Facebook’s New Growth in the Middle East: Do More Users Mean More Protests?
When pressure from protesters helped bring down the Egyptian and Tunisian governments in recent months, Facebook was credited by many organizers and outside observers as being a key tool for the revolution.
Why? Real-world friendships, and features like user profile walls, the news feed, Pages and of course Events provided a new way to first spread new ideas and then plan follow-up actions — or so anecdotal evidence suggests. See this New York Times article for some good examples.
But, of course, Egyptian grievances against now-departed ruler Hosni Mubarak had been festering for decades and was spilling it into the open regardless of any particular piece of technology helping the organizers. And between print, television, mobile phones and other web sites, there were other ways of communicating. And, there is the whole angle of why the revolt was successful — was the Egyptian military making a bid to preserve its power against Mubarak, and using protestors as a vehicle?
Zooming in from these larger questions, we can see that Facebook was at least one factor, and so more data is needed to show how it affects politics in the Middle East and elsewhere. And we have that data, in the form of our Inside Facebook Gold report, which includes historical number on the company’s traffic around the world.
So, here’s a closer look at the Middle East, including North African and Central Asian countries. The table below shows traffic we tracked for each country on February 1st and March 1st, along with the numerical and percentage change over February, and the portion of each country’s population that is currently on Facebook.
While a few countries got on Facebook years ago, almost every country in the region has seen its traffic to the site grow by at least 50%, and some have grown by 100% in the past 12 months. Those levels of growth are not unique to the region as it’s what we’ve seen most other places as well. Let’s look at specific countries to see if more unusual trends emerge.
Tunisia, where the first wave of protests began in December, has a relatively high 21.1% of the population on Facebook, or about 2.20 million out of the 10.4 million people in the country. Facebook growth had been in the double-digit thousands during across the later months of last year, only growing by more than a hundred thousand a month once the revolution was under way. For the last twelve months, it grew by 73.9%.
Moving over to the next location of a revolution, Egypt grew the most out of any Middle Eastern country in February, adding more than 455,000 new users to reach 5.65 million, or about 6.8% of the total population. Given that the revolution started in late January, most of this growth could be due to interest around Facebook as the revolution was happening. However, it grew by 562,000 new users in January, and for most of the past year it has grown by at least 250,00 people, for a total annual growth rate of 104.4%. While Facebook’s presence in the country could have aided organizers, its relatively low penetration rate and generally steady growth rate suggest it played a relatively small role — perhaps it propelled smaller groups of revolutionaries forward, but the majority of the population was not directly involved.
Looking down the list of the countries that gained the most new users in February, one can see that those near the top tend to have larger populations and lower Facebook penetration rates. That’s a worldwide trend we see. However, beyond Egypt, countries that have been experiencing unrest also show up near the top.
Saudi Arabia gained the second most, with 419,000 new users in February — that’s a big 13.8% growth rate in a single month. Today it has 3.46 million users, or 13.6% of the 25.4 million population, and a 90.8% annual growth rate. Coincidentally or not, Saudi Arabia is ruled by an autocratic government that is facing new rounds of protests, like Egypt was last month. If Facebook is indeed an important factor in promoting revolutionary ideas, Saudi Arabia is in position to provide more evidence of that.
And growing the third-most out of any country in the region? Pakistan, which gained nearly 234,000 new users to 3.89 million, or a still-tiny 2.3% of the country. Growth has been humming along at almost exactly a 100% annual rate. Given the low Facebook penetration rate, however, we doubt the site itself is a major factor in anything today (besides being a target for theocratic judgements, of course).
Looking down the list, you can also see a number of other countries with major discontent appearing. Bahrain and Yemen are both smaller countries, but also grew by 10% and 16% by March 1st.
Given that Facebook is used for widely varying purposes, from gaming to event planning to link sharing to much else, traffic levels on their own do not indicate that a country’s citizens are more likely to march in the streets. People may just want to stay home and play FarmVille all day, or share funny cat photos, or whatever. Meanwhile, protests are typically organized by a smaller group of leaders, often from universities or other intellectual circles. A few people could use Facebook to organize a country, without having much of the country on the site — as what appears to have happened in Egypt. And of course the diversity of governments and their relationships with their citizens further complicates how Facebook impacts each country.
All in all there is no simple formula visible, where we could say if X number of users join Facebook then they are Y% more likely to revolt. However, given the current protests in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen among other countries, more data is coming in and perhaps clear indicators will emerge. We’ll be covering this topic as events unfold.