The Billion Dollar(s) Business of Social Media Trolling in the Philippines, and what it means for Public Relations globally

Social media trolling is big business in the Philippines. And that business is about to go global (image source: When in Manila)

If there’s one article you should read today, it’s this piece in the Washington Post by Shibani Mahtani and Regine Cabato. Titled “Why crafty Internet trolls in the Philippines may be coming to a website near you”, the article explains what has happened over the past couple of years in the Philippines in relation to the business of social media troll farms.

If you’re not familiar with the idea, I’ll explain. A troll farm is described as an organization whose employees or members attempt to create conflict and disruption in an online community by posting deliberately inflammatory or provocative comments. Traditionally, troll farms were state-led/sponsored (think Russia in the 2016 US elections). This has also happened in other countries. In the article by Mahtani and Cabato, they describe the rise of social media manipulation as an extension of Filipino politics (another great article to read is here, from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba).

As I’ve mentioned, the concept of social media manipulation isn’t new. We’ve had countless reports into what state actors such as Russia, Iran and others have tried to do online, through mass social media manipulation. What’s fascinating about the Washington Post article is how the Philippines is redefining this concept and turning it into an industry (there’s now both negative and positive trolling), how those who provide the troll farm services are now looking not just to politics but to business as well, and, most worryingly for everyone who works in our industry, is how PR firms are quietly offering the service to their clientele.

It doesn’t surprise me that the Philippines is leading the way in the area of troll farming. The country has a young, English-speaking population, a large service industry, and a tough economy. And Facebook is everywhere, controlling what people read and think when it comes to news, politics and business. To quote from Buzzfeed’s Davey Alba:

If you want to know what happens to a country that has opened itself entirely to Facebook, look to the Philippines. What happened there — what continues to happen there — is both an origin story for the weaponization of social media and a peek at its dystopian future. It’s a society where, increasingly, the truth no longer matters, propaganda is ubiquitous, and lives are wrecked and people die as a result — half a world away from the Silicon Valley engineers who’d promised to connect their world.

Facebook launched “Free Facebook” in the Philippines in 2013. The idea was to partner with a local carrier to offer a portal of free, basic internet services (Free Basics) that would fuel Facebook’s aggressive global expansion. To Zuckerberg, at least, the experiment was successful. “What we’ve seen in the Philippines is … a home run,” he said in a speech at a 2014 conference in Barcelona. Last November, Facebook partnered with the Duterte government to build an undersea cable system that would connect Philippine internet systems to the rest of Asia and the US.

In 2012, 29 million Filipinos used Facebook. Today, 69 million people — two-thirds of the population — are on Facebook. The remaining one-third does not have access to the internet. In other words, virtually every Filipino citizen with an internet connection has a Facebook account. For many in one of the most persistently poor nations in the world, Facebook is the only way to access the internet.

Social media trolling took off in the Philippines during the 2016 Presidential campaign. And many saw the business opportunity. Washington Post spoke to one PR executive who claims his agency is paid anywhere from about $38,000 to $57,000 — “depending on their needs” — on a month-long retainer for up to eight months.

Others are seeing the possibilities too. The authors of the Washington Post article claimed that “several paid troll farm operations and one self-described influencer say they have been approached and contracted by international clients, including from Britain, to do political work. Others are planning to expand overseas, hoping to start regionally”. One opinion quoted in the story claims that social media trolling in the country is a billion dollar business.

There’s no doubt in my mind that social media trolling will have an impact not just on politics in every democracy around the world (if it hasn’t already), but that these services will be turned towards business, especially the notion of positive trolling, of using fake accounts to talk up a business and their activities. I am also in no doubt that Facebook and the other internet giants will do nothing to stop this (Facebook’s efforts to stop what’s going on in the Philippines have been derisory at best).

So, what can we do as PR practitioners? There’s not that many options on the table. The most obvious one is to both act ethically, and speak up publicly about why ethics matters. We’re not vocal enough about this issue, and we need to change that. Another way to push back is to be more vocal about what we want the tech firms to do. We’ve got to stop treating the likes of Facebook and Google as champions of public relations, and rather as companies who are not doing enough to fight for and on behalf of our publics online.

If you have any ideas on the above, please do share them. This is an issue that’ll affect us all. And we have to take collective action to fight back. The real me is signing out for now…

Impartiality in the Middle East – Is Facebook’s Content Plan Doomed to Fail?

Even Lady Justice would struggle with Facebook’s latest idea to moderate content

I love the idea of impartiality, that notion of fairness above all, of equal treatment of all rivals or disputants. The notion of impartiality is difficult to define in practice; we all have our biases. And then there’s the politics of any given situation. It’s fair to say that, given global events, impartiality is becoming increasingly hard to come by. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where the number of conflicts and disputes is sadly increasing between neighbors and nations. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be perceived as impartial.

