Dec. 12, 2012 at 10:25 AM ET
The old rule that says "Don't talk about politics and religion" doesn't apply to the people in the Middle East who have discovered Facebook and Twitter. In fact, according to a new report, social networking in that region has become a vital tool precisely for sharing views on politics, community issues and religion — much more so than anywhere else in the world.
In Egypt and Tunisia, "two nations at the heart of the Arab Spring, more than six-in-ten social networkers share their views about politics online," says the Pew Research Center in its Global Attitudes Project report.
In contrast with the other nations surveyed, "a median of only 34 percent post their political opinions."
"Of all the countries we surveyed, it’s the Arab nations that are most interested in discussing politics online," Richard Wike, Pew Research Center associate director, told NBC News. "In Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon, solid majorities of people who use social networking sites say they share their views about politics on these sites. That’s a much higher rate than in other nations."
In those four countries, more than 70 percent use social networks to share their views on community issues, compared with a "cross-national median of just 46 percent" worldwide.
Italy and Turkey are the only other countries surveyed by Pew where the majority of those who use social networking have expressed views about community issues (64 percent and 63 percent, respectively).
In the United States, 47 percent of social network users talk about community issues; 37 percent talk politics; and 32 percent discuss religion.
"Many people still don’t have access to the Internet in Arab nations," Wike said. In fact, fewer than half of Pew's survey respondents in Middle East countries used the Internet at all. "But those who do tend to get involved in social networking, and those who go on social networking sites tend to share their views about politics."
Pew and researchers worldwide interviewed more than 20,000 people total in 21 countries last spring: Brazil, Britain, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Mexico, Pakistan, Poland, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey and the U.S.
A majority of social networking users in Tunisia (63 percent), Egypt (63 percent) and Jordan (62 percent) are "also more likely than those in other countries to say they have posted about religion," much higher than other nations, Pew said.
"In 14 countries, only about a third or less have posted on this topic."
Pew's findings come at a time when the the idea of the Arab Spring may have become a nostalgic notion of the past, at least online.
Syria recently shut off, then reinstated, Internet access. And in the past year or so, Internet access has been on and off for other countries, including Pakistan, Bahrain and Ethiopia, according to the U.S. watchdog group Freedom on the Net.
Jillian C. York, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's director for international freedom of expression, recently observed Dec. 10 as "Human Rights Day," as created by the United Nations, writing that "while the spread of the Internet has created an environment in which — in theory — anyone can be a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker or a pundit, the reality is such that nearly half of the world's citizens access a fractured, fragmented Internet, and the threat of persecution for speaking out causes even more to censor their online speech."
It's important for everyone to remember that "the right to free expression must be guaranteed whether we're shouting from the rooftops or from our Facebook walls," she wrote.