How the Middle East uses social media, in four charts

December 19, 2012

During the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, social media was celebrated as a tool for political discourse and democracy building in the Middle East. Nearly two years later, a new report from the Pew Research Center suggests that faith wasn’t misplaced — social media users in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan still take to social media to discuss politics at nearly twice the rate of their Western counterparts.

The report also found that Middle Easterners post about religion and community issues far more frequently than the rest of the world. Six of every 10 Egyptian, Tunisian and Jordanian social media-users post about religion, the report says; in Western Europe, that number plummets to barely one in 10.

This isn’t meant to imply anything profound about the mindsets or cultures of the 21 countries surveyed, of course. Even in the United States, only a splinter of the population uses social media, and the users skew young and educated. That pattern repeats wherever you go, though the total percentage of Internet users who have social media accounts is generally higher in the U.S. and much of the West than it is in the Middle East.

The Pew survey does, however, imply some fascinating differences in the ways the world, and particularly the Middle East, uses social media. While our Facebook and Twitter feeds may seem clogged with cat pictures — and, according to the report, music, movies and sports — Middle Eastern users also see the sites as places to engage on critical issues, like politics and community. That backs up a July 2012 report from Dubai’s School of Government that found between a third and a half of Middle Eastern social networkers felt the sites influenced community change, and roughly half believed that social media had made them more tolerant to opposing views.

But there’s still one thing we can all tweet on: pop culture. In all 21 of the countries Pew surveyed, at least half of social media users post about music and movies.

Case in point: “Gossip Girl” was trending in the United Arab Emirates yesterday.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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