How Twitter Usage in the Middle East is evolving

The emerging popularity of Twitter video, coupled with platform manipulation, were key trends to emerge last year

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Twitter’s declining user base

As we outlined previously, Facebook is not the only established social network to see declines in usage across much of MENA.

Twitter usage among Arab nationals has fallen by half since 2013, data from Northwestern University in Qatar has found.

Across the six counties surveyed, use of the network among internet users has fallen from 45% in 2013 to 22% in 2018. Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat all have higher levels of penetration in the region than Twitter.

Twitter penetration among Arab Nationals, 2013 vs. 2018. Via: Northwestern University in Qatar

Saudi Arabia and Turkey buck the trend

Despite this decline, Saudi Arabia and Turkey remain significant markets for Twitter. They are the fifth and sixth largest markets for Twitter in the world.

  • More than 10 million users are active on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, akin to 38% of the population.
  • There are 8.3 million active users in Turkey (13% of the population).

Globally, the biggest markets for the network all have either larger populations (like the United States, Japan and Russia,) or (in the case of the United Kingdom) have higher levels of social media and smartphone penetration.

Top 20 markets for Twitter (by reach). Via: We Are Social and Hootsuite

Twitter Trolling and Harassment

In January 2019, Haaretz, which describes itself “as an Israeli independent daily newspaper with a broadly liberal outlook both on domestic issues and on international affairs,” highlighted how the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) official Twitter account had trolled Iran following Israeli air strikes which Prime Minister Netanyahu said had “pounded” Iranian targets in Syria.

The tweet provoked reactions from all sides.

Source: Israel Defense Forces @IDF on Twitter.

In Iran, Twitter suspended several Iranian news accounts, the BBC reported in July, over the alleged harassment of people following the Baha’i faith. “Although there are more than 300,000 members of the Baha’i community in Iran, the country does not recognize the religion,” the BBC noted.

Platform Manipulation

In September, Twitter shared that it had removed accounts from a number of countries, including the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia due to platform manipulation and state-backed information operations.

This included 271 accounts originating in the UAE and Egypt, targeting Qatar and Iran, while at the same time amplifying “messaging supportive of the Saudi government.”

A further 4,248 accounts operating uniquely from the UAE, and mainly directed at Qatar and Yemen were also closed.

“These accounts were often employing false personae and tweeting about regional issues, such as the Yemeni Civil War and the Houthi Movement,” Twitter said.

Twitter also “permanently suspended the Twitter account of Saud al-Qahtani,” described by the New York Times as “a former close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia,” “for violations of our platform manipulation policies.”

The network also closed “a small group of six accounts linked to Saudi Arabia’s state-run media apparatus which were engaged in coordinated efforts to amplify messaging that was beneficial to the Saudi government.”

“The account suspension is more symbolic than anything else. Twitter probably hopes that the account suspensions will bring in a new era of a less toxic Arabic Twitter…”

…argued Marc Owen Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar. “This is unlikely to happen,” he wrote in an article for The Washington Post.

“The reality is that it is easy to set up a Twitter account. Like a game of Whack-a-Mole, suspended fake accounts will be replaced by more sophisticated efforts at deception.”

In November, the AP reported that “The Saudi government, frustrated by growing criticism of its leaders and policies on social media, recruited two Twitter employees to gather confidential personal information on thousands of accounts that included prominent opponents.”

The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) charged the former employees for spying on users on behalf of Saudi Arabia, CNBC stated.

The DOJ alleged that employee credentials had been used to gather specific information — including their email addresses, birth dates, phone numbers and internet protocol addresses — about more than 6,000 users.

Getty Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images, Via Mashable.

Growing popularity of Twitter Video

Research conducted by Toluna, and shared by Twitter, found that up to 72% of Twitter users in KSA and UAE and 62% of users in Egypt consider the platform one of their main sources for online video content.

Entertainment, fashion, cooking and travel are among the top five popular video content genres for Twitter users in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The most viewed categories for entertainment videos are humorous clips (47%), highlights from TV shows (29%) and celebrity interviews (26%).

Twitter unveiled over 16 premium video content collaborations across sports, entertainment and news at an event in April. Partners include MBC Group and AMS, Abu Dhabi Media, Dubai Media Inc., Rotana Group, and the Saudi football clubs Al Ahli and Al Ittihad.

New and live original productions for Ramadan were also announced, including Sayidaty Group’s ‘Your Ramadan Morning with Sayidaty’, an all-female morning show by and about women, online network UTURN Entertainment’s ‘Who’s Turn is it?’, a live program showcasing stand-up comedians.

Twitter launched three new emojis in seven languages (English, Arabic, Bahasa, Spanish, Turkish, Hindi and Bengali) which users could unlock by using relevant Ramadan related hashtags, unlocking “a crescent moon, a glass of yoghurt (which is commonly used to break fast) and a lantern.”

This is an extract from a 55-page report about the trends if social media in the Middle East during 2019. You can access the full report here:

Read previous extracts looking at the 19 key stats from 2019, the Middle East market context, and Facebook.

Social Media in the Middle East: 2019 in review is authored by Professor Damian Radcliffe and Hadil Abuhmaid, at the University of Oregon.

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast

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