Esra’a Al Shafei fights for freedom of expression and access to information. She achieves it by leveraging the power of technology to build digital platforms that support underrepresented minorities.
She is a founder of Mideast Tunes, a platform that helps to discover underground musicians in the Middle East and North Africa.
She founded Majal.org, a not-for-profit organization focused on amplifying voices of dissenters throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
In 2018 she was on the BBC list of 100 inspiring and influential women. The World Economic Forum listed her as one of 15 Women Changing the World. She won the "Most Courageous Media" Prize from Free Press Unlimited.
Esra’a is a senior TED Fellow, a Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab, and now serves on the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit which hosts Wikipedia.
Netguru supported Esra’a in some of her projects, such as Mideast Tunes.
Esra’a Al Shafei was one of the speakers of Disruption Forum Sustainability.
Karolina Przybysz-Smęda: When you speak in public, whether it's an interview for the TED community or a YouTube video, you never show your face. The same happens now as we are talking on a video call. Why have you decided not to reveal your face?
Esra’a Al Shafei: It's very important when it comes to my personal privacy as well as security. As human rights activists we have to deal with governments that are very repressive. This repression comes with a lot of consequences: there are still many parts of the world where you can be arrested and tortured for one single tweet, for expressing support for the LGBTQI community or for publishing information about political corruption.
We have a lot of pushback from governments that don't want certain information to be public. They react out of fear due to the fact that they are not in control of information as they used to be, largely because policing the internet took a lot of resources and investment.
Distributing information about human rights violations became a significant use of the web in many countries - things that used to be hidden and unseen started making the front pages of papers around the world. It’s a completely different world from what they’re used to.
In the decades before the internet, a lot more was at stake to become an activist and it was harder to get away with anonymity if you wanted these violations to be visible. We have more options now: VPNs, stronger encryption, more awareness about digital security and privacy, and with those things we are able to navigate those challenges in a more efficient way to reach our shared goals.
Do you think you will be able to reveal your face and feel safe in the near future?
When you see the state of the world today and the heightened state of surveillance, it doesn't look like it will change anytime soon.
There is no respect for our privacy. We are heading in a terrifying direction with facial recognition everywhere. So, honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe to reveal my face on the web.
Do you remember the moment when you felt for the first time that your rights are being not respected?
I think it was when I was very young and during that time it was not really about my personal rights. I had seen other communities around me suffering because of their ethnicity, social status and race. I had to witness a type of racism that was very systemic and very deeply rooted within our society.
There were, and still are, many communities that are silenced. I tried to speak about these injustices and it was repeatedly censored. That's when I realized that we all suffer human rights violations but to various degrees, some people much more than others – some people are being punished just for existing. If you are born in the wrong family, with the wrong name, speaking the wrong language, working in the wrong job, or being punished simply for what you believe in, you experience unspeakable oppression.
There are many governments around the world that are oppressing ethnic and religious minorities as well as the LGBTQI community. And I noticed that the more I spoke about this, the more my rights to free speech and expression were squashed. I always knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but I had to start somewhere.
When did you decide to turn your frustration into activism?
I started using the internet in my teens. And then I noticed that I will always be relying on the internet as a tool for social justice advocacy - its power and influence was immeasurable. When I was 18, I started learning how to build simple websites, I started playing with WordPress and customizing plugins. I decided to build communities rather than personal websites, because I didn't want to express just what I thought – in my opinion the more voices we have, the more safe we feel.
When you join a big group in which people believe in the same values, you feel like you're a part of a growing movement. But if you're sharing it on one blog, you may feel very targeted, you feel unsafe and you wonder who else is actually reading your thoughts.
And that's really what got me into community organizing. All the platforms I created after that were always about community voices rather than putting the limelight on a singular voice.
And what was the reaction towards your activities? Did people support you or rather tried to convince you that you should not do it?
At first it was very difficult, because people didn't understand what I was trying to do. People didn't want to join somebody else's site – everybody wanted to have their own blog. Moreover, because I'm anonymous, I had to build trust and credibility. It's very difficult to do this kind of work anonymously and make more people join without actually sharing information about myself.
So at the beginning there was a lot of resistance, because there were a lot of people who didn't understand the goal, people who didn't want to be a part of something different than they were in charge of. But after that I started sharing the message that everybody here will be an administrator, reactions changed.
And that's where I started building trust. Everybody had access to administrative privileges and that gave people a sense of community and oddly enough, safety. Everybody could be an admin and people felt that they were an equally important part of the community.
This eventually changed, as we started to grow and we needed moderation and additional security, but it was an important way to build a community in which everyone felt equally heard and valued.
