Protesters sit next to their tent, decorated with the logos of Facebook and Twitter in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2011.

Protesters sit next to their tent, decorated with the logos of Facebook and Twitter in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2011. Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Social Media’s Very Arab Future

What does the Arab world’s Twitter use reveal about the U.S. challenge of winning hearts and minds online? By Patrick Tucker

The future of Twitter, YouTube and a variety of other social networks is going to look and sound a lot more Arabic in the years ahead, at least according to data on Twitter usage across the Arabic-speaking world. And if current trends continue, the emerging Arabic social media landscape will also be a lot more anti-American.

It’s an issue as old as Twitter, one that most of Washington, D.C., lost track of after the Arab Spring movement lost momentum in 2011. The rise of the Islamic State has put the issue back in the spotlight. For a bunch of medieval-minded murderers, IS has proven to be as savvy at social media recruitment as any group of Silicon Valley brogrammers. Part of their success stems from their unique ability to persuade Arab Twitter users in their own language.

Today, there are more than 135 million Internet users across 22 Arab world countries, communicating across 400 million mobile devices. Those numbers represent just .5 percent of the almost 3 billion Internet users around the world. But about 36 percent of the Arab world is online, a number that has been growing at a rapid 20 percent per year. About 71 million of them are on a social network and a surprisingly large number are Saudi.

Saudi Arabia has the highest percentage of its citizens on Twitter compared to any other country, a milestone first reached at the end of 2013. About 41 percent of Saudi Arabians who are on the Internet are on Twitter. Importantly, that does not mean that Saudi Arabia has more Twitter users than the United States. In fact, they rank seventh in terms of the total number, with 4.1 percent of all Twitter users or approximately 2.4 million.

Saudi Arabia also boasts the biggest YouTube audience on a per capita basis with 90 million YouTube views a day. But every day the YouTube of Saudi Arabia resembles less and less what you’re watching on your laptop. In April, the Saudi government announced plans to “regulate” the country’s YouTube content according to what they called “moral” guidelines. It’s unclear whether that extends to footage of beheadings.

Last week, policy scholar and Brookings Institute fellow Stuart N. Brotman writing for its Tech Tank blog put the numbers in perspective: “With a growing youth demographic, virtually all of whom utilize digital devices and social media on a regular basis, there will be ample opportunities to interact with this enormous base, exposing the region to a wider source of news and information that is not under centralized government control.”

Brotman seems to suggest that the United States still has an opportunity to influence Arab-speaking Internet users via social media. It’s an optimism shared by many in government. The United States has spent a lot of time and effort monitoring social media for intelligence in the Middle East and programs such as Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Social Media in Strategic Communication program seek to better understand how influence, information and disinformation spread on social media platforms. 

But a quick look at the content of Arabic-language social media posts shows that the United States faces a steeply uphill battle changing hearts on minds in the Arab World on platforms like Twitter.

In June, a group of researchers from Princeton and Harvard undertook a study of anti-Americanism in Arabic language tweets (which they called “negative”) versus those posts that were positive about the United States. They also looked at posts that were both political in nature and simply social. 

“The results are striking. Although the ratio of negative to positive tweets is over 3:1 in both social and political categories, the volume of political traffic is nearly four times as great as social traffic.”

The most important figure in the study is this: about 45 percent of the Arabic language conversation on Twitter is about the United States and it’s not at all positive. The poster’s position on other topics of relevance to the Arab world, whether they were pro-Assad or anti, for instance, didn’t matter. Even when the subject was American civilians killed in a terrorist attack, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Twitter responses from the Arab World ranged from the unsympathetic to the paranoid delusional.

“An overwhelming 87 percent of non-news responses to the Boston Marathon bombing are negative toward the United States: these events are seen as not important (in view of harms done to Arabs in the Middle East by American policy); the greatest concern is for the welfare of Muslims in the United States; or a conspiracy of American intelligence agencies is viewed as responsible for the allegations,” the authors write.

The issue isn’t just that Arab tweets are angry, it’s that they express an understanding of history, current events and reality that is fundamentally different from the U.S. version, showing barriers to communication beyond simple translation, Joshua Keating noted on Slate. Moreover, suspicion of the U.S. runs both deep and broad. “In terms of efforts to improve America’s image in the Arab world, the [Harvard and Princeton] paper contains both good and bad news. Arab Twitter users’ antipathy toward America itself, or Americans, doesn’t appear to be exceptionally hostile. But suspicion and opposition to U.S. foreign policy appear to be so deep and so widely shared, even by those on opposite sides of other contentious issues, that it’s hard to imagine how the U.S. could begin to rebuild trust.”

That social media adoption across the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is advancing extremely quickly and Arab-language speakers dislike for the United States is palpable are not, in themselves, shocking facts. What is surprising is how quickly the U.S is losing influence on nominally American social media platforms.