Facebook’s New Growth in the Middle East: Do More Users Mean More Protests?

When pressure from protesters helped bring down the Egyptian and Tunisian governments in recent months, Facebook was credited by many organizers and outside observers as being a key tool for the revolution.

Why? Real-world friendships, and features like user profile walls, the news feed, Pages and of course Events provided a new way to first spread new ideas and then plan follow-up actions — or so anecdotal evidence suggests. See this New York Times article for some good examples.

But, of course, Egyptian grievances against now-departed ruler Hosni Mubarak had been festering for decades and was spilling it into the open regardless of any particular piece of technology helping the organizers. And between print, television, mobile phones and other web sites, there were other ways of communicating. And, there is the whole angle of why the revolt was successful — was the Egyptian military making a bid to preserve its power against Mubarak, and using protestors as a vehicle?

Zooming in from these larger questions, we can see that Facebook was at least one factor, and so more data is needed to show how it affects politics in the Middle East and elsewhere. And we have that data, in the form of our Inside Facebook Gold report, which includes historical number on the company’s traffic around the world.

So, here’s a closer look at the Middle East, including North African and Central Asian countries. The table below shows traffic we tracked for each country on February 1st and March 1st, along with the numerical and percentage change over February, and the portion of each country’s population that is currently on Facebook.

While a few countries got on Facebook years ago, almost every country in the region has seen its traffic to the site grow by at least 50%, and some have grown by 100% in the past 12 months. Those levels of growth are not unique to the region as it’s what we’ve seen most other places as well. Let’s look at specific countries to see if more unusual trends emerge.

Countries

Tunisia, where the first wave of protests began in December, has a relatively high 21.1% of the population on Facebook, or about 2.20 million out of the 10.4 million people in the country. Facebook growth had been in the double-digit thousands during across the later months of last year, only growing by more than a hundred thousand a month once the revolution was under way. For the last twelve months, it grew by 73.9%.

Moving over to the next location of a revolution, Egypt grew the most out of any Middle Eastern country in February, adding more than 455,000 new users to reach 5.65 million, or about 6.8% of the total population. Given that the revolution started in late January, most of this growth could be due to interest around Facebook as the revolution was happening. However, it grew by 562,000 new users in January, and for most of the past year it has grown by at least 250,00 people, for a total annual growth rate of 104.4%. While Facebook’s presence in the country could have aided organizers, its relatively low penetration rate and generally steady growth rate suggest it played a relatively small role — perhaps it propelled smaller groups of revolutionaries forward, but the majority of the population was not directly involved.

Looking down the list of the countries that gained the most new users in February, one can see that those near the top tend to have larger populations and lower Facebook penetration rates. That’s a worldwide trend we see. However, beyond Egypt, countries that have been experiencing unrest also show up near the top.