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Friday, 16 April 2021

Big tech is watching you

The blocking by US big-tech companies of former US president Donald Trump’s social media accounts was an Orwellian decision that will resonate for decades

Hany Ghoraba , Thursday 4 Feb 2021
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“Big Brother is Watching You” is a slogan that became famous thanks to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by British author George Orwell. The book, written in 1949, depicts a dark and dystopian future in the year 1984 when the world has three main states, Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, with Oceania being ruled by Big Brother.

Oceania in Orwell’s story occupies the Americas, Australasia, Britain and parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Big Brother rules with an iron fist and nips all dissent in the bud through tight security, censorship and round-the-clock surveillance. The totalitarian state of Oceania does not tolerate dissent in any form, and citizens are forbidden to express their beliefs on any issue. The slogan “Big Brother is Watching You” can be seen on telescreens everywhere.

The US experienced an Orwellian moment in 2020-2021 that will not be forgotten for generations. This time it was not an authoritarian regime run by a dictatorship that implemented it, but social media companies based in the US itself. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube decided to block the messages of sitting US president Donald Trump, preventing them from reaching his followers. Twitter claimed it was a security measure after the storming of the Capitol building in Washington on 6 January.

Trump’s tweets and posts were deleted from Twitter and Facebook, followed by the permanent suspension of his accounts. This was accompanied by the purging of 70,000 accounts held by Trump’s supporters. The “land of the free” has never looked more autocratic in the eyes of the world thanks to these practices by social media moguls.

The very same Twitter has hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) group accounts, which it has left untouched. Moreover, it has accounts held by the heads of state or government of states that have been involved in mass murder, genocide or terrorism, among them the Turkish, Iranian, Ethiopian and Qatari heads of state. All of these accounts are intact and have been left untouched.

The US big-tech companies have become dominant forces and the most valuable corporations in global stock markets in recent years, surpassing automobile and home appliance industry giants. In recent years, social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (owned by Google) have become driving forces in the online world, and once-humble software programmers have become the media tycoons of the world.

The likes of US cable network CNN owner Ted Turner or Sky network owner Rupert Murdoch no longer carry the same weight that they did two decades ago. Now, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey not only affect the news and information flow on the Internet but also actually have the audacity to control and censor opposing views.

Zuckerberg’s Facebook formed an oversight committee last year that included a number of unsavoury figures, including Islamist Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkol Kerman. It is unfathomable that a member of an affiliate of an international terrorist group such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a sworn enemy of freedom, should become part of the censorship committee set up by Facebook under its new regulations.

It is becoming hard to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood on Twitter and Facebook without being flagged and even suspended. The Brotherhood inspired the likes of Al-Qaeda and IS, both of which have launched terrorist attacks in the US, including the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that killed over 3,000 US citizens. But that group, according to Dorsett and Zuckerberg, has special protection on social media, and some of its members even supervise the content of these applications.

Moreover, the US big-tech company Apple has followed suit and blocked the Parler app, an online service, on its servers after the Capitol Hill attack, with similar actions being taken by Amazon and Google.

Ironically, Twitter issued a statement condemning the actions of the Ugandan government in blocking its services in the country along with Facebook during the latest elections in the country. Such double standards and hypocrisy could not be more manifest, especially as Twitter’s statement came during the same week that the social media group blocked Trump and his supporters from expressing their views. 

Dorsett and Zuckerberg along with a number of other moguls who could easily be called “Barack Obama-era billionaires” now control much of the Internet. They decide what they deem to be dangerous for national security and what is not as self-appointed national security experts.

Meanwhile, Facebook has a track record of attempting to influence elections and voters’ preferences. Facebook was involved in the Cambridge-Analytica scandal that ended in the insolvency of this British company in 2018. Cambridge-Analytica had earlier collected the personal data of 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge through 270,000 Facebook users and apps. The purpose was for the company to influence elections. Facebook denied any knowledge of such practices and claimed it had been deceived after the scandal was brought to light by the media.

But the question remains: are the claims of election rigging entirely false? If the social media platforms are supposedly open forums for the public to voice their concerns, why the cover-ups? If the recent US elections were as squeaky clean and legitimate as the Democratic Party declares them to be, why has almost every social media platform got involved in what appears to be a cover-up if there was really nothing to cover up? The same social media services looked the other way when US groups such as Antifa and BLM called for violence on them, leaving their accounts untouched.

2020 was one of the most bizarre years the world has seen since the end of World War II. Marked by the Covid-19 pandemic, economic recession and political chaos, it has witnessed the rise of new forms of power or oligarchical control, as represented by US big tech. If big-tech CEOs can now decide what people should think and how they should express themselves and even have a hand in deciding whom they believe to have won an election, then we are witnessing the signs of the rise of a new form of thought control.

Sooner rather than later, the media moguls will decide for governments who is the enemy and the course of action to be taken in political life, given the wealth and outreach they have amassed over the past decade. The fact that Zuckerberg escaped the Cambridge-Analytica scandal scot free and still wields the power to shut down the president of the United States, means that American politics has become a game of money, with democracy being only secondary.

Absolute power means absolute corruption, and the CEOs of the social media companies have abused their power. They are on their way towards becoming new “big brothers,” watching everyone and keeping everyone under their control.

 

*The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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