Of course, social media hasn’t helped. Social media is the metaphorical can of kerosene that makes disputes explode across cyberspace. But now, the social media companies want to start cracking down on content that fuels hatred and extremism. What is Facebook’s idea? To introduce “an independent oversight board of experts to review its content decisions.”

In a fairly wide-ranging interview with Abu Dhabi’s The National, Brent C Harris, Director for Global Affairs and Governance at Facebook, spoke about Facebook’s plans to reach out to stakeholders who’d play a role on this oversight board. I’ll quote from him.


The company is embracing a wider set of approaches for how it operates. Our CEO Mark [Zuckerberg] had a comment on the earnings call recently where he talked about how, for when we launch products now that touch societal issues, we are going to go out and consult on them and think in advance about how to build them.

We had discussions pretty much every week internally, and one of the ideas that was proposed was that we should create some board to do a review of really difficult content decisions. I think there was an emerging consensus that it was something worth trying and worth building.

There was a growing sense that the [content] decisions we were taking are ones that we shouldn’t make alone and I don’t think that speaks to any single issue. It is about a growing belief that we don’t believe the decisions should sit solely inside Facebook.

A lot of the matters that will go before the board are the hard questions of trade-offs between those principles and trying to figure out for a specific piece of content, where do you set that line? That line is a hard one at times to figure out.

There has also been fairly consistent set of feedback that the people who should serve [on the board] should be folks who are deeply deliberative and who are impartial.

While I usually applaud any social media firm for opening up and engaging with more transparency, this suggestion of an “impartial board” is also dangerous. Who decides who and what is impartial? Given what is happening in many regions, including my own, how will Facebook ensure that politics doesn’t seep into discussions? Many state actors have manipulated social media for their own ends, and Facebook itself has a terrible track record of sustaining partners with external stakeholders (mainly because it doesn’t seem to listen, just ask Snopes). And, how do you define impartiality in a region which has never been so afflicted by political and sectarian differences?

If they’re going to be transparent about this issue, then Facebook needs to go all in and clearly state who they’re meeting and why (particularly in regions where there’s little to no independent civil society). Otherwise, it just strikes me as another public relations exercise rather than a workable plan which will produce the intended results (and given trust in Facebook is probably at an all-time low, this is not what they need).

And, speaking as a person who cares deeply about the notion of impartiality and fairness on social media, the last thing we need is more news columns on bad ideas which won’t deliver in practice. Facebook, prove me wrong.

Why I decided to #deletefacebook and why you need to think twice too

I’ve had enough of being the product for an unethical company. Hence I have decided to #deletefacebook (image source: http://www.beebom.com)

Like many of you, I’ve been reading the unraveling story of how Cambridge Analytica harvested and manipulated the data of 50 million Facebook users to build a system to predict and influence choices during the US Election in 2016. If you haven’t read about this yet, please watch the video below from the Guardian and The Observer media teams led by the remarkable Carole Cadwalladr.

This story is so remarkable that it seems more at home in Hollywood than in reality. But it is important to us all. Over 2.2 billion people use Facebook; that’s just under a third of the world’s population.

We are the Product

I’m not naive, I understand the trade-off when using any social site. To quote media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff, companies like Facebook sell us and our data to advertisers: “Ask yourself who is paying for Facebook. Usually the people who are paying are the customers. Advertisers are the ones who are paying. If you don’t know who the customer of the product you are using is, you don’t know what the product is for. We are not the customers of Facebook, we are the product. Facebook is selling us to advertisers.”

I’ve always been ok with that, and it was a trade-off that I’ve been willing to make. But the reporting around Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s inaction concern me. As far as I’m concerned, Cambridge Analytica basically stole, with Facebook’s consent, 50 million user profiles. Facebook’s system gave Cambridge Analytica the ability to take from the 320,000 people or so who used it all of their friend contacts on the site. The 49 million people whose data was taken and then misused had no idea about what was happening and how their information was used to manipulate American voters in 2016. And I assume most of them still have no idea, because Facebook didn’t tell them.

Does Facebook care about us?

I have no intention of being manipulated online by firms like Cambridge Analytica, and I don’t want them to access data without my permission to reach my friends and family. Unfortunately, the best way for me to ensure this doesn’t happen is to not be on Facebook. I know many people who work at the firm, and they’re good individuals. But there’s something wrong at the top of the organization. Facebook knew about the Cambridge Analytica issue as far back as 2015. It took them three years to go public on this. Why?

 

Mark Zuckerberg may talk about connecting the world, but let’s be honest here. Facebook is a business, not an altruistic charity. It cares about revenues. And, sadly, that is leading Facebook’s leadership down a dark path with no care about me or my rights as a user. To quote the firm’s privacy policy on its collection of data, “We receive data whenever you visit a game, application, or website that uses Facebook Platform or visit a site with a Facebook feature … sometimes through cookies.”

What does Facebook care about more? Is it revenues or users? To me, the answer is obvious.

