Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey 2020.

‘If you can’t get them in eight seconds, you have lost them’

Afshin Molavi


Social media is the number one source of news for Arab youth. It overtook TV two years ago and, at around 80 per cent, is three times as popular as a source of news as it was just five years ago. This finding is one of the most substantial trends that the 2020 ASDA’A BCW Arab Youth Survey notes. Far fewer American youth report using social media for news, at just 31 per cent for ages 18-24 according to a recent Pew poll. Interestingly, the percentage of Arab youth relying on TV for news has not decreased substantially in the past five years. Youth are simply consuming more news.

In a year of tumultuous news that started with increased US-Iranian tensions, the targeting of Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, and progressed to the global COVID-19 pandemic, youth have a voracious appetite for consuming news. They’re glued to their smartphones. This generational, voracious content consumption presents both a challenge and an opportunity for content creators.

To better understand this trend, I turned to Al-Arabiya’s social media team. Starting at the beginning of the year, consumption of Al-Arabiya’s digital platforms, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to YouTube, has doubled since last year. Not surprisingly, our largest consumers of digital media are audiences aged 18-24. A substantial number of viewers are desperate for updated and reliable news related to the pandemic and have more time to consume it due to COVID-19 shutdowns.

Ironically, the more time viewers spend on social media in the aggregate, the shorter their attention spans are becoming. Al-Arabiya’s social media guru Farah Al-Ibrahim told me that the average attention span of our followers for video is one minute on Facebook, 45 seconds on Twitter and a mere 30 seconds on Instagram. Only YouTube, where audiences go specifically seeking longer videos to watch, holds people’s attention for a grand total of five minutes.

Al-Ibrahim told me she believes TikTok’s one-minute video limit is making consumers expect even shorter videos. “Digital media viewers are fast movers, if you can’t get them in eight seconds, you’ve lost them,” she says. Yes, that was eight seconds.

This follows a progression that’s been happening for decades. When I started working as a Washington DC-based correspondent for Al-Arabiya in 2004 our standard story length was four minutes. This has been slowly shrinking to less than two minutes for a current report. In their early years, social media platforms were a repository for made-for-TV news. Now, news reporting is conforming to the consumption trends set by social media. As a journalist, I fear viewers are losing context and background as a result, but at the same time, there’s no going back to longer videos with today’s audiences.

In addition, the proliferation of fake news and viral disinformation is another disturbing trend. That same Pew study reveals that Americans who rely on social media for their news are less engaged and knowledgeable than those who rely on TV, radio or print news. There is no reason to assume Arab youth differ on this front. This is even more alarming when you imagine the number of people who rely on social media for pertinent medical advice about COVID-19.

At the same time, there are some encouraging trends: increasingly, Al-Arabiya’s most popular videos are explainer-type stories that give context to the biggest news stories of the day. A report that detailed the reason oil prices crashed down to US$1 a barrel this spring went viral on all our platforms and was more popular than the actual story that announced the news. And although fake news gets constantly shared in the comments section of news reports published on shareable platforms, our social media department has been seeing a slow increase in user awareness.

Many consumers of our social media have started demanding more transparency about the sources of our news, exhibiting critical thinking and savviness. This, in addition to a concerted effort by social media platforms to cull fake news related to COVID-19, may be a turning point that alerts more viewers to the distinction between fake and real news.

There are also positive opportunities to seize. For example, not only does social media present on-demand access to information for youth, but the creators of this content also have instant feedback; we know what stories get traction with retweets, thumbs-ups and comments, and we can measure our reach and optimise future coverage accordingly. We can provide multiple short reports on any one important topic that fact-check and provide context, background and multiple sides of a debate.

Despite all this reliance on social media, consumers still switch to their trusted TV stations (usually via livestream) when there is breaking news, according to Al-Arabiya’s digital media team. When people need fast and reliable news, they know that established news stations are the places to tune into.

Muna Shikaki is an on-air correspondent and video journalist for Al-Arabiya News Channel, a leading Arabic language news network. Based in Washington DC since 2004, she covers a broad range of subjects, from US elections and politics, to foreign policy and the Arab and Muslim American communities. Shikaki has reported from over thirty US states, Guantanamo Bay, Dubai, the Palestinian Territories and South America. She was a 2004 Fulbright scholar at Columbia University in New York, where she earned her MS in Journalism. She completed her BA at Birzeit University in Ramallah, Palestine.