% in 2021 – highlights the rise in reluctance to use these platforms to obtain information.
“Most of the surveys I have conducted clearly show that a large part of the younger generation today relies on social media for information,” Jad Melki, associate professor and director of journalism and media studies at the Media Research and Training Institute of the Media Research Institute. Lebanese American University, Arab News said.
âA lot of kids don’t follow the news to begin with – they’re more interested in entertainment than the news. “
The reluctance to use the platforms stems from negative attributes – as critical information is shared with the public for the greater good, so too are false rumors and misinformation, which have contributed to an increase in publicity. fear and panic among the people. This is especially true among young people, many of whom do not yet have the experience to verify information or turn to other sources.
One example is Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testifying before the US Congress in October, where she said Facebook products “harm children, fuel division and weaken our democracy.” She said the company would have to declare “moral bankruptcy” if it is to go ahead.
Haugen also accused the company of dividing and fueling ethnic violence, placing – as she said in Washington – “astronomical profits before people.”
Haugen introduced himself as the source of a series of revelations in the Wall Street Journal based on internal documents from Facebook (now Meta) which revealed that the company knew how harmful Instagram was to the mental health of adolescents and how changes to Facebook’s News Feed feature had also made the platform more confrontational among young people.
Haugen’s testimony suggests that social media is no longer a secondary method of communication, but a powerful tool that influences public opinion, and there are pros and cons to using it.
She can educate as much as she can misinform; to bring peoples and cultures together and fuel terrorism and extremism. In many cases, social media is also supplanting mainstream media as the method of choice for obtaining information.
Akkad says Meta’s app house has made âeveryone can access credible and accurate informationâ a priority. He says Meta is removing false vaccine claims, conspiracy theories and misinformation that could lead to physical harm.
Currently, according to Akkad, Meta is removing content that violates its community’s standards, including more than 20 million fake COVID-19 and vaccine content.
The platform has built a global network of over 80 independent fact-checking partners who assess the accuracy of publications spanning over 60 languages ââin its applications, with partners in the Arab region including AFP, Reuters and Fatabyyano.
It also posted warnings on more than 190 million COVID-related content on Facebook that Meta’s fact-checking partners have classified as false, partially false, tampered with, or lacking in context.
On the positive side, Meta has helped, according to Akkad, more than 2 billion people find credible COVID-19 information through its COVID-19 clearinghouse and newsfeed pop-ups.
But is it enough to reduce the spread of false information?
Arpi Berberian, social media manager at Create Media Group in Dubai, believes that to protect Arab youth, or anyone else, social media must be regulated.
While this is the primary source for young people in terms of receiving and processing information, âit should also be up to the recipient to verify the facts and verify the source of what they read online. Especially when it comes to political news, âshe told Arab News.
âIt is difficult to generalize across Arab countries given the different political systems, education levels and cultures,â Melki said.
âLebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Iraq or what we call Western Asia, have been the most agitated outside of Yemen and Libya, and part of this unrest is linked to habits. social media and obtaining information.
Melki says you can see that as young people get older and the generation changes, they become more interested in politics and follow the news. In addition, as Melki points out, traditional information now circulates widely online and via social networks.
“However, a significant majority still watch television – television remains the queen of all demographics, especially in times of conflict,” he said.
âWe investigated the Lebanese protests in 2019 and television was the primary means of receiving information, followed by social media. “
Melki added that the investigation revealed the same with regard to Syrian refugees, whether they are inside or outside the camps – television is the main medium for receiving the information.
Can and should social media addiction be reversed in the Arab world?
âI don’t think it can be reversed. However, it can be improved, âsays Berberian. âThere must be government-imposed guidelines on social media, especially the mainstream media with millions of users of all ages.
âIt also doesn’t seem like a good idea to allow some of the major social media platforms to be run by a single entity without any balance. The responsibility and safety of its users must be at the forefront of social media.
While social media addiction cannot be reduced in the Arab world and has become, as analysts claim, one, if not the primary means for young people and the general population to receive critical information , then the way forward is regulation and education. . But then who should regulate and educate and under what conditions?
Especially in countries that lack the opportunities for young people available elsewhere, social media becomes a window to the world and one with endless social and business possibilities, and that is the double-edged sword of social media: their benefits. and disadvantages can be almost equally weighed.