Social Media matures in the Middle East after Springtime adolescence

Social media played an undeniably important role in the Arab Spring, but since those early days the phenomenon has evolved to take on a new role.

A recent report from TechPresident shows how the Egyptian Twittersphere is evolving from an international newswire and protest organizing tool into a platform for domestic policy debate and political mobilization.

The report caught up with a number of the most prominent members of the #jan25 movement tweeting about the protests at Tahrir Square since they began 18 months ago.  Several have begun composing most of their tweets in Egyptian Arabic dialect now that Twitter offers Arabic service.  While tweeting in local dialect takes their tweets out of the Western media spotlight, and makes them largely unintelligible even to Arabs in other countries, they say it’s vital in order to remain relevant in Egyptian civil society as it debates the nation’s future.

“Last year was about telling the world what Egypt is doing,” said Dalia Ezzat (@daliaezzat_), a Cairo native and frequently cited political analyst. “Now it’s about Egyptians talking to each other about what the future of Egypt will be, now that we are in such a huge mess…. To be a recognized name in the Egyptian twittersphere,” she said, “you must tweet in Egyptian Arabic.”

Mohamed El Dahshan (@eldahshan), who tweeted from Tahrir Square from the first day of the uprising, said that since the fall of Hosni Mobarak’s regime, priorities for activists have changed:

“In the thick of the revolution we were playing with the government’s information embargo,” Dahshan said. “The more the outside world knew, the less the government could hide.”

Now, he explained, the action was at home. Change would come from within, and that meant that the target audience was Egyptians — not just Egyptians from the privileged class who speak fluent English, but those who communicate in Egyptian Arabic. He says that most of his newest followers are Egyptian, adding that this pleases him.

In this new, localized Egyptian Twittersphere, Islamists have also increased their presence.  Liberals are worried by the sectarian vitriol issuing from feeds linked to the extremist salafist Nour Party and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, but sociologist Zeynep Tufekci credits the Muslim Brotherhood’s active election night twitter feed with preventing elements of the old regime from attempting to steal the June presidential election.

Tufekci noted that the election officials running the contest between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq were the same officials who ran the 2005 “elections” that Shafiq’s former boss, Hosni Mobarak, “won” by 97%.  But the Brotherhood’s relentless tweets updating vote totals from the party’s poll watchers across the country made it virtually impossible for the old guard to present a credible alternative narrative.  So when the election commission finally announced the official vote totals, the numbers were within 0.03% of the tally the Muslim Brotherhood had already published on a Google Spreadsheet.

Outside of Egypt, Twitter is gaining traction in intriguing places.  According to data from the Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report, even before Twitter launched Arabic service this past March, the service saw usage skyrocket in Arab countries — particularly in tightly controlled Gulf States.  Between Sept. 2011 and March 2012, the number of Twitter users went up 65.75% in Egypt, but rocketed up by over 93% in the United Arab Emirates, 100% in Kuwait and a staggering 208% in Saudi Arabia, which now boasts the most Twitter users in the Arab World, with 393,000 as of June 2012.

Tellingly, the ASMR’s tally of the most common Twitter topics in Arab countries in March of this year suggests that those new Gulf Tweetists aren’t shying away from sensitive subjects.  The most common Twitter topic in the entire Arab world by far was #Bahrain (with 2,800,000 mentions), the tiny Gulf kingdom that Saudi Arabian troops occupied in 2011 to put down unrest among the oppressed majority Shia population. Combined with tweets mentioning بحرين (Bahrain in Arabic), the total rises to 4,280,00, dwarfing the nearest rival topic — 2,800,000 total mentions for #syria/سوريا.  Bahrain was the subject of 2.5% of all tweets generated in the Arab world in March.

Since March, the number of Arabic Twitter users has surged again, expanding by 60% to 2,099,706 active users as of June 2012.

The ASMR, which has has tracked Facebook use across the Middle East since April 2010, found that the number of Facebook users in the region roughly tripled between June 2010 and June 2012, increasing from 16 million users to 45 million users.  Average Facebook user penetration in Arab countries topped 12% in June, up from 10% at the beginning of 2012, and up from 8% in June 2011.

The next major advance of social media into the Arab world will be LinkedIn’s planned Middle East rollout next month.  The professional networking site already has more than 4 million users in the Arab world, according to the ASMR, with over 1 million in the United Arab Emirates alone.

Further connecting the rising Arab middle class within countries and across borders can only accelerate a civic process begun during the long, cold Arab Winter by students connecting through Facebook and lone dissidents tweeting from the wilderness.

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