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A double-edged sword

How social media went from toppling dictators to platforming hate.

By: /
25 January, 2021
Egyptians wave their national flag in Cairo's Tahrir Square on February 25, 2011, shortly after protesters forced the departure of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

January 25, 2011, will forever be known in the Arab world as a day of revolution — one that was made possible by the rise of social media.

Thousands of Egyptians swarmed the country’s streets to voice their discontent with President Hosni Mubarak’s tyrannical regime. They serenaded Cairo’s neighbourhoods with songs of freedom, filled the polluted air with rhythmic reminders of past joys and spoke of a brighter future for their children. Crowds funneled their way through the narrow downtown passageways, fusing into a single 15,000 strong collective to occupy Tahrir Square — a central landmark that translates to “Centre of Victory.”

Hundreds packed the side streets, effectively sealing off the downtown core, while a nervous police force resorted to tear gas and rubber bullets, hoping to weaken the onslaught. Unbeknownst to them, the officers’ reactionary violence would start a chain of events that would last nearly three weeks. Riots and protests swelled with each passing day, fuelled by anger and a growing sense of determination. The world paid attention; international media dedicated whole segments to documenting the historic revolt, capturing the country’s rage in visual form. Signs, slogans and homemade posters became a staple of the revolution, including ones that bore the face of a 28-year-old Alexandrian named Khaled Said, whose brutal death helped ignite the Egyptian uprising.

Said’s death in June 2010 — tortured at the hands of two plainclothes police officers in his native Alexandria — became the cautionary tale that united a wounded nation suffering under Mubarak’s 30-year reign. Many saw themselves in Said, so much so that Wael Ghonim, a computer engineer around the same age as Saeed, started a Facebook page called “We Are All Khaled Said.” The Facebook page grew at an exponential rate, successfully burrowing itself into the psyche of the Egyptian people and was eventually considered to be a pivotal component of the Egyptian revolution.

Just six years after its founding, Facebook was being credited with sparking revolutions and toppling long-entrenched dictators. The social media platform’s unique ability to spread information in the new age of smartphones was essential to helping Egyptian activists promote the revolution. In Ghonim’s case, he educated the followers of the “We Are All Khaled Said” page in political activism, and capitalized on the Tunisian Revolution a month earlier to mobilize the masses onto the streets of Egypt, all while centering his focus on a powerful personal story of a young man murdered by Mubarak’s unchecked police force.

Facebook, and subsequently Twitter, proved to be powerful tools for promoting political change. Egypt, Sudan and Ukraine were among the first nations to witness the platforms’ role in challenging political regimes. However, the past decade has seen these networks degenerate into tools for disinformation and promoting dangerous conspiracy theories, and for anti-revolution surveillance by the same dictators they were once used to topple.

“Social media platforms have degenerated into tools for disinformation and promoting dangerous conspiracy theories, and for anti-revolution surveillance by the same dictators they were once used to topple.”

While some continue to espouse an optimistic view of how the internet and social media can help increase organizational capacity through mass communication, the truth is that governments now use social media as a method to surveil and monitor their populations and to crush dissent. In the United States, local police departments reportedly use social media to monitor their various districts, while Yahoo secretly scanned customer emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials. Authoritarian regimes stand to gain even more from social media.

Ever since the Arab Spring revealed the fragility of certain Middle Eastern dictatorships and highlighted how quickly online discontent can transform into national resistance, authoritarian regimes have used social media to help predict dissent and gauge public sentiment. Governments can now actively monitor protest plans, identify key figures and persecute people who support popular protests (as is currently the case in Belarus). Social media platforms also provide governments with new methods of communicating with their population, which they can use to counter dissenting opinions or to spread propaganda and disinformation that creates confusion and muddies the waters of legitimate news sources.

