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What is causing the rift between Middle East governments and internet influencers?

26 May 2022

Middle East countries are having varying experiences in regulating the activities of digital content creators or internet influencers. While some governments give influencers full freedom, others restrict their activities. As the numbers of influencers and followers continue to grow so does their influence, yet governments showed different responses. Some Middle Eastern states consider influencers as a source of threat, but others, either recognized their social influence and are seeking to capitalize on their capabilities, or set their eyes on the profit-making potential and imposed income taxes on them.


Various Responses

Government responses to the growth of digital content creation vary from one country to another. The following patterns stand out:


1.     The United Arab Emirates:

As the UAE is paying special attention to digital content creation, its New Media Academy in May 2021, launched the second season of its signature content creators programme, Faris Al Muhtawa, designed to promote Arabic-language content creation, prepare an elite of content creators and upgrade their skills as influencers on both local and global platforms. In October 2020, the “Kelna Al Emarat Association” set up a team of digital content creators to promote its platforms to serve all segments of society and provide scientific, educational and recreational content that is compliant with cultural specifics and national identity. The effort is in line with the country’s awareness of fast-paced digital technology as well as its interest in empowering society and promoting knowledge.


2.     Egypt:

In September 2021, the tax authority called on bloggers, content creators and youtubers to create tax profiles and file for income taxes. It also requested them to register themselves at the value-added tax department if they generate an income of 500,000 pound in the first 12 months after starting their paid internet activity. The authority further published two guidelines. The first one provides instructions on electronic tax filing for e-commerce, online education and freelancing, while the second one is for content creators, including Youtubers, bloggers and influencers.


3.     Morocco:

The Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, in April 2021, sought help from influencers to promote a project aimed at supporting young people aged 18 and above who come up with innovative ideas. With a budget of 1.25 billion dirhams for 2022, the project dubbed “Forsa” (which means opportunity in Arabic) is aimed at providing a zero-interest loan of a maximum of 100,000 dirhams for each innovator. When the ministry launched the digital platform of the project, through which candidates submit their applications, influencers were the first to be invited at an official conference, which angered Moroccan journalists.


4.     Syria:

The Syrian regime’s cinema and TV production association, on January 5, 2022, issued a decree restricting the ability of content creators and artists. Accordingly, no drama scenes or other content may be published on social media without prior permission. Violators will be prosecuted by the cyber-crime departments at the Criminal Security Department. The Syrian regime justified the new restrictions by saying that some pages on social media are promoting immorality and in doing so they are being abusive to society.


5.     Turkey:

The Ministry of Treasury and Finance, on January 12, 2022, imposed taxes on social media content creators and mobile app developers. Those sharing text, pictures, video and sound clips on social media and developing apps get a 15 percent discount. Taxpayers should submit applications to the tax authority to receive a tax exemption. Those working on platforms offering interactive content, such as personal websites, e-commerce and news sites, are not exempted from tax.


Various Drivers

The following outline the main drivers of the region's governments’ interest in digital content creators.


1.     Regulating internet influencers’ activities:

The Egyptian government aims to regulate the activities of content creators as well as officially protect their work without discrimination between those offering meaningful content whose viewership and consequently their profits may decline, on the one hand, and those who make millions of pounds in profit, on the other. This implies indirect development of digital content creation. That is, those creating insignificant content that lacks a message are encouraged to offer content that carries a meaningful message because it is not going to be for free in some cases. Additionally, regulation should be backed by services to content creators such as giving them corporate status, which supports their credit standing and offer them bank facilities.


2.     Increasing the state’s financial resources:

Some states view revenue generated by digital content creators as taxable income, and therefore traditional commercial activities and e-commerce are treated equally under the law. Governments cannot turn a blind eye to financial gains made by electronic platforms and content creators cannot being ignored when the state does not get a share. This spurred governments to put procedures in place to benefit from these activities seen as outside the scope of the official economy. States reeling under recurrent crises were spurred to look for new sources of funds to increase their tax revenue.


