Saudi Arabia’s Country Image in the Age of Social Media
In this essay, I will be discussing how countries represent themselves in social media. More specifically, I will focus on the consequences that follow from country image (CI) building moving to social media platforms in the form of advertising and influencer campaigns. It is vital that these consequences are explored more thoroughly because the line between CI work and propaganda is weak at best. In its simplest form, CI is the total of all the beliefs and ideas an individual has of a country (Iversen, Kleppe & Stensaker, 1998). I will approach these phenomena from a constructivist viewpoint which may explain both why countries place such high value on their images and what methods are at work in their construction.
For a long time, countries have tried to control their image but legacy media has had the upper hand. News – and especially negative ones – have a powerful impact on how people construct their views of certain countries. In recent years, I have noticed a growing presence of country advertisements and endorsements made by social media influencers. It seems like countries have chosen to battle foreign legacy media through social media. One of the countries which has whole-heartedly embraced influencer marketing is Saudi Arabia. However, social media platforms are a vital way to criticize the ones in power and tell others about the injustices happening in different countries whether it be about China’s Uighur detention camps or the killing of journalists in Saudi Arabia. When social media platforms first emerged, all of the original hopes and dreams of democratic participation through the web in the 1990’s were transferred to them. Social media platforms were seen as places for discussion and deliberation which they seem to largely be these days. Almost everyone who uses Instagram or Twitter is familiar with several forms of online activism happening on these platforms from #metoo to #blacklivesmatter. Countries have only now started to wake up to the massive impact that these platforms can have on their images. It is not only the news that provide negative representation: thousands of online activists can do it too.
Constructivism as a theoretical approach
Constructivism can tell how the myriad of different sources affects people’s interpretation of CI. Constructivism can also provide answers as to why countries even see their own image as so important. Countries try to manage how people see them and how they create meaning because the images and meanings that people hold can directly affect the way in which they act. For example, Saudi Arabia has tried to get more tourists to visit the country by trying to change their image from a country that oppresses women to a luxurious and modern one through social media campaigns.
Constructivism names three major mechanisms that affect the process through which people interpret meanings. First and the most common one is socialisation in which people adopt certain ideas through repeated social interactions within a group (Marsh & Stoker, 2010, 94). Many of the deep-rooted stereotypes and beliefs that people hold about Saudi Arabia can have been introduced through the gradual processes of socialisation. For example, people in the United States are used to see the whole of Middle East in the light of the War on Terror through constant media coverage. The second mechanism, persuasion, happens through charismatic or otherwise influential spokespersons who can “sell” ideas to others (Marsh & Stoker, 2010, 95). Saudi Arabia can be seen to have adopted this mechanism with social media influencers as their opinion leaders to counter aforementioned media coverage.
Bricolage is the third mechanism. It can be used to describe the multitude of different meanings floating around about Saudi Arabia. Bricolage means trying to fit together these different – and often contradictory – meanings together in order to create new meanings (Marsh & Stoker, 2010, 96). For example, the image that people get of Saudi Arabia can look very different depending on whether they read Western newspapers or follow Instagram influencers paid to visit the kingdom. The two spheres often interlap which can lead to novel conceptions of Saudi Arabia through bricolage.
Saudi Arabia’s influencer campaigns
Saudi Arabia has risen to the news time and again for its issues with human rights and for making a prisoner out of their own princess. To combat this negative representation, the Saudi authorities have decided to focus on showing off the country’s wealth and the luxurious experiences that await tourists and foreign investors. As it is the age of social media, Saudi Arabia has chosen influencers as their brand ambassadors who are in a unique position to provide positive information outside of traditional media outlets.
It is clear that Saudi Arabia has been conscious of its own image for a long time. The country has also tried to change the way it is seen before. While describing a previous advertisement campaign that aired in the United States in 2005, the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia proclaimed on its Youtube channel saudiembassyusa that the campaign was “designed to help broaden perceptions of the country”. Even the name of the campaign was “Different”. This focus on perceptions is why constructivism can provide such accurate answers about CI building. After all, perceptions and different interpreted meanings are its main focus.
There are many reasons why influencer marketing might work better than traditional advertising campaigns for influencing people’s perceptions. Saudi Arabia also has its own official tourism account on Instagram named visitsaudi with scenic pictures, smiling women, and fireworks. Still, people are more prepared to accept influencers’ endorsements because they feel like a friend or a big sister and thus more trustworthy than a country’s own account. This trust is based on the influencer seemingly allowing the follower into their lives through their content. Followers idealize influencers and listen to everything they say – often without much critical thought. From a constructivist viewpoint, the relationship between influencers and their followers is a clear case of persuasion.
