The Middle East is characterized in media and, to a lesser extent, academia as almost unknowably complex, as though the particularities of the region lend to it an air of tangled mystery. This is not innate but is produced and reproduced by simplifying narratives put forth by media agencies and uncritically adopted by viewers (be they academic ones, or otherwise), as opined by many others before me. The Internet—and specifically the way in which search engines function—has exacerbated this, especially because we live in an era of free access to information at all times. Early entrants into the field of modern Middle Eastern history, be they undergraduates, graduates, or independent researchers must quickly come to terms with the fact that the Internet is not your friend.
We rely upon search engines to scour the Internet. Aside from the confirmation bias of search engines, which generate results based on your search history, location, and other personal factors, there are the important factors of “freshness” and “engagement.” Freshness refers to how recently a certain website has been updated and engagement refers to the number of people that click on a particular search result or website.
Websites that have been updated more recently and frequently or engage users more are pushed to the front pages of search engines. This has two corollaries. First, websites backed by large corporations and that can update frequently will fare better in online search results. Second, clicks operate exponentially since links that are clicked often are pushed to the front page and will therefore be clicked more often. Thus, by design, it is extremely difficult to dislodge a popular idea from the internet regardless of its truthfulness.
Although these shortcomings can apply to any topic, they take on a new significance in the study of the Middle East. Arab academic and media sources are at a disadvantage in the marketplace of the internet. The MENA is a region with the barriers of relative paucity (and variable quality) of detailed and specific information available on the internet, as a result of and exacerbated by a later adoption of the internet.
In general, the Arab world adopted the infrastructure of the Internet later than the West. By 2012 only twenty-six percent of Arab households had fixed internet access, compared to almost seventy percent of American households, meaning that the number of users who could engage with search results in the Arab world was simply smaller. As a result, media published online in the Arab world prior to and around 2012 suffers in accessibility today. It was not engaged with at the time of its creation and was therefore pushed to the back of search results, where it is not engaged with today. Thus, American media perspectives, which had the advantage of engagement at the time, have a monopoly on coverage of watershed moments such as the 2011 Arab Spring, the 2003 Gulf War, and generally the reported history of politicized and propagandized figures like Saddam Hussain and Muammar Qaddafi.
In most Arab states today, between fifteen to twenty-five percent of the population does not use the internet at all. Increased internet use in the region means that local Arab sources are more accessible and engaged with than before, but the issue is one of relativity. The cultural and media powerhouse status of the USA is further entrenched in media narratives by a large population of around 330 million people of whom over ninety percent use the internet. The Arab world, including North Africa, has some 430 million people, of whom some twenty percent do not use the internet at all, meaning that the actual number of internet users differs by only fifteen million. The United States has the additional advantage of being a single state with greater resources and more pervasive media companies which have already been established as trusted sources on the internet. They appear at the front of search results, leading to them being clicked on more often in the present and perpetuating a feedback loop.
Even today local Arab media sources reporting on current events, written in a timely fashion, in the English language, face a systemic obstacle to accessing English language readers. Buried beneath more established sources, they are discounted because of their location. This creates an echo chamber for Western users where the majority of sources that they are exposed to, even if they disagree on minutiae, tend to hold and therefore perpetuate similar large-scale ideas and assumptions about the region. The gulf of clicks is quickly becoming impassable and there needs to be an easier way to expose those interested in the Middle East to local sources through means that are not Google.
This also means that academic sources which go against the grain and tackle understudied or unreported facets of Arab countries will, in all likelihood, be hidden behind sites which are better funded, updated more often, and corroborate the hegemonic information given to the average viewer. This has resulted in the illusion of a knowledge gap and the continuation of the idea that the Middle East is unknowably complex.
To demonstrate my point, take the example of researching Saddam Hussein in the English language at a Western institution. A student will be exposed to a massive quantity of Western news media written during and shortly after the Iraq War of 2003, and much less about the Gulf War in 1991. This is basically true as the Internet simply was not in general use in 1991, thus the “freshness” and “engagement” factors will preferentially show the more recent Iraq War. That being said, this bias towards both the Second Gulf War and exclusively Western sources (sources from North America and the United Kingdom) will deprive this student of crucial contextual knowledge on which to base their conclusions. Recall that students today have not substantially experienced the first Gulf War (or pre-sanction Iraq) and may therefore take this information at face value.
This contextual difficulty becomes even more pressing when one considers the paucity of actual information available to novice researchers. Take the example of literacy statistics in Saddam-era Iraq. It is well known that Saddam instituted forced literacy programs (called “draconian” in articles by PBS, CNN, the Atlantic, New Internationalist, the Telegraph, the Scotsman, and almost certainly others), but the actual statistics of Iraqi literacy are simply not present in any of these, or other, articles. This would be more acceptable were it not for the fact that literacy statistics are available for every Western nation I have checked from the 1960s onwards via a quick Google search. For Iraq, the earliest accessible data point is from the year 2000. Novices in the field require significantly more tenacity to access both basic information and a pool of sources with diverse viewpoints. Other examples of this propagandistic echo chamber can be found in my article “Qaddafi’s Libya has Never Existed.”
