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Qatar residents are turning away from traditional social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and flocking to newer apps like Instagram and Snapchat, a new study by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q) has found.

The findings are part of a regional trend in which users are opting to leave platforms that broadcast posts to wide audiences in favor of direct-messaging services – namely WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat.

The survey, which was conducted in partnership with the Doha Film Institute, found that the number of nationals and expats in Qatar who said they used Twitter fell from 79 percent in 2014 to 44 percent this year.

Facebook usage dropped from 69 percent to 52 percent during the same time period.

Only one in five Qataris said they use Facebook – the lowest rate researchers found in the six countries included in their survey.

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The report’s authors said increased concerns about online privacy are one factor behind the trend. In Qatar, 58 percent of respondents said privacy concerns have changed the way they use social media.

“That can include concerns about companies such as Facebook and Twitter themselves,” Justin Martin, an assistant professor NU-Q and one of the report’s authors, told Doha News. “These are massive multimedia corporations that have a lot of information about (their users).”

However, use of Instagram – which centers around the public posting of photos and videos and is owned by Facebook – jumped last year in Qatar.

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Some 41 percent of nationals and expats reported using the platform, up from 22 percent in 2014 when the survey was last conducted.

Martin noted that Instagram content is generally less political as well as less personal than the information that’s posted on other platforms such as Twitter, which may alleviate privacy concerns among some users.

In socially conservative Qatar, sharing personal details via social media – particularly for women – is considered inappropriate by some.

“People post pictures, but not often of themselves,” he said.

Martin also noted that the nature of social media means that more popular platforms will attract even more users, which is illustrated in the rapid rise of video-centric Snapchat.

“People flock to where their friends are,” he said.

Censorship

The wide-ranging Media Use in the Middle East study examined attitudes toward various forms of media, as well as censorship, regulation and online surveillance in Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt.

In Qatar, researchers interviewed 504 nationals and 496 expats in January.

Qataris and foreign residents living in the Gulf state expressed different views on several issues, including freedom of speech.

For example, expats are more likely than Qataris to believe that it’s acceptable to express their ideas on the internet even if they are unpopular.

Some 71 percent of Western expats here agreed, compared to 56 percent of nationals. Arab and Asian expats were roughly in the middle.

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Nationals are also more likely to believe that it’s the responsibility of government, rather than individuals, to block or keep objectionable content online at bay.

Opinions on whether Qatar is headed on the right track also vary dramatically by nationality.

While 92 percent of Qataris believe their country is progressing in the correct direction, only 49 percent of Arab expats feel the same way.

Some 76 percent of Western expats believe Qatar is advancing in the right direction, as do 54 percent of Asian expats.

Qatari attitudes

The report included a chapter that focuses on the attitudes on Qataris, which differs dramatically in some cases from those of nationals in other Gulf countries.

For example, while Qataris have the lowest rate of Facebook usage at 22 percent, they also have the highest Snapchat penetration rate across all surveyed countries, at 55 percent.

Other findings include:

  • Qatari internet users are much less likely than other nationals to say privacy concerns led them to change how they use social media;
  • Qataris are also the least likely nationals surveyed to say they share online content;
  • Fewer Qataris than other nationals see conflict between cultural preservation and embracing modernity; and
  • Qataris travel outside their country far more than nationals of other Arab countries, including Emiratis and Saudis.

Thoughts?

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

NU-Q

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

Government transparency has improved in Qatar in the eight years that Northwestern University has operated a branch campus here, but there is still work to be done, its head recently said.

In a wide-ranging interview last week, NU-Q dean and CEO Everette Dennis told Doha News that this development has coincided with more robust local news coverage, although journalists are still “measured” in most of their reporting.

“There are things being written about now … in ways that might not have taken place in the past,” he said.

NU-Q, which recently negotiated a new 10-year contract with Qatar Foundation, has long drawn scrutiny for teaching western-style journalism and communication courses in a country that’s been criticized for a lack of media freedom.

Northwestern University in Qatar

NUQ/Facebook

Northwestern University in Qatar

While advocacy organizations such as Reporters Without Borders say little has changed in Qatar over the past four years, Dennis disagrees.