Facebook’s Lack of Ethical Leadership

Balancing what is profitable with what is right has never been easy, especially for publicly-listed companies. The expectation is that revenues will grow, quarter over quarter. While Facebook’s revenues may have grown, I’ve yet to see any ethical leadership from the company on pretty much anything. Facebook staggers from scandal to scandal. Take for example the story about how advertisers could target audiences by ethnicity, leading to the revelation that a brand could focus on users interested in antisemitic topics. Facebook’s leadership promised action, and little was taken.

And then there’s the story of how fake news producers have manipulated the site, most extensively during the US Presidential elections. What was Zuckerberg’s response (which has since come back to haunt Facebook)?

“Personally I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, which is a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way — I think is a pretty crazy idea. Voters make decisions based on their lived experience.”

The behavioral pattern hasn’t changed with Cambridge Analytica. Facebook’s executives remained silent for a week. Zuckerberg pledged that 2018 would be the year that he “fixed Facebook.” Maybe a more pertinent suggestion would be for him to finally admit that he’s out of his depth and that he hands over to a leader who can balance both ethics and business.

 

I’m no longer the Product

There are other reasons why I don’t love Facebook like I used to. It’s impact on the media industry, a profession that I started out in at the beginning of my career, has been disastrous. For all the above, I’ve decided that enough is enough. I don’t want to be the product any more. What I do want to do is share a message with Facebook that the company has to change. And as I’m the product, it won’t be able to sell my data, including all my likes and my posts, to advertisers. I’m still thinking over what this means for my presence on other sites such as Twitter and Instagram (which is owned by Facebook). But my taking a stand with others who have stepped away from the site, I hope that we’ll force the company to change for the better. There needs to be respect  and protection for us as users, which the company’s leadership has never shown through its actions. I’ve taken the decision to #deletefacebook. Maybe you should too.

The Six Essentials for Promoting Brand Building and Trust Among MENA Consumers (MEPRA/YouGov Research)

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Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

I’ve written three blog posts on the issue which I’ve already published on the blog, to explore the findings country-by-country, but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

1. Face-to-Face with family/friends is key to influence

It should be obvious to us all, and here’s another reminder for anyone working in communications/marketing. If you want to build trust in a brand, its products and services, then look at how you can engage the public through word-of-mouth. Across the region, 85% of respondents trust product and service recommendations from their family and friends. Nothing else comes close to these positive statistics.

2. Online works if you focus on friends and family, less so on social influencers

Over the past couple of years we’ve shifted for an incessant focus on digital to idolizing anything social. As the first big finding shows, in-person interaction is still the most persuasive. Online engagement does work, but it’s not as effective; 52% of respondents trust online recommendations about products and services from family and friends (interestingly, the percentages are highest for the Gulf and lowest for the Levant).

When it comes to social influencers, consumers are conflicted – 34% do trust social influencers/people with large online followings on products and services, compared to 29% who find them untrustworthy. A lack of transparency re paid/sponsored content probably isn’t helping. What’s helping even less is a tendency for social influencers in the region to say little which is negative when reviewing products and services.

3. There’s not as much trust in the media as we PR people may think

I was surprised by how low the scores were when it came to trust in the media as a source of information on products and services. The top-rated media was a brand’s own website (which should make sense, but given how bad websites are in the region this is still surprising), which scored 46% for trustworthiness. Every other medium scored in the 30s, which is a surprise considering how much faith public relations professionals put in securing editorial coverage with media outlets (for many, it’s still the essence of their day jobs). Blogs scored the lowest, at 31% trustworthiness (they were rated as untrustworthy by 30% of respondents). Should brands invest more in their own online media? The answer would seem to be an obvious yes.

4. Advertising is trusted almost as much as the media (except when it’s online)

The research is a mixed bag for the advertising sector. Out-of-home advertising such as billboards seem to be the most trusted by consumers, with a trust rating of 36%. Television is close behind with 35% trust, followed by radio at 31%. Online comes in last, at 28%. There’s more mistrust than trust for online advertising, with 33% of those polled not believing product and services information they see when displayed as an online ad. This may be due to misleading advertising around product pricing and availability. Whatever the reason for the low trust levels (especially online), marketers need to do more to win the trust of consumers, especially with trust in advertising dropping; 61% of those polled agreed with a statement that they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago.

5. Social media is a popular news source, but it’s not trusted thanks to ‘fake news’ concerns

Social media is becoming/has become a key source of news for most people (58%) in the region when compared to five years back (and there’s no distinction either by age, which is surprising). However, there’s still a trust issue. Almost half (48%) agreed they they have low trust in social media, which isn’t that surprising given the amount of fake/incorrect information out there. Which goes to underline the need for brands to focus on their owned media channels even more so.

The research did hammer home the power of third-party advocacy. When asked if they have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services, 65% responded by saying yes. Brands need to focus on winning over trusted individuals/groups who can influence consumers.

