Beginning this afternoon, shortly after (former) president Ben Ali fled Tunisia, I started getting calls about the effect of social media on the Tunisian uprising. I answered a few questions, mostly deferring reporters to friends in Tunisia for their side of the story, and then settled in for the night…only to find rantings and ravings about Tunisia’s “Twitter revolution” and “WikiLeaks revolution” blowing up the airwaves.
Like Alaa Abd El Fattah, I think it’s too soon to tell what the true impact of social media was on the events of the past few weeks. I also think it’s a bit irresponsible of Western analysts to start pontificating on the relevance of social media to the Tunisian uprising without talking to Tunisians (there are notable exceptions; Ethan Zuckerman’s piece for Foreign Policy is spot on, Matthew Ingram does a nice job of opening the debate here, and Evgeny Morozov’s analysis–which starts with this great piece–is ongoing).
But for each thoughtful, skeptical piece, there is yet another claiming the unknowable. In this piece, for example, Elizabeth Dickinson of Foreign Policy writes:
Of course, Tunisians didn’t need anyone to tell them [about the excesses of the first family]. But the details noted in the cables — for example, the fact that the first lady may have made massive profits off a private school — stirred things up.
By all Tunisian accounts, WikiLeaks had little–if anything–to do with the protests; rather, the protests were spurred by unemployment and economic woes. Furthermore, Tunisians have been documenting abuses by the Ben Ali regime and the first family for years, as Zuckerman notes. In fact, Dickinson seems to realize this herself, and yet for some reason still attempts to argue that WikiLeaks was a catalyst in the unrest.
Andrew Sullivan, who praised Dickinson’s piece, seems to have decided for himself that social media was used as a tool for organizing:
The core test is whether Twitter and online activism helped organize protests. It appears they did, even through government censorship. Wikileaks also clearly helped. So did al Jazeera, for those who see it entirely as an Islamist front.
I’m not sure by what means such an idea appeared to Sullivan, but I haven’t heard it said yet–not once–by a Tunisian. Until I do, I’ll remain skeptical (though Sullivan’s praise of Al Jazeera is welcome).
Now, I’m not about to discount social media’s relationship to the Tunisian uprising. For one, it most certainly played a huge role in getting videos, photos, and news out to the world–and not just to a public audience, but to news organizations as well. Al Jazeera–which had some of the best coverage of Tunisia over the past few weeks–relied heavily on sources gleaned from social networks for much of its print work, as did other organizations. Tunisian blogs and news sources–such as Nawaat and SBZ News–filled in the gaps left by the mainstream media’s shoddy reporting of the events. And speaking from personal experience, I was able to connect a lot of Tunisians–some of whom I’ve never met in real life–with journalists because of our connections on Facebook and Twitter.
But to call this a “Twitter revolution” or even a “WikiLeaks revolution” demonstrates that we haven’t learned anything from past experiences in Moldova and Iran. Evgeny Morozov’s question–“Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”–says it all. And in this case, yes, I–like most Tunisians to whom I’ve posed this question–believe that this would have happened without the Internet.
The real question, then, is would the rest of us have heard about it without the Internet? Would the State Department have gotten involved early on (remember, their first public comment was in respect to Tunisian Net freedom)? Would Al Jazeera–without offices on the ground–have been able to report on the unfolding story as they did? Most importantly, would any of that have mattered?
Social media may have had some tangential effect on organization within Tunisia; I think it’s too soon to say. No doubt, SMS and e-mail (not to be mistaken with social media) helped Tunisians keep in touch during, before, and after protests, but no one’s hyping those–e-mails and texts simply aren’t as fascinating to the public as tweets. In fact, assuming SMS and e-mail did play a role in organizing (and again, I don’t doubt they did — Tunisian’s Internet penetration rate may be only 33%, but its mobile penetration rate is closer to 85%), then we ought to be asking what it is about social media that is unappealing for organization? Could it be the sheer publicness of it, the inherent risks of posting one’s location for the world to see? Given the mass phishing of Facebook accounts, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Facebook were seen as risky (Gmail accounts were also hacked, however, which undoubtedly led some to view digital communications in general as risky).
I am incredibly thrilled for and proud of my Tunisian friends. This is an incredible victory and one unlikely to fade from popular memory anytime soon. And I am glad that Tunisians were able to utilize social media to bring attention to their plight. But I will not dishonor the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi–or the 65 others that died on the streets for their cause–by dubbing this anything but a human revolution.