Middle East residents ambivalent about expressing political opinions online: new research

June 18, 2013

–       Fewer than half (47%) think it is safe to express political opinions on Internet

–       Only 46% think individuals should be able to criticize governments online

–       Over a third (38%) worry governments or powerful institutions check their activities online

–       Less than half believe online activity can give them more political influence

Northwestern University in Qatar has released new findings from an eight-nation survey indicating many people in the Arab world do not feel safe expressing political opinions online despite sweeping changes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Of over 10,000 people surveyed in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and United Arab Emirates, 44% expressed some doubt as to whether people should be free to criticize governments or powerful institutions online. Over a third of Internet users surveyed said they worry about governments checking what they do on the Internet.

View the complete survey findings via this interactive website from NU-Q: http://menamediasurvey.northwestern.edu.

According to the report, “The implied concern [of governments checking what they do online] is fairly consistent in almost all countries covered, but more acute in Saudi Arabia, where the majority (53%) of those surveyed expressed this concern.”

The study—titled “Media Use in the Middle East: An Eight-Nation Survey”—was undertaken by researchers at NU-Q to better understand how people in the region use the Internet and other media. It comes as the university moves towards a more formalized research agenda and is the first in what will be a series of reports relating to Internet use. [View full survey report.]

The survey includes a specific chapter on Qatar, the only country where those surveyed regarded the Internet as a more important source of news than television. “We took an especially close look at media use in the State of Qatar—a country with one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the Arab world—and internationally,” said Dean and CEO of NU-Q, Everette Dennis.

These findings follow a preliminary report NU-Q released last April that showed web users in the Middle East support the freedom to express opinions online, but they also believe the Internet should be more tightly regulated.

Dennis explained, “While this may seem a puzzling paradox, it has not been uncommon for people the world over to support freedom in the abstract but less so in practice.”

The results of the survey, conducted in collaboration with Harris Interactive, were released publicly on June 18 at the International Communication Association (ICA) Conference in London.

Among other findings, the research shows:

  • 45% of people think public officials will care more about what they think and 48% believe they can have more influence by using the Internet
  • Adults in Lebanon (75%) and Tunisia (63%) are the most pessimistic about the direction of their countries and feel they are on the ‘wrong track’
  • Respondents were far more likely to agree (61%) than disagree (14%) that the quality of news reporting in the Arab world has improved in the past two years, however less than half think overall that the news sources in their countries are credible
  • Online transactions are rare in the Middle East, with only 35% purchasing items online and only 16% investing online

The complete set of results from the survey is available online at http://menamediasurvey.northwestern.edu. The new interactive pages hosting the survey on the website have features that allow users to make comparisons between different countries, as well as between different demographics within each country.

Dennis confirmed that the research report is the first in an annual series of reports produced in collaboration with the World Internet Project(WIP); one of the world’s most extensive studies on the Internet, in which NU-Q is a participating institution. NU-Q and WIP signed an agreement earlier in the year, providing a global platform for the current research.

Full Survey Report: Media Use in the Middle East