3.     Capitalizing on content creators’ social influence:

Some states recognized the fact that the mounting influence and follower base of digital content creators means that they can influence public opinion, impact modern concepts and perceptions as well as popular participation in many topics. This spurred states to capitalize on the marketing capabilities of these influencers as an alternative to traditional media, in particular to positively influence the youth, who are influenced the most by these influencers.


4.     Curbing the negative impact of some content creators:

Some content creators can play political roles seen by some governments as a potential threat. That is because of the content creators’ politically opposing views or their reforming of social values. A good example is a video made by Shaima Mahmoud, a 21-year Tunisian influencer, §in February 2022 to document her illegal migration on a wooden boat. Shaima showed how she was quarantined in an Italian detention center for two weeks as a precaution against Covid-19. She also explained her struggle to secure a place on the boat, and shared details that might encourage some people to have the same experience or promote illegal migration despite all the risks involved.


5.     Preempting opponents:

Governments in the region, such as Syria and Turkey, have tight censorship on social media platforms, seen by some as a way to restrict opponents. Turkey, for example, has concerns over potential abuse of social media and the political opposition’s willingness to use the platforms, especially as the general elections for 2023 are approaching. Because of this, the Turkish parliament passed a bill giving the authorities more power to censor social media.


Potential Consequences

The impact of regional countries’ policies towards digital content creators or influencers vary from case to case. The following outline the most outstanding consequences.


1.     Creation of new marketing entities:

Morocco’s policies show how content creators became a new marketing vehicle that is capable of reaching out to more followers than those engaged by traditional media already facing challenges. This means that in some cases influencers are far more influential than journalists and other people of the media. It also means that influencers caused a significant change to the culture and mechanisms of marketing. That is, marketing is longer confined to products and trademarks and is now impacting policies embraced by states. Policies can be promoted through short videos made and shared by influencers on social media platforms, a development that transformed some of them into entrepreneurs, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which contributed to a surge in the use of e-transactions.


2.     Competing with traditional media:

Membership to the content creation industry was limited to graduates of media and journalism colleges. Now, the numbers of content creators are growing, prerequisites such as specialization and college degrees are fading away, and it has become up to followers to decide which is the best content. Because of all this, traditional content creators have to keep up with the fast-paced developments, which gave rise to a new reality where both appropriate and inappropriate content can be published. This is especially so because all digital content creators need is a smartphone and an internet connection and not complicated tools. This prompted calls for identifying content creators because the quantity of content does not necessarily mean quality.


3.     Politicization of social media platforms:

Official data show that Turkey sent the second-largest number of requests to TikTok, after a surge in angry political content protesting price hikes and the increasing cost of living on a platform that is predominantly recreational. As a result, TikTok created a communication channel dedicated for requests from Turkish courts asking for removing content and blocking accounts based on claims of compliance to Turkish laws regulating publishing on the internet.


4.     Cracking down on “harmful content”:

Some governments in the region reserved the right to crack down on “harmful” content which, they claim, has a negative impact on citizens and social values. Social media platforms engaged in blocking some content in response to complaints from some countries. Their response, which amounts to restricting some accounts and removing undesirable content, commensurate  with the size and power of the involved state, the percentage of their youth population as well as reliance on services provided through smartphones, among other considerations.


The overall conclusion is that ignoring digital content creators and underestimating their role in debates about burning issues that traditional media is unwilling to address. Additionally, restricting influencers or even blocking their content goes in vain, especially where governments crack down on public opinion forcing influencers to continuously look for alternative platforms and channels through which they can freely express their opinion. The optimal solution, however, can possibly be to develop the skills of a new generation of content creators to guarantee their financial independence and enable them to effectively use their talent and tell their inspiring stories to a larger audience. This is what can indirectly enrich Arabic-language content on the internet and increase the share of the digital economy in the gross domestic product of the region’s countries.