Given the fame recently achieved by Brazilian belly-dancer Ludhiania, whose recent online video went viral with more than 20 million views when she became the number one Internet trend in Egypt in less than 24 hours, to Abdallah Roushdi, a Muslim cleric whose radical online fatwas (advisory opinions) have raised much controversy in society, have you ever asked yourself if you too could be living in a social-media bubble?
Do you control the videos you watch, the content you read and the trending topics that flood your timelines and news feeds? Have you ever thought about these trending topics? Why are they trending? Why do some friends always appear to you while others never do? Why does a product you want to buy or wish to buy suddenly appear to you on dozens of social-media platforms? Are you being haunted by ghosts?
Nine in every ten Arab young people utilise some form of social media today. In Egypt, there are more than 62 million social-media users, with over 42 million users of Facebook, 20 million for Twitter, and 11 million for Instagram, according to the Statistica analytical Website. The percentage of social-media users also grew by 20 per cent in Egypt with the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led many more people to resort to online platforms.
These platforms can make stories trend for a while and then disappear, leaving their place to another one. The phenomenon is called the “social bubble,” a term suggested by social-media specialists in the US in 2015. The El-Gouna Film Festival fashion show was a number one trend in Egypt last Saturday, for example. The Brazilian belly-dancer viral video last week was also a number one trend, and no doubt others are even now appearing. They are all examples of online social bubbles that have become part and parcel of our lives.
If you find yourself surrounded by a personalised content selection according to your gender, your location, your history, your age, your interests, and other data, then this is called a “filter bubble.” A bubble of this sort refers to the results of the algorithms that dictate what we encounter online. In his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, US author Eli Pariser writes that these algorithms are creating a unique universe of information for each and every one of us, fundamentally altering the ways in which we encounter ideas and information. They can change what we read and what we think and even how we behave on a daily basis.
“Especially after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many people have been spending almost eight hours a day on social media. This is a frightening phenomenon to say the least,” Khaled Al-Barmawi, a digital-media expert, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He expressed his fear that such unprecedented amounts of time spent on line, and with it the influx of rumours, fake news and trivial chatter now taking up the attention of many, could be becoming priority activities for many people. “These trending topics have made many people focus and talk about insignificant and petty matters instead of focusing on how to choose the right candidate in the current parliamentary elections, for example,” he added.
“Do not think that these social media bubbles do not consume your energy, waste your time and consume society’s consciousness. Actually, they consume a lot of you,” he said. He also stressed the importance of having official institutions and media outlets improve their social media platforms. “To have a creative multimedia content that engages the audience and attracts millions of users on social media has now become a necessity rather than an option,” he added.
To think that electronic ghosts might be haunting you on social media platforms might appear to be a daunting idea for some, but it might also be true. “The algorithms created by Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok and are all the rest are not created haphazardly. These platforms select which ones they propagate and which they do not,” said Lojeina Haj Youssef, editor-in-chair and cofounder of Radio Rosana FM, a radio station that works in partnership with UN Women.
The power of social media also cannot be predicted. “Social media has become a powerful weapon that some nations use to wage war against others. It has been used to ensure the rise of some countries, to topple others, to elect presidents and to force others to step down, and also to produce what is trendy and watched by millions across the world,” Youssef added.
But the stories that now come to us on social media must be taken in a logical way, and they must not be allowed to distort the ways in which we relate to the people around us. Youssef thinks that people should be taught in schools how to evaluate social media stories before sharing them. “Subjects like media literacy and how to detect fake news have become necessary in schools, so that young people know how to read such stories and how much they can believe in any story presented to them,” she said.
Though social media can seem scary when accompanied with social bubbles, algorithms and filter bubbles, it can still work miracles when used in constructive journalism. Radio Rosana FM, which supports female immigrants in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other parts of the region, uses social media, for example.
“Through social media and our FM channel, we help many female immigrants to convey their unheard voices and stories to the rest of the world. We also conduct workshops that can enhance women’s empowerment, their understanding of the culture they are in, and help solve social and economic problems,” Youssef said.
The Power of Social Media is a Facebook group created by young Egyptian social-media experts Reham Al-Khateeb and Amr Abdin in 2018 with the intention of bringing people together on the Internet in a good and useful way and using the group as a channel between consumers and companies.
“We sometimes receive calls from companies that want to resolve client complaints, and we can help to solve them,” Al-Khateeb noted in an interview with the Weekly. “Of course, social media is very powerful and can help to solve many issues. Companies are afraid of their reputations being harmed by a post or a picture shared on the Internet, and they want to solve any problem quickly once a complaint is published.”
“Our group helps to detect fake posts or biased posts by requesting true evidence. If we find it is fake news, or the incident is not true, we take action to publicise the situation,” he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly