“Social media in the Arab world is a critical part of everyday life — as much a necessity as food, water and shelter because it is impossible to imagine life without it.”
The Arab Social Media Report, 2013
It was 9am, Nahla’s time for morning coffee. But the delicious coffee aroma soon mixed with the smell of burnt toast. Nahla typically forgot the toast as she was scrolling her mobile to see how many likes she had received for her new post on Facebook. But for many Facebook addicts like Nahla that really does not matter: they just cannot start the day without checking their Facebook accounts.
“Facebook is my religion,” Nahla said with a smile, her eyes still set on her iPhone. “I can’t spend a day without checking it.”
“I feel Facebook is like my living room. I only let those I feel comfortable with in,” nodded Ghada, another friend and a Facebook fan. “It’s the only place where we can express ourselves freely and get information on the spot away from censored media outlets.”
Nahla and Ghada are not alone. “A magic wand” offering the world at the user’s fingertips is how the 2013 Arab Social Media Report describes the obsession of the Arab nation with social media. And the passion seems to be going viral.
Egypt already had a quarter of all Arab social media users in 2013, and it seems to be maintaining its leading status, according to the Arab Social Media Report, the first and largest of its kind gauging social media use and impacts in the Arab world. The annual reports are produced by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Programme. The fact that Egypt had a low Internet penetration rate of 16.17 per cent of its population in 2013, despite having the largest number of all Arab social media users, has also changed sooner than expected.
Today, Facebook seems to be penetrating into Egyptian households fast. The fact that the list of “people you may know” on my Facebook page now includes my maid, the son of our door keeper, my mother’s ageing neighbours, my son’s primary school friends and my uncles and aunts who are in their seventies and eighties may be a case in point.
That penetration has recently sparked debate about the impact of social media on Egyptian society, however. Egypt’s Facebook euphoria has also triggered controversy over whether government censorship is necessary to maintain national security or whether that should be slammed as a clampdown on freedom of expression.
The euphoria over Facebook is not specific to Egypt, and social media has not only been of interest to users alone. Many observers, researchers and lawmakers across the globe have also fallen under the spell of attempting to gauge the political, social, economic and psychological impact of social media on its users.
“Social media has changed the tempo and style of life in the world as a whole, as virtual relationships are gradually replacing, or at least working in parallel with, real ones, even enabling people to tell their friends things they would not be able to say face-to-face,” digital media expert Khaled Baramawy told Al-Ahram Weekly. “But for me it would still be premature to say for sure whether that virtual world has had a positive or negative effect on people and society at large.”
Delving into the world of Facebook immediately conjures up images and trends that unveil the characters of friends in a way that may not have been easy to spot in everyday life. The very fact that the diaries people used to keep safely locked away in drawers are now made public on social media has been intriguing both users and researchers alike. Questions like why couples now show their love in public instead of keeping it private and why people brag about their achievements and family life on social media have intrigued interested researchers.
A recent study from Brunel University in the UK that makes links between a person’s personal status on Facebook and his or her personality offers some interesting answers. Those who brag about their personal relationships on Facebook, for instance, are likely to be people “with low self-esteem” who probably “post frequently about their romantic partners to quell insecurities and demonstrate their relationship is going well,” the study suggests.
Those who post frequently about their achievements, diet and exercise are “narcissists”, the study adds. Meanwhile, “those who score high in neuroticism seek validation from others that they can’t find offline.” Conscientious people rarely post, and when they do it’s about their children. Only those who post about their political beliefs and intellectual topics and favour information seeking to social interaction are described by the study as “open, curious and creative types”.
But before you check what type of personality you are, you should bear in mind how much time you spend on Facebook. A new study from the University of Houston in Texas in the US, one of many forging links between social media and depression, found that people who used Facebook tended to have more depressive symptoms, especially when they compared their achievements to those of others.
“It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand-in-hand,” the study said.
It is only human that people tend to portray the best versions of themselves, or focus on happy moments that would seem to come from a problem-free life, with no guarantee of complete honesty or total disclosure of other, darker sides of their lives.
