Eight years after Twitter and Facebook helped fuel a wave of revolutions that toppled long-standing dictators across the Arab world, social media use in the region has plummeted.

The fall comes as several governments crack down on expression online and implement strict surveillance regimes, leading free speech activists to question the supposed progress that has been made since the days of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

In Tunisia, the decline was especially steep with internet users on Facebook dropping from 99 percent in 2013 to just 48 percent in 2018, according to a recent survey by Northwestern University in Qatar. The number of Tunisians online using Twitter also dropped by nearly 25 percent.

The annual survey — titled Media Use in the Middle East — questioned over 7,000 people in seven Arab countries: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates.

"It doesn't take much more than a flicker for social media use to change," Everette Dennis, the dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar, told Cheddar. Dennis first conducted the survey in 2013 to track social media use following the Arab Spring uprisings.

The decline was consistent across the Arab world. The number of Emiratis on Twitter fell from 79 percent to 52 percent, and in Qatar, Facebook was largely abandoned with just 9 percent of respondents saying they still use the platform, marking the lowest known figure of any developed country. In Egypt, Twitter use fell by nearly 30 percent in just four years.

Nonetheless, general internet use rose significantly in all of the surveyed countries — especially in the Gulf nations where over 90 percent of people use the internet, surpassing the 89 percent of Americans online.

The forsaking of traditional social media is especially noteworthy considering that Twitter and Facebook were serious contenders for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Human rights groups and activists across the world lauded the platforms for facilitating the mass movements that removed decades-old authoritarian regimes.

"Social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising," University of Washington Professor Philip Howard said in a statement. "Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom."

In a 2011 study, Howard found that tweets about revolution in Egypt increased a hundredfold — topping over 230,000 a day — in the week before Mubarak's resignation.

Prominent activists were also hailed for their social media use during the uprisings. One of the most well known is Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive in Egypt. In January 2011, Ghonim anonymously created a Facebook page titled "We are all Khaled Said," which called for justice following the death of a young man, Khaled Mohamed Said, at the hands of police in Alexandria months earlier.

Said quickly became a symbol of abuse by the Mubarak regime, and Ghonim's Facebook page emerged as a rallying space for everyday Egyptians. In just three days, the page had over 100,000 followers, Ghonim wrote in a Medium post, and "We are all Khaled Said" became a common chant in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolution.

In late January, Ghonim was arrested after the government shut down internet and cell phone networks across the country. He was released four days before Mubarak stepped down in February and publicly admitted to running the Facebook account. Ghonim too was considered a likely contender for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

Yet nearly ten years later, governments in the Arab world have continued to monitor and suppress expression online, which has contributed to the chilling of social media use, experts say.

"Government has come back and rebounded, and in some ways are more repressive," Dennis told Cheddar. "These states are fragile, and people are extremely cautious online."

In Egypt, for example, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down on press freedom and speech online, effectively thwarting the more robust media ecosystem called for in the Arab Spring. Just last year, el-Sisi implemented a series of laws aimed at combating extremism that significantly tightened the state's control of the internet — Human Rights Watch called the guise of counterterrorism a cover to "prosecute peaceful critics and to revive the infamous Mubarak-era state security courts."

The regulations, such as the Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes act, empowered the government to block websites it considered threats to national security and explicitly surveil popular social media platforms; specifically accounts with over 5,000 followers, which are deemed to be in the public interest and therefore worthy of monitoring.

Egyptians "have been persecuted for Facebook posts, tweets, art work, and even personal, unpublished writing that has fallen into the hands of the Egyptian authorities," Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International's director in North Africa, wrote in a statement protesting the laws, which she said increase the "government's already broad powers to monitor, censor and block social media and blogs."

Freedom House also has reported an "uptick in censorship and surveillance" across the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring.

"Egypt in particular has escalated online controls through blocking hundreds of websites and cracking down on dissent," Amy Slipowitz, a research associate at the watchdog organization, told Cheddar. "Fearful of repression, users have resorted to censoring themselves on the internet."

Digital Living Rooms Over Digital Public Squares

Moreover, analysts note that along with surveillance concerns, Arabs' cultural affinity towards privacy also has contributed to the swift decline of Facebook and Twitter.

"Arab culture is much more private. People in the Middle East are more relationship based and family oriented," Dennis told Cheddar, adding that internet users are more inclined to use private platforms like Snapchat and ephemeral features like Instagram stories.

In fact, both Snapchat and Instagram were the only two platforms to increase in overall usage, jumping 18 percent and 33 percent respectively in the last five years, according to the Northwestern study. Arab women in particular, Dennis said, are gravitating toward the two platforms since the filters and fleeting stories can provide an increased level of modesty.

"Another part of Facebook and Twitter's decline is competition," Dennis added, noting that there are now several other, more private, alternatives to the traditional platforms.

Facebook seems, nevertheless, to recognize this shift in consumer preferences, which is pronounced in the Middle East but pervades countries throughout the world. People increasingly "want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room," company's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a March blog post.

"I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today's open platforms," Zuckerberg said. Most Arabs apparently agree.

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