“We’ve seen some degree of improvement in transparency in government,” he said.

“We can’t claim credit for what other people do … (but) we’ve certainly encouraged it. We’ve tried to be supportive and explain why that’s of value to the country.”

Strategy

Instead of lecturing the country’s government and business leaders about what needs to be done, Dennis said the school’s approach has been to study and produce research on attitudes toward censorship, criticism of government and other topics.

The results are then used as a way to open discussions about freedom of expression.

So far, some of that research has revealed strong local support for government bans of “offensive” content in movies and other forms of entertainment.

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However, Dennis said attitudes are evolving among government officials when it comes to sharing information.

As one example, Dennis pointed to the formation of the Government Communications Office, which occasionally issues statements on hot-button issues, such as the abuse of low-income expats.

Elsewhere, the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics started to publish monthly bulletins that contain various economic, social and government figures in January 2014. And, in a bid to improve transparency, the government announced an “open data” policy that would see it post more raw information online.

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However, no new information has been released since the open data policy was announced in late 2014. And many government ministries and publicly funded organizations routinely refuse to answer questions from journalists.

However, with each academic year, more and more NU-Q graduates are finding themselves working in the communications departments of these organizations, bringing a new approach and mindset, Dennis said.

“We are producing some fantastic students who are out there working professionally,” he said.

Historically, approximately one-quarter of NU-Q students go on to pursue graduate studies, Dennis said.

Most of the remaining 75 percent stay in the region to work for media organizations such as Al Jazeera, Qatar TV and Al Arabiya in Dubai, as well as take communications positions with public relations firms, government ministries and organizations.

Al Jazeera newroom.

Paul Keller/Flickr

Al Jazeera newroom.

While some graduates are working for magazines in the region, Dennis conceded he’s “disappointed” that so few students have gone on to write for local newspapers.

In the coming years, NU-Q plans to develop graduate-level programs of its own, as well as expand its offerings to include evening and weekend executive education courses.

After the university moves into its own building during the next academic year, Dennis said he envisions the student body eventually increasing to approximately 300, up from the 207 currently enrolled.

Academic freedom

Separately, Dennis rejected criticism that the school’s professors lack academic freedom because they’re hired on fixed-term contracts and not protected by tenure.

He added that he’s not in favor of offering faculty long-term contracts, arguing the school needs the flexibility to hire staff with different skills in the rapidly changing fields of journalism and communication.

Last year, Stephen Eisenman – who was president of Northwestern’s faculty senate at the time – traveled to Qatar on a three-day visit to learn more about the American university’s campus in the Middle East.

Among his findings, outlined in a six-page report, is that NU-Q faculty have limited academic freedom:

“This is not so much because they fear they will run afoul of Qatar’s strict censorship laws, though that is a possibility, but because most are untenured and largely answerable to the NUQ dean alone,” he said.

He added that the situation is exacerbated by the connection in Qatar between one’s job and residency in the country. A faculty member whose contract is not renewed risks being forced to leave their home and community in Qatar, Eisenman wrote.

However, Dennis told Doha News that some staff members have been with NU-Q since the school was founded in 2008 and, like many faculty members, continue to have their contracts renewed.

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

NU-Q

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

“No one here complains about their academic freedom. People are teaching what they want to,” he said.

Dennis said it’s unlikely NU-Q faculty would ever be tenured, because it would create financial obligation for Northwestern’s home campus should NU-Q’s contract in Qatar ever expire.

He also said long-term contracts may not be in the best interest of the school:

“Journalism is a field that’s in rapid disruption,” he said. “What should the faculty even look like here in 10 or 15 years? I don’t think we know…At the same time, I want people to have security, which they do.”

Thoughts?

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Compared to their Gulf peers, Qataris are the least concerned about online snooping by governments and private companies, a new regional study has found.

And nearly two-thirds of citizens would favor tighter internet regulation, initial results from this year’s edition of NorthWestern University in Qatar’s annual survey of media use in Arab states shows.

Only one third (32 percent) of Qataris said they were concerned about the government monitoring their online activity, while more than half (57 percent) said they were not worried about state surveillance.

Experts said this could be due to the government’s more relaxed approach to online debate, compared to its regional neighbors.

