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Arabs feel relatively free on social media

Report offers insight into region's trends.

DUBAI // Only one in four social media users in the Middle East fear they might be "held accountable by authorities" if they share their views online.

The finding was part of the Arab Social Media Report released today by the Dubai School of Government. One in three users in the UAE felt the same way when asked what repercussions they feared for posting their opinions, the report says.

"I'm glad the average is that low," said Wael Khalil, an Egyptian blogger who played an active role in the 2011 revolution. "It tells me people are aware that they are more protected online than what is perceived."

"It's interesting but the national breakdowns are to be taken cautiously due to sample size," warned Fadi Salem, a co-author of the report, which polled 469 users in 22 Arab countries.

The survey was conducted between August and October, and focused on usage habits and the effect of social media on women. Average respondents were 15 to 40 years old and college educated, and about 60 per cent were female.

Although Facebook usage in the region continued to rise rapidly, the low proportion of females - one third - held steady.

Membership in the social-networking site nearly doubled over the past year, to 36 million last month from 20m in November 2010, with the fastest growth in Jordan (13 per cent) and Tunisia (9 per cent).

Lebanon had the highest participation rate by women (46 per cent), and Somalia had the lowest (22 per cent), while the UAE came in average (33 per cent).

Social or cultural pressure might have prevented more women from using social media, said a quarter of male and female respondents, making it the most common reason cited. At the same time, however, a majority of male and female respondents felt social media could be used to empower women.

"Women and men have a sense of the ability to use this empowering tool that worked in their view in some areas in political and civil mobilisation, to also empower women," said Mr Salem.

Respondents felt strongly that social media might help women participate in civil society (81 per cent among men and 83 per cent among women) and social change (78 and 80) to improving their rights (70 and 76), economic opportunities (53 and 66) and equality in politics (65 and 62).

Men and women also tend to view the potential cons in the same way, indicating that women may feel free from gender-based stigma online.

Similar proportions from both sexes said they felt that, by sharing views on social media, they might be held accountable by the authorities (26 per cent each), alienate friends and family (21 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women) or face negative stereotypes (20 and 20).

"Men and women probably interact more and share ideas more online," said Mr Salem. "They view social media as an equaliser. It closes the differences of the genders that exist in real life."

Women played a prominent role in the Arab Spring, culminating in the first Nobel Peace prize-winning Arab woman, the Yemeni political activist Tawwokol Karman, the report noted.

Still, it cautioned, "whether this activism will lead to broader inclusion of women in civic and political engagement down the line".

The most popular Twitter keywords during the fall had to do with the Arab Spring and the Gulf, in part because more Gulf residents tend to use the social media site.

The countries with the most "active" users, meaning they posted a message at least once a month, had large populations: Egypt (130,000) and Saudi Arabia (127,000), followed by smaller nations Kuwait (117,000), the UAE (90,000) and Bahrain (42,000).

The top five keywords, known as hashtags, were "Bahrain", "Egypt", "Syria", "14Feb" (or "Feb14", the date of a protest in Bahrain) and "Kuwait". Likewise, a previous edition of the Arab Social Media Report found that the most popular Twitter hashtags in the first quarter of the year were, "Egypt", "Jan25", "Libya", "Bahrain" and "protest".

chuang@thenational.ae

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