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Should social media data influence policy-making in the region?


Dubai — Most social media users in the region are not likely to express their sentiments and views on social media platforms when disappointed or unhappy with government policies, showed the Arab Social Media Report 2017.

The report, which was launched by the Mohammad Bin Rashid School of Government (MBRSG) on Sunday, surveyed respondents across 22 countries in the region to further enhance understanding of the impact of social media on societies, development and governance in the Arab world.

The report showed that while 58 per cent of respondents use social media to express their views on government policies or services, only 29 per cent openly and directly express their views when unhappy or unsatisfied with government policies. Around a quarter of respondents claimed, they self-censor their comments, expressions or opinions online, and 11 per cent use sarcasm in their negative comments regarding government policies and services.

“In the era of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, these sources of data are presenting policymakers and businesses with new horizons for development and better policy-making possibilities,” said Fadi Salem, research fellow at MBRSG and the author of the report.

However, findings indicated, that using social media as a big data source for policy development in the region could be currently problematic due to several limitations and user concerns, he added.

Some of the limitations include users’ flawed representation on social media. The report found that 46 per cent of respondents said they own multiple accounts in at least one social media platform, while 15 per cent of all social media users in the region provide false information on their accounts — of which nine per cent use a false name.

“The report presents us with an indication that there are limitations and one of them is that people are not usually truthful on social media because of the culture and available regulations in their country,” said Salem.

Other limitations of using social media for data-driven policymaking, include users geolocation information. One third of social media users intentionally disable their location-based services, disadvantaging data-driven decisions such as customer service in the private sector.

“Given the trends of the last six years, going forward, data derived from social media will be a useful tool in policymaking if the limitations and concerns highlighted in the report are overcome,” said Salem.

He pointed out these challenges can be elevated by enabling transparency, and better use control of data. This includes the ability to remove personal data from social media platforms, to be aware of who is using personal information, and to follow data laws, which include a clear code of conduct.

“This will take time depending on country to country. Some countries are aggressively and proactively trying to utilise digital technologies and data as a main source of policymaking, with the UAE being one example,” said Salem.

He referred to the UAE’s data law, which requires government entities to enable the public access to their data, while placing privacy measure to further analyse data. “It depends on how much each government is willing to invest in changing the culture and how their government functions, to better policymaking based on data.

Dr Ali Bin Sebaa Al Marri, executive president of MBRSG, Professor Raed Awamleh, dean of MBRSG, and Fadi Salem, research fellow at MBRSG at the launch of the report.

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