Social media usage, across platforms, spiked during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Industry and governments alike sought to use these social networks to promote public health messages, as well as combat misinformation related to the crisis.
Damian Radcliffe (School of Journalism & Communication, University of Oregon/Fellow, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University) joined WAN-IFRA’s recent Middle East Media Leaders eSummit to discuss how social media networks will become an important source for talent spotting, as well as a key avenue for content and information consumption, even after the pandemic.
This is the ninth study that Radcliffe has carried out since 2012, and it consulted more than 200 English and Arabic sources.
Here are the key findings of social media habits in the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region:
The Middle East loves social media and that’s not an exaggeration:
People in the MENA region spend a lot of time on social media, averaging about 3.5 hours a day, across platforms.
An average person in the Middle East is active on about 8.4 social media platforms during any given month. In the UAE, that average is 10.5 accounts – the highest per person, globally.
Sizeable reach: Despite the excitement and interest around emerging platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, there is still a high level of reach for established platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook, for example, is growing in North Africa, namely in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.Egypt is the ninth largest market for Facebook in the world, with 44 million users, as of October 2020. Turkey is the only other MENA country in the Top 20, ranked 13th — ahead of Columbia and behind the UK, with 37 million users.
Libya (100 percent), UAE (93 percent) and Qatar (90 percent) are among the countries with the highest levels of reach for Facebook, relative to the population.
Twitter has seen a decline during the past few years, particularly amongst Arab nationals. However, Turkey (6th), Saudi Arabia (8th) and Egypt (18th) figure in the top 20 growing Twitter markets, globally.
“We can’t talk about MENA social media usage as if it were a homogenous experience. We see variety on both the country by country level and in sub regions such as North Africa, the Levant or the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council),” says Radcliffe.
Impact of social media: The study states that given the large amounts of time people spend on social media platforms, there’s great trust in these networks, and they consistently score incredibly highly in surveys conducted by YouGov and other market research firms on a country-by-country basis.
Seventy-one percent of Middle East respondents in a 500 person survey run by PwC reported that their usage of WhatsApp and other messaging apps had increased since the outbreak of the pandemic.
“Google, WhatsApp and YouTube figure in the top 10 brand lists for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE in YouGov’s 2020 best brand rankings. This speaks volumes about the amount of time people spend on these platforms and the trust in that relationship,” says Radcliffe.
The study shows that users in Morocco and Egypt (60 percent), Saudi Arabia (59 percent), Turkey (56 percent), Israel (52 percent), and UAE (49 percent) are more likely to use social media as part of their research into brands than the global average.
Growing source for news: Consumption of social news and social media as a finder and driver for news has changed dramatically during the past five-six years. Data, tracked annually by the Arab Youth Survey, shows that around 2015-2016, social media didn’t have great sway in terms of where people got their news from. Their habits continued to be traditional in accessing traditional platforms for news consumption.
Around 2018, this pattern began to shift. People increasingly began getting their news from social media first and then from other online sources such as aggregators and search engines.
“This has real implications for traditional established media, particularly newspapers, but also to some extent broadcast news that has historically had quite a sizeable reach in the region, and has started to become less important to younger audiences aged between 18-24,” says Radcliffe.
Seventy-nine percent of Arab youth say they get news from social media; this statistic is up 25 percent from 2015.
The rise of TikTok: TikTok rose exponentially in the Gulf region in early 2021, which was partly the result of the pandemic and people being confined to their homes, looking to embrace something fun, entertaining and less serious than the news.
Top TikTok influencers in the MENA region grew their fanbase by an average of 65 percent, between February and August 2020. The highest engagement rates were seen in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
An important point to note is that these influencers were unique to the platform who grew organically, and not people migrating from YouTube and Instagram with an established fan base and brand recognition.
Snapchat: Snapchat, albeit not as fresh and innovative as TikTok, still remains an important social media platform in certain parts of the MENA region such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. It now reaches 67 million unique users in the region each month, up 38 percent year-on-year (as of October 2020).
“This is a good example pointing to the fact that social media usage and experience across the MENA region is not homogenous,” says Radcliffe.
Content creation relationships developed with influencers, broadcasters and media production houses to create content for Snapchat Discover year round, and especially during Ramadan (averaging 77 minutes a day), has seen huge growth in the terms of the time spent watching content on the platform.
The watch time on Snapchat in Saudi Arabia, typically dwarfs that of conventional broadcast and satellite television, as per the study.
Four MENA countries – Saudi Arabia (17.9 million users), Turkey (9.7m), Iraq (9.6m) and Egypt (8.9m) are in the 13 largest national markets for the app worldwide.
Instagram: The Middle East is home to some of the biggest markets for Instagram in the world. Three MENA nations — Turkey 6th (at 44 million), Saudi Arabia 16th (15 million) and Egypt 20th (14 million) — are all in the Top 20 for largest audiences, by country.
Looking at a different metric, percentage of the population using Instagram, and even more MENA nations are present in the Top 20. More than half of people online in Kuwait (4th), Turkey (5th), Bahrain (9th), and Israel (17th) are using the Facebook-owned app.
Impact of COVID
The most discernible impact of the pandemic was that people in the MENA region were spending more time online than usual. The study notes that this growth was true for countries across the world, but it was the highest in the Middle East and Africa.
What needs to be seen now is as the world slowly adjusts to the new normal, will this spike in usage continue?
Readers can download Radcliffe’s study here.