This has turned “the great time-killer” into a “massive ego-killer” for some users. Or at least that is how a feature recently published in Newsweek portrayed social media. “No matter how satisfied I am with my life, career, family, social life, house, etc., as soon as I go on Facebook and peek into others’ lives, I immediately feel the unease caused by comparison,” one woman told the magazine.
Although not all users may feel the same, many might agree that spending too much time on social media reflects negatively on social and family ties, sometimes even leading to cases of divorce and withdrawal behaviour as young people in particular tend to spend more time in a virtual world.
But outside the US in the Middle East, with the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 politics seemed to have suddenly taken over the lives of Arab Internet users, temporarily pushing personal life and photographs to a small corner.
Much research has been done on assessing the impact of Facebook and Twitter on democratisation in the Arab Spring countries, as well as on opening up new business venues and employment opportunities. The consensus is that the crucial, yet debatable, role social media played in the Arab Spring not only drew more users to their keyboards, but also worried many governments.
Today, whereas some Arab regimes are trying to curb social media for fear of inciting political chaos, others are using it as a tool to connect better with their people.
UNDER A SPELL: Facebook’s penetration of Egyptian society is not just anecdotal observation.
According to figures from the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, about 52.35 per cent of the population was using the Internet by 2014, a percentage that has probably also increased over the past two years. More than half of the Egyptian population is thus using the Internet, with social media scoring the highest among these users.
Facebook has ranked the highest among social media applications in all reports. “The platform has become so popular that many in the country use the words Internet and Facebook interchangeably, so that for many Egyptians, Facebook is the Internet,” wrote the 2013 Arab Social Media Report.
According to the 2016 Online Competitiveness Intelligence Report by digital consulting company e-Marketing Egypt, Egypt’s Facebook community saw about 41 per cent growth in 2013 compared to the preceding year to reach a total of 16 million Facebook users. By 2015, that number had almost doubled, and around 31 per cent of the Egyptian population were using Facebook.
Today, according to Baramawy, at least 40 per cent of the Egyptian population is using social media. Young people aged between 15 and 25 constitute the highest penetration level, representing 68 per cent of all Internet users and spending an average of 22 hours per week online, according to Nielson Egypt, a global provider of information into what consumers watch and buy.
So why are Arabs in general, and Egyptians in particular, so interested in social media and Facebook?
Enhancing the quality of life, “business profitability”, and “government interaction with the public” are the answers suggested by the authors of the 2015 Arab Social Media Report. But the same report also monitored how many users expressed a “lack of trust in social media” and believed it “has negative effects on local cultures and traditions”.
The survey showed that more than half of all Arab social media users were primarily using it to connect with other people. The second main reason for logging onto social media ranged from gaining information to watching videos, listening to music and sharing photographs.
“Chatting is the most common activity among users in the Arab world, followed by reading posts by other people,” noted the 2015 report.
Although young people constitute the majority of all social media users, the 2015 report says that businesses and media have been swift to ride the new wave of social media to connect with customers and advertise products and services. Arab governments have also realised the importance of social media, and in turn have begun leveraging the new online territory.
Social media is widely perceived as a platform for freedom of expression and creativity, where Arab young people are able to express themselves freely, get information away from the sometimes censored media, and find career opportunities through networking and starting online businesses.
When it comes to issues of democracy, many may be more certain. There is no denying that social media played a pivotal role in the outbreak of the revolutions that overthrew the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 and the contagious revolutionary spirit that spread across the Arab world in what is known as the Arab Spring.
Although each country had its own democratic driving force, social media was a common tool in translating ideas shared on cyberspace into real-life action on the ground. In its attempts to explain what was going on, the international media was initially keen to argue that social media and modern technology had helped to bring political change to the Arab Spring countries, to the extent that the protests were dubbed the “Facebook Revolutions” or “Twitter Uprisings.”
Five years on, however, the consensus among activists and analysts alike is that social media did not initiate and was not the driving force behind the Arab Spring revolutions, but was rather a tool, a platform, or a virtual world where young people dreamed of a more democratic world, exchanged ideas, organised protests, and informed the world about their activities. As one protester put it, Facebook was used to “schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world”.
