From Tool of Revolution to Tool of Oppression: Social Media 10 Years After the Arab Spring
Ten years ago this spring, two million Tunisians came together on Facebook to transform their pent-up fury at their country’s authoritarian government into a four-week revolution that toppled the longtime dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. All other media were heavily censored, but the government couldn’t silence Facebook, where a video was posted of angry crowds gathering after a young fruit vendor had set himself on fire.
Within a week, 90,000 Egyptians began their own revolution on Facebook, sparking anti-government uprisings in four other Arab countries. Activists and international media alike hailed Facebook and Twitter as the catalysts of the Arab Spring. The New York Times enthusiastically reported that “there is little doubt that [social media] provided a new means for ordinary people to connect with human rights advocates trying to amass support. Facebook and YouTube also offered a way for the discontented to organize and mobilize and allowed secular-minded young people to seize the momentum.”
Those were the days when social media, and Facebook in particular, were seen as antidotes to totalitarianism and beacons of democracy.
What a difference a decade of disinformation, hate speech, and manipulation by authoritarian governments make. From the Middle East to East Asia, authoritarian governments have turned the tables. They are adept at using social media and artificial intelligence to quell dissent, attack enemies, and solidify their rule.
In Egypt, where Facebook quickly turned from being a revolutionary tool to a tool of repression, the dictatorship that came to power in 2013 learned to use Facebook to identify and arrest anyone whose posts included a hint of political criticism. More recently, the government has organized “troll armies” to threaten and heap abuse on women who were sexually harassed and denounce harassment on social media.
Facebook posts by the Myanmar military stoke hatred toward the country’s Rohingya minority and promote ethnic cleansing, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently tweeted that Western vaccines are a conspiracy to “attack other nations.” Local Chinese officials encourage citizens to express opinions on controlled social media to create the illusion of being more democratic. Although Facebook said that it would fight authoritarian governments’ misinformation after Russia’s use of its platform to undermine the 2016 U.S. election, it continues to allow dictatorships in small, out-of-the-spotlight countries like Azerbaijan and Honduras to harass the opposition and post a deluge of fake likes on leaders’ pages.
Quite a change from 2011 when a leader of a Tunisian pro-democracy organization called Facebook “the GPS for this revolution.”
How did this apparent transformation of Facebook from a supposedly revolutionary tool to a tool of repression happen? What did Facebook know about these human-rights abuses, and why did it not act to stop the autocrats and protect its users?
Such questions were asked once again last month, when Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg told Congress that he supports “thoughtful reform,” but when Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez agree that Facebook is bad to the bone, it’s hard to see what that reform might look like. It’s no wonder that a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 6 percent of Americans trusted Facebook a lot or quite a bit, one-third the percentage that trusted the federal government. Public trust in Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat is only marginally higher.
Is this what social media must be, or could they still become the place we once imagined them to be—where people can make and maintain friendships, send birthday greetings, and share reliable information and nontoxic ideas?
Some entrepreneurs are creating social media that take privacy, accuracy, and safety seriously, although when a company worth $800 billion has cornered the market, new firms are severely handicapped. If we want to see if new platforms can avoid some of Facebook’s problems, we need new concepts for social media and a more level playing field for them to compete.
Google launched a few social networks like Google Plus, which failed in the wake of privacy breaches and were swept to the dustbin by Facebook. WeChat could have been another alternative, but the Chinese company is monitored and censored by the country’s government.
Many new social media without the corporate clout of Google or Tencent, WeChat’s parent company, are emerging and their major selling points are safety, privacy, and honesty. WT Social, developed by Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, tells potential users that it is advertiser-free, “where bad actors are kicked out and kept out,” where misleading content can be edited, and where users aren’t directed to content by algorithms. Pixstory, launched last month by Indian journalist Appu Suresh, also aims to weed out false and hateful content using artificial intelligence and by assigning users “integrity scores” to try to ensure accuracy. If a post is corroborated by other users, the score of the one who posts goes up; if it’s credibly challenged, their score goes down. The idea is somewhere between peer review and Wikipedia-style editing.
After the dismal outcomes in every Arab Spring country, we should put to bed the idea that existing social media platforms will spread democracy. Facebook and Twitter should at least refuse to host despots’ disinformation. At the same time, let’s enable kind-and-gentler startups like WT Social and Pixstory to compete with an ad-driven behemoth that allows bullies, liars, and dictators to harm and repress people around the world.
Andrew L. Yarrow is a former New York Times reporter who has also worked on policy issues for NGOs, government, and international organizations.