In 2011, Wael Ghonim was a Google executive in Cairo who helped launch the Egyptian revolution. His Facebook page, expressing outrage about a young man killed by police, became a rallying point for protests that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak (see “Streetbook,” September/October 2011). But the story line of the Arab Spring soon changed. The online movement polarized into factions. The new military-led government figured out how to promote itself online—and a 2013 coup crushed what dissent remained. Ghonim had to leave the country and is now in Silicon Valley working on new social-networking tools. To discuss the promise and limits of using the Internet to facilitate political change, Ghonim spoke with Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who studies online social movements. The discussion was edited by David Talbot, MIT Technology Review’s senior writer.
Tufekci: What was the most important role the Internet played in helping people launch the Egyptian revolution in 2011?
Ghonim: The Internet is such a great tool for knowledge-sharing and community organizing. If you are angry politically in any democratic country, you probably have choices, such as joining a party or supporting a certain candidate. None of this was present in Egypt, but there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the regime and with decades of corruption, torture, and failure to run the country.
A decentralized, flat organization started to emerge—especially on Facebook—and created an opportunity for this movement to prosper. It was very hard to attack it and shut it down. I was completely apolitical until Mohamed ElBaradei [a prominent Egyptian diplomat] announced he might get involved in Egyptian politics. A group supporting him on Facebook included 20 or 30 of my friends and had probably about 100,000 members. For me, I joined the movement and it was “Wow—there are 100,000 people on Facebook in Egypt who think like me!”
Tufekci: What would you say are some of the biggest lessons you learned?
Ghonim: Social media offered a decentralized way for those who are not in power, or in control of media, to broadcast and communicate. But to a large extent this is a double-edged sword. You could use that to raise awareness, defend human rights, and try and rescue people whose rights were being violated. But at the same time the government learned how to use it to broadcast misinformation and propaganda, and online dynamics helped create a polarized environment as well.
Tufekci: What are you referring to?
Ghonim: Instead of constructive dialogue about the way forward, there were bitter flame wars among many groups—sometimes among friends. Rather than uniting to take the country forward, the conversation descended into bickering, propaganda, many false claims, and fear-mongering.
Tufekci: Five years ago, fresh from the events of the Egyptian revolution, you said the Internet alone could create a free society. Do you still believe that?
Ghonim: In 2011 I did say that if you want to liberate a society all you need is the Internet. However, whereas Mubarak had largely ignored the Internet, the current regime uses the Internet in a much better way—drowning out dissident voices amidst its own propaganda and also conducting a campaign of terrorizing those who speak out online. Five years ago I thought the Internet was a power that was granted to the people and that would never be weakened. But I was wrong.
Tufekci: There’s another issue. Many of the tools activists rely on to organize and broadcast their message don’t facilitate deliberation. They are also based on what’s called the “attention economy,” where the loudest voices can get more attention. This facilitates polarization, but you can’t really argue things out.
Ghonim: Yes. The current social-media currency is based on likes, shares, and retweets. People are more interested in broadcasting their opinions than engaging in discussions. I once sarcastically said that I feel like it is much harder to actually stand up against the mainstream on Twitter than stand up against a dictator, because at least when I stand up against a dictator I know there are a lot of people who will support me. But when you stand up against the Twitter mainstream, they are just going to all go against you.
To be sure, there is no doubt that the Internet actually helps facilitate communication and shows the power of crowdsourcing in positive action, especially when it comes to the humanitarian activities like when there is a hurricane or a terrorist attack. The problem is, however, that the negatives are obvious and not talked about enough.
Tufekci: This has happened in many countries. When you’re organizing a protest or where you’re coming together, social media is a very potent tool. What I observed, and I think your experience bears this out, is that the problem starts in the second stage or the third stage. What do you do after you’ve occupied the “Square” or the “Park” and the government starts countermoves? How do you think these movements that are fueled by social media will evolve to tackle these problems?
Ghonim: I think there will be an evolution. For Egypt, our conversation today is not how to start the next Facebook page. The biggest question we keep asking ourselves is “How can we organize our next movement? How could we convert the energy and passion of people into a way that is constructive and beneficial for the country?” Because we know for a fact now that just protesting is not going to solve the country’s problems.
Tufekci: Your social-media platform, which you called Parlio, was just acquired by the question-and-answer site Quora. What’s the goal of this platform?
Ghonim: Can you create an online culture where everybody is civil? Can you have tools that facilitate this? This platform is a community of authors, journalists, students, academics, businesspeople, and other curious and insightful thinkers from around the world. Anyone can read and post questions. One of the things we noticed is how, after writing articles in other top publications, the writers took their discussions to our site. They shared and engaged in elaborate discussions with members of the community. This tells you that people are ready to engage with each other even if there is strong disagreement, which happens to be the case in many of these articles. I believe that the Internet has a lot of potential here.
Tufekci: But do you think this can scale and reach ordinary masses of people, like the ones who thronged to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011?
Ghonim: Yes. I believe that it’s possible to build an experience that motivates thoughtful and civil conversations at scale. This was one of the motivations of our team joining forces with Quora, which has more than 100 million unique users a month.
Being pessimistic is never going to help you change the world.