6. When it comes to social media, Facebook is King

If you’re looking to find out about a product or service in the region, it seems that Facebook is the place to go. Over half (53%) said that they found Facebook to be the most useful platform as a source of information (this rose to 72% for Egypt). Nothing else came close. WhatsApp was a distant number two, at 12%, and Instagram third at 9%. There was no mention of Twitter, and it would have been good to have understood where Twitter and YouTube featured as sources of information on products and services for the public.

So that’s the big picture for you. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming few days as I put out country-by-country reports. If you need more specific information, please do reach out to me.

Brand Building and Trust in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 3)

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This is the third and final post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This post covers Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon.

Egypt

1004 people were surveyed in Egypt, 97% of whom were Egyptian and 3% were expat. When it comes to gender, 51% were male, and 49% were female. Just over 40% were aged between 18 and 29, 21% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 39% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, it’s no surprise that over a third were Cairo-based,  with 36% living in the capital. Of the remainder, 24% live in the Delta, 17% in Alexandria, 16% in Upper Egypt, and the remainder in the Canal Zone/outside of these areas.

In terms of salaries, 30% earn less than US$266 per month, 24% earn between US$266 and US$532, 17% earn between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earn between US$1,066 and US$2,665, and 3% earn more than US$2,666. Approximately 18% of people refused to disclose their earnings.

Finally, 41% described themselves as single, 47% as married with children, and 6% were married but had no children. The remaining 6% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Egyptian respondents said they have an 85% level of trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Only 3% of respondents said that they would not trust a face-to-face discussion. Those who displayed the highest levels of trust include respondents earning between US$533 and US$1,065 (90%), those living in the Canal Zone (96%), and those who are married with children (88%).

Trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services averages at 51%; mistrust comes in at 14%. Trust is most pronounced in those earning above US$2,666 (62%).  Those who are between 18 and 24 are least likely to trust such posts (20%), as are those living in Alexandria (22%).

Egyptian respondents have a higher trust in third-party endorsements of products and services than most other countries in the region; 62% agreed that they trust third-party endorsements more than what a brand says about its own products and services, compared to 6% who don’t. The highest trust is among those who are earning less than 500 Egyptian Pounds and those who are earning over 10,0001 Egyptian Pounds (both 70%), as well as expats (76%).

Trust in Social Media

Egypt’s respondents were torn over social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services; 32% said they found such posts trustworthy, and 31% said they found them untrustworthy. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (37%) than women (27%). Those who are earning between US$1,600 and US$2,665 also had the most trust (51%) in such posts. The least trusting were expats (23% for, 43% against).

Unsurprisingly, social media has become a vital source of information for Egyptian respondents; 57% of respondents agreed that it has become more important to them as an information source today than five years back (12% disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents between 18-24 (63%). However, almost half (45%) have low trust in what they see online.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, it may be no surprise that Facebook is the most popular by far (71%), followed by WhatsApp (8%). In third with 8% was the choice of none. It seems that if you want to do social media in Egypt, you have to be on Facebook.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Only two media channels scored higher for being trustworthy than untrustworthy among those polled – they were brand websites (46% versus 18%), and website articles (35% to 24%). All other media scored higher for not being trustworthy, with television and blogs both at 27% (their untrustworthy scores were 41% and 35% respectively), and radio at 30% positive, compared to 35% negative. Respondents weren’t asked why, but it’s probably fair to say that Egyptians have a healthy skepticism of official media, given the events of the past seven years.

Levels of trust in advertising are approximately the same as the media, with billboards being the most trusted (34%), followed by television and radio (both 30%), and finally online at 28%. For online, radio, and television, they’re not trusted more than they are trusted, with negative scores of 32%, 31%, and 33% respectively.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 62% agreed and 8% disagreed. Those earning the least (500 Egyptian pounds) trust advertising the least, with a 70% rating. Over two-thirds of respondents (69%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. Only 8% disagreed.

Jordan

503 people were surveyed in Jordan, 89% of whom were Jordanian and 11% were expat. There was a slight preference for males (52%), as opposed to females (48%). Age-wise, the largest group were between 18 and 29 (43%), 25% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 32% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, the majority were based in Amman (59%), with the second and third largest geographies being Irbid (16%) and Zarqa (12%) respectively.

In terms of salaries, 9% earn less than US$266 per month, 24% earn between US$266 and US$532, 32% earn between US$533 and US$1,065, 17% earn between US$1,066 and US$2,665, and 5% earn more than US$2,666. Approximately 13% of people refused to disclose their earnings.

Finally, 47% described themselves as single, 42% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Jordan’s respondents are very trusting of their family and friends recommendations about services and products when they’re given face-to-face; 89% responded that they trust such interactions. In contrast, only 2% were distrustful. Those over 40 (93%), who earned between US$1,600 and US$2,665 (94%), and who are married with children (92%) are the most trusting.

When it comes to online product and service recommendations from family and friends, the trust percentage drops to 50%, while mistrust rises to 15%. Trust is highest among those who earn less than US$266 (58%), and those who are married but who have no children (64%).

