Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Wednesday,24 April, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Facebook isn’t good for you

The spread of Facebook and other social networking sites in the Arab region raises questions about how best to deal with their sometimes negative impacts, writes Amina Khairy


It’s official. Facebook is not good for you. It is no longer quite that online social-networking site we used to love. It is not even that extraordinary tool of communicating or brilliant platform for expression we thought it was. It has turned out to be a devil in disguise, a tool for damaging societies and impairing countries. It might even be bad for democracy.

By the time these lines are published, Facebook might even turn out to have been accelerating Daoomsday, inviting Apocalypse, or contributing to bringing on Armageddon.  It now seems ages ago since Facebook was regarded by many as one of the best inventions of all time and its co-founder Mark Zuckerberg (33 years old) an icon for young people across the globe. However, in fact it was not that long ago that we thought these things. It was 14 years ago, but 14 years in the age of the Internet is a long time indeed.

Various newspapers across the world have been reporting on Facebook’s current “reputation meltdown”, as the UK magazine the Economist put it, and discussing Facebook’s “foggy future”, according to US business magazine Forbes.

“News of Facebook’s Secret Tool to Delete Executive Messages Caps Days of Chaos,” “Facebook Suspends Canadian Firm Aggregate IQ Over Data Scandal,” “Facebook Accused of Being Used to Incite Violence in Myanmar,” “Facebook Faces Indonesian Police Investigation Over Data Breach,” “Facebook Backs Political ad Bill,” “Facebook to Require Verified Identities for Future Political Ads,” “Facebook Halts Medical Data Sharing Plans,” “Zuckerberg Talks About Facebook’s Hardest Year And What Comes Next” are just some of the headlines that have appeared in the international media.

What comes next for Zuckerberg and Facebook is unknown and extremely difficult to predict. However, judging by what is going on at the moment, one can say that times for Facebook (and other social media platforms) are not good. The 17th edition of the Arab Media Forum held last week in Dubai and entitled “Impact Media Trends”, which was attended by Ruler of Dubai Mohamed bin Rashed Al-Maktoum and headed by President of the Dubai Press Club Mona Ghanem Al-Marri, was all about the impact social media platforms had had on the Arab media scene and hence internationally.

It was interesting to see how the Internet companies Google, Facebook and Twitter all navigated through the Forum, going from the offensive to the defensive and eventually adhering to the role of “knight in shining armour”. They had been helping to save the planet, they said, to train journalists on how to tackle “fake news”, and to inform the public on how to differentiate between a fake account and a not-so-very fake account.

Regional director of media partnerships at Facebook Patrick Walker told the participants what they already knew — namely that “we have learned in many cases the hard way that just connecting people with great connectivity and great products is not necessarily doing good.” What the participants, their families and friends, readers and viewers and the rest of the world wanted to know was what would now be done about the problems that have arisen.

Things are serious, and what might have happened with regard to Russian meddling in the last US presidential elections was not only the beginning, but was actually the tip of the iceberg. Facebook’s effect on the Arab world is far from being controllable or predictable. According to Facebook itself, it is now the most popular social media platform in the region, with around 156 million users in early 2017, up from 115 million a year earlier.

The penetration rate of Facebook among the Arab population stands at 39 per cent, up from 28 per cent a year earlier. Arabic is becoming the dominant language on Facebook within the Arab region, while many people continue to use multiple languages when posting or reading social media material.

Do you want to know more about the significance of Facebook in our region and how it is gaining momentum? Then think about this: between 2014 and 2017 Egypt gained more than 14 million users, Algeria 9.3 million users, Iraq 7.2 million, Saudi Arabia 5.7 million, Morocco 5.3 million and the UAE 2.7 million.

Jordan gained 1.6 million users, Tunisia 1.4 million, Libya 1.1 million, Lebanon one million, Qatar 928,000, and the list goes on, with the exception of Syria where Facebook users decreased by around 375,000 for well-known reasons.

The reasons why Facebook, Twitter and even Google are attracting global concern nowadays have to do with their manipulation. This manipulation has resulted, or claims to have resulted, in directing the results of elections, referendums, and the opinions of millions, if not billions, of ordinary people.

However, ordinary people living in our region might not be aware of the twists of fate going on in social media elsewhere. When the Egyptian public started to suffer the consequences of Internet militias sabotaging public opinion, camouflaging reality, and creating a world of fake news, fake religion, and the fake will of the people, the world either stood in silence or accused the Egyptian public of being the victim of “conspiracy theories” or simply misinformed.

Today, we need to plan better on how to deal with this virtual world that is taking hold of our lives, our futures, and our decisions. However, while doing so, we should not let ourselves be carried away with bizarre explanations, fantasy diagnoses, la-la land excuses, and impossible-to-accomplish solutions.

Neither establishing a ministry of Internet safety nor censoring sites or accusing others of being traitors is the solution. Collective Arab action, especially among states sharing similar ways of thinking and common interests, is needed. Awareness is vital, but it takes time and is a lifelong investment. Think now and act now. Fight back against the devil before the devil comes to get you.

The writer is a columnist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

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