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Facebook: The Critical Mass (Reflections from Egypt)

With the chaotic traffic of voices around us, acting like a magnet to our moral compasses, there has never been a greater necessity to be more in tune with our own judgements and ideals before we embrace others.

As you descend the escalators at Cairo International Airport, the words of a proudly positioned poster are emphatically revealed. ‘We must educate our children to become like young Egyptian people…’ This is the poignant message of Barak Obama, in February 2011, following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year dictatorship.

On 17th December 2010, Mohamed Bouzizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire, in protest of the harassment he reported to have endured from a civic official. The action quite symbolically ignited the Middle East’s peoples’ fight for democracy and improved governance. From Sana’a to Damascus and Algiers to Baghdad, the baton of revolution was passed on. We moved into an age where the enemy was not another political state, but the people’s own state. Questioning one’s economic circumstance and struggles rather than accepting it became a norm.

What differentiates this revolution is how the battleground has been altered by what are now slowly becoming the bad boy pin-ups for democracy, Twitter and Facebook. The Chinese government were quick to notice the potential powers of social media and were quick to ban all access to Facebook in 2008. As word of revolt spread in Egypt, the Egyptian government effectively withdrew citizens from the internet, blocking Facebook and Twitter in late January 2011. They went one step further on January 28th 2011, the ‘Friday of Rage,’ by shutting down the country’s mobile phone signal.

Mark Zuckerburg would perhaps barely believe the power of his creation. The impact of any idea or concept relies on how quickly it can be replicated and transmitted, but primarily on how universal the idea actual is. Then a critical mass is reached.

In social dynamics, a critical mass is defined as the ‘threshold value of the number of people required to trigger a phenomenon by the exchange of ideas.’ To some extent we are all part of a critical mass in the everyday social norms we adhere to. In the case of the Arab Spring, many already had torrid experiences residing under dictatorial governance. Social media then filled the gap, by making each individual part of a wider group, bringing them empowerment and then allowing voices and opinions to spread.

On February 6th 2011 as Egyptian Christians held Sunday Mass in Tahrir Square, Cairo-Muslims in quite iconic fashion, created a protective human ring around them, covering them from government fire. A unified message for democracy had been created, where factions and tensions used to lie. The power of the people is only sufficient when combined; social media aided this amalgamation, and helped to create an opposition with enough voice to overthrow Mubarak.

Facebook and Twitter play an increasing role in how we perceive the world around us. Never has the flow of ideas and opinions been so great. History is littered with examples of inventions, wars, genocide and triumphs where a common idea has replicated. Where social media has fought for democracy in the Arab Spring, and continues to do so, it can also become a breeding ground for hatred and xenophobia.

Drawing on the anti-Semitic propaganda the Nazi’s spread in the 1930s, the belief that the Jewish community were at fault for Germany’s maladies became widespread. It becomes hard to believe that less than 80 years ago, this brutal critical mass was reached, at such a stage of our socio-cultural development as a human race, and especially given the then relative lack of media, compared to what we are now accustomed to.

Twitter and Facebook keep us tuned in, as does the array of media around us. Despite the expanse of information available to us- we need to increase our ability to question, discern and dissect what we hear. Only then can we create an effective critical mass, with a message we could be as proud to convey as the Egyptians.

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