Tweet nothings: Arabs quieter on politics amid fear, fatigue
Social media came into its own during the Arab Spring – but increasingly wary users are now talking more about sport and TV, and less about politics
It was the medium that helped shape the Arab Spring.
But social media – the world’s window on the regional uprisings – is now being used for more everyday conversations about TV and sports, and fewer about Tahrir Square.
Fear and fatigue are said to be behind the trend of fewer Arabs commenting on political issues on sites like Facebook and Twitter, according to research by media-analytics firm Social Eyez.
In 2012, around 66 percent of all Arabic-language online conversations were about politics, the Dubai-based agency found. Last year, that had dropped to 37 percent. Conversely, discussions about art rose to 11 percent of all online conversations in 2014, up from just 4 percent in 2012.
Fadl al-Tarzi, chief executive of Social Eyez, said there are two key factors behind the fact that fewer Arabs are discussing politics online.
“The excitement of being able to express your opinion openly is on the decline. But at the same time, the fear of doing so is also on the rise within the Gulf,” he said. “Especially in countries like Saudi Arabia, people are a bit more cautious.”
Social Eyez analyzed tens of millions of Arabic-language conversations, scanning online blogs, forums and readers’ comments on news websites within the Middle East and North Africa region.
None of 2014’s top three most-discussed topics were political in nature, according to the Social Eyez findings.
The most-discussed story on any given day was about the football coach Sami Al-Jaber being relieved from his position at the Saudi football club Al-Hilal. That was followed by stories about the winners of The Voice and Arab Idol TV-talent shows. Only the fourth most-discussed story – about Arab outrage over Israel’s bombings of Gaza last summer – was political in nature.
“That would probably come as a big surprise to the public,” said Al-Tarzi. “The Arab Spring allowed people… to talk about whatever they want. But the dust has settled a bit in terms of political interest. The excitement about being able to speak freely, politically is on the decline. It’s not a new thing anymore.”
While politics is still the most-discussed category online – with more than 10 million comments tracked by Social Eyez – that is only because of the sheer number of issues within that topic, Al-Tarzi said. Subjects like society, culture and sports are becoming increasingly popular; there is also more buzz around country-specific politics at the expense of pan-Arab issues, he added.
“People are becoming more and more interested and concerned with what’s happening within their country as opposed to – for example – the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Al-Tarzi said.
Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a UAE-based commentator, pointed to two factors behind Arabs posting fewer political messages online: Stricter laws regarding online media, and political fatigue.
“Four years after the so-called Arab Spring started there is… political fatigue amongst the region’s social media users who have to a large degree moved on,” said Al-Qassemi, himself an influential figure on social media, with over 318,000 followers on Twitter.
“I have personally been posting more about Arab art, culture and entrepreneurship on my social media feeds due to being jaded by the political setbacks over the past few years.”
Al-Qassemi also pointed to government policies concerning online forums as influencing the situation.
“The introduction of strict penalties for the misuse of online media by regional governments have greatly restricted online political debate. Laws that are no doubt necessary to tackle incitement and hate speech are now applied to bloggers and social media users who pose no security risk,” he told Al Arabiya News.
One example of extreme action taken against online writers is the case of Saudi blogger Raef Badawi, who received a sentence of 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam, and who is also serving a 10-year jail term.
Badawi received the first 50 lashes of his sentence on January 9, although subsequent floggings have reportedly been postponed on medical grounds. Several countries and rights groups have denounced his treatment, saying Badawi was exercising his right to freedom of expression.
Harris Breslow, an associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah, said Badawi’s case will confirm the fears of many that their online postings are likely to be monitored.
“There was a spike in online political dialogue that occurred during the initial events of the Arab Spring,” he said.
“This has given way to a certain level of exhaustion on the part of marginal contributors and, at the same time, a more cautious realism [among] those more committed to online political participation that their activities are more than likely being monitored—as they would be in the West as well, I might add. The Saudi blogger case would be a confirmation of these type of cautious fears.”
Breslow, who is also director of the Emirates Internet Project, said that his own research also points to fewer online conversations about politics.
“The research showed a spike in the likelihood of online political participation during the initial years of the Arab Spring, but the levels have reverted back to previous levels,” he said.
‘Representative of public opinion’
The Social Eyez research, republished exclusively by the Al Arabiya News Channel, is a result of daily monitoring by the company, said Al Tarzi.
The company provides research to governments, individual clients and corporations regarding their online perceptions. It claims to have identified trends such as the uprising in Egypt before the traditional media picked up on it.
“We have very clear evidence that social media can be an accurate indicator of trends as they emerge, as well as an accurate indicator of public sentiment,” Al-Tarzi said.
Along with Arabs being less likely to discuss politics online, they are also less likely to vent about their employer, he added.
“The excitement is fizzling away on ‘controversial’ topics. People were once very excited at the prospect of being able to criticize a political leader, or even your manager in your job,” Al-Tarzi said.
“Once it was cool to be able to say ‘I hate my boss’. Today there are two issues: one is that it’s less exciting – the other is that your boss is more likely to see it.”
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