Over 45m Arabs 'like' Facebook; users soar by 50%

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The number of Facebook users in the Arab world rose 50 percent year-on-year to 45.2m at the end of June 2012, while the number of Twitter users has risen to 2m, according to the findings of a study released on Tuesday.

Since June 2010, the number of Facebook users has tripled in the Arab World, according to the ‘Fourth Arab Social Media Report’, produced by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Programme.

While the Twitter community rose to 2m, the number of Arabs using LinkedIn has now hit more than 4m, the report added.

“Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube continue to serve as primary avenues for over 12 percent of Arab population for raising awareness, disseminating information and mobilising community,” said Fadi Salem, Director of Governance and Innovation Programme, DSG and co-author of the report.

Despite the widespread use of English, the report found Arabic was gaining ground and is now the fastest growing language on different social media platforms in the region.

“The increased use of Arabic suggests that social media in the Arab region has clearly outgrown the perception of being a platform for ‘the elite’. Notably, it has now become a tool for the masses for engaging in civil activities and influencing change in Arab societies,” said Salem.

Social media has been seen as a catalyst for the spread of the Arab Spring movement and the report found that the Arab uprisings continue to be the primary topic for discussions on Twitter.

For instance, in March 2012, active Arab Twitter users generated over 172m tweets, with the ‘Bahrain’ and ‘Syria’ hashtags in Arabic and English remaining the top popular trends on Twitter across the Arab region.

In terms of numbers, around a quarter of Arab Facebook users come from Egypt and another quarter are in the GCC countries, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE making up 80 percent of users in the Gulf region, the report found.

The report comes days after the CEO of Twitter said the number of users in Saudi Arabia increased by 3,000 percent in June, making the Gulf state the biggest growth market for the social network.

Half of the kingdom’s active users log in daily while more than 50 percent access the micro blogging site via their smartphone, Dick Costolo said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Arabic accounts for 1.2 percent of all public tweets, while the number of tweets in the language over the last year has increased 2,146 percent, according to Paris-based firm Semiocast.

Allowing pseudonyms on Twitter has helped protect demonstrators’ identities during the Arab Spring, said Costolo.

“We are a particularly well-suited platform for things like political speech because we allow pseudonyms,” he told the newspaper.

But there are two sides to that coin, he added. “It can end up being a place that’s easier for people to hide behind hate speech,” he said. “We have to be thoughtful about all that.”

Regional governments, concerned about the rise in sectarian tensions, are cracking down on communication they deem critical of regional governments on social networks.

Several prominent activists and journalists have been arrested for hitting out at governments in the last year. Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, was last week sentenced to three months in prison over a tweet directed at Bahrain’s prime minister which the court said insulted Bahrainis.

Rajab spent three weeks in jail in June under investigation after suggesting in a tweet that residents of the Muharraq district had only made a recent show of support for Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman for financial gain. A complaint over that and other tweets against the prime minister was made by a group of retired army and security officers seen as pro-government.

Earlier this year, Saudi authorities issued an arrest warrant for 23-year old journalist Hamza Kashgari after he posted messages on the site Twitter that were deemed as blasphemous of Islam.

Similarly, Emirati citizen Saleh al-Dhufairi was arrested in the UAE after publishing comments on Twitter that criticised the Gulf state's security forces.

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