THUNDER BAY – Special to NNL – After disappearing for two weeks into the bowels of Egypt’s prisons, Google executive Wael Ghonim emerged as one of the central figures in the Egyptian Revolution which removed longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011. Now Ghonim’s employer — a company with unprecedented power and influence in the world economy — has an equally unprecedented chance to side with good, in keeping with its motto, “Don’t be evil,” (which I choose to interpret as an injunction to be good). True, this might require cooperating with archrivals like Facebook and Twitter, which Ghonim singled out for praise last week. Alternatively, this may be the moment all these online giants dispense with the pretense of idealism and show themselves to be, in maturity, mundane and uninspiring institutions — amoral, insubstantial, and lacking commitment to any ideals worthy of the name.
Ghonim is one of those talented, unassuming individuals, thrust into the spotlight by events and his own integrity, who then reveals extraordinary qualities of courage, leadership, and charisma. And it is fitting that someone of his age, profession, and skill set should play such a pivotal role in these historic events. His contributions were both moral and technical, including a final tweet before he was imprisoned about how to evade the Internet blackout. Since his release from prison, his relentless message that regular Egyptians are competent to govern themselves affirms the ideal of the “wisdom of crowds,” and resonates with the remarkable character of this popular revolution , which (in its early stages at least) has appeared to be almost leaderless, indeed a “crowd-sourced” revolt.
As is often the case, imprisonment only enhanced Ghonim’s stature, and for the time being he enjoys the role of a revolutionary spokesman. What’s more, his heroism has provided him — as well as Google, Facebook, and the United States of America — with a unique opportunity to carry out some potent public diplomacy. On that note (and well aware of the presumption involved) I would like to offer a few suggestions.
First, Ghonim might enlist his employer, along with Facebook and Twitter, to build a social media-based election-monitoring platform that would allow regular Egyptians to track not just the progress but the integrity and transparency of forthcoming elections. Ordinary Egyptians are understandably anxious to hold the military to its promise of democratic elections six months from now; in this vein, even before the platform is up and running, the generals’ willingness (or unwillingness) to accept such monitoring would indicate just how committed they really are to free and fair elections.
Of course this monitoring platform should be available to all Egyptians, from Web pros to illiterate peasants. This would require recruiting volunteers with wireless devices to monitor polling stations around the country and upload legitimate complaints. The three social media titans might even invest some money to improve public Internet access throughout Egypt, especially in second-tier urban areas outside Cairo and Alexandria. I believe these watchdog networks would also naturally become forums for popular discussion and debate about policy and principle in a democratic context.
I realize this suggestion means asking Google, Twitter and Facebook to work with their biggest competitors — to wit, each other — and normally I wouldn’t be so naïve as to even entertain this scenario. But this time is different: events in Egypt simply eclipse commercial considerations at a basic moral and ethical level. Egyptian revolutionaries have identified social media as one of the resources which helped them bring the revolution this far. Google and Facebook both purport to pursue the ideals of relevance, utility, and transparency; there can be no better expression of these ideals than helping the largest country in the Arab world transition to democracy.
This suggestion isn’t just dewy-eyed social media optimism: it would actually be a strategic move to empower Egypt’s small but growing middle class, who will be critical in guiding the country towards democracy, as opposed to a new dictatorship in Islamist-nationalist guise. True, tech-savvy people aren’t necessarily moderates. But if we really believe that democracy is the best form of government, and that democracy is founded on the ability of individuals to express their opinions freely — no technology is better suited to this task than online social media.
Looking to the long term, Google, Facebook, Twitter and others might also set aside some money to endow a permanent pro-democracy institution in Egypt, which would combine the functions of a think-tank, advocacy organization, and independent watch-dog group. This institution would pursue the goals sketched out above in the long term, and might even become a force for democratic change beyond Egypt’s borders… especially if it has the full support of the social media companies which helped Egyptians make their revolution.
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