Remaking Social Media for the Next Revolution

Excerpt from this article:

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. 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…

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.

…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…

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.