The social media myth about the Arab Spring

Social media networks did not trigger the Arab revolutions, but they did contribute to the counter-revolutions.

Opposition supporters rest near graffiti referring to social networking site 'Facebook' in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 5, 2011 [File: Reuters/Steve Crisp]

In the aftermath of the January 6 right-wing insurrection on Capitol Hill in Washington, the role social media played in these events came into the media spotlight in the United States. For years, fringe ideologues had used online platforms undisturbed to promote their extreme ideologies and conspiracies and recruit a large number of sympathisers to their extremist causes.

Eventually, the rage they had been inciting poured out into the real world and led to the deadly storming of the congressional building, shaking the very foundations of American democracy. When social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook took action, many recognised that it was too little, too late.

Although the January 6 riots took almost everyone by surprise, we, in the Arab world, have known for a while that these social media platforms are a threat to democracy. For far too long, Big Tech companies have been allowed to be the ultimate arbiters on free speech online and a haven for hate speech and disinformation. They have piggybacked on the idea that they helped trigger the Arab Spring and are therefore are a force for freedom and democracy.

Ten years after the onset of the Arab revolutions, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have turned into powerful enablers of vast disinformation campaigns, harassment, censorship, and incitement of violence against activists, journalists, human rights defenders and any dissenting voice.

Far from a revolutionary or even a democracy tool, social media in the Arab world has now become a powerful and dangerous political medium. And despite repeated complaints and calls for action from Arab activists and civil organisations, none of the Big Tech companies behind these social media platforms has made any major efforts to stem these abuses and change their policies.

Busting the social media myth

During the early days of the Arab uprisings, when many activists were using Facebook and Twitter to organise and amplify their demands, the social media giants seized the opportunity to brand themselves as platforms for political activism and resistance. To this day, numerous media outlets run the claim that “social media made the Arab Spring” and that it was a “Facebook revolution”.

But social scientists have repeatedly busted this myth and have offered critical readings of the role these tech companies have played in the political unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries.

In 2011, Lisa Anderson, who at that time was the president of the American University in Cairo, noted that “Egyptian Facebook campaigners are the modern incarnation of [early] Arab nationalist networks”, and that the “important story” about the Arab Spring is not the use of social media technology, but how revolutionary aspirations resonated across the Arab world.

In a 2012 academic article, media scholars William Youmans and Jillian York argued that the policies of social media companies actually limited collective action in some ways and inhibited political activism. In a 2015 paper, economist Chonghyun Byun and political scientist Ethan Hollander concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or social media use and popular unrest.

Beyond the traditional debate between cybers-sceptics and cyber-enthusiasts, what is evident to those who witnessed the early days of the Arab revolutions is that social media was just one channel of social and political networking among many others that contributed to the onset of the protest movements.

Yet, Big Tech corporations have insidiously used the myth of social media as an “Arab Spring platform” to their benefit to expand their user numbers, boost engagement, and provide a veneer of respectability to their flawed business models. They have also employed it to counter criticism and efforts to impose regulation on them and to disregard frequent demands and campaigns by Arab civil organisations and digital right activists to protect online privacy and the right to free speech.

The dangerous failure of content moderation

Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Google have also shown little interest in building strong, straightforward mechanisms of content moderation to prevent the spread of hate speech and disinformation on their platforms in the Middle East and North Africa.

Despite posing as a force for progress and development, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started. For example, in 2011, US embassy cables published by Wikileaks revealed that in 2006 Microsoft had agreed to train law enforcement officers in IT in exchange for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government going back on its decision to use open-source software.

After the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Arab states felt the need to control even more the online activities of their citizens. Instead of protecting free speech against government censorship efforts, social media platforms suspended and removed thousands of accounts of political dissidents in Tunisia, Palestine, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. They have also arbitrarily taken down content that advocated for free speech, justice, and basic human rights and have offered no explanation for doing so.

This is what led the Lebanon-based organisation SMEX, which advocates for digital rights in the Arab region, to pen an open letter signed by more than 40 civil organisations, calling on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to stop silencing critical voices in the Middle East and North Africa. “Arbitrary and non-transparent account suspension and removal of political and dissenting speech has become so frequent and systematic that they cannot be dismissed as isolated incidents or the result of transitory errors in automated decision-making,” the letter said.

Social media companies have also done little to counter the growing use of social engineering, disinformation and troll operations on their platforms. In Saudi Arabia, for example, “a troll army” was put together to suppress any expression of dissent on social media networks like Twitter.

In Tunisia, Facebook pages were weaponised ahead of the 2019 elections to spread political messaging by unknown political actors in an attempt to sway the vote. A report by Democracy Reporting International Tunisia and the Tunisian Association for Integrity and Democracy of Elections (ATIDE) noted that the absence of a proper Facebook Ads Library for Tunisia contributed to the lack of transparency that enabled these subversive political campaigns.

We also still do not know how these corporations take decisions regarding suspension of accounts and posts because they have offered no transparency about their content moderation practices. In 2019 and 2020, Twitter and Facebook disclosed they suspended and removed hundreds of accounts “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior”, which includes disinformation, spamming, and state-backed manipulation. Compared with the unfathomable number of trolls and bots on Arab social media, these numbers are laughable.

They not only demonstrate that current content moderation practices are failing but also that social media corporations are unwilling to address the dangerous role their platforms are playing in undermining democratic movements and dissent and promoting the regressive and violent policies of repressive governments.

The impossible case for accountability

During the past few years, Tunisia’s ATIDE, Lebanon’s SMEX, and Egypt’s Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, as well as international civil rights organisations like Access Now and Electronic Frontier Foundation, have actively advocated for immediate action to counter disinformation and hate speech on social media in the Middle East and North Africa.

They have called on Big Tech companies to cease their unfair discriminatory practices, to invest in regional expertise of content moderation and become more transparent about policies and procedures.

Yet, despite the large of number of campaigns and the alarming evidence that digital threats to democracy are getting more dangerous and widespread, Big Tech companies continue to downplay their critical role in undermining democratic movements and free speech in the Arab world and ignore calls to implement urgent, long-term reforms.

Facebook and Twitter often seek to dodge responsibility and demands for more accountability by referring to the novelty of the field. In a 2018 blog post about the effect that social media have on democracy, Samidh Chakrabarti, a product manager of civic engagement at Facebook, concluded that “this is a new frontier”.

However, none of this is new. Discursive violence broadcasted on traditional or new media has always been instrumental in inciting political violence on a massive scale. The horrors of colonialism, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, etc were all made conceivable in the public space by various media platforms spreading hate speech that legitimated the dehumanisation of and mass violence against the “other”.

In the Middle East and North Africa, it unlikely that legally-enforced accountability will be enforced, as local governments are unlikely to pass legislation that would punish abusive practices that they themselves engage in. Meanwhile, laws enacted in the West to regulate social media platforms may not apply elsewhere and there may not be the political will to apply them in the Global South.

Expecting Big Tech corporations to start regulating themselves is also futile. As digital economy scholar Nick Srnicek argues, the death drive of platform capitalism and its complete disregard for democratic principles of privacy and free speech are integral features of Big Tech companies’ business models. For them, profits outweigh any ethical or political costs they may incur.

In the Arab world, this irresponsible profit-driven behaviour has led to the brutalisation of the digital public space, the extremist tribalisation of political discourse, and the incitement of political violence.

Social media companies are too powerful, or too broken, to truly self-regulate or be regulated. The only ethical and logical solution is to dismantle them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.