Photo illustration by John Lyman



Snapchat, the Arab World and Global Implications

Snapchat, without a doubt, has a peculiar and special relationship with the Arab world, but can it change the global outlook of the community and the community’s view of itself?

On July 7th when millions of active Snapshot users had the chance to view Tel Aviv through the app’s ‘Live Story’ feature, there was one response the company failed to foresee: the backlash from the Muslim and Palestinian community for failing to mention Palestinians and for featuring the city so close to the 1 year anniversary of the Gaza-Israel war.

In response, just two days later, Snapchatters woke to find that the West Bank too was now featured on the app’s Live Story. Yet what many saw as a simple ‘victory’ for the Palestinians spelled out the start of something much bigger. Compared to the two cities featured from the entire continent of Africa, there have already been more than seven cities highlighted from the Middle East, ranging from Dubai to Manama and even the Saudi-Arabian capital, Riyadh.

These “Live Stories” are remarkably fresh, and by Snapchat geo-tagging an entire city or live event it allows everyday people in those places to submit their own videos and experiences to all Snapchat users. This change to user-generated content, with minimal input for Snapchat apart from picking through the hours of content for five minutes of the best, marks a change in the digital age – signaling the bolstering of bottom-up information transfer as a popular and effective model.

Even more importantly, it engages the youth, ages 13 to 24, who make up to 81% of the users. Though the role of Snapchat as an intermediary is limited, choosing the videos promoted in the story does have its critics, especially in light of the West Bank story where Israeli soldiers and most signs of the occupation were strangely missing, this bottom-up approach can have wide-reaching consequences for the region, and the world at large.

Tackling Islamophobia

Despite the decline of overall crime in America since the 1990s, anti-Muslim crimes have sky-rocketed from 30.6 crimes a year in the U.S. before 9/11 to 159.5 crimes a year after 9/11 – a near five-fold increase. Research from the Pews Research Center shows that, in the US, Muslims are viewed “more coldly” than all other religious groups by the general public, with the overwhelming majority placing them on a negative rating scale. Yet this is not a domestic matter, it’s a global phenomenon.

In Spain, where Muslims only make up 2% of the population, more than 60% of respondents feel that “Islam is not compatible with the West.” According to the polling institute, Ipsos, 74% of the French public believes that “Islam is not compatible with French society.” Public attitude toward Muslims in the west is having direct effects on the global community, not only in how the governments of these countries respond or react to Arab or Muslim-majority countries, but also on the Muslim community elsewhere. Gallup shows us that the rights of Western Muslims are considered “important to Muslims globally.”

And that’s where Snapchat comes in. As an app it has found immeasurable interest from the Arab world – with Saudi Arabia ranking second globally with the number of users, despite having a relatively small population compared to most developed nations. The fever created around the ‘Live Story’ feature and Snapchat is such that the hashtag #mecca live calling Snapchat to feature the holy city of Mecca during Ramadan created a massive twitter trend with 300,000 tweets joining in the campaign.

The company, ever attentive to its users and demographics, listened and Mecca’s Grand Mosque went live on July 13. Its effect isn’t just simply promoting the city to the rest of the world, but to change entrenched views of the Islamic world as dangerous, barbaric, or inhumane. The 6 minute story showed Muslims praying or in various stages of their pilgrimage and all in such a way that created a secondary hashtag trend around Mecca with non-Muslims around the world citing its beauty or positivity. The effect was repeated again by the featuring of Eid celebrations in Jatarkha, Dubai and Riyadh. Muslims welcomed it as a positive change from the negative perception that was created about them by mainstream media, hoping the genuine and user-generated content would be enough to showcase to the world about the “true nature” of Islam as peaceful.

With global attitudes changed through better cultural understanding or awareness, cultural relations and citizen diplomacy will become the lead force in changing international relations between governments, and these public links and attitudes will become crucial in deciding the west’s military future in the Middle East, whether through NATO or the UN. This correlation means that a positive image of Islam domestically in western countries would significantly drop the public’s support for military intervention or invasion during any future crisis.