Some 6,058 people from Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were interviewed between Dec. 20, 2015 and Feb. 27 this year for the latest version of the survey, Media Use in the Middle East.

Qatar had the largest percentage of nationals who voiced no concern about government monitoring.

The country was followed by the UAE, with 52 percent saying they were not worried. In Saudi Arabia, 43 percent of nationals said they were concerned by the phenomenon and around one third (35 percent) had no issue with it.

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

NU-Q

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

Compared to last year’s study, online surveillance appears to becoming less of an issue for nationals in Qatar.

Figures from the 2015 report showed that 43 percent of Qataris said they were worried about the government checking what they do online – 11 percent more than this year.

NUQ’s dean and CEO Everette Dennis disclosed some of the results from this year’s survey during a panel discussion at the International Press Institute’s (IPI) World Congress this week.

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

NU-Q

NU-Q dean Everette Dennis

The full report, which looks at usage and attitudes towards media in Arab states, was conducted by Harris Poll for NU-Q and the Doha Film Institute (DFI), and is set to be released next month.

Online monitoring

According to survey, Qataris are slightly more concerned about private companies monitoring their usage, than they are about the government doing so.

But more than half (53 percent) of Qataris interviewed said they had no concerns about this, compared to 28 percent in Saudi Arabia and 15 percent of Tunisians.

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

NU-Q

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

Reflecting this apparent lack of concern, Qatar nationals were also the least likely to change their social media usage due to privacy concerns.

Less than half (46 percent) said they would, compared to 89 percent of Saudi nationals, three-quarters of Egyptians and two-thirds of Emirati citizens.

Qatar was among five of the six countries featured in the survey where a majority of citizens said they thought the internet in their home country should be more tightly regulated than it is currently.

More than six in every 10 Qataris (62 percent) agreed with this view, compared to nearly seven in 10 Lebanese (68 percent) but just 39 percent of Tunisians.

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

NU-Q

Media Use in the Middle East 2016

While a detailed explanation for these preliminary figures hasn’t yet been released, last year’s edition of the report linked concerns about government surveillance of online activity to support for citizens’ freedom of speech and political efficacy.

“Those who feel the internet offers political empowerment tend to worry about governments checking their online activities, as are those who want more internet regulation,” the 2015 report said.

Meanwhile, the 2014 report “Entertainment Media in the Middle East: A Six-Nation Survey,” by NU-Q and DFI found overwhelming support for government oversight of online content, especially violent or explicit material.

Dr. Justin Martin, assistant journalism professor at NU-Q, told Doha News that one explanation for the relatively low level of concern by Qatar nationals for online surveillance could be due to fewer reported cases of people being imprisoned for critical opinions online, compared to other states in the region.

“In Qatar, unlike the UAE and Egypt, you don’t have a wealth of examples of Qataris being imprisoned for online speech. The UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have dissidents who are visibly and harshly penalized for online speech.

In Qatar, there aren’t groups of journalists being locked up for tweeting criticism of the government, as there is in the UAE or Egypt,” he said.

Still, commentators have previously highlighted a degree of self-censorship that exists here, particularly among some media organizations.

Censorship does exist in Qatar, although few there are few public details of how authorities do this, beyond an automated censorship tool that blocks websites deemed to contain obscene content

Information revealed by WikLeaks in 2014 revealed that Qatar’s State Security Bureau had spent QR3.2 million from October 2010 until April 2014 as a customer of German technology firm FinFisher, which makes “spyware” software which can be used to secretly monitor emails and other forms of online communication.

The extent to which Qatar uses software developed by FinFisher – which says its products are for “targeted and lawful criminal investigation” purposes only – to monitor residents is not clear.

Meanwhile, following the introduction of Qatar’s cyber crime law in September 2014, the Ministry of Interior last year reminded residents that insulting people online, even if as a joke, is a criminal offense.

However, this law focuses primarily on criticisms of individuals, rather than the state itself.

In one of Qatar’s most high-profile cases, poet Mohammed Rashid Al-Ajami was jailed for “inciting to overthrow the regime” and “insulting the Emir,” and convicted in 2012. He was recently released following an Emiri pardon.

Thoughts?