Virality Project: Saudi Arabia State Media and COVID-19

COVID-19 has directly or indirectly affected every country, providing an opportunity for comparative analysis of the ways governments use the pandemic to pursue political objectives. SIO has been conducting case studies investigating how various state media apparatuses are responding to the crisis, and the political dimensions of coronavirus misinformation around the world. Here we focus on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, investigating how its state media (and media formally or informally linked to the ruling royal family) have discussed the pandemic. Saudi Arabia is an important case, as its state media has many country-specific outlets, giving it wide reach with targeted focus. The Facebook Pages for these media outlets have a combined 75 million Page Likes (akin to Followers), and regionalized Pages for countries such as Tunisia, Sudan, Iran and Iraq. We investigate how the Pages discuss pandemic spread and response in other countries, whether they customize messages via their country-specific outlets, and whether they received an engagement boost from the pandemic.

Key takeaways:

  • State media posts leveraged the pandemic as an opportunity to critique rival governments in Qatar, Iran and Turkey. Posts that discussed COVID-19 within Saudi Arabia focused on people recovering from the disease. Previous SIO work found that Chinese state media similarly focused on recoveries when discussing the pandemic domestically. 

  • Al Arabiya and Al-Hadath’s country-specific Pages were generally neutral, and not slanted to align with the geopolitical objectives of Saudi Arabia.

  • A handful of Saudi state media Facebook Pages — particularly Al Arabiya and Al-Hadath — saw substantially increased Page engagement after the pandemic began. 

Table 1: Page Likes (somewhat akin to Page Followers), total interactions and average posts per day for many of the large Saudi media Facebook Pages linked to the government, January 1, 2020 to May 31, 2020. Data: CrowdTangle

How does Saudi State Media Discuss the Pandemic in Different Countries?

We first looked at whether Saudi state media discussed COVID-19 differently across particular countries. To do this, we downloaded all posts from 14 of the main state media Facebook Pages that included the words “coronavirus” and “covid,” in English and Arabic. In total we looked at 13,694 posts. We then translated all posts to English, coded each post based on whether they mentioned one of 10 countries, and looked at words with the highest tf-idf score. The tf-idf statistic measures how important a word is to a particular set of texts. It increases as a word is repeatedly used in a text, but decreases as the word is used in other texts.

Figure 1: Words with the highest tf-idf score linked to particular countries. Data: CrowdTangle

Here are our takeaways:

  • Qatar: In recent years Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had acrimonious relations. Several interesting words were unique to posts about Qatar. “Migrant,” for example, was used to criticize Qatar’s treatment of migrants — a recurring theme going back years. One post, for example, said “Defiant Qatar continues to expose migrant workers to coronavirus.” The words “exposing,” “labor,” “construction” and “nongovernmental” were similarly used to criticize treatment of migrant workers.

  • US/Europe/Russia: Digging into high tf-idf words referencing the U.S., Europe and Russia, the posts appeared relatively neutral and objective.

  • Iran: As with much of Saudi coverage of Iran, posts discussed Iran critically. References to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he pushed COVID-19 conspiracies, and pointed to corruption in pandemic-related procurement. Example headlines included “Hit by coronavirus and sanctions, Iran’s oil exports fall to record low” and “Iran claims to be curbing outbreak despite 2,300 new virus cases.”

  • Saudi Arabia: References to Saudi Arabia focused on COVID-19 recoveries. This finding parallels those about the way Chinese state media discussed the pandemic within China. There were dozens of posts about the number of recoveries, such as, “Saudi Arabia: COVID-19 daily recoveries exceed number of cases” and “Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest coronavirus death rates in the world and also one of the lowest total number of critical cases among COVID-19 patients.” Other posts highlighted the country’s testing abilities; emblematic headlines include  “Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry said that it has conducted more than a million coronavirus tests in the Kingdom so far.” Additional posts highlighted ways the government was supporting small businesses during the pandemic, and noted the government’s contributions to international efforts to develop a vaccine.

Figure 2: Posts about COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia versus Iran
  • Yemen: Saudi Arabia has been fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015. Posts about Yemen often criticized the Houthis, stating that Houthi militants will shoot and kill anyone diagnosed with coronavirus to stop its spread, and that Houthis were exploiting the pandemic to impose levies on Yemen’s healthcare sector. One post said that the Houthis were looting medical supplies sent to Yemen to fight the disease. 

  • Israel: Posts about Israel often critiqued Israeli treatment of Palestinian prisoners, in light of the risk of COVID-19 spreading in prisons. 

