The 2010s will go down in history as the decade when social media pervaded every aspect of our daily lives. From politics to news media to social movements, the internet and major social media platforms are easily one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of the 2010s. In the Middle East, the evolution of social media was on clear display in the last ten years as it shifted from a force of liberalization to one of oppression before our very eyes.
The decade kicked off with a social media-driven movement of hope in the Arab Spring that saw young men and women topple dictators to realize the dream of building societies of greater freedom and economic prosperity. But now, almost a decade since Tahrir Square, Middle Eastern states use disingenuous tactics on social media, mounting propaganda campaigns to sway public opinion in their favor while developing and using new tools to stifle the online organizing and information-sharing fueling the new wave of protests across the region.
Just like the United States, the U.K. and other democracies, Israel is also grappling with the effects of social media and foreign interference in its elections – as well as with a leader who uses social media to circumvent the news media with bombastic accusations against his opponents, the justice system and the news itself.
Social media initially appeared tailor-made to promote equality.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, SnapChat and many other platforms gave everyday people a voice, created the citizen journalist and made the so-called “gatekeepers” of traditional media less relevant to the social discourse. But in the last ten years, what began as a tool of freedom quickly turned sour as corporations commercialized social media for their ends and state actors found ways to weaponize it.
Anat Ben-David, an internet researcher and senior lecturer in the sociology department of the Open University in Tel Aviv, says one can compare the 2011 Arab Spring, when social media was widely seen as a “democratizing agent,” to 2019, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was hauled before the U.S. Congress and grilled for his company’s role in “advancing the demise of democratic regimes around the world.”
“Facebook is dangerous,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told Zuckerberg at a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee in July of this year. “Facebook has said, ‘just trust us.’ And every time Americans trust you, they seem to get burned.”
Social media initially enabled millions of citizens to coordinate political action while challenging traditional political power structures underprepared for this modern phenomenon. The Arab Spring served as a wake-up call to despotic regimes, who have since turned social media into a weapon targeting domestic and foreign populations.