But then these roles changed with the change of context and circumstances. A Masters thesis on “Social Media in Egypt’s Transitional Period” by Yosra Abdel-Sattar Al-Gendi, a researcher at the Centre for Intercultural Dialogue and Translation, concludes that “technology will be used differently by different users in different contexts.” Those contexts are changing fast.
Following the 25 January Revolution, social media in Egypt “helped increase participation in offline mobilisation agencies such as political parties and other civil society organisations,” Al-Gendi says, adding that it “also provided a parallel space through which mobilisation for political activities took place.”
The widespread use of social media also positively affected the level of openness in political discourse, sometimes even shaping public opinion, and was a platform for users to express their opinions of presidential elections candidates and their eligibility to run for the elections. Influential bloggers were able to communicate their political viewpoints, and more often than not online discussions were reported by local talk shows and the international media, greatly amplifying their resonance.
But the devil remains in the detail. Many users, according to Al-Gendi, were “not politically knowledgeable” and even had “superficial” ideas. “These limitations must be taken into consideration, as they interact with less favourable political contexts to produce less favourable political outcomes,” she warns.
Al-Gendi’s predictions are not unfounded. Five years after the revolution, the same virtual world that united young people in a dream of democracy seems to be tearing them apart. Social media is now widely seen as deepening social and political schisms among three different camps, one in support of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, vis-à-vis those supporting ousted Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and a liberal camp that supports neither of the two. Facebook has turned into a battlefield where everybody tends to slam posts by those belonging to the “other camps” as fabricated and ungrounded.
“I would not say that social media has deepened social and political schisms, but it has revealed the rifts and put them under spotlight,” Baramawy commented. “Social media allows users to have the courage to bluntly slam others while hiding behind their keyboards in a way they definitely do not do in real life. Many of the debates are based on fake news disseminated to support political or economic interests. Everyone seems to be involved in the game — people, companies, governments, and those serving a certain political agenda.”
Arab social media users, many lacking the necessary skills to spot manipulative information on the Internet, have been among the first to fall prey to social media, which has provided a platform for the battling political powers in the region to disseminate sometimes unverified or false news. Other media outlets then pass on that news, sometimes even depending on social media as a source in their reports.
This may partly explain why many observers today argue that the same social media that seemed to help bring about change in the Arab world has today largely failed to bring in the democracy that such change had argued for.
Figures obtained by the Arab Social Media Reports may support this argument. After all, the 2013 report shows that a mere 12 per cent of digital users in the Arab world make use of online systems to access information, while Facebook and Whatsapp were almost exclusively used for private chats and only four per cent saw Twitter as an important medium.
Digital media expert and communications consultant Pascale Corbe has concluded that these figures reveal that “social media was not as effective a tool in terms of democratisation in the Arab world as the western media liked to proclaim.” According to Corbe, “just like in other parts of politics, elites also dominated the Internet in the Arab world.”
“Followers in Arab countries were found to have a tendency towards consuming superficial reporting,” Corbe added. “They were losing interest in more complex subjects too fast.”
It is not that social media has lost its political impact altogether. The latest Arab Social Media Report insists that the Internet remains a source of “transparency to political processes and alternatives to the official viewpoints of the ruling parties.”
Cairo-based blogger and activist Mina Malek argues in a recent opinion piece on the Website opendemocracy.net that recent incidents suggest that social media continues to have a social and political effect in Egypt. For Malek, these incidents prove that Facebook users are not powerless or “disconnected from reality” as some people tend to portray them.
One case in point was the uproar on social media that eventually managed to stop popular TV host Riham Said from presenting a talk show on the private Al-Nahar TV channel. Said had blamed the way a victim of sexual harassment was dressed for an assault on her, showing the victim’s personal photographs in support of her argument. In reaction a Twitter hashtag# die-Riham Said caused ten companies sponsoring Said’s programme to withdraw for fear of a public boycott, and Al-Nahar had to suspend the programme and start an investigation into Said.
