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Arab uprisings: what role did social media really play?

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The activist and former Google manager Wael Ghonim once said: “If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the internet.”

“I said these words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I created anonymously helped spark the Egyptian revolution,” he said in retrospect during a 2016 TED talk.

From Egypt to Libya, social media helped facilitate insurgency in the Middle East and North Africa, but not without its challenges – including widespread misinformation, hate speech, breakdowns in language translation and targeted surveillance.

Ghonim decided to create the Facebook page in 2010 after seeing another post on Facebook: a photo of a young Egyptian businessman beaten to death by police after attempting to expose police corruption. His name was Khaled Said.

“I couldn’t sleep that night and decided to do something. I created a Facebook page anonymously and called it ‘We are all Khaled Said’, ”Ghonim said during the conversation.

The site grew rapidly and became the most followed in the Arab world. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered there to gather ideas and share messages that the Hosni Mubarak regime would not allow in traditional media.

Related: Arab uprisings began with the pursuit of freedom and led to repression, wars

In January 2011, Egyptians watched activists in Tunisia displace President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with massive protests.

“I saw a glimmer of hope,” said Ghonim. On his Facebook page he called for a “revolution against corruption, injustice and dictatorship”.

“This revolution started online”

On January 25, Egyptians flooded the streets of Cairo and other cities calling for changes. The government shut down the internet and tried to stop it. But the pro-democracy protesters did not give up.

Egyptian President Hosni Murabak resigned within 18 days. While thousands danced and partied in the streets of Egypt, Ghonim called CNN.

“This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook, ”he said. When asked by a moderator whether he was paying tribute to Facebook for one – at the time – like a massive political victory, he replied: “Yes, of course. I would like to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him. “

When protests broke out in other countries like Libya, people in the diaspora tried to help with online tools.

“We wanted to get involved through social media and the internet,” said Ayat Mneina, a Libyan Canadian activist who lived in Winnipeg in 2011, during an interview with The World.

In 2011, Mneina and a friend created the Shabab Libya Twitter account and a corresponding Facebook page for the Libyan youth movement. They gathered information from a network of local sources in Libya and distributed news and information about protests through their social media feeds. However, Mneina said there were challenges from the start.

“We had to block people all the time. There was a lot of pro-regime propaganda that haunted us everywhere, ”she said.

One night, your pages were suddenly flooded with thousands of new followers from Serbia.

“They were all for Gaddafi. And they flooded all of our comments. They posted so many pro-government things and … attacked all of our information, “she said.

“They were all pro-Gaddafi. And they flooded all of our comments. They posted so many things for the regime.”

Ayat Mneina, Libyan Canadian activist

Mneina has recruited volunteers. They blocked people spamming their sites. But fake accounts kept popping up and gaining huge fans.

“They would … stir up the fire and say things that they knew would really upset people on different sides of the conflict,” she said.

What Mneina described may sound familiar today. Governments, regimes, and people around the world have turned social media into weapons to launch coordinated propaganda and harassment campaigns and monitor people. But then it was a new phenomenon. And then the tactics got worse.

“It got so bad online. Out of control, ”a Libyan activist who organized protests in Benghazi during the Libyan revolution told The World. The activist asked to remain anonymous, fearing for his safety. Today he lives in Canada.

He said Libyan social media was a breeding ground for misinformation and hatred when the Libyan revolution first broke out – and now.

“There [are] no words to describe how angry i am on facebook and twitter. The hatred, the racism, the things they allow. The violence, ”he said.

Social media platforms lacked the cultural context, political knowledge and language skills to process not only the Libyan market, but most of the content in Arabic.

“Uniquely open service”

In a statement to The World, Twitter said, “As a unique open service, Twitter provides a platform for activists and movements around the world to be heard – and empowering people to have a voice on issues that matter most to them to have.”

“We put people first, every step of the way, and we’re committed to making Twitter a safer place,” the statement said. “The Twitter rules are consistent around the world and we have always used a combination of machine learning and human verification.”

“We have strong and dedicated teams of specialists who provide global coverage in several different languages ​​around the clock, and we are building more capacity to tackle increasingly complex problems,” the company said. “We continue to work to improve and develop our policies, products and processes and to invest in technological solutions to build a healthier Twitter.”

Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

“In Arabic, we don’t worry about getting canceled. We are afraid of being killed, ”said the Libyan activist in Canada, who still lives in fear.

He also said he loathed the idea that the Arab riots were fueled by social media. That may be a comforting tale for the West, he said, but it is not true. And it pays tribute to the chief honors in Silicon Valley for what people like him have done.

“You didn’t give me a revolution. They didn’t teach me how to protest, ”he said. “I’ll credit you with the revolution if you take the civil war.”

Libya dissolved into civil war after the collapse of the regime of Muammar al-Gaddafi. Various factions armed social media with weapons to fight for power, hunt down opponents, and fuel divisions along ethnic lines.

“Tear us apart”

It happened elsewhere too: people in Myanmar tried to organize themselves through social media, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. But hateful posts and propaganda against the Rohingya ethnic and religious minority helped instigate genocide.

Facebook has since announced that it will invest more in people and technology to curb hate speech in non-English speaking countries like Myanmar and work with local civil society organizations to identify accounts that repeatedly produce problematic content. But many, including the activist from Libya, say it is not enough.

Related: A poem written during the 2011 Libya uprising continues to inspire hope

Wael Ghonim, the activist who started the Facebook page in Egypt, has also accepted it.

“The hardest part for me was seeing how the tool that brought us together is tearing us apart,” he told FRONTLINE in 2018, adding that social media was quickly becoming a source of polarization and harassment in Egypt as well.

“I hate to admit how naive I was in thinking that these were liberating tools,” he said.

In the years since 2011, he has recognized that social media platforms enable and even reward bad behavior – sensational and divisive content. With so little accountability, these tools are used for bad rather than good.

“I once said that if you want to liberate a society, all you need is the internet. I was wrong, ”he said during his TED talk. “Today I believe that if we want to liberate society, we must first liberate the Internet.”

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