One of Saudi Arabia’s first influencer campaigns called #WelcomeToArabia in 2019 had a wide reach – the hashtag was mentioned over 43 thousand times and its estimated potential reach was 888 million (Lama, 2019). However, it also got widely critiqued by netizens. The influencers who took part in the campaign were especially chastised. They were accused of glossing over the cruelties of the Saudi administration – ignoring the murders of journalists and imprisonment of activists. While the influencers were having their Aladdin dreams come true, the country paying them to do so executed 37 of its own people in a single day on the 23rd of April, 2019 (Lorenz, 2019). All of the executed were Saudi citizens and 32 of them were a part of the country’s Shi’a minority (Amnesty International, 2020; Lorenz, 2019).
When glimmering social media posts are used to cover up such cruelty, one has to think about the ethical consequences of CI building moving onto social media. Fewer and fewer people depend on legacy media for information while they turn to social media for both entertainment and news. As such, social media content is starting to have a critical impact on people’s worldviews. If countries are feeding false or insufficient information into the platforms, the results can not be good – especially if the content is supposed to act as a cover up for human rights violations.
Many critics of Saudi Arabia’s 2019 campaign also raised the fact that the influencers had security personnel and measures that ordinary travellers would probably not have (Lorenz, 2019). Thus, the campaign can be seen as partly false because in reality a woman travelling alone might not be as safe in the country. This false advertising can also be intentional because most of the influencers chosen to participate in the campaign were women – not to mention Saudi Arabia’s official tourism account full of women’s pictures (Lama, 2019). Saudi Arabia is evidently trying to construct a view of itself as a safe place for women which goes against news of women’s rights activists sitting in jail for wanting to get women the chance to drive (Lorenz, 2019).
The amount of critique the campaign garnered also shows that social media is not just a playground for countries’ public relations offices. Even though social media has not completely fulfilled its democratic promise of giving everyone a voice, it does open up the discussion on injustices happening all over the world. There are many social media activists echoing what the news are telling and more. This is why people have to construct their image of Saudi Arabia through bricolage. All of the sources – whether it be influencers, activists or legacy media – seem to offer conflicting views. People have to be more active themselves in trying to fit together these different meanings which can lead to new and more diverse views of Saudi Arabia. It may still not be the positive view that the country itself is trying to advertise.
The work of Hans Georg Gadamer, who was more interested in interpretive theory, can help shed light on why Saudi Arabia’s efforts might be in vain and not affect people’s views as quickly as hoped. Gadamer famously said that understanding is never free from prejudice (Bayo & Roy, 2011, 37). Years of socialisation and being subject to negative news from Saudi Arabia can have created quite a few strong beliefs or even stereotypes about the country. These require time to change. In addition, people often choose to believe and include in their images of the world only the knowledge that seems to support the views they already have.
Still, contingency is a keyword of constructivism. Even though some ideas are deeply rooted, it was not always this way and such a time can come again (Marsh & Stoker, 2010, 89). Constructivism gives real power to interpretation and the images that people hold about the world but it does not expect certain images to dominate the world of ideas forever. Even Saudi Arabia’s efforts might not be entirely in vain because its campaigns can have shaken some old beliefs about the country or at least diversified its CI to include something more than human rights violations and oil.
Saudi Arabia is up to something with its new strategy of using social media advertisements and influencers to construct a new image of the country as a center for luxurious goods, wealth, and modern cities. Yet, it may not be enough to break through years and years of negative news coverage and the deep-rooted prejudices that people have formed about the country. Still, influencer marketing campaigns are a novel approach to county image building and as this phenomenon spreads, its impacts should be carefully researched. One interesting venue could be to explore these campaigns from the viewpoint of propaganda research. For example, Saudi Arabia has used influencers to divert attention away from their human rights issues. How ethical can such an action be?
Constructivism helped illuminate many aspects of country image building in social media. It helped to see the mechanisms behind Saudi Arabia’s social media campaigns but also the ones which have contributed to its image before. Constructivism showed why people hold such ingrained beliefs about the country and how much of an impact they can really have but it does have its limits. Even though constructivism provided the mechanisms for this analysis, it fails to show any concrete consequences of country image building. Constructivism also ignores the material realities – like the lack of safety in Saudi Arabia or the wealth of the country – behind interpretations and ideas. Like constructivism itself, this analysis moves in the world of ideas and interpretations. However, it should have also shown what an impact ideas can have.
Nea Nygren is second-year communications student at University of Helsinki: “The way in which contemporary media forms affect how people see the world fascinates me. This involves branding by corporations but also more novel ways of image building by countries and cities.”