Social Media in the Middle East: Censorship, Privacy and Freedom of Expression 

This is the eight in a series of ten short extracts from my sixth annual round-up of social media trends from the Middle East and North Africa (written with University of Oregon student Amanda Lam). Social Media in the Middle East: The Story of 2017 is available for download from the University of Oregon Scholars’ Bank and on Scribd, SlideShare and

  • On New Years Eve 2017, the Telegram app closed a channel used by protesters in Iran and run by exiled journalist, Roohallah Zam. The government later restricted usage of the service, as well as Instagram after the apps were used to organize anti-government protests and share videos from these demonstrations.
    • It is estimated that 40 million — out of a population of 80 million — use the Telegram app in Iran.
    • The BBC said: “In a tightly controlled media environment, much of the information about the demonstrations has emerged via social media, and platforms like Telegram and Instagram have been used extensively by protesters.”
    • Dr. Haroon Ullah, Chief Strategy Officer at the Broadcasting Board of Governors, observed that: “The more oppressive regimes are threatened by the freedom of information, they [sic] more they are liable to crack down.”
Image: Screenshot of tweet from @JaredCohen, Founder & CEO of Jigsaw; Advisor to Executive Chairman of Alphabet.
  • A Lebanese NGO launched the Virtual Museum of Censorship in order to track banned and censored material (and why they were banned) in Lebanon since 1943. A searchable online database shows trends in censorship.
    • Gino Raidy, the vice president of MARCH, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) behind the museum, told Al-Monitor, “…we note that LGBT art and events are getting targeted more and more.”
Image: Screenshot from 25 January 2018
  • A woman was arrested and then released after a Snapchat video showed her walking through an ancient fort in one of Saudi Arabia’s most conservative provinces. In the video, she is wearing a skirt that is above her knees, a top that reveals her midriff, and her head is uncovered. On Twitter, users responded to the news and questioned Saudi Arabian laws and policies for women.
Image: Screenshots from Snapchat video of woman wearing a crop top and skirt in public.
  • Data from Northwestern University in Qatar highlights how privacy concerns shape social media use in the region. “Changes in social media behavior are rare across all nationals,” the report authors note.

    “However, among the 23% who have made changes, the most common strategies include changing privacy settings (33%), posting less sensitive information (29%), posting less often (27%), and connecting with fewer people (24%).”

Image: % who say they changed their social media use due to privacy concerns Source: Northwestern University in Qatar.

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