New NU-Q media survey: In the Middle East, two-thirds get news on social media; less than half trust it

Trust in the news media is high across the Middle East, but significantly less so on social media, according to the fifth annual survey of media use and public opinion by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).

The survey is the only one of its kind in the region and one of the few such efforts in the world. It offers extensive and valuable intelligence about the media that people adopt, use, and prefer as well as their attitudes and opinions about the role, impact, and importance of mediated communication in their lives and the lives of others across the Middle East region.

The study explores patterns of news use, perceptions of news bias, and attitudes toward free speech in seven countries: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt. Some questions were replicated in the United States for context and comparison.

Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of NU-Q, said, “at a challenging time in the region and around the world, we offer these findings as impartial data for use in much-needed, considered discussion and understanding of the current media environment.”

Key findings from the 2017 study:

  • Arab nationals are twice as likely as Americans to trust mass media (66 percent, 32 percent).
  • Two-thirds trust mass media, but fewer than half trust news they get via social media (66 percent, 47 percent).
  • Two-thirds of Facebook users get news on that platform (65 percent).
  • Facebook use continues to decline in Gulf countries, with a rise in non-Gulf countries.
  • Two-thirds trust media from their own country, but only half trust news from other Arab countries (66 percent, 52 percent).
  • Americans are more likely than Arab nationals to believe that news is biased against the Arab world. (33 percent Arab nationals think international news is biased against the Arab world, 43 percent of Americans think the same.)
  • Three times as many Arab nationals think people should be able to publicly criticize the government’s policies than should be allowed to make offensive statements about one’s religion and beliefs or about minorities (45 percent government’s policies, 15 percent religion or beliefs, 17 percent minority groups).

In comparing this year’s findings to the previous four years, our research has shown a rise in internet penetration in every country in the region, legacy media (TV, radio, and newspapers) remains important but there has been a decline, social media platforms once dominated by Facebook with up to 90 percent penetration is now down to 74 percent, Twitter fell from 47 percent to 24 percent, while WhatsApp has 80 percent penetration in 2017 and Instagram has grown from 6 percent to 39 percent penetration among internet users.

Tolerance for speech that criticizes government policies, meanwhile, is robust only in Lebanon (66 percent) and Tunisia (48 percent). Among Qataris and Emiratis, supporting such free speech registers as low as 21 percent and 14 percent, respectively. Similarly, tolerance for speech offending one’s religion is low as most nationals feel the government should be able to prevent such speech.

“These results suggest that while social media may provide an avenue for more freedom of expression, many remain reluctant to fully embrace that opportunity. Still, it should be mentioned that seeds of the Arab Spring are evident in social media use, disputing claims that its imprint is long gone and forgotten,” Dennis said.

The 2017 survey, the largest annual study of its kind in the Middle East, was conducted in collaboration with Harris Poll in February and March of 2017. Findings reflect nationally representative samples of over one thousand respondents in each country, 7,196 in total. Interviews were conducted face-to-face in most countries, and by phone in Qatar. Because data from Egypt were collected later in the year (June and July), it is not included in region-wide figures reported here.

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To view the full report and explore the findings directly using an interactive tool, visit mideastmedia.org/survey/2017.

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