On January 15, 2011, a young woman on Twitter used the hashtag #Jan25 for the first time in what would soon become a symbol of revolution and change. “over 16000 of us are taking to the streets on #jan25! join us,” @alyanumbers – then @alya1989262 – wrote. She added a link to a Facebook entitled in Arabic, “A Letter to the Youth of Egypt: Let January 25 be a Torch of Change in Egypt.”
Videos of police brutality, anger over government oppression, and images of poverty were compiled online via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media networks. Less than a month later on February 11, 2011, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned from office ending his 30-year term. During the months of the Arab Spring, the world watched as demonstrations in Tahrir Square, across Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East changed Twitter and Facebook from being a source of networking to a source of revolution.
But as light and hopeful as the revolution seemed in those early days leading up to Mubarak’s resignation and the first election, the use of social media descended into a dark aftermath lost amidst information and misinformation. Social media turned from a form of unity to a form of political rivalry. During the June 2013 protests that led to the deposing of democratically-elected President Morsi from office, supporters and rivals of Morsi clashed over social media at the same time that political leaders and major figures took to social media to promote their own agendas as well.
In the months of June and July as Morsi left office and pro- and anti-Morsi supporters took to the streets, social media was flooded with heavy propaganda and “news” that in reality was either outdated or the images were manipulated. The lack of context and validation of such news and images led many to believe in events that did not happen at all or happened years ago or in a different country.
Post-revolution and later post-Morsi Egypt splintered into two main groups: Islamist and liberal with the media likewise following suit. Private TV channels and programs leaned towards the liberal side and took to vilifying Morsi on TV and glorifying the military. They supported a return of military rule and viewed the military as having more power than President Morsi. Meanwhile Islamist leaning stations continued to support Morsi and the government-run TV channels continued to be an “instrument of political manipulation” as it was under Mubarak.
But supporters and politicians took to social media as well, joining the legions of youth who had control of Twitter during the 2011 revolution. In the days leading up to the Morsi’s deposition, he tweeted out dozens of messages a day.
The hopeful messages that spread in January 2011 were replaced in June 2013 with pessimism and Twitter, as Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani say is now “serving as a platform for incitement, rumour-mongering and downright disinformation.”
Because of the limited accountability on platforms such as Twitter and the instant reaction any message garners, users tend to believe and continue to believe in the original message even if it is later debunked as false. The sentiment of the original message remains. This unfounded sentiment incites unfounded violence. Adel Abdel-Saddiq, from the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said in an interview with Morrow and al-Omrani that “Social media now plays a more destructive role, often being used to provoke anger and hatred and spread unsubstantiated rumour. Since the revolution, we’ve seen it used to incite protesters against police, the secular opposition against Islamist groups, and Muslims against Christians and vice versa.”
Yet many of the videos or images used to provoke violent unrest were either taken out of context or put in the wrong context trying to link the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution to violent discord. This false news can either be disinformation – information that is false and deliberately circulated because it is false – and misinformation – information that is false but nobody circulating it is aware that it is false.
For example, following a sit-in in front of the Republican Guard’s headquarters. 50 people were killed when gunmen within the crowd open fired. The Muslim Brotherhood however posted photos of dead children claiming that the Egyptian military was responsible for the open fire. The photo was later discovered to be old photos of children in Syria, not in Egypt.
As well, in 2011 a video emerged of a policeman throwing a protester’s dead body in a trash dump inciting waves of hatred against the police forces in Egypt. It was later discovered that this event was also not in Egypt but the animosity against police forces in Egypt continued to grow anyway.
Christian-Muslim relations were further strained when in April 2013 a video of Muslim men assaulting a Coptic-Christian woman circulated online. Religious tensions were already high and the video incited high levels of violence and riots. The video was later dated to 2009 and related to an “Upper Egypt tribal vendetta.” It was not related to religious disputes and had no connection to the Egyptian revolution, elections, or Morsi.
An online site on both Facebook and on their own website called Da Begad? – Is This Real? – has taken it upon themselves to verify information that accompanies posted images online. They dissect the posted false image and trace it back to its actual roots.
The increasingly problem with Twitter after the revolution in Egypt is international accessibility to such events. Foreign tweets today often feature a “View Translation” icon that allows non-Arabic, for example, to read Arabic tweets. This means that, like trouble-making Egyptians, non-Egyptians have the same ability to incite hate and outrage from abroad. For example, an American conservative group, Free Patriot, posted to their now defunct website an image of a girl falling out of a window. They captioned it, “Muslim Mob Justice–15 year old girl thrown from Third Floor window.”
In reality, the picture was a cropped image that, when zoomed out, reveals a building behind the girl with large Chinese characters. The photo was actually taken of a girl in China in June 2011. She was not pushed, but fell from the window. And it was not the third floor, but the fifth floor! (For the record, she survived the fall.)
Now with the repressive Sisi government firmly in control in Egypt, social media and all communications continues to be heavily constrained and monitored. In December of last year, the High Council for Cyber Crime was established by the Prime Minister to further cement control of all Internet acitvity. This High Council is headed by Atef Holmi, the minister of Communications and Information Technology, and includes top officials from multiple departments like the Ministries of Interior and Defense. Like Karim al-Banna sentenced to three years in prison for saying he was an atheist on FaceBook, social media users in Egypt now need to worry more about being arrested for their social media statements than whether what they read is true or not.
What can we learn from the post-revolutionary experience of Twitter in Egypt? What began during the Arab Spring as a method of government resistance devolved into a tool for propaganda, sectarianism, and state control. The trouble we all face with social media is the lack of oversight by any controlling entity to verify information. Like in any highly conflictual environment like post-Morsi Egypt, people are ready to believe what they read that supports their position and will quickly disseminate false information. The point of such social media platforms is to provide a space for open discourse no matter if that discourse is rude or hateful or false. This last year has been full of discourse on the freedoms of expression and speech, but now it may be time to discuss our responsibility as free speakers to speak truly and honestly.