Seven years later, how Facebook shuts down free speech in Egypt

January, 2018
United States of America

even years after it helped launch the uprisings that led to the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Facebook is shutting down Egyptian activism online, Middle East Eye can reveal.

The social media platform was lauded as a critical factor behind the uprisings – or "The Facebook Revolution" – which began on 25 January 2011 and drew tens of thousands of Egyptians onto the streets, changing their country’s trajectory. 

But Egyptian opposition activists of all political shades and stripes told MEE that during the past year, the company has repeatedly banned their pages and shut down their livestreams after trolls reported their posts over and over again.

Sawsan Gharib is a real estate agent in Texas and US spokesperson for Egypt’s April 6th movement, which was influential in the uprisings that ousted Mubarak. “I can’t communicate with other activists," she said. "I can’t communicate with people."

Gharib said her personal page has been shut down more than six times during the past year. A second page she set up because of problems with the first has also been banned repeatedly.

One of April 6th Facebook pages – called Mubasher 6 April or April 6th Direct - where the movement shared news, photos and videos, was also removed last July. The movement has since opened another page, but all the content posted on the original page is now gone. “All lost,” Gharib said.

She believes pro-government trolls have targeted activists and movements like hers because they want to shut them down. She regularly appears on Turkish and Egyptian TV channels, speaking out against the government and sharing her views in Egyptian slang, attracting nearly 7,000 followers. “The homeless guy can understand me,” she said.

Gharib is also one of the administrators of several April 6th Facebook pages. When she is banned, she is not only disconnected from her friends and family, she is also unable to run the movement's page and organise with other activists effectively.

The trolls "are trying to curb our hands and not make us do anything”, she said. "I’m afraid the next time that I will be banned for life.”

Yet despite repeated attempts to contact Facebook, neither Sawsan nor any of the activists who MEE interviewed has had more than an auto-response from the company.

They still do not understand why their posts have violated the digital giant’s terms and conditions nor what they can do to stop their pages from being banned.

Through a PR company hired by Facebook, MEE sent the social media company a list of the activists whose pages have been banned (with each of their approval) and asked for comment, but has not heard back ahead of publication. 

Where Facebook falls short

One major reason behind the bans is scale. Since "The Facebook", as it was initially called, was launched in February 2004, the platform has grown exponentially.

The company is well aware of the problem, experts told MEE, but hasn’t invested enough to ensure that moderation, particularly in foreign languages, has kept pace with its growth over the past 14 years to hosting more than two billion users.

The struggle of Arab activists also comes as Facebook promotes its efforts, at the bequest of governments, to shut down the pages of "extremists", and has proved increasingly willing to pull down pages in order to continue operating in countries like Israel and Vietnam.

These moves – including the recent decision to shut down the page of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov – have left Facebook open to criticism that its policies are opaque and subjective. As Julia Angwin and Hannes Grassegger wrote in Pro Publica, the company may well be operating one of the least accountable and most far-reaching censorship projects in history.

That's little comfort for the Egyptian activists, who are finding that the platform, which was once a free speech frontier and their best medium of expression, has transformed into a corporate-controlled battleground – and one on which they are losing.

"In Egypt, Facebook is the most important, if not the only way, of communication that is in theory free of government control," said Mohamed Okda, an Egyptian political consultant and media commentator. Okda said he started to notice the increasing bans on activist pages last spring and believes thousands of activists, may have been impacted. 

"I find it appalling that Facebook which is supposed to be connecting us is using its monopoly on power to silence us," he said.

'Just give them the internet'

Many date the launch of the Facebook page "Kullena Khaled Said" – or "We are all Khaled Said" - as a key moment that galvanised the uprisings that followed.

Wael Ghonim, then a Google marketing executive in Dubai, started it in June 2010 after Egyptian police dragged 28-year-old blogger Khaled Said from an internet café and beat him to death, across the street from Said's family home. 

“Today, they killed Khaled,” Ghonim wrote on the page. “If I don’t act for his sake, tomorrow they will kill me."

The page led to protests, which in turn gave way to an uprising. And while experts and activists have since questioned the degree to which social media platforms were behind the regional revolts, their power as tools to mobilise protest was now out in the open.

“If you want to liberate a society, just give them the internet,” Ghonim told CNN on 11 February 2011, the day when Mubarak stepped down from power.

“The internet helps you fight the media war which is basically a war that the Egyptian government – the Egyptian regime – play[ed] very well in 1970, 1980 and 1990. When the internet came, they really couldn’t.”

For many Egyptians, especially activists, Facebook became, and remains, a key method of communication, accounting for 23 percent of users in the region, according to a 2017 research report from the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government in Dubai.

Source: Middle East Eye