When I first I learned about the campaign by people on Reddit that wreaked havoc on wealthy hedge funds looking to cash in on struggling businesses like video game retailer GameStop, my mind flashed back in time. Not all the way back to 2008, where many members of the WallStreetBets subreddit— and those living vicariously through their chaos — draw their wrath from the financial system. It was the year, of course, of Too Big to Fail, when many of the most powerful and debauched banks and corporations were rescued from ruin in an effort to keep the global economy functioning. . Instead, I thought of the democratic protests on Tahrir Square in Cairo, which began almost exactly 10 years before GameStop’s hijinks, on January 25, 2011.
These protests, part of a regional movement to overthrow autocratic governments known as the Arab Spring, were a culmination for the idea that the internet would liberate the world. Back then, it was hard not to get carried away with the belief that a gang of activists using social media tools could topple an oppressive regime. Ten years later, those hopes should have largely evaporated. Rather than bringing democratic institutions to countries, like Egypt, that have long denied them, the internet often works backwards, destabilizing democracy around the world and deepening inequality. Yet each time an online group tries to stick to Man, we allow ourselves to dream again.
The protests that launched exactly ten years ago against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, then in power for 30 years, were widely seen as being driven by the internet, which there was seen as unusually open to autocratic rule. In the days leading up to the protest, news spread via social media. More than 90,000 people signed up to participate via Facebook, surprising the authorities and giving momentum to the movement from the start.
Once the Egyptian government realized what was going on, they tried to block access to Facebook and Twitter. And when that proved less than successful, he made the extraordinary decision two days later to “turn off” the internet altogether. An expert quoted in WIRED at the time, it seemed like the ISP people were “getting phone calls, one at a time, telling them to get off the air.” No wonder people began to believe that the internet had magic powers of spreading democracy – there was an autocratic government treating the whole project as a threat to its survival, rather than something to be diverted to its own purposes.
This desperate decision, which took place on January 28, prompted me to write about the demonstrations for The New York Times. I had been to Egypt for a technical conference in Alexandria a few years earlier, so I called people I had met to ask what was going on. When the shutdown ended, their shocked accounts landed in my inbox. “It was the first time I felt digitally handicapped,” wrote a 26-year-old computer science graduate. “Imagine sitting at home, having no connection to the outside world. I made the decision, ‘This is nonsense, we are not sheep in their flock.’ I got off and joined the protests.
Boosted this way, the protests quickly escalated during the five days of the internet blackout and remained on the same trajectory after the internet returned. On February 11, Mubarak was out. There have been elections, a new government and a heady sense of change. Then a hint that perhaps the change was only superficial, with the same elites still in charge. Two and a half years later, there was a military coup, the leader of which is still in charge today.
In recent days, the experience of those Reddit-based speculators using inexpensive and easily accessible trading apps like Robinhood has followed the Tahrir Square experience quite carefully, from shocking early successes, a feeling the world is watching, up to one radical repression this may end up further promoting the movement.
At its heart, GameStop’s story is about small merchants – many, according to hurry accounts, young and inexperienced – competing against established players and earning, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per person (so far, at least). The WallStreetBets sub-reddit describe itself as “a gathering place for millions of unique individuals who are tired of being crushed by the greats and who are each fighting back in their own way”. Its investors, who use the page to discuss strategy and timing, were exploiting the rigidity of hedge funds’ “short” positions, which bet GameStop’s stock would lose value. These “short” funds represent a commitment to deliver GameStop share at a specific time, regardless of price, increasing the potential for profit if writers could push the stock the other way and send hedge funds scrambling for meet their obligations.