Iraq is not the exception. The same applies to Libya and Syria, both of which have only two data points each in literacy statistics (1994 and 2004, 2000 and 2004 respectively). These three states compose almost twenty percent of the landmass of the entire Arab world, and for all three, novice researchers lack the tools to access even the most fundamental facts about the region. This does not even begin to touch on the issue in of Jordan, which more often than not returns searches for sneakers or basketball players.
This could potentially be offset by utilizing more local sources in Arabic. However, those sources, though not scant, are poorly cataloged. Even if a student were to have knowledge of the language, they would likely be left with little knowledge of the important local writers of the Middle East. Due to the lack of cataloging or recognition of distinguished Arab writers, students will likely be unable to tell the difference between important ideologues and witless writers. Any of us who must grade papers for a living know this to be painfully true.
That is not to suggest that the Middle East produces fewer, or worse, writers. It is to say that those who are not in the know, so to speak, will not be able to tell the difference between Egyptian writers Mohammad Hassanein Heikal, Ahmad Hamroush, and Akram Hilali. The latter of whom, to my knowledge, does not exist. I, myself, would not be able to research the United Arab Republic without significant help from Egyptian writers and journalists, and were it not for personal connections which have allowed me to meet these people, I would likely still be attempting to figure out which authors were meaningful to my understanding. This also assumes that such works are basically accessible in an easy form through the internet, which as I have previously elucidated, is simply not the case.
As academics, we need to provide students with an easy shorthand of notable writers and thinkers, as well as be far more willing than others to share our sources. We also need to engage on larger projects of cataloguing and translation to make local Middle Eastern writers accessible. In doing so, we will begin to break both the informational and language barrier we unselfconsciously perpetuate.
Furthermore, we need to provide alternatives to established searching protocols. We should be asking our students to visit libraries when dealing with contentious topics, but we should also start creating and disseminating in-depth, oft-updated, and engaging catalogues of useful sources for students. Only then can we begin to show people that the Middle East is knowable and, if not uncomplicated, then at least comprehensible.
I would like to thank Dr. Hicham Safieddine for his patient help with this paper.
Further Reading and Consulted Sources:
Asquith, Christina. 2003. “Turning the Page on Iraq’s History.” Christian Science Monitor. November 4, 2003. https://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1104/p11s01-legn.html.
Blair, David. 2003. “He Dreamed of Glory but Dealt out Only Despair.” Www.telegraph.co.uk. March 18, 2003. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1424980/He-dreamed-of-glory-but-dealt-out-only-despair.html?pageNum=1.
Blake, Robert. 2003. “CNN.com - Transcripts.” Edition.cnn.com. March 1, 2003. http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0303/01/pitn.00.html.
Bowden, Mark. 2002. “Tales of the Tyrant.” The Atlantic. May 1, 2002. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/tales-of-the-tyrant/302480/.
“FRONTLINE/WORLD . Iraq - Saddam’s Road to Hell - a Journey into the Killing Fields . PBS.” 2006. Www.pbs.org. January 24, 2006. https://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/iraq501/iraq501_additional.html.
“Literacy Rate, Adult Total (% of People Ages 15 and Above) - Libya | Data.” n.d. Data.worldbank.org. Accessed January 10, 2022. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?locations=LY.
“Literacy Rate, Adult Total (% of People Ages 15 and Above) - Syrian Arab Republic | Data.” n.d. Data.worldbank.org. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.LITR.ZS?locations=SY.
“Literacy Rate, Youth Total (% of People Ages 15-24) - Iraq | Data.” n.d. Data.worldbank.org. Accessed January 10, 2022. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.ADT.1524.LT.ZS?locations=IQ.
Mardsen, Sam. 2018. “How Do Search Engines Work?” DeepCrawl. May 10, 2018. https://www.deepcrawl.com/knowledge/technical-seo-library/how-do-search-engines-work/.
Parker, Christopher, and Pete Moore. 2007. “The War Economy of Iraq.” MERIP. June 26, 2007. https://merip.org/2007/06/the-war-economy-of-iraq/.
Pew Research Center. 2019. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. June 12, 2019. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/.
“Population, Total - Arab World | Data.” n.d. Data.worldbank.org. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=1A.
Raz, Daniella. 2020. “The Arab World’s Digital Divide – Arab Barometer.” Arab Barometer. September 25, 2020. https://www.arabbarometer.org/2020/09/the-mena-digital-divide/.
“Saddam Hussein.” 2003. New Internationalist. March 1, 2003. https://newint.org/columns/worldbeaters/2003/03/01/saddam-hussein.
“The Real Saddam.” 2002. Www.scotsman.com. August 17, 2002. https://www.scotsman.com/news/real-saddam-2463977.
Zuehlke, Eric. 2012. “In Arab Countries, Mobile Internet and Social Media Are Dominant, but Disparities in Access Remain.” PRB. April 23, 2012. https://www.prb.org/resources/in-arab-countries-mobile-internet-and-social-media-are-dominant-but-disparities-in-access-remain/.