A Busy Week for Information Control in Egypt: Fake News Hotlines and Apparently the Government Is Building the New Facebook?

A meme mocks the idea of Egypt running its own Facebook platform. It reads: “Minister of Communications: Soon, we will have a special Egyptian Facebook, just for us. Request a friendship by answering a form from Madam Afaf on the fourth.” March 12, 2018 (Source: Black February Facebook Page).

On Monday, multiple agencies within the Egyptian government announced pernicious, albeit unconventional, methods of information control ahead of this weekend’s elections, in which current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is effectively running uncontested. The public prosecution unveiled the phone numbers of regional hotlines which citizens can use to report “fake news,” making use of the term popularized by U.S. President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Yasser el-Kady, the minister of information and communication technology, declared that Egypt would develop its own Facebook-like social media platform.

The public prosecution’s new hotline system both threatens online freedom of expression and fosters a dangerous vigilante culture. In practice, Egyptians will be able to send WhatsApp or SMS messages to report any “fake news” story on social media, blogs, or websites to these numbers. This announcement comes in the wake of Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s criticisms of the foreign media, particularly the BBC’s reporting on a string of forced disappearance cases. In recent months, the Egyptian government has blocked over 500 websites, and the new hotlines threaten to add more to the list. Beyond the concern over online freedom of expression, the plan also fosters a vigilante culture, the dangers of which we previously reported on in Lebanon.  

Egypt’s announcement of a Facebook-like platform came with no additional explanation regarding how the new service would attract users or the cost of implementation and maintenance. El-Kady claimed that the ministry is embarking on this project in order “to protect data and our citizens,” but the Egyptian government has a remarkably poor track record of actually doing this. In 2016, the Egyptian government blocked Facebook’s Free Basics service, which has been mired its own controversies, because the American tech giant would not permit the government to surveil users of the service. The government could also use the new service to target LGBTQ+ groups as Egyptian authorities have already done with dating apps, like Grindr.

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