Social Media and the Internet of Things: Towards Data-Driven Policymaking in the Arab World, Potential, Limits and Concerns  

30 March 2017

The power and influence of social media has continued to grow globally over the past decade.During this period, the scope and scale of usage have changed dramatically, from the early days when social media was primarily fulfilling social needs of connectivity, communication, socialization, and entertainment, to the current era, where social media applications are seen as important tools of governing, development, diplomacy and business.

More recently, informational flows taking place through social media have been informing and misinforming public opinion and influencing policy development and political communication. For example, in 2015 and 2016, social media played a critical role in shaping public opinion internationally and on national levels, during numerous major events with global implications. During the past few years, as applications of “big data” and artificial intelligence continued to mature, the level of sophistication and influence of social media expanded further. As societal penetration rates increased, these data-driven applications started to provide deep insights into public views, sentiments, needs, behaviors and activities in numerous countries at unprecedented granular levels. The newfound insights harnessed through social media created new opportunities, as well as new risks.
During the past year, social media also played a highly influential role in what has been described as a “post-truth” era in policymaking, diplomacy, and political communication1. For example, social media “bots” arguably played a key role in influencing public opinion globally, whether on the political or public policy levels. Such bots rely heavily on big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning algorithms, not just in gathering and crunching public views and sentiments, but more so in pro-actively influencing public opinions, decisions and behaviors. These rising social media activities were coupled with a flood of “fake news” techniques, that may have played a role in manipulating public perceptions and beliefs at large scales. Facebook was a primary example during 2016, where highly influential “fake news” flourished and penetrated public opinion in the US and Europe, which arguably had influential outcomes on global policy and the world order. By early 2017, Twitter has also been utilized as an influential tool of governing in the highest public office in the US and beyond. These uses undermined traditional information mediums, triggered foreign policy crises, impacted political communication and disrupted established policy formulation cycles.
On the other hand, the digital revolution has expanded the horizon of possibilities for development, governance and policymaking. The ever-expanding Internet connectivity of people and objects, and the maturity of big data and artificial intelligence applications are together ushering what has been described as the “fourth industrial revolution”. This new disruptive transformation is characterized by a fusion of inter-connected technologies where the digital, physical and biological worlds converge. This inter-connectivity is generating—and consuming—an enormous amount of data that is changing the ways policies are conducted, decisions are taken and day-to-day operations are carried out. Within this context, ‘big data’ applications are increasingly becoming critical elements of policymaking. Coupled with the rise of a critical mass of social media users globally, this ubiquitous connectivity and data revolution is promising major transformations in modes of governance, policymaking, and citizen-government interaction.
In the Arab region, there are already numerous experiments and applications where data fromsocial media and the “Internet of Things” (IoT) are informing and influencing government practices as sources of big data, effectively changing how societies and governments interact2. These two sources, among others, are already influencing policymaking, public engagement and other means of citizen-government interactions in the region.
The sources of big data are numerous. These include, open government data, financial transactions data, geospatial data, societal “lifestyle” data, social media data, data generated by Internet-enabled devices (IoT), sensors data, machine-to-machine data, data from security systems, among many other sources. In this edition of the Arab Social Media Report series, we explore the potential limitations and concerns related to this phenomenon by focusing on two key sources of big data: social media and IoT data. Observations and anecdotal evidence from the public sector and decision-making organization in the region suggest that there is limited understanding of the real potential, the limitations, and the public concerns surrounding these big data sources in the Arab region.

This report contextualizes the findings in light of the socio-technical transformations taking place in the Arab region, by exploring the growth of social media and building on past editions in the series. The objective is to explore and assess multiple aspects of the ongoing digital transformation in the Arab world and highlight some of the policy implications on a regional level. More specifically, the report aims to better inform our understanding of the convergence of social media and IoT data as sources of big data and their potential impact on policymaking and governance in the region. By using a triangulation of research approaches it digs into several critical dimensions of this phenomenon.
Ultimately, in light of the availability of massive amount of data from physical objects and people, the questions tackled in the research are: What is the potential for data-driven policymaking and governance in the region? What are the limitations? And most importantly, what are the public concerns that need to be addressed by policymakers while they embark on next phase of the digital governance transformation in the region? The report has two main parts. In the first part, we explore the questions discussed in the previous paragraphs through a regional survey spanning the 22 Arab countries. In the second part we continue the tradition set in the previous editions of the Arab Social Media Report series by exploring the growth and usage trends of influential social media platforms across the region, including Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and, for the first time, Instagram. The findings highlight important changes—and some stagnation—in the ways social media is infiltrating demographic layers in Arab societies, be it gender, age and language. Together, the findings provide important insights for guiding policymakers, business leaders and development efforts. More specifically, these findings can contribute to shaping directions and informing decisions on the future of governance and development in the Arab region.
The 2017 Arab Social Media Report (7th Edition) Full Report is available here: and citation information is available in the full PDF.