The dangerous cocktail of smartphones and Facebook

In our Arab world, there are plenty of people who do not realise how much the world has changed.
Sunday 22/04/2018
A worshipper reads from a prayer on his smartphone at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangels in Cairo. (AFP)
Convergence. A worshipper reads from a prayer on his smartphone at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangels in Cairo. (AFP)

We should not underestimate the power of modern communication technologies and their effect. What looks like a simple technology for communication between people and sharing pictures, music and video clips has become a self-contained world capable of affecting even history.

We remember the last decade of the previous century when internet chatrooms took the world by storm and became the focus of computer- and information-savvy people. We remember the familiar sound of the modem as it connected to the internet, a sound full of promises. First, we would check the news and perhaps some topics of interest, then we would head to our favourite chatroom, where a whole world of both important and trivial topics and interests awaited us.

With time, more specialised software such as MSN Messenger, Skype and Yahoo Messenger made direct and live contact between individual users possible and chatting became an essential part of life whether for work purposes or for entertainment, discussion and even the occasional argument online.

The real revolution, however, came about when several ingredients came together. It was essentially the phenomenal spread of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter combined with the advent of powerful smartphones that produced the crucial cocktail for an unprecedented worldwide connectivity critical enough to engage far-reaching changes. The rest, as they say, is history.

It would be unfair to say that the third world was slow in accepting the new communication technologies and applications. The Arab world, for example, seems much more taken in by the new technology than the West. In Western countries, the average citizen was kept updated through the media about progress in technology and communication. The changes came progressively to Western users, who had time to adapt.

It was easy for users in Western countries to have virtual meetings and conferences or organise huge campaigns and demonstrations.

It was possible because of centuries-old traditions of respect for individual freedoms as long as they didn’t conflict with security and stability. Still, many Western users could not foresee the tremendous changes brought about by social platforms and smartphones, changes that surpass the effect of the printing press five centuries ago.

Being used to primitive mass media and their very static style of presenting ideas and information, users in the Arab world are usually happy with generalities and a bit of exaggeration. Social media and SMS technology have replaced traditional mouth-to-ear channel for spreading rumours.

The form of the rumour may have changed to a Photoshopped picture or a chat snippet in bad Arabic but it is still a rumour. Still, the effect of the new communication technologies in the Arab world was tremendous. For proof, witness the positive and negative changes in the Arab world.

Modern communication technologies have made it easy for extremist ideologies to impose their own worldviews and feed the chaos in the Arab world. At the same time, the response to this intellectual invasion was, in broad terms, focusing on the effect of political Islam in its Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist and Khomeinist versions.

The effect of the technological revolution on Arab countries was profound and divisive because they were not prepared for it. Western countries, by comparison, were sort of immune to this effect, until today.

Communication technologies have played an enormous role in determining the outcomes of the Brexit vote in Britain and the 2016 presidential election in the United States. On both occasions, popular and populist communication channels were heavily used but with a twist. Custom-tailored messages targeted individual users. The campaign messages are no longer broad addressing societal concerns and enhancing community experiences but individualised, targeting specific concerns and reactions.

In Britain, frustrated job seekers were sent messages inciting them against Eastern European migrants who “have stolen” their jobs. Xenophobes received pictures of long lines of immigrants and asylum seekers. In the United States, voters who were unhappy with America’s indecisiveness on the world scene received messages with pictures of Donald Trump as the heroic candidate ready to return America to its former glory. Little did they know that the messages were sent by Russian agents.

Customised messages resemble old voter or member recruitment tactics. Parties and religious sects would send simple activists to talk to common average folks and a high-flying intellectual to stroke the egos of other high-flying intellectuals. What is important is the result. The technology behind the modern methods is amazing in its capacity to emulate the human mind and anticipate its reactions but, in the end, the manipulation is the same.

We are facing crucial changes in the history of humanity. It would be useless to resist them and stupid to underestimate their effect. In our Arab world, there are plenty of people who do not realise how much the world has changed.