When it comes to third party endorsements, Jordanian respondents score higher than any other country in the region bar one (hint, it’s below); 74% agreed that they trust third-party endorsements more than what a brand says about its own products and services, compared to 6% who don’t. The highest trust is among consumers who are above 30 (80%) and earners over US$2,666 (92%).

Trust in Social Media

Jordan’s respondents were even more split than Egypt’s; 32% said they found social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services trustworthy, and 32% said they found such posts untrustworthy. Those who were most trusting were those over 40 (40%), and those earning between US$2,666 and US$5,332 (38%).  Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (37%) than women (27%). Those who are earning between US$1,600 and US$2,665 also had the most trust (51%) in such posts. The least trusting were women (37%), and those aged between 25 and 29 (40%).

Just under two-thirds of respondents said that social media has become a vital source of information for them (63%); this is especially true for 18-24 year-old respondents (69%). This is especially true of younger respondents between 18-24 (63%). Trust in online content is an issue, with 54% having low trust in what they see online (this rises to 65% for those aged between 30-34).

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook tops the list with 63% of respondents saying it’s the most useful channel for information about products and services. Second choice was none (10%), followed by LinkedIn in third place with 7%. WhatsApp was fourth (6%), followed by Instagram (5%).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

When it comes to trust in the media, Jordanians don’t seem to prefer any particular medium. Radios, website articles and blogs scored a 33% trust rating when it comes to being a source of information about products and services. Television and newspapers scored 32% and 30% respectively. Brand websites scored the best, at 40%.

Levels of trust in advertising as a source of information are slightly lower; billboards were at 32%, TV advertising scored 30%, radio ads 25% and online advertising 21%. The only ad medium which scored higher positively than negatively was billboards (27%). For online advertising, the percentage for those who distrust the medium was 43%, over twice the number who said they did trust online ads as a source of information about products and services.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 68% agreed and 10% disagreed. Those who were above 40, earning a high salary and married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. Almost three-quarters of respondents (73%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. Only 9% disagreed.

Lebanon

Last, but by no means least, Lebanon is the final country in this survey. 251 people were surveyed in the country, of which 48% were male and 52% female. In terms of age, 34% were aged between 18 and 29, 21% between 30 and 39, and 45% were over 40.

Income-wise, 63% earn less than US$1,600, 11% earn between US$1,600 and US$2,665, 8% earn between US$2,666 and US$5,332, and 6% earn over US$5,333. 12% didn’t disclose their salary.

Approximately 71% are Lebanese nationals, with 29% being expats. In term of geography, the largest number of people live in Beirut (43%), followed by non-named locations (37%) Tripoli (14%), and Jounieh (4%). Regarding the marital status, 38% were single, 51% were married with kids, and 7% were married with no children.

Due to the small survey size, I won’t be drilling down further by group.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Lebanon’s respondents are highly trusting of their family and friends recommendations about services and products when they’re given face-to-face; 87% responded that they trust such interactions. In contrast, 3% were distrustful.

When it comes to online product and service recommendations from family and friends, the trust percentage drops to 46%; mistrust rises to 20%.

When it comes to third party endorsements, the Lebanese respondents scored the highest of any country in the region; 75% agreed that they trust third-party endorsements more than what a brand says about its own products and services, compared to 6% who don’t.

Trust in Social Media

When it comes to sourcing information on products and services from online influencers and those with large followings, the Lebanese are the least trusting and most distrusting. Only 26% said they found social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services trustworthy, and 39% said they found such posts untrustworthy. Lebanese respondents do however mostly agree that social media has become a vital source of information for them (63%).

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook again comes out tops with 60% of respondents saying it’s the most useful channel for information about products and services. Second choice was none (12%), followed by LinkedIn in third place with 7%. WhatsApp and Instagram were joint fourth (5%).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Lebanon has always been a bastion for the region’s media sector, so I was keen to look at the levels of trust in the press. Unfortunately, there’s no anomalies here. The Lebanese don’t trust (or distrust) media more than anyone else.

No one source is preferred over another when it comes to product and service information. Brand websites are newspapers are the most trusted (both 34%), followed by radio, television, and website articles (all of which score 33%. Blogs are the least trusted, at 28%.

Advertising fared worse than the media; billboards were the most trusted medium (28%), followed by TV advertising (27%), radio (24%), and online in fourth place (21%). When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, two-thirds agreed (67%) and 12% disagreed. In total, 73% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. Only 10% disagreed.

And that wraps up a brief overview of the research. If you’d like more details, please do let me know and I’ll share data with you.

Brand Building and Trust in Saudi and the UAE, Based on YouGov/MEPRA Research (Part 2)

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This is the second post on the research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and looks into consumer trust, both online and offline, when it comes to advertising and media recommendations in goods and services.

This second post covers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which follows the post from the first four countries yesterday.

