In the early 2010s, an Egyptian man named Khaled Said was tortured to death after being held in police custody. The photo of his death quickly went viral on Facebook and caused widespread outrage in the Arabic-speaking world.
Thirteen days after Said’s death, someone anonymously created a Facebook page titled We are all Khaled Said that gained 100,000 followers within three days and shortly became the most followed page in Egypt. With the page catalyzing the situation, the death of Said eventually sparked the Egyptian Revolution—or in a broader sense, the Arab Spring—which toppled the Egyptian government within 18 days.
Wale Ghonim, one of the creators of the Facebook page who later revealed himself, said in a 2011 TED Talk that the Internet has played a significant role in helping Egyptian citizens to speak up.
“Everything was done by the people to the people, and that’s the power of the Internet,” Ghonim said.
However, instead of embracing its “spring,” Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries failed to create a democratic alternative and entered their “winter.” After the revolution, Egypt was mired in political crisis with intense polarization and became engulfed in a month of street violence with a casualty count topping hundreds of thousands of people.
“The Arab Spring revealed social media’s greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings,” Ghonim said in his second TED Talk four years later. “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.”
What Ghonim experienced seems paradoxical because we often think of the Internet as a tool to help people communicate, regardless of their physical distance. The convenience of information exchange through the Internet is well-acknowledged among many people. A study by the Pew Research Center in 2017 found that two-thirds of Americans report getting their news from social media.
Nevertheless, while people indulge themselves in such convenience, some of them are losing their way.
The Internet has ushered in an era of mass communication. However, as this constant flow of messages accumulates, people start to learn things from information that flickers quickly past their screen. And most of the time, it is hard to get the whole picture within 140 characters or even less.
The reality is, this quick flow of information and instant communication didn’t lead to more conversation. Despite all the time and energy that people spend on social media, instead of solving problems and misunderstandings, people now tend to default to extreme and biased opinions more than ever before.
Such a phenomenon can be partly attributed to the anonymity of social media. Posting on social media platforms is low-cost and requires zero accountability. People are free to post inflammatory statements which could easily intensify any situation and incur more arguments or hate comments.
Another thing behind the prevalence of polarized statements is that people tend to see what they want to see, especially when they are facing an overload of information. From a psychological point of view, such human behavior is explained through confirmation bias, which ScienceDaily defines as “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.”
Therefore, “echo chambers” are created—spaces that enhance particular ideas by repeating them and restricting the emergence of opposite perspectives. These platforms are filled with different groups of people holding the same opinion on certain topics.
Examples of such groups can readily be found on any social media platform, like the climate change skeptics and “patriots” groups who consistently propagate racist and hateful claims in different countries.
Instead of being a creator of bridges of limitless communication, social media has become a destroyer that catalyzes polarization in the world.
Unfortunately, I predict such issues with social media are going to remain unsolved for a long time. The ethics of using the Internet are, and will continue to be, a long-time heated discussion among users and researchers.
Like Ghonim said in his 2017 TED talk, “I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet.” Designing policies and promoting social media experiences that encourage civility and reward thoughtfulness is critical. Teaching people about the importance of healthy communication is necessary if we want a healthier internet environment—one that prevents extremist points of view.
For now, as students, our best defense against this is to try our best to educate ourselves and to learn more about the different facets of ongoing events. We should learn to agree to disagree in a spirit of mutual respect, both online and in our daily lives. Under the influence of the current situation of social media, being able to think critically and carefully is vital, even when facing stories that we desperately want to believe.
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