NU-Q Media Survey: Middle East More Connected Than Ever

Northwestern study offers unparalleled insights into region’s media landscape

By Roger AndersonJune 14, 2018

Following the Arab Spring, a digital evolution has flourished in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), reports a new Northwestern study.

The Media Use in the Middle East, A Five-Year Retrospection report released by Northwestern University in Qatar illustrates the lasting effects of the 2011 revolutions, and offers insights into the changing media consumption habits in the years since. The retrospective presents fresh data analysis, draws on new comparisons, and presents trends for the region.

“There is continuing growth in the use of social media as MENA populations from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates intensify their digital connections with one another, a possibly counterintuitive free-speech narrative for the Westernized world,” says Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of NU-Q. “Understanding the implications of these changes can help both to inform teaching and academic research, as well as shape industry practices and public policy in the region.”

Internet penetration in MENA has increased in every nation surveyed and mobile phones are not only ubiquitous, they are also the way 97 percent of residents get online.

The study, which consists of findings derived from surveys of seven countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Jordan), provides unparalleled insights into shifts in news and entertainment consumption, as well as social media use in the Middle East.

The five-year retrospection includes information from nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews (and another 5,000 via phone) between 2013 and 2017.

Details of the report show that as fewer people rely on television, radio, newspapers, and magazines to stay informed, the smartphone — a tool credited with playing a critical role in regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia — has become a driving force in MENA’s new digital reality.

“This five-year report is a photograph in time of a region widely considered volatile, and yet we find it’s filled with progressive new technology habits,” says Dennis. “While it’s impossible to generalize the region, especially when considering Qatar is referred to as the most wired nation in the world, while Egypt is relatively media poor, it’s still fascinating to see how things are changing.”

The retrospection made some provocative discoveries: 

  • Internet penetration has increased in every country since 2013. The biggest increase occurred in Lebanon – from 58 percent to 91 percent in the last five years;
  • Smartphones are the “go-to” device, connecting 97 percent of people to the internet as declining numbers of people (45 percent) rely on computers as their primary source of internet access;
  • In terms of social media, fewer Arab nationals now use Facebook (74 percent) and Twitter (27 percent), while Instagram and Snapchat have risen to 40 percent and 29 percent respectively;
  • Direct messaging is ubiquitous, with 97 percent of people using it; 47 percent of people send messages to group chats;
  • Trust among Arab nationals in mass media is widespread, but figures have declined in several countries such as Tunisia (from 64 percent to 56 percent) and Qatar (from 69 percent to 64 percent);
  • Most Gulf nationals say news media in their country is credible, but nationals elsewhere tend to disagree (Qataris are among the highest group in this respect with 62 percent saying their national media is credible, and Jordan among the lowest, at just 38 percent — down from 66 percent in 2013);
  • At the same time, the belief that international news organizations are biased against the Arab World has grown. An average of 37 percent of Arab nationals thinks this.

Data from the Media Use in the Middle East survey is presented at various international conferences, cited by various governments, and used by faculty and students at Northwestern and beyond.

Ralph Martins, who graduated from NU-Q in 2016, worked with Justin Martin, journalism and strategic communication at NU-Q, to analyze data from the surveys as part of a secondary study.

“We worked on separate published papers with Syeda Naqvi, an NU-Q undergrad at the time, and Robb Wood, director of Strategic Partnerships at NU-Q,” says Martins, who now teaches high school English in Karachi, Pakistan. “These collaborations provided a fascinating introduction to social science research, which is not something I'd otherwise have been exposed to as a journalism student.”

Among their peer-reviewed articles, Martin and Martins presented “Media Use Predictors of Online Political Efficacy Among Internet Users in Five Arab Countries," at the 2016 Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference. AEJMC is the premiere association in the United States for journalism and mass communication education and research.

In addition to projects led by Martin, students in classes taught by political scientist Jocelyn Mitchell have also made heavy use of the data. A panel including Dennis, Martin, Dina Khatib of Al Jazeera, and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland will present the latest findings at August’s AEJMC convention in Washington, DC.

“The media survey is an enormously ambitious project but the results can lead to some truly rigorous research,” says Dennis. “Among the findings I find most striking is that, even in the Middle East, efforts to fight the Internet are generally futile.”

Begun with internal funding in 2012, followed by three years of support from the Doha Film Institute, the longitudinal study has received additional support from a Qatar National Research Fund grant renewal through 2020.

NU-Q is also taking part in the World Internet Project — a collaborative effort led by the USC Annenberg School for Communication — and is the sole provider of data for the Middle East region.

A research team that includes lead principal investigator Dennis, co-principal investigators Martin and Wood, as well as research assistants Mariam Saeed and Najwa Al Thani, produced the annual media studies, from which the five-year retrospective report was drawn.