Countries that have effectively used social media to monitor and control public opinion include China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. China encourages limited expression online in order to better understand weaknesses within its own government. This gives the Chinese government a better understanding of the dynamics of public discontent, while also allowing it to present the façade of benevolence and democratic oversight. Saudi Arabia passed counterterrorism legislation in 2014 that criminalized defamation of the state — a purposely vague cybercrime law that arbitrarily limits free speech and allows the government to arrest online bloggers and activists with little explanation. Saudi, along with regional neighbours like the United Arab Emirates, also use automated bot and pro-government social media influencers to promote state propaganda and to drown out dissenting voices. Bahrain, an island neighbour of Saudi, has arrested several prominent opposition figures who criticized the Bahraini government online.

Even Egypt, home to what was initially seen as a prime example of a successful social media uprising, passed arbitrary cybercrime laws that criminalize all forms of dissent under the guise of combating extremism. The government has blocked access to hundreds of reputable websites belonging to media organizations and human rights organizations, detained countless journalists and citizens who criticize the government and even passed a law that treats social media accounts with more than 5000 followers as media outlets, effectively making them vulnerable to prosecution for publishing fake news.

Social media has also eroded public trust in traditional media sources, which had led to an increase in disinformation. While many believed that the internet equalized the playing field, allowing for a greater variety of sources while putting an end to mainstream media’s monopoly on information, the reality is that it has also led to the proliferation of online propaganda, disinformation and a sharp uptick in dangerous conspiracy theories.

In March 2020, the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic was followed by disinformation about it. Social media users looked to online platforms to find and share information about the pandemic, much of which was false. Disinformation spread as quickly as the virus itself. This included stories about 5G technology causing the pandemic; that ingesting chloroquine, gargling with salt water or drinking neat alcohol could cure the disease; and that the unprecedented pandemic was a bioweapon created to exterminate the elder population. Many of these false remedies and conspiracy theories have created significant health risks, as people who consume and believe the false information are more likely to break lockdown rules and ignore mandatory prevention methods like masks and social distancing.

While many prominent social media platforms have taken steps to cull misleading posts on the coronavirus, their limited response — which amounts to warning labels on objectively false information — means that much of the damage had already been done. As a result, social media has become an accelerator for fake news and a potential inhibitor for rational behaviour.

The rapid spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories reached a crescendo on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of Donald Trump supporters breached the U.S. Capitol with the intention of overturning the results of a legitimate election. The insurrectionists who stormed the building included radicalized Trump supporters who believed the baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election had been rigged against Trump, members of anti-government militias, neo-Nazis and adherents to the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. 

QAnon is a, pro-Trump virtual cult that claims a cabal of elite pedophiles made up of Hollywood actors, Democrats and other high-ranking officials is behind a global child sex-trafficking ring. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has labeled the movement a “potential domestic terror threat.” QAnon, which first appeared in 2017, saw a significant spike in followers during the coronavirus pandemic, in part due to the movement’s ability to weave in other conspiracy theories such as anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown and anti-Semitic tropes. By latching onto established conspiracy theories, QAnon facilitated its own growth while simultaneously maximizing Facebook’s algorithms.

In the aftermath of the failed insurrection on the Capitol, Twitter purged 75,000 QAnon-affiliated accounts from its platform. The website also permanently suspended Trump’s account for his role in spreading disinformation and inciting violence on January 6.

Without social media, QAnon’s evolution from fringe group to an international movement with countless dedicated followers in countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan and Australia, would likely never have occurred. Social media platforms have also failed to take effective steps to combat the proliferation of QAnon content, which has helped legitimize and entrench conspiracy theories. For example, while Facebook has de-platformed the majority of QAnon-affiliated pages on its site, this decision was taken more than two years after the movement was formed and did little to limit its continued growth. Twitter attempted to ban some of the most prominent QAnon accounts on its platform, but it has been unable or unwilling to address the hundreds of thousands of references to QAnon coming from a wide range of other users.

Little of this reflects the hope that once filled the hearts of Egyptians who poured into the streets shouting and singing for freedom — in part because their friends and fellow citizens who gathered and organized online convinced each other that freedom was possible. In the span of only a decade, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have gone from being hailed as liberation technology to mainsprings of propaganda, political polarization, hate speech and unfounded conspiracies, all while enabling dictatorial oversight of the oppressed populations who once thought these platforms might be tools of their own emancipation.  

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