  • Turkey: Saudi Arabia and Turkey are occasional geopolitical rivals, in part over Turkey’s support for regional Muslim Brotherhood-linked actors. Posts about Turkey that referenced Erdoğan were quite negative, saying that Turkey’s coronavirus deaths could have been minimized if Erdoğan had focused on mitigation measures as opposed to political objectives. There were also critiques of the strength of democratic institutions in Turkey.

Al Arabiya and Al-Hadath

Both Al Arabiya and Al-Hadath have, in addition to their primary Facebook Pages, a handful of country-specific Pages. In this section we look at how Saudi state media discussed coronavirus when targeting people in these countries. There were 9,162 coronavirus-related posts for the Al Arabiya dataset, and 12,730 posts for the Al-Hadath dataset. As a starting point, we pulled out the top word pairs, or bigrams, for each country-specific Page.

Al Arabiya

Figure 3: Top bigrams for country-specific Al Arabiya Pages. Alarabiya.naf is a Page for North Africa. Data: CrowdTangle

The figure above suggests that while there was certainly customized content by Page, the content does not appear to be heavily slanted. We make two observations:

  • Saudi Arabia: The Al Arabiya Saudi Page often used the hashtag #saudi_in_the_face_of_corona (translated), which appears to refer to a documentary. The language of the hashtag suggests that Saudi Arabia is confronting coronavirus, as if gearing up for a fight, and could be an attempt to instill national pride. 

  • Syria: Saudi Arabia has supported rebel groups in Syria. Though there were only a small number of coronavirus-related posts on Al Arabiya’s Syria Page, there were some interesting bigrams. “Human rights,” for example, was once used to criticize the conditions in Syrian prisons — analogous to critiques the main state media Pages made about Israeli treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

Al-Hadath

Figure 4: Top bigrams for country-specific Al-Hadath Pages. Alhadathalyoum and Helyoum are Pages for Egypt. AlhadathYmn is a Page for Yemen. Data: CrowdTangle

Al-Hadath country-specific Pages were also not heavily slanted, though, there were two exceptions:

  • Yemen: The Al-Hadath Yemen Page repeatedly referenced “Houthi Militia” in regards to coronavirus. The posts said Houthi militias were concealing COVID-19 statistics, disregarding human life and using the pandemic to blackmail the international community. 

  • Libya: While the vast majority of Libyan posts were neutral, some posts that included the bigram “libyan government” (a reference to the Government of National Accord) referenced the government’s inability to provide services for Libyan citizens

Pandemic for Page Growth?

To assess whether Saudi propaganda outlets benefited (in terms of engagement) from the pandemic, we examined change before and after the start of pandemic coverage for state media Facebook Pages across engagement metrics.

Figure 5: Facebook engagement for top Saudi state media outlets before and after January 1, 2020, the date we set as the start of pandemic coverage. Data: CrowdTangle

We found, first, that several Pages saw a spike in total interactions (defined as comments + likes + other reactions, such as “wow”) after the pandemic (top left in Figure 5). Al Arabiya and Al-Hadath are most notable, though they were already on an upward trajectory prior to the pandemic, so it is hard to know whether the pandemic played a role. Al-Hadath’s top-engagement posts were general news videos and Facebook Live videos related to the pandemic. Al Arabiya’s top-engagement posts also included general, apolitical information about the disease and its spread. For these two Pages, the increase in interactions corresponded to more frequent posting (top right in Figure 5).

Next we looked at whether the interaction rate — the average number of interactions per impression — increased after the pandemic (bottom left in Figure 5). We found that it did for one Page in particular, the Al Arabiya Saudi Page. The highest engagement posts on this Page focused on coronavirus.

Last, we looked at Page Likes (bottom right in Figure 5) — i.e., the number of people who like a Page (as opposed to a particular post). This variable is analogous to Page Followers. Most Pages did not experience dramatic Page growth, with the exception of Al-Hadath and Independent Arabia.

Conclusion

It is intriguing that the large state media Facebook Pages discuss particular countries with clear slants, yet these slants do not carry over to the country-specific Pages. Perhaps the outlets believe that heavy-handed tactics could backfire when targeting directly, for example, Libyans from a clearly Saudi-affiliated media entity. Future work could select a country like Libya and examine in more depth how the country is discussed on the main Saudi state media outlets as compared to the country-specific Pages of these outlets.

On June 4, 2020 Facebook announced that it is beginning to roll out labels for state-controlled media. Currently, for example, all posts on the various RT Facebook Pages are labeled “Russian state-controlled media”. While not all of the Saudi media outlets discussed in this post would be subject to this policy, many are unequivocally state media. These Pages, however, are not yet labeled. We encourage Facebook to roll out this important policy more broadly, and to be transparent in when the labels are introduced across countries.