The web will tear us apart — the decay of the Arab Spring

I once said, “If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.” I was wrong….
The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.
Wael Ghonim

Wael Ghonim, the Google employee that helped spark the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt five years ago has been reflecting on what went wrong after social media helped topple and destabilise a string of dictatorships in North Africa and the Middle East.

His TED talk in December last year, he recounted his grim personal experiences and dimming hopes for true democracy in Egypt and elsewhere:

…the post-revolution events were like a punch in the gut. The euphoria faded, we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization. Social media only amplified that state, by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech.

The promise of social media is threatened he says by five challenges:

  1. We don’t know how to deal with rumours.
  2. We create homogenous networks — we only hear from people that agree with us — this leads to polarisation.
  3. Discussions online deteriorate quickly into anger.
  4. It gets harder to change your opinions — the pithiness, speed and blinkering effect of our personal echo chambers.
  5. Social media platforms reward sensationalism over considered thought.
Five years ago, I said, “If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.”
Today, I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.

I came across this video via an article in the New York Times by Thomas Friedman. He put the question we as online citizens need answer like this: “Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?”

We shape our tools and our tools shape us. Best to remember that we can still shape these tools, the way we use them, the way we allow ourselves to use them. We’re not passive victims of social media, unless we allow ourselves to be, unless we sleepwalk into the networked future.

Wael Ghonim and a group of collaborators have responded to this challenge with an platform called Parlio, designed to facilitate positive debate, where people are not afraid to change their minds. It’s something that I am looking forward to exploring.

: : Post-script: I hadn’t taken a look at the TED talk pages for a while — they are really well designed. You can listen to a talk while browsing the transcript, there’s a reading list (here is Wael Ghonim’s) from the speaker for those who want to explore the subject further. Really wonderfully useful if you want to take the content and use the ideas — as I have — in an article or blog post. Content that is really designed to be shared and spread in every way possible.

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