Saudi Arabia

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1003 people were surveyed in Saudi Arabia, 64% of whom were Saudi nationals and 36% were expat. When it comes to gender, 56% were male, and 44% were female. Just under 47% were aged between 18 and 29, 31% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 22% were aged over 40.

In terms of geography, just over 30% live in Riyadh, 24% live in Jeddah, 7% in Mecca, 6% in Dammam and 5% in Madinah. The other 28% live outside of these areas.

Finally, 38% described themselves as single, 51% as married with children, and 7% were married but had no children. The remaining 4% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

When it comes to those closest to them, Saudi respondents scored the lowest in the Gulf; only 82% trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services. Younger respondents showed the lowest trust; 79% of 18-24 year-olds, compared to 90% of 35-39 year-olds. Saudi nationals scored 79%, and Saudi-based expats 88%. The other large discrepancy was between singles (77%) and those who were married (85%).

When it comes to trust in social media posts by friends and family about products and services, the scores were much better; 54% found such posts trustworthy, compared to 13% who found them untrustworthy. There’s a seven percent difference between young respondents (18-24) who trust the least (52%), and respondents in the 30-34 age bracket, who trust the most (59%). Saudi nationals were also less trusting than expats, with scores of 52% and 59% respectively.

Those surveyed in Saudi did show higher levels of trust in third-party endorsements of products and services, in comparison to a brand’s own positioning; 59% trust third-party endorsements, compared to 7% who don’t. There’s a 15% differential between those working (67%), and those who aren’t working (52%).

Trust in Social Media

Overall, the Saudi respondents showed slightly higher levels of trust (37%) than mistrust (29%) in social media posts by influencers and people with lots of followers on products and services. Men were much more likely to be trustworthy (42%) than women (30%). And those who are working are also more trusting (41%) than those who aren’t (33%).

Social media has become a much more important source of information to the Saudi respondents than it was five years ago (53% agreed with this statement, opposed to 15% who disagreed). This is especially true of younger respondents and those on lower incomes. However, trust is still an issue with what people see online; 43% have low trust in what they see online (this jumps to 52% for those earning US$5333 and higher), compared to 17% who disagree.

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (28%), followed by WhatsApp (16%), Instagram (14%), and Snapchat (9%). One-tenth (11%) didn’t use any social media. Facebook was least popular among the youth (24%), who prefer visual applications and instant messaging. In contrast, Facebook was the most popular among expats, almost half (49%) of whom use the platform.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media for Saudi respondents when it comes to products and service recommendations differed to the rest of the Gulf. Whilst branded websites scored top as the most trusted media (45%), television content, radio news and website articles also rated highly, with scores of 44, 39, and 39 percent respectively. Newspapers came second to last, at 36%, and blogs were the least trusted, at 33%.

When it comes to advertising, there’s a slight drop in trust among respondents. Television advertising is the most trusted, at 38%, followed by billboards at 37%, and radio at 31%. Online advertising is the least trusted, at 28%. A higher percent of respondents (32%) found online advertising untrustworthy than trustworthy.

When asked if they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, 55% agreed and 13% disagreed. Men and those married with children were most likely to trust advertising less today than five years back. Saudis scored the lowest when it came to the impact of fake news on their trust in media sources. Only 58% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 11% disagreed.

United Arab Emirates

united-arab-emirates-map

At 1010, the respondent base for the UAE was the largest from all the countries surveyed. Of this total, 18% were Emirati nationals, 24% Arab expats, 55% Asian expats, and just under 3% Western.

When it comes to gender, 65% were male, and 35% were female. Just under 42% were aged between 18 and 29, 38% were between the ages 30 and 39, and 20% were aged over 40.

In terms of salary, 37% earned over US$2,666 a month, 18% earned between US$1,066 and $2,665, 12% earned between US$533 and US$1,065, 8% earned between US$266 and US$532, and 7% earned less than US$265. The remaining 18% didn’t give their salary.

In terms of geography, 33% live in Abu Dhabi, 41% live in Dubai, 17% in Sharjah, and the remaining 9% outside those three Emirates.

Finally, 35% described themselves as single, 52% as married with children, and 11% were married but had no children. The remaining 2% were classed either as other or did not respond.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Approximately 84% of those polled said they trusted face-to-face recommendations of products and services from their friends and family. The groups which exhibited the highest levels of trust were Western nationals (96%) and those earning over US$2,666 a month. Those groups who exhibited the lowest trust were earners below US$266 (70%) and those people living in other Emirates (77%).

When asked the same question about online, social media-based recommendations from friends and family, that number dropped to 55%. Young people aged between 18 and 24 were most likely to trust such recommendations (60%), as were Emirati, Arab Nationals and Westerners (65%, 66%, and 64% respectively). Asian expats (48%) and those living in Sharjah (49%) recorded the lowest levels of trust.

