Wael Ghonim’s Quest To ‘Liberate The Internet’

Parlio, the activist's new platform, aims to elevate online discussions of politically and socially charged topics.
Once dubbed the face of Egypt's revolution by Western media, technology entrepreneur Wael Ghonim is now aiming to bring civility to online conversations.
Once dubbed the face of Egypt's revolution by Western media, technology entrepreneur Wael Ghonim is now aiming to bring civility to online conversations.
Josh Jimenez

"If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet," Wael Ghonim, a computer engineer turned social activist, said in 2011.

Ghonim was speaking about the prominent role social media had played during the Egyptian revolution. He knew from experience: In the early stages of what would eventually be known as the Arab Spring, Ghonim, at the time an executive at Google, anonymously created a Facebook page to highlight police brutality in Egypt. The page proved tremendously influential, with young Egyptian activists using it to announce and mobilize support for a mass demonstration on Jan. 25. The subsequent protests sparked an uprising that ultimately led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's longtime president.

Ghonim’s story captured the Western imagination, leading many U.S. news outlets to treat him as the face of Egypt’s leaderless revolution. He earned a spot on Time magazine’s 2011 list of the 100 most influential people. But it wasn't long before he had reason to rethink his iconic pronouncement.

After Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was overthrown in a July 2013 coup, a brutal crackdown on the country’s dissidents ensued. Ghonim, like many of the government’s critics, left Egypt. He found himself pondering the way the Internet's role in Egypt had gone from unifying to divisive. People’s opinions over who should lead the country had polarized society, an effect that social media only amplified.

While Ghonim still believes in the promise of the Internet, his aims today seem less lofty, more closely focused on the messy and sometimes frustrating realities of human behavior. Looking at past failures of social media, the entrepreneur is trying to build a platform that emphasizes conversation over shouting, and civility over popularity -- a reordering of priorities that he believes is part of "liberating the Internet."

Enter Parlio, a social platform Ghonim created in the hopes of fostering nuanced and intelligent conversations around social and political issues. Parlio users debate a range of polarizing topics, from Muslim women’s decision to wear the hijab to countering radicalization online to President Barack Obama's engagement with Cuba, and more.

In one thread, Parlio users -- a community that includes journalists, analysts, law students and members of think tanks -- discuss Apple’s decision to refuse the FBI access to the San Bernardino shooter’s encrypted iPhone. While some of the users strongly disagree with one another, the responses are thoughtful and respectful. Like many conversations that take place on Parlio, it feels less like a shouting match and more like a university classroom discussion.

Ghonim spoke with The WorldPost via email about Parlio and the possibilities that can emerge from projects that "liberate the Internet."

Where did the idea for Parlio come from?

As a political activist, I felt that the web was increasingly becoming a place where it’s hard to have a public conversation. Online conversations often descend into angry mobs.

We are talking over each other and not with each other. People are broadcasting opinions rather than having conversations. The lack of diverse and engaging conversations reinforces people’s confirmation biases and creates more filter bubbles and echo chambers.

This is happening for many reasons including but not limited to: our current online culture, the way social media algorithms work, and finally the overall Internet ecosystem that is based on advertising.

My friends and I decided to tackle this critical problem by starting Parlio.

You recently said, “Today I believe if we want to liberate the society, we first need to liberate the Internet.” How can we liberate the Internet, and what role does Parlio play in that process?

Part of the Internet is being held captive by the less noble aspects of our human behavior. Today’s social media currency is likes, shares and retweets. This is how we are rewarded for our contributions. We are defined by the number of followers we have. We are participating in a never-ending popularity contest.

This design of current social media platforms is making people less keen to have conversations that mutually understand each other, and more keen to broadcast opinions that mainly appeal to those who agree with them.

I believe that this is a product challenge that could only be tackled collectively and I hope that Parlio contributes to the overall solution.

You've spoken about how important it is to have social platforms that reward civility. Why the emphasis on civility?

I’ve been an activist for more than seven years now. I’ve seen that once a conversation descends into angry mobs, the participants become more defensive about their positions and less willing to engage with others. I believe more constructive dialogue will happen between [people] who disagree if you can build a culture that weeds out trolling, name-calling and personal attacks.

