The Internet: For Better or for Worse

Marta Ramoneda/Polaris
Wael Ghonim (center), the Egyptian Google executive who started the Facebook group ‘We Are All Khaled Said,’ at a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 8, 2011

Last June, Khaled Said, a twenty-eight-year-old Alexandrian, suffered a vicious public beating at the hands of Egyptian police. Several witnesses documented the assault with cell phone cameras. Said apparently died from his wounds, but the police claimed he had choked to death on illegal drugs. Outraged Egyptians posted contrary evidence on Facebook pages and on YouTube. In Dubai, Wael Ghonim, a twenty-nine-year-old Google marketing executive originally from Cairo, employed his business and design skills to construct a Facebook protest community based on the slogan “We Are All Khaled Said,” where people could join an online protest of the case.

Ghonim’s anonymous campaign eventually attracted 473,000 online adherents, a striking number even in a nation the size of Egypt, which has a population of 85 million. Last December, as street protests spread in Tunisia and Algeria, members of the Khaled Said Facebook group interacted online with others of like mind, and also with traditional protest organizers, such as trade unions and political parties. Ghonim returned to Egypt, and after the January 25 protest he helped organize drew many thousands of people, he was arrested. He became a cause célèbre and later emerged as a leader of the Egyptian revolution as it metastasized and forced President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

“I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook’s founder] one day and thank him,” Ghonim told a CNN interviewer afterward. “This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook…. I always said that if you want to liberate a society, just give them the Internet.”

It is irrefutable that social media have had a part in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, as well as in ongoing protests in other Arab and Muslim nations, particularly those with sizable online and urban populations, such as Morocco and Bahrain. Facebook and other digital networks can speed political communication and provide efficient tools for organizing protests. In combination with satellite broadcasters such as al-Jazeera, online networks can document government abuses quickly and spread awareness of them. Even more, the promises of free speech, modernization, generational change, and global inclusion that these media offer—their very newness, and the way they connect people and ideas across borders—may also foster an incipient form of political identity for some in the fed-up urban classes in Arab societies and Iran. Ghonim’s own sudden political charisma was surely a consequence, in part, of the popular and modern commercial brands, Google and Facebook, with which he was associated.

None of this is quite the same as accepting, as Ghonim evidently believes, that Internet use makes the liberation of oppressed societies more likely. That claim has been a subject of intense debate over the last several years among scholars, media…

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