So I think that's when I started, slowly, going from a couple of people to a couple of hundred, to eventually a couple of thousand. And that's really how we grew into different platforms.
And what do you think about the past today? Was it the right step?
Absolutely. If I had started later I would actually not be successful today.
Back then there was less distraction and a lot more visibility on the web. Now you have to do marketing and consider advertising, because there is so much competition for traffic. Moreover, everybody is on social media. There are people who don't like to engage on any website beyond just reading an article or two – they just rely entirely on social media for their main interactions. Some communities want to use Reddit, others use Discourse, some communities use only Facebook, some still prefer invite-only mailing lists. It's very distributed.
And how did you learn to leverage the power of new technologies?
Thanks to YouTube videos, I was able to explore a lot of tutorials. Back then YouTube was nowhere near as extensive as it is today.
Moreover, the WordPress community had tons of videos and tutorials about how to use the platform creatively. The founder spoke often about the power of open source and lowering the barrier to entry to many online creators. And that really excited me because I really loved his vision of the internet. He wanted to generate profit to survive, obviously, but at the same time he made sure that the platform was very accessible, that people with no money at all could just download it, customize it, build upon it and use it widely – it was very easy to integrate.
Other CMS platforms were very difficult to customize and not accessible. WordPress changed the way I look at the internet. It showed me the whole range of possibilities and what we can do with very little resources.
I was not a developer. I mean, I have never studied technology or computer science. My excitement was only about just learning what was available online without really having to spend more money, or any money, except for the host and the domain itself.
And back then building engaging community websites with rich features meant the necessity to spend a lot of money – difficult for somebody who is still a student.
What are the most important cases you decided to fight for?
Definitely access to information and access to knowledge, because this is everything. That one fight gives you access to everything.
Today we have many websites and applications that are censored. Developers and administrators are being threatened for creating applications used by activists. It makes it very difficult for anybody to be a part of any type of movement or continue meaningful work online.
So if we fight and if we win the fight for encryption and security, ensuring that people can visit these sites without feeling threatened, I think everybody wins.
This is the one fight that is most important to me.
You also support minorities, including the LGBTQI community.
Absolutely. For me it's also about visibility of the LGBTQI community.
Think about how many people don't have a place to go and just be themselves. There are people who are imprisoned, people who commit suicide due to depression as a result of this normalized repression in our societies.
There's a lot of health and mental illness issues in this community. And we live in a world where we go out and talk about identity and still receive death threats. People are losing their jobs if they're suspected to be a part of this community, all because of who they are.
So this is a fight I believe in, and it took me years to be comfortable fighting for this in a more visible way.
It seems this virus is still spreading all over the world. There are numerous cases of persecution at school and suicides as well as prominent politicians insulting the LGBTQI community in public, including the Polish president. There is also a discussion if companies and corporations should get involved in the fight for sexual minorities’ rights.
I read what your president had said and I was very upset. But at the same time I saw how many people and organizations reacted and protested.
In my opinion it is very important that companies and organizations speak up because that's the only way we can change and influence the mindset of people. So that makes me proud to work alongside an organization like Netguru. It’s a company with values, where you feel more like a partner than a client. You’re after results and impact, not just purely money.
Netguru is a partner in not only the mission, but also in the long term vision and values. I know social justice and access to information matters in your company.
You may be shocked, because there are many companies that have no reservations about refusing to work with an organization like ours. They will say things like: “We will not work on this project, because we don't believe in LGBTQI issues, it’s immoral, against our faith, and these are not things we want to work on”.
In my opinion when you hire people, you should not just check their skills. What also matters is their personality and what they believe in.
We have to be very careful about choosing the right partner: it is not only about picking a development company. It is also about seeking a partner that is consistent with our values.
I am also happy to observe that Netguru believes in gender equality. I see there's a big push to make sure that the working environment is diverse and that women developers are acknowledged and respected (at least in my personal interactions.) This is something that I have always appreciated about Netguru for sure.
You choose the path of leveraging the power of new technologies to give people you support a voice. Sometimes you achieve it in a nonconventional way, for example by creating a music platform. Why music?
Music enables us to escape some of the censorship and surveillance that have become the norm in many of our countries.
It's harder to find out what people are doing through music. For example if you're a journalist or a blogger, it's very easy to crawl your site for a certain keyword, for example the name of the Prime Minister, and censor the information or opinion you present. It's difficult to do it when it comes to music. I'm not saying it's impossible, especially considering the many rappers and other indie artists who have been imprisoned for their art, but it remains difficult and a lot of governments don't have the capability (or even the interest) to go after the industry yet.
So that's why there's a lot of musicians who use the power of music to talk about a lot of social issues that they otherwise wouldn't really be able to speak about.
