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Liveblogging CAIS 2008: Internet Chat Rooms: Opinions by the Arab Listeners of the BBC June 7, 2008

Posted by JR Dixey in events@UBC.
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Haidar Moukdad, Dalhousie University

[Please note: These are merely my notes on the presentation, taken live while the presentation was in progress and edited for sense afterwards. They are not a verbatim transcription of the presentation, and any errors are mine. Please contact the researcher directly for more information on his work. — JRD]

The BBC forum is a form of public opinion. I’ve been looking into this in terms of politics; it’s also related to freedom of speech across the world. Some people are freer than others in expressing their opinion. People also use these forums as information sources. And if you read newspapers on the Internet, almost all of them provide some option for users to provide feedback on an article. The BBC is a little different, which I’ll talk about.

I’m going to talk about the BBC World Service and specifically the Arabic BBC Service. They are a trusted source in the Arabic world. My topic is specifically about Arabic chat rooms and how listeners to the BBC Arabic service views them.

The BBC forums are specifically related to the BBC radio programmes. The radio programmers ask people for their opinions ahead of the broadcast and then discuss them during the broadcast. The language used is entirely Arabic, including the radio programme itself of course. Listeners are mostly from the Arab world, but through the Internet it can be heard all over the world.

The forum is moderated; if something violates the rules, it will be deleted, if it’s nasty or flaming or anything like that. Typical topics are social, political, entertainment, and so on.

The BBC broadcasts in a large variety of (43) languages. You can see that Arabic is broadcast in both Africa and the Middle East. There is a news feedback forum in each language as well.

Objectives/Research Questions

  • What do Arab listeners of the BBC think of chat rooms and their effects on their societies?
  • For what purposes do these listeners enter these rooms and how do they use them?
  • Are there any differences of opinions based on sex or country of origin?

Of course there are differences in what’s allowed in different regions or countries. The radio programmers ask people for opinions on different topics, so that influences people’s participation in these.

Method

The topic was posed in August of last year. They gave about 1-2 weeks before the radio programme for people to contribute and then they had the programme on air. There were 94 contributions. They’re still there — you can see them, 7 or 8 years later. This was just last year. The contributions are categorized by sex, country, positive and negative opinion. I should say that as you know, there’s no way to tell whether someone is being honest about their sex or their country, but I have to go with what I have there.

The main page of the BBC Arabic website shows what their articles are about. The main topic today, as you can see, is about cigarettes, another is about Jewish minorities in the Arab world, another one is about another topic. Here’s the screen about Internet chat rooms. The description discusses the topic and invites users to contribute what they think. On the left it shows the guidelines for contributions and you can see that the space has been closed for now.

In looking at contributions by country and sex, you can see some are living outside the Arab world. The majority came from male listeners or users of the website (77 vs. 17 female). I also looked at differences between countries regarding their opinions of chat rooms. It’s not really representative, i.e., Bahrain only has one contribution and it’s negative. It’s almost 2:1 negative to positive opinions overall, though.

Males were more than 2:1 negative in their opinion of chat rooms; women were 7:1; more men were neutral than women (7 men, 1 woman). That could be because there were many fewer contributions from women.

I was very curious about this topic. A lot of research has been done in North America on the use of chat rooms; we know in our field that a lot of things have been done about gender in terms of information, communication, design, etc. In the Arab world this hasn’t been explored very much, so it was interesting to find out what they thought, not just by numbers and so on.

As a sample of opinions, a female from Iraq says that she is completely against chat rooms because they damage social values especially if they’re used by people of low moral values. But if it’s used as a civilized source it’s a good thing to have. But no chat rooms.

This is a male from Egypt; he’s all for chat rooms, but they have to be moderated to prevent chaos. This is based on experience of various chat rooms.

MSN had to close chat rooms all over the world because there were a lot of cultural and linguistic problems. You’ll notice that there are filters for certain words, etc., and there are differences even within English in terms of spelling between America and Canada; a word that is legitimate in French might be filtered in America.

This woman from Syria says everything starts at home; if someone behaves at home, they will behave in chat rooms whether they are male or female. Censorship doesn’t make any difference if people are upstanding.

This male from Kuwait says they are useful to meet people from different cultures, but if used for cynical purposes they are destructive.

Conclusion

I had a pretty good idea of what I would encounter because of other topics I’ve explored in this arena before, such as politics. The Internet is very popular in the Arab world, but to a different degree because of access reasons, etc. In some countries they have little access, in some they have a lot. That could reflect either positively or negatively on their opinions. The Arab world is mainly conservative, although there are some more liberal areas. People who have emigrated to other countries might have different opinions as well.

Generally they thought that chatrooms have a detrimental affect on society, on individuals, etc. People are very cautious about that. There is a difference between male and female; more research has to be done to see if there is a correlation between sex and opinion of chat rooms, but from what I could see there is a difference and a higher percentage of women with negative opinions of chat rooms. It could be related to access level to the Internet or familiarity with the use of the Internet compared to male contributors. I would assume the more familiar you get with it the more positive opinion you might hold.

It would be interesting to compare these results to different cultures or different countries, and to see if there is a shift in opinion after someone emigrates or goes to another country.

Question from the audience: Do you have any information about what people think in general of chat rooms?

Answer: It’s a mess. There are some places where it’s nasty, and other places where it’s moderated and more civil. It depends on the subject. Many people use chat rooms to meet people from around the world, they might want to emigrate or meet people from other countries and explore.

Question from the audience: Have you compared this to non-Arab opinions about chat rooms? I’m wondering if all this negativity might be related to people’s behaviour in chat rooms.

Answer: Sometimes the BBC will take the same topic and post it elsewhere. I looked at French and English as well. It seems to me that among English speakers, there was a similar topic and many people had a more positive opinion of chat rooms in general even though they knew the same level of nastiness and chaos exists. It could be because of the openness of the society, or moral issues, etc. English speakers seem to be more positive about it.

Question from the audience: Could cultural factors play a role? In Arabic cultures, as far as I know (and please correct me if I’m wrong here), there tends to be an emphasis, in conversation, on interpersonal relationships, on expressing respect for the person you are speaking to, etc. These non-textual, conversational elements are left out of online/chat discussion.

Answer: Yes, that could be a factor. Arabic cultures tend to be more community focused and have more emphasis on the wellbeing of the group, and that could be a factor as well.

Question from the audience: There seems to be some confusion in the presentation about chat rooms vs. this opinion posting area on the BBC website. I’m not clear on what the statistics apply to, because one chart says “Use of chat rooms…”

Answer: It should say “Opinions about use of chat rooms…” It was a topic about chat rooms that was posted by the BBC. The demographics were for how people answered the question, not whether or not they had used chat rooms themselves. So there is no way to know whether the people answering the question had used chat rooms or not. One person said, “I used one once, I’m never going back”.

Question from the audience: Was this a popular topic on the BBC website?

Answer: It was average, possibly a little below average, in terms of number of forum participants. Political topics, and religion-related topics, tend to have a lot more participation.

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