Likewise, former minister of justice Ahmed Al-Zend was pressured to resign following a social media uproar over a class-prejudiced statement he made bluntly saying that “the sons of garbage collectors cannot join the judiciary.” Egyptian poet Fatma Naoot was also taken to court and lost her appeal in a lawsuit that slammed a post on the slaughter of animals during the Eid Al-Adha feast as “an act of contempt towards Islam and disturbing public peace”.
“Egypt is a young nation with more than 60 per cent of the population under the age of 35,” Malek concluded. This means that the high penetration of social media into this social segment will “help increase awareness about different issues that don’t make it into state media or into the privately owned outlets of pro-regime tycoons”.
“The question remains of whether social media could help lead to another uprising,” Malek said. “Should social media be left totally free without any kind of scrutiny,” Baramawy asked.
UNDER SCRUTINY: Malek and Baramawy are not the only people posing such questions, which seem to have been equally worrying to many.
There have been voices demanding a clampdown on social media, and 2014 alone saw two lawsuits wanting to ban Facebook in Egypt. Lawyer Mahmoud Guweili filed a lawsuit in May 2014 calling on the government to block Facebook, explaining to the media at the time that “the site allows people to impersonate state figures in the absence of the slightest controls, helps spread immorality and rumours, and perpetuates false news that could support terrorist offenses.”
In the same vein, in November lawyer Mohammed Hamed Salem filed another lawsuit, this time to block both Facebook and Twitter and arguing that they are “used to incite violence and aid terrorists in planning attacks against the people and the Egyptian state.”
Although the Egyptian Administrative Court rejected the first lawsuit that called for blocking Facebook on the grounds that “freedom of information confers the right to receive information and ideas and transfer them to others without limit,” the arguments behind these lawsuits remain forceful among many lawmakers as well as decision-makers in Egypt.
Blocking social media sites remains unlikely for technical and legal reasons, but a law regulating social media seems to be in the making. Ahmed Zeidan, head of the communication and information technology committee of parliament, told Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper that the committee was “working on legislation to regulate social media Websites, Facebook in particular, in coordination with other committees involved.” These include the information, defence and national security committees.
MP Gamal Abdel-Nasser initiated a call last April to enact a law that would deal with violations on Facebook, which he slammed as a “western conspiracy to blackmail us”, arguing that the violations were “infringing on freedoms”. The draft law reportedly called for the immediate imprisonment of anyone writing a post on Facebook calling for a protest. “It also says that if you accuse someone in a post without solid proof you can be sent to jail,” Abdel-Nasser told the media.
Some MPs joined forces with Abdel-Nasser, including Wafd Party MP Mohamed Khalifa who insisted that “group administrators must disclose their affiliations and determine the purpose of a page posting news.” MP Gamal Al-Aqabi went further and called for the shutting down of Facebook and Twitter on the grounds that the sites “fuel violence and damage the country’s economy”.
The details of the cybercrime law remain ambiguous. But according to press reports, the suggested bill also stipulates that “if a crime is committed against a government or a state official’s Website, or a Website run by their proxies, the perpetrators shall be sentenced to life or hard labour, with a fine ranging between LE100,000 and LE500,000.”
It remains questionable whether this bill will be passed or how it will regulate the use of social media. But it has already provoked controversy inside and outside parliament, with many expressing concerns over freedom of expression and doubting that the measures could safeguard national security without other steps. Many human rights activists have worried that “security concerns” remain largely undefined in the law, and that this could give wide latitude for a clampdown on personal freedoms.
The government already has many powers when it comes to monitoring violence-inciting Websites and arresting their owners, which many argue makes a new cybercrime law unneeded. Former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim said in a 2014 statement that the ministry had developed a system to monitor social networking sites for security risks, and human rights activists say many have been arrested since then.
Press reports by human rights organisations claim that at least 95 Egyptian nationals have been arrested as a result of statements they have posted on social media sites since the end of 2014, according to the Mada Masr Website.
“Social media is now globally defined as a human right, but now that governments see it as a source of headaches and rumours they just take the easy way out and clamp down on it. But that is definitely not the solution,” Baramawy maintained.
“For me, the answer is to educate society on how to use social media and how to understand its character.”