Some platforms you create allow being anonymous. Was it a risky step?
One of my projects is developing a platform for the LGBTQI community where anonymity is a key. But we have to be really careful making sure that people are fully anonymous and that means we take encryption very seriously.
Of course, anonymous users can be very abusive, yes. That is why it was important to seek creative ways to deal with this problem as well as to experiment with the challenges it takes to build communities where people feel safe despite being surrounded by anonymity.
In the case of the platform I have mentioned, a user is able to unlock more and more parts of the website based on level of engagement – users get points for their engagement.
The feeling that you are in the right place is very important. People feel more safe based on how supportive the community is. If they join a site and they see that people are very friendly and the environment is positive, they feel they are part of a supportive network. They finally are able to share their thoughts, aspirations or simply talk about things as random as their hobbies and not feel lonely.
There's a lot of issues with loneliness in communities that face discrimination and repression.
You have decided not to use Facebook, Twitter or other very popular platforms to build communities. You always create your own platforms instead. Why?
Because it gives us control over our own data.
When we ask people to join, we can tell them with confidence that their data will be safe and we will not sell it, not abuse it. That's one thing.
And the other thing is that platforms of internet giants are built for mass consumption. We're building for smaller communities, we need customized tools - we need to serve very specific needs.
It's important for us to make sure people feel that they're using a platform that was built specifically for them to feel safe, rather than having them feel stuck using a platform that wasn’t built with them in mind and one which has no trust, and no priorities for security.
Do you think it is possible that in the future people will leave huge social media platforms and concentrate around smaller communities?
Absolutely! You can observe it even now. You saw when during the last couple of weeks big companies publicly stopped using Facebook advertising because of their policy and misinformation that is spread on this platform. We saw it happen with many different platforms in the past, and it cost those monopolies a lot of money, and encouraged people to build their own alternatives.
I think it will continue to happen here.
For example, one of the reasons why a lot of people started leaving MySpace, was because it was bought by the News Corp., a company behind Fox News. People started boycotting it and eventually it lost to other platforms that were built as alternatives.
It's important to understand how social media platforms use our data. We have to be careful about choosing the right place to share our personal and private information.
You highlight that you fight for the right to access information. How is it to fight for it in a world of misinformation and fake news being spread on the large scale?
I was involved in creating news platforms. It was challenging work. In fact we had to stop it because we couldn't invest more in it, it was very difficult.
Today we observe a lot of deep fakes, we have a lot of people that can take a video and make it seem like you did or said something, which in fact you never did.
The technology behind misinformation is very advanced. And the technology we have to fight it is not. So that's why we see propaganda everywhere. That's why we see elections being rigged. That's why we see corruption. That's why we see presidents take advantage of spreading misinformation to give themselves more and more support. But we all have a responsibility to do more to fight propaganda, fake content, and deliberate misinformation designed to trick the public opinion.
Governments are putting a lot of money now in propaganda. Imagine governments around the world that have huge resources to spend only on digital media. It's a huge, huge issue. And we are small non-profits. It makes it very difficult for us to fight it. And that's why it's only possible if we do it collectively despite the challenges and risks.
Many of us who are in non-profit organizations rely on traveling and meeting people in person to do fundraising. And the fact that we can't do that anymore means a lot of us don't have access to funding at all to continue with our projects. It's a very difficult time.
How has COVID-19 affected the communities you support?
Women who experience domestic violence are forced to be at the same place with abusive spouses or partners or family members. The alarming statistics keep rising and a lot of people need urgent assistance, yet very little of it is available.
Another group affected by COVID-19 are members of the LGBTQI community. A lot of them experience violence because their families are really against them and there's no privacy at all. Now they are forced to be at home and feeling trapped in a toxic situation. They need the space to ask for support, but don’t have it. Some have been banned any access to electronic devices, so they feel completely removed from the world and their communities.
Moreover, there are many single mothers trying to work full-time. It can be a very challenging experience. It is also worth mentioning that in some parts of the world leaving the house is a form of empowerment. In extreme cases, women fight very hard just to be able to leave the house without permission of their male counterparts. And now that some of these women have to stay at home, it takes away from the power of independence they felt before.
Some of your projects involve supporting women leaders. What does the word “leader” mean to you?
For me a leader is somebody who takes the first step.
Many times we are so scared to take that first step. We doubt ourselves. We doubt our capabilities.
In the Arab world there are many women who fight for our right to vote and to nominate ourselves for elections for Parliament or other government positions. They fight very hard to make sure that we are seen, respected and treated equally.
So for me a real leader is a person who takes that first step and consistently grows against difficult challenges and does not give up when things get scary or hard.