Arab writers opining on the political landscape of the Middle East join the chorus of global concern of the autocratic power of Facebook while optimistic of the ascension of a woman to the premiership of Tunisia.
The Dictator Mark Zuckerberg
By Sawsan Al-Abtah
Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, October 16
The curious thing about Facebook is that the more scandals it turns out to be involved in, the more its followers fall in love with it. It doesn’t seem like Facebook account holders, knowing that their privacy is violated, exploited and blackmailed, feel the need to punish the perpetrator, despite their ability to do so. However, following the release of the documents leaked by former Facebook engineer Frances Haugen, as well as Haugen’s testimony before the US Congress about the platform’s manipulation of content through its algorithms, something may finally change.
Democrats and Republicans alike seem more willing to condemn Facebook. The American tech giants that were once a symbol of America’s indomitable and incomparable liberalism, and the embodiment of the wonders of creativity, now seem like vicious tools used to manipulate the minds of innocent civilians and steal information. The first slap in the face came in 2018 when the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that the data and personal information used by Cambridge Analytica to influence the US elections and help Donald Trump get to power was obtained with the full support of Facebook, contrary to what the company had claimed. Then came another scandal about Russian interference in US politics through advertisements targeting voters. And despite the fact that Mark Zuckerberg himself came to testify before Congress, nothing changed. At that time, the manipulation was in favor of Trump, who was in the White House, so the US administration had an interest in letting the issue go. Then came another shock, when Facebook and Twitter blocked the accounts of President Trump following the violent events on Capitol Hill. This was the first time that the Western world finally had a taste of its own medicine and realized that Facebook regularly censors opinions. The same people who stood idly by as Facebook silenced the voices of the masses during the Arab Spring, who ignored Facebook’s systematic removal of testimonies shared by defenseless Palestinians under Israeli bombardment, now realized that they, too, can become Facebook’s next victims. America is at least 15 years late in putting an end to Facebook’s violations, which are among the most dangerous to democracy and freedom of expression in the world today. There is no democracy without transparency and accountability, and Facebook lacks both. This is also our problem, in the Arab world, where every election turns out to be the reelection of the same corrupt voices into power. We never learn our lesson. Mark Zuckerberg can be classified as the world’s largest dictator. He does not have armored vehicles, intercontinental missiles and submarines roaming the seas, but he does control the minds of more than a third of the world’s population. He can control their secrets, manipulate their moods and, in many cases, determine their fate.
– Sawsan Al-Abtah
A Wakeup Slap From Facebook
By Mishari Al-Dhaidi
Asharq Al-Awsat, London, October 6
What happened last Monday, when the Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram services were disrupted for several hours, should have been a big and glaring alarm bell that rang our ears. It is no longer a secret that the tech giant Facebook, together with its counterparts Twitter and Google, have assumed a role of global dominance. They have reached every corner of the world and molded millions of people into addicted users who rely on their products. They wield unfathomable power. They can cancel the accounts of heads of state, delete entire countries from the face of the virtual globe, and manipulate people’s data however they please — all with zero accountability. But there are bright moments of resistance to this dangerous situation. One of those moments is the testimony given in Congress last week by the whistleblower Frances Haugen, who worked as a data scientist for Facebook. In her testimony, Haugen revealed how Facebook stole information from governments, how it misled the public about many topics, and how it uses a battery of lawyers to hide what it’s doing. She especially warned against the enormous harm caused to teenagers and children by Facebook and Instagram. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) also launched an attack on Facebook, saying that technology companies must face accountability for this disaster.
Unfortunately, too many governments, companies, and public officials rely on WhatsApp and Twitter to communicate with the public. Politicians have become obsessed with views, comments, retweets, and likes — as if those are the only metric for their success. In doing so, they neglected other solutions, including, for example, investing in the creation of special platforms, or reinventing old platforms, such as newspapers and satellite TV. There are many solutions out there, but the question is:
Are we ready to pursue them? Or do we need a slap in the face from Facebook to wake us up from our apathy?
A Woman Leading Tunisia’s Government
By Osama Ramadani
An-Nahar, Lebanon, October 8
Finally, after a long wait, Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed appointed a prime minister: Najla Bouden Romdhane, the country’s first female prime minister. The appointment drew a lot of attention. Most political forces in Tunisia welcomed the appointment, including Saïed’s political opponents. According to one poll, no less than 67% of Tunisian respondents indicated that they were “satisfied” with the appointment of Bouden. The historical symbolism of the appointment is, in some ways, stronger than its practical impact on life in Tunisia. Even though the markets responded positively to the appointment, Bouden is far from the person who will be able to solve her country’s current financial crisis. Bouden’s appointment is a confirmation of the tradition of equal rights between men and women in Tunisia. It keeps up with the reformist legacy and progressive traditions established by Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president. The appointment stirred up the popular imagination, as some compared Najla Bouden to Angela Merkel, the outgoing German chancellor. Despite the fact that the two have nothing to do with each other, the comparison reflected hope for better days for Tunisia. Positive attitudes towards the appointment were not surprising.
There has always been an initial willingness among the majority of Tunisians to accept the ascension of a woman to the presidency of the republic or the head of the government. However, the positions expressed by Tunisians were not without some reservations, especially among those active on social media platforms, which showed a misplaced interest in Bouden’s external appearance; an interest that is rarely shown when it comes to male politicians. Still, there were more serious reservations, including the criticism expressed by some female political figures around the fact that Bouden’s role was given limited power compared to the power held by previous prime ministers – implying that she wouldn’t, ultimately, be sharing power with Saïed. Therefore, the challenge at hand will be far from simple for the new Tunisian government. Bouden will become Tunisia’s 10th prime minister in a period of 10 years. She will need to introduce more stability into the political system. It will likely be difficult for the new prime minister to find time to devise and implement far-reaching reforms. Bouden will have little to no time to learn the ropes of her new job. She’ll have to deal with urgent economic issues and achieve the necessary understandings with the most prominent social party, the Labor Union, and with the most important donors abroad, including the International Monetary Fund. The road ahead will not be strewn with roses, but the obstacles that Bouden will encounter in carrying out her duties may also be factors that work to her advantage. While some see that the lack of previous ministerial or political responsibilities may constitute an obstacle to the effectiveness of Bouden’s work, others believe that this will make her much more popular and accepted by all political forces, regardless of affiliation. Today, her record is still a blank page on which she will draw whatever promises and statements she wants, even if logic calls her not to make promises that exceed her ability to implement. The final judgment will be based on the results that Bouden will achieve in terms of confronting the crises that she inherited from her predecessors, especially the economic and social crisis that previous governments failed to alleviate.
– Osama Ramadani
*Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.
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