Trends on social media are changing the world. Part of that change is much-needed and long-awaited, but another part is virtual. It might be driven by real needs, but it might also be imposed by those seeking some kind of advantage or devised for reasons unrelated to the public good.
The public in Egypt over the past eight years has been subjected to and sometimes deceived by such trends. However, people have also acquired the skill of being vigilant when a trend or tweet is going viral.
Indeed, viruses infecting electronic devices are no longer limited to malware that spreads from host to host or to malicious codes that change the way devices operate and that are designed to quickly transfer from one to another. The current viruses have much more to do with content and the trends that result from it.
Malware that spreads from one Facebook page to another by someone pressing “share” is around us everywhere. It replicates, maybe without users knowing about it or maybe with their underestimating the consequences of sharing a post that contains unverified information or poisonous thoughts.
Malicious tweets loaded with 140 spiteful characters are being liked, retweeted, or making it onto the list of top tweets without anyone calculating their side effects.
According to the dictionary, a “trend” is the general direction in which something develops or changes, or it is a change that goes in a certain direction. Social media is no exception to this type of change.
The Arab Spring Revolutions in 2011 were initiated by social-media trends transmitted from the Internet to city streets and squares. The Egyptian events in January 2011 were even named the “Facebook Revolution.” It is true that these virtual trends would not have succeeded alone in overthrowing the various Arab regimes if the general mood had not been willing to see such change succeed. However, without social media things would have been different on the ground, or rather they would have been more genuine, without the suspicion that some events were being manipulated or induced.
Trending hashtags, popular posts and retweeted tweets are all parts of a virtual vibe that has proven capable of changing moods, perceptions, opinions and ideologies and that can eventually lead to political change. Yet, no matter how real that change may be, some of its elements remain unreal.
When you wake up in the morning and the first thing you read on Facebook is a post written by a friend describing a nasty experience at the Mugamma building in Downtown Cairo where a government employee gave her a hard time, asked her for endless signatures, made her come and go five times even though she was capable of serving her in 20 minutes, leading her to end her post with the hashtag #all_public_servants_are_corrupt, what sort of mood would that post put you in?
Imagine reading about the same experiences in a different way. Here, your friend still expresses her anger, but instead calls for action against corruption, unexcused delays and intentional complications. She asks her friends to stand up to such behaviour by complaining, asking for their rights and demanding justice via legal channels. She concludes her post with the hashtag #no_more_silence_re_corruption.
Would such a post put you in a mood similar to the first one? Most probably, the answer would be “no”.
Yet, most probably the use of social media in Egypt, where statistics put Internet use at near half the population, flows with the flow. Some of those in control of that flow are highly politicised, and they may intentionally push the public towards rumours by circulating fake news or just igniting anger at a time when that will only cause more economic damage and security challenges.
In the world of business, social media is set to change how influencers and business owners interact with potential clients. In the world of politics and directing the public’s mood, the same thing is done via different players but using the same media and techniques.
Influencers may have the talent of writing fiery posts, devising witty hashtags and creating a general mood of feeling oppressed. Business owners are in control behind the scenes. They may be controlling the influencers directly by giving them directions regarding what to write and how. Or they might be using a more-subtle approach, in which the influencers seem to be independent heroes.
Even so, there will always be social-media influencers of talent who write, tweet, or behave the way they do because they believe in what they are doing.
Research regarding what social-media trends have done to Egypt will not shed enough light on its effects. These have drastically changed from believing in and adhering to whatever was related on social media before, during and after the January 2011 events to disbelieving everything on social media some years later.
Without even mentioning what Political Islam, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, has done to Egyptian society over the past four decades, trends on social media continue to polarise Egyptians. From football to social justice to roads to the New Administrative Capital to the Suez Canal to the new educational system to every single detail of our daily lives, posts, hashtags and tweets are causing Egyptians to simmer.
There are influencers, known or unknown, who are writing, analysing and passing judgement on domestic politics, international relations, economic performance, social dilemmas and the educational system, and they have had and are having a huge effect on the community.
Egyptians use social-media networks differently according to their political orientations, religious affiliations and most importantly attitudes towards the political system and social hierarchy. And social media influencers know it.
An eccentric mother drives her child to jump from a window to reach a balcony with nothing to cling to, for example, and all of a sudden social-media influencers appear to claim that “a mother of four who is a sole breadwinner cannot be held responsible for her actions because she is poor.” Within a few minutes, taxi-drivers, shop workers and cleaners are all talking about how poverty is affecting motherhood today and how the government is the reason behind such a calamity.
Yet, things are not hopeless. We may go with a trend, but we come back quickly. Such illogical analyses may serve as a safety valve: you listen to a taxi-driver moaning how “poverty is killing us,” and how the government is “ignoring the basic needs of the people,” and how we deserve “double, triple or even quadruple our salaries,” but the minute you shift the conversation to a more sensible approach he comes back to reason.
This is the rationality of real life, in contrast to the irrationality of social-media trends. Even so, hashtags, posts and tweets may not be the final step. There may well be many more developments to come.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly