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Wednesday, May 26 2010

Why Facebook Is Sweeping Aside Arab Media

OnlineHonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

The shift from print media to the Internet and social media is like a tidal wave sweeping everything in its path – even the Arab world. The BBC reported this week that Facebook membership in Arab countries has surpassed the number of newspaper readers.

The BBC cited a Dubai-based public relations firm, which found that 15 million Arabs use Facebook, while the combined newspaper circulation, including English and French editions, falls just under 14 million. (The full study's here.)

Magdi Abdelhadi, the BBC’s Middle East editor who wrote the article, implied that Facebook’s incredible penetration, even in countries like Saudi Arabia, could have been predicted:

The findings should come as no surprise. The majority of the region's more than 300 million people is young, and Internet use is on the rise.

In societies where political freedoms are severely limited, many have also resorted to Facebook as an alternative to the public sphere.

Abdelhadi may have seen it coming, but others who follow Internet trends might be astonished by the news. After all, news articles that mention both Facebook and Arabs or Muslims tend to focus on topic such as government bans on the service. Just last week, Pakistan banned Facebook and Youtube for “sacrilegious” content.

Sometimes the bans are political. Last year, following HonestReporting’s successful campaign to force Facebook to allow Golan residents to list Israel in their home country, the Syrian government banned Facebook for a second time.

Surprises aside, Abdelhadi is right about Facebook and other social media serving as outposts of freedom in otherwise dictatorial regimes.

Following Iran's contested election last year, protestors took to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to tell the world what was happening. They had no choice – Iran blocked traditional media from covering the protests.

But social media is more than a lifeline for the oppressed. It serves the basic human need to communicate more naturally than any media before it. That’s why it will continue to sweep aside traditional media -- especially when the media is a state-run organ for repression.

UPDATE: May 27: Carrington Malin of SpotOn PR, who wrote the report, shares further thoughts in the comment section below. Carrington, please keep us posted on the changes you observe.

Previously in Alex's series: Is the Internet Creating a New Type of News Bias?



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If truth be told, the Arab newspaper press are probably easier to sweep aside than some other parts of the world. Many countries in the region are still fighting to drive literacy rates up and more than that, the habit of reading newspapers is not as widespread as in the West. For example, Saudi Arabia consumes just under 1.5 million daily newspapers with a population of 28 million.

As with the rest of the world the dynamic, sound-bite nature of online news has clicked with youth audiences. And for various reasons, all audiences are moving online. So, as government censors start to realise that restricting the newspaper press is a less and less effective way to control news, they're focusing more and more of their attention online too.

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