Social activism

Social media has always found its effects multiplied in the Middle-East, where it has been instrumental in sparking and organizing the Arab Spring, a movement so potent that it disposed heads of states, changed constitutions and created civil wars. Yet, with many comparing the Arab Spring of 2012 to the Color Revolutions after the fall of Soviet communism, it is readily apparent that social media has not been the cause of the uprising, as it wasn’t even present in the Color Revolutions; it has simply created the conditions where it easier to exploit discontent with the current systems-of-things and convert it to direct action.

Snapchat won’t change that fact; it will simply add more tools to the hands of disadvantaged or disgruntled citizens who want to campaign for change. It is one of the few apps free from any government censorship due to the fact that messages or images sent through the device are deleted seconds after being sent. That, along with the added feature of being able to follow certain accounts without adding them, has meant that celebrities, activists, and companies are flocking to the app. Allowing this feature means that socialization isn’t only limited to friendship clusters, and social activists groups are already taking advantage of that by creating accounts like ‘GlimpseofGaza.’

‘GlimpseofGaza’ is an account created in light of the West Bank Live Story, after witnessing the fact that hundreds of ‘snaps’ about the Israeli occupation had failed to make it into the story, Gazans on the other side of the country created the account to show “un-censored” videos and images of life in Gaza. The account is shared by a group of social activists who post from all across Gaza to show the neighborhoods and towns affected by the 2014 war, showing videos of families living in rubble or talking to Palestinians who had lost family members. There are countless other accounts like this already, gaining hundreds and thousands of followers in days, exposing their discontent with their current conditions or treatment in a way that no other social media ever could: with intimate and personal detail.

In other words, Snapchat can revitalize political movements in the Muslim world where the Arab Spring failed to reach or make enough impact. But that is only one possibility, and there’s already one major affect that it’s having.

Bolstering regional self-confidence

There was a carnival like atmosphere in Bahrain on the 22 of July when the country was featured in the Live Story. Hundreds of teens flocked to Manama, the capital, to be within the geographic range to post their videos onto the story. When an app as big as Snapchat pays attention to a region which has traditionally been ignored, either by big companies as a subset of either Africa or Asia, or by the mainstream media unless it is to cover protests or civil uprisings, it is an entirely uplifting precedent. However Arabs and Muslim’s didn’t flock to Snapchat because it gave them respect, it was because these groups were flocking to the app in such disproportionate proportions that the app gave them a ‘peculiar’ attention that they weren’t used to.

Therefore ultimately the biggest effect this relationship has between the Arab world and Snapchat is that it has whole-heartedly increased the self-confidence of, and within, the region. The Story feature picks out the best of the videos sent, so when a city is shown to the rest of the world, its best features, its best people, and its best quirks are on ready display. These are quirks that most of the local communities have simply forgotten through the monotony of everyday life- they need to be reminded. When they watch their own cities up online, they are radiant, and content, and yet ultimately pacified.

With Snapchat being the fasted growing social media app in 2014, where it grew 56% between the first and third quarter of the year, coupled with the fact that it already has such a strong foothold in the region, and that it’s so dominated by the youth, this pacifying effect can become very quantifiable in the future.

During a time of general discontent in the Middle East, amplified by social media, revolts for political reform dominated the region. Now, at a time where Arab nationalism is high and pride from personal, national and cultural achievements are being celebrated, and yet great difficulties and discontent still exist, Snapchat will, like every other social media, mirror this while amplifying those achievements and quietly ignoring all the failings. This will spark a movement in the region where instead of deadly riots focused on changing heads of states, protestors will argue for their country to achieve more and be more efficient, as the politically-active youth, noticing the discrepancy in the way their city is portrayed and the duller and harsher reality, will want development and achievement to reach every part of their lives.

Because ultimately, Snapchat has been a tool to increase intimacy and personality in a time where social media has become increasingly depersonalized and robotic, and this reversal and the fact that it’s so popularly embraced, has global implications.