When I first learned of the campaign by folks on Reddit that has wreaked havoc on wealthy hedge funds looking to profit off struggling companies like the videogame retailer GameStop, my mind went back in time. Not all the way back to 2008, where many members of the subreddit WallStreetBets—and those living vicariously through their mayhem—source their anger at the financial system. That was the year, of course, of Too Big to Fail, when many of the most powerful and profligate banks and trading firms were saved from ruin for the sake of keeping the global economy operating. Instead, I thought of the democracy protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, which began almost exactly 10 years to the date of the GameStop hijinks, January 25, 2011.
These protests, part of a regional movement to overthrow autocratic governments known as the Arab Spring, were a high-water mark for the idea that the internet would free the world. At the time, it was difficult not to get swept up by the belief that a band of activists using social-network tools could topple an oppressive regime. Ten years later, those hopes should have largely evaporated. Rather than bringing democratic institutions to countries, like Egypt, long denied them, the internet often works in reverse, destabilizing democracy around the world and expanding inequality. Yet, each time an online group tries to stick it to the Man, we allow ourselves to dream again.
The protests that started exactly a decade ago against Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, then 30 years in power, were widely seen as driven by the internet, which was considered unusually open there for an autocratic government. In the days before the protest, word spread via social networks. More than 90,000 people signed up to participate through Facebook, surprising the authorities and giving the movement momentum right from the start.
Once the Egyptian government figured out what was going on, it tried to block access to Facebook and Twitter. And when that proved less than successful, it took the extraordinary step two days later of “turning off” the internet entirely. An expert quoted in WIRED at the time said it looked like people at ISPs were “getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to take themselves off the air.” No wonder people began to believe the internet had magical, democracy-spreading powers—here was an autocratic government treating the entire project as a threat to its survival, rather than as something to twist toward its own ends.
This desperate decision, which came on January 28, pushed me to write about the protests for The New York Times. I had been to Egypt for a tech conference in Alexandria a few years earlier, so I called people I’d met to ask what was going on. When the shut-down ended, their shocked accounts landed in my inbox. “It was the first time for me to feel digitally disabled,” a 26-year-old computer science graduate wrote. “Imagine sitting at your home, having no single connection with the outer world. I took the decision, ‘This is nonsense, we are not sheep in their herd.’ I went down and joined the protests.”
Boosted this way, the protests grew rapidly in strength over the five days of the internet blackout and remained on the same course after the internet returned. By February 11, Mubarak was out. There were elections, a new government and a heady feeling of change. Then a suspicion that perhaps the change was only superficial, with the same elites still calling the shots. Two-and-a-half years later, there was a military coup, whose leader is still in charge today.
In recent days, the experience of these Reddit-based speculators using inexpensive, easily accessible trading apps like Robinhood has tracked the Tahrir Square experience quite neatly, from shocking early successes, a sense that the whole world is watching, right down to a sweeping crackdown that may end up further promoting the movement.