Conversely, almost two-thirds of people (63%) have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Only 39% of respondents trusted online recommendations from social media influencers or people with large followings. Unsurprisingly, considering how much time they spend online, younger people aged between 18 and 24 years are more likely to trust such recommendations (45%), as are Emiratis (52%).

Social media has become the most important source of information for people; 57% said social media has become a key source of information about goods and services today compared to five years back. However, half of the respondents also said that they have little trust in what they see on social media.

On social media Facebook is by far the most useful source of information for goods and services, with 52% of respondents using the site to know more about brands. Whatsapp was second, at 17%, and LinkedIn was third, with 10%. Surprisingly, Asian nationals and Westerners are the major outliers here, with only 45% and 44% respectively using Facebook, and 21% of Asians using WhatsApp as their preferred social media platform (I’m still not convinced however that a messaging app can be defined as a social media platform).

Trust in Media & Advertising 

For advertising, the most trusted formats were television and billboards (both at 45%), followed by radio (41%), and online (37%). Over half of respondents (57%) said they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago. This was most noticeable among those who were married and didn’t have children (75%), and those earning over US$5333 (64%).

Brand websites scored higher than both media and advertising for trustworthiness; 53% of respondents said they trust corporate websites. Trust in print publications, in newspapers and magazines, was highest, at 48%, followed by radio and television, both of which scored a 44% trust rating. Blogs were the least trusted source of information, at 39%. When asked about fake news and their trust in the media, the UAE respondents polled like their Saudi counterparts. Only 59% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, with 10% disagreeing.

Findings on Brand Building and Trust – YouGov/MEPRA Research for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar (Part 1)

trust-in-blue-marker

Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

This is the first of four blog posts on the issue, to explore the findings country-by-country. but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

The first three posts will be a glimpse into the results, country-by-country, for Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, followed by Saudi and the United Arab Emirates in the second post later on in the week. The Levant and Egypt will follow next week. I’ll share big picture thoughts next week, in partnership with Gulf News.

Bahrain

Bahrain Map

152 people were surveyed in Bahrain, a third of whom were nationals and two-thirds expat.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Bahrain’s population think highly of their friends and family. They scored the second highest in the Gulf for trust in face-to-face conversations with friends and family about products and services, at 88%. That trust doesn’t carry online, to social media; only 42% of respondents trust social media posts from friends and family about products and services. In contrast, 20% find such posts untrustworthy.

When it comes to third party endorsements, 69% of respondents agreed that they had more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services. Only 8% disagreed.

Trust in Social Media

When it comes to social media posts by influencers, and people with lots of followers on products and services, there’s less trust and more distrust. Only 28% trust such posts, opposed to the 34% who show mistrust.

While social media has become more of an important source of information to Bahrain’s residents than it was five years ago (55% agreed with this statement, opposed to 14% who disagreed), just under half (47%) have low trust in what they see online (interestingly, the percentage of those who don’t is also 14%).

When it comes to the most popular social media channels for information on goods and services, Facebook topped the list (31%), followed by Instagram (27%), and WhatsApp came third (11%). A note on the research here – Twitter doesn’t appear in the responses, presumably as it wasn’t included in the survey options.

Trust in Media & Advertising 

Trust in media and advertising in Bahrain is mixed. At the top was a surprising choice – brand websites; 40% of respondents trust what they see on a brand’s own website. Newspapers and magazines were second, at 38%, website articles at 36%, and TV and radio reporting both at 34% respectively.

Bringing up the rear were billboards at 31%, television ads at 29%, radio advertising at 24%, blogs at 22%, and online advertising at 20%. Trust has fallen in advertising over the past five years, with 68% saying they trust advertising less now than they did five years ago. While you may think this is good news for trust in media, you’d be wrong. Almost three-quarters of respondents (74%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. Only 7% disagreed.

Kuwait

kuwait map

251 people were surveyed in Kuwait, just under a fifth of whom were nationals and over four-fifths expat.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

Kuwaiti residents are a little less trusting of their friends and family than their Bahraini counterparts; 85% said they found service and product recommendations in face-to-face conversations with friends and family as trustworthy. However, they’re more trusting than others online; 53% trust social media posts from friends and family about products and services. In contrast, 15% find such posts untrustworthy.

Third party endorsements are less trusted among Kuwait-based respondents; 63% said they had more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services. Only 6% disagreed.

Trust in Social Media

Considering the number of social media influencers based in Kuwait, the response to the question of influencer trustworthiness was fascinating. Only a quarter of respondents found influencer posts on products and services trustworthy, compared to 31% who didn’t.

Social media has become an essential source of information on goods and services to people in Kuwait, according to the survey, with two-thirds agreeing that social media had become more important compared to five years back. However, trust online is an issue, with 48% having low trust in what they see online (this is opposed to 16% who don’t).

The most popular social media channels for information on goods and services are Facebook, which dominates at 56%, followed by Instagram (17%) and WhatsApp (9%).

