Three months before 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid – sparking that country’s revolution and the wider Arab uprisings – there was a similar case in the city of Monastir on Tunisia’s central coast. The difference was no one knew about it, as the desperate act failed to make it onto Facebook.

During the global media’s reporting on the wave of protests that began in Tunisia and toppled two more dictators in Egypt and Libya in 2011, there were times when the term Arab Spring became interchangeable with ‘Twitter uprising’ or ‘Facebook revolution’. While the nature of each pro-democracy movement – and their ultimate success – varied dramatically, they had one defining feature in common: social media.

We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate and YouTube to tell the world

With some two-thirds of the population in Egypt under the age of 30, social media had become the main channel used by young, educated Egyptians to discuss their grievances long before the uprising in Cairo began. Many had been communicating through Facebook, Twitter and blogs in the run-up to the unrest. The government’s shutdown of the internet as crowds gathered in Tahrir Square failed to stop the revolt and, as events unfolded, images of protesters holding smartphones led to claims that social media helped maintain the momentum of the uprisings. As one protester put it: “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.”

This is all a far cry from 60 years ago when Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser used radio to consolidate his power after the overthrow of the monarchy, recognising the medium as a way to reach people in remote areas and bypass the literacy barrier. Radio came under the tight control of the government, which used the Voice of the Arabs service as its official mouthpiece.

Similarly, when terrestrial Arab television launched in the 1960s, audiences were fed a daily diet of government bulletins and limited programming. State-backed newspapers churned out bland news stories about local dignitaries.

Media revolution

After 1990, there were massive changes in the Arab media landscape, with the emergence of private newspapers, websites and satellite television channels. In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, there are now more than 500 TV channels and 90 million TV households.

Just how much of a role the new millennium’s digital juggernauts played in the Arab Spring is hotly debated, however. While social media use was prevalent among college-educated Egyptians, the majority of the population was not online. This suggests the new media’s importance lay in communicating to the world what was happening, rather than acting as a rallying cry.

Visual-led social networks, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are growing fast

Six years on, the story is much clearer. “Social media in the region reaches a far greater audience than it did in 2011,” says Damian Radcliffe, professor of journalism at the US’ University of Oregon. The number of Facebook users in the Middle East has tripled since 2012, driven by high penetration of smartphones. Gulf nations such as Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait enjoy some of the highest levels for smartphone use anywhere in the world, with 93 per cent of Facebook users accessing the social network by mobile.

“The Mena region is also the fastest-growing consumer of videos on Facebook, with social networkers watching twice the global average,” says Radcliffe. “Text-heavy Twitter seems to have had its moment, and visual-led social networks, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are growing fast. These types of services are reshaping the social media landscape, tapping into consumer preferences for a more visual experience.”

Consuming content

Dubai Press Club’s Arab Media Outlook 2016-18 report confirms that the internet and social media have altered how people consume news and information. “Consumers in the region are among the most active media users globally,” notes Jayant Bhargava, partner and head of digital media and entertainment Middle East at Strategy&, in the report’s foreword. “On average, each user spends more than 10 hours a day consuming media content.” More than 40 per cent of this time is spent on digital platforms, with digital and television accounting for nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) of all media hours.

The writing is on the wall for some media outlets

The report found that despite the challenging economic climate, the region’s youth demographic and increasing levels of digitisation mean there are many positives for media companies. By 2018, the media market in the region is expected to be worth $12.4bn. “While the growth in nominal advertising expenditure is expected to slow down, the paid media part is expected to grow faster than advertising,” writes Bhargava. “Digital platforms and paid media will be the key contributors of growth of the media sector, with Pay TV and digital gaming as primary drivers.”

Although the full impact of these digital developments will take some time to play out, it seems the writing is on the wall for some media outlets, as witnessed by the closure of Dubai’s 7DAYS newspaper. According to the 2016 annual Arab Youth Survey, the proportion of those who read newspapers dropped from 62 per cent in 2011 to 17 per cent in 2016, signalling that titles need to evolve their business models to survive. MEED is at the forefront of this change, continuing to innovate with the launch of live TV broadcasts in 2016.