It’s worth mentioning that sometimes people mistake civility for political correctness, but they are totally different concepts. We just want people to bring their bold ideas and opinions to the public, while being respectful as they disagree.

The support and presence of the masses are essential for protests and movements to progress. It seems like Parlio, however, is intended to attract thought leaders, policymakers, journalists and other professionals. Did you intend for Parlio to be used by the masses?

Absolutely. We want Parlio to be inclusive. As of today, we are still in beta, and our focus is to establish cultural norms for the platform and train our technology to allow us to go mainstream while maintaining the current level of quality. So we started small to avoid an “Eternal September” type of scenario, and will grow as we get more sophisticated.

The Facebook page you created -- "We Are All Khaled Said" -- was used as a tool to compel social activists to organize protests. Do you think a tool like Parlio can accomplish the same thing?

Who knows? It’s too early to say. I’m quite sure that in the early days of Facebook they didn’t anticipate that their platform would be used by activists who are trying to topple dictators.

At this stage, we are focused on quality conversations about current affairs. We believe that bridging the gaps of knowledge and information-sharing is essential for a better society. And we are hoping that Parlio will help different stakeholders better understand each other.

Do you still think that tools like Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms can be liberated when they're used by so many people? What role do you think these platforms play in civic life and politics?

That’s always a product challenge. Twitter and Facebook both are great platforms, and both companies have been putting more effort in the right direction. The key challenge is to put more focus on the people and not the numbers of shares/likes/retweets... and to think of new ways to encourage dialogue and conversations, not just broadcasting of opinions.

Social media is redistributing political power. It gave people the power to develop networks, organize actions and exchange information at scale in a short period of time.

I think we are all coming to terms with the fact that social media can have such a drastic impact on civic life -- positive or negative. With this awareness, the next step should be for platforms to be mindful of their impact. Product decisions shouldn’t be driven solely by growth and engagement, but also [by considerations of] responsible impact.

What were the challenges in creating a safe, open space for people to dialogue about heated topics, and how did you and your team overcome them?

There are three main challenges with online public conversations:

  1. Thoughtfulness: How to bring the right group of people into a discussion.
  2. Diversity: How to ensure that people are not just talking to those they agree with.
  3. Civility: How to ensure that a public discussion will remain civil and respectful.

In the early days of the Internet, most web users were merely consumers of content. Web 2.0 gave voice to millions of people across the world who now use emerging social platforms to speak their minds. The next iteration of the web is about finding the signal in that noise, to learn more by reading less. We believe Parlio will help individuals to find that signal and we want Parlio to offer a digital experience based on respect and empathy.

We can’t claim we have it all figured out, but we know it will take a mix of culture and technology to make this happen. The community’s norms and the product should both encourage thoughtful behavior. For example, rewarding conversations, focusing on people and not numbers, and building reputation-based algorithms are all things that we are experimenting with.

There are times when companies and governments publicly acknowledge and even participate in social media campaigns (#BringBackOurGirls comes to mind), but one could argue that those campaigns fall short of meaningfully changing government action. Do you think political discourse online can shape public policy? And what role does Parlio play in that?

I believe that the political discourse online is already shaping many aspects of global public policy. It sometime does that instantaneously and other times over a period of time, and it often fails ... What we are trying to do is to host thoughtful conversations between people who disagree. Here’s an interesting conversation about affirmative action, here’s a lively debate about women’s decision to wear the hijab. A more recent example is this debate about the morality of U.S. foreign policy toward Syria.

Our hope is that over time, more conversations like this will change minds, and maybe even influence decisions of policymakers.

By looking at Parlio, I can see that there’s a direct link between the news of the day and the topics discussed on the platform. How do you perceive of the relationship between news media and Parlio? In other words, what is the place of Parlio in today’s news environment?

Our mission is to host conversations about what is happening in the world. People will always consume a wide variety of news and media, and that’s healthy. We’d like thoughtful conversations (like those on Parlio) to be a part of that “diet.” On Parlio, authors from different media organizations share the links to their articles and engage in a conversation with members of the platform.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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