Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Not Twitter, Not WikiLeaks: A Human Revolution

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.

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  1. The Evil regime was built upon a rosy facade.. you know the chick beaches of Hammamet and PEK.
    This regime relies on this image, the image of “human rights”, “right to free speech” sunny beaches, and life is all good…etc…
    What the social media did was unmask this facade and show the world the ugliness and true face of this regime.. the foundation of Ben Ali is gone to hell thanks in part to the internet

    • Yup, Ben, that sounds right to me. I have no doubt that social media has helped changed Tunisia’s image in the eyes of the rest of the world; it’s the actual effect on the past few weeks’ protests that I question.

  2. Hear, hear – We in the west are too eager to jump on the social media bandwagon when it comes to its influence protests, riots etc. in the less developed world. I think it comes