Trust in Media & Advertising

Kuwait’s respondents view media in a similar fashion to their Bahraini brethren in terms of their most trusted choice, which was a brand’s own website (47%). The next most trusted medium was website articles (34%), and radio stories (32%). Newspapers and television fare worse, at 28% and 30% respectively, which is surprising considering Kuwait’s wide selection of newspapers and television (Kuwait has the most open media in the Gulf). Blogs were the least trusted, at 28%. Seven out of ten respondents (71%) said that fake news has dented their trust in mainstream media reporting.

Radio and online advertising are the least trusted, both with a 23% approval rating. Television advertising fares slightly better, at 28%. The most trusted advertising medium was that of outdoor, with billboards scoring a 33% approval rating. Two-thirds of respondents trust advertising less today than they did five years ago, with ten percent disagreeing. Similar to Bahrain, just under three-quarters of respondents (71%), agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media (5% disagreed).

Oman

omanmap

The map of Oman excluding Musandam

151 people were surveyed in Oman, over 57% of whom were Omani nationals and 43% were expats.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

The Oman-based respondents were the least trusting of face-to-face recommendations for products and services from friends and family; 83% said they’d trust such a recommendation. That dropped to 43% for recommendations from family and friends on social media; in contrast, 23% of Omani respondents don’t trust product and service recommendations on social media from friends and family.

Third party endorsements are trusted by three-fifths of the respondents in Oman, with 12% distrusting what a third party says about a good or a service compared to what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

When it comes to influencers and social media, there’s little to tell when it comes to trust and mistrust – 33% trust posts by influencers or people with large followings recommending products and services, but 34% say the opposite.

Roughly half of respondents (52%) say that social media is a more important source of information about products and services than five years back. Half of the respondents (48%) have low trust in terms of what they see online (14% don’t).

Facebook is the most popular social media network, but only by a slim margin. A quarter of respondents said it was the most useful for information on products and services, compared to Instagram (19%), and WhatsApp (15%). LinkedIn came fourth, with 12%.

Trust in Media & Advertising

Trust in media among the Omani respondents is much higher when compared to the results from Bahrain and Kuwait. Radio is trusted the most (45%), followed by newspapers and television (both at 42%). Unlike Bahrain and Kuwait where they were the most trusted, brand websites are the fourth most-trusted, at 39%. Website articles are trusted by a third, with blogs coming in last at 29%. Sixty-three percent of respondents agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, opposed to 13% who feel to the contrary.

When it comes to advertising, billboards and television are the most trusted, with 32% ratings respectively. Radio follows in third place, at 29%, with online advertising as a source of information abut products and services only trusted by 19%. Approximately 58% of respondents trust advertising today less than they did five years ago, compared to 11% who don’t. Fake news is little less of an issue in Oman, where 63% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media. In contrast, 13% disagreed with the statement.

Qatar

map-qatar

150 people were surveyed in Qatar, 5% of whom were Qatari nationals and 95% were expats.

Family, Friends and Third Parties

The Qatar-based respondents were the most trusting of face-to-face recommendations for products and services from friends and family; 93% said they’d trust such a recommendation. That dropped to 57% for recommendations from family and friends on social media. Only 15% of Qatari respondents would not trust product and service recommendations on social media from friends and family.

Third party endorsements are trusted by two-thirds of the respondents in Qatar. However, 11% distrust whatever a third party says about a good or a service compared to what a brand says about its own goods and services.

Trust in Social Media

Qatar residents are similarly torn when it comes to trusting product and service recommendations from social media influencers or people with large numbers of followers. Roughly 30% do trust such recommendations, whereas 27% don’t.

However, what’s not up for debate is the importance of social media as a source of information on products and services today compared to five years back – 57% said it was, compared to 13% who said it isn’t. When it comes to trust in social media, almost half (47%) have low trust in what they see online, compared to 13% who don’t.

When it comes to which social media network is the most popular for finding information on products and services, Facebook is the leader by far with 60% of the vote. Surprisingly, LinkedIn is second with 10%. One in ten say that they don’t find any social media network useful for finding information.

Trust in Media & Advertising

The media trend in Qatar follows that of Bahrain and Kuwait; brand websites are the most trusted for information on products and services, at 44%. What does buck the trend is the second most-trusted source, which is website articles at 35%. Considering Qatar’s extensive media sector, trust in other media doesn’t show much difference to the other countries above: newspapers are trusted by 33%; radio by 31%, and television by 28%. Blogs are the least trusted, at 20%. Roughly 68% agree with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered trust in mainstream news media, with 9% disagreeing.

Advertising fares worse, with the most popular medium, namely billboards, only scoring a 31% trust rating. Television follows at 29%, radio at 23%, and online at only 20%. Approximately two-thirds or 67% of respondents trust advertising today less than they did five years ago, compared to 10% who disagree. When it comes to fake news, 68% agreed with the statement that so-called ‘fake news’ has lowered their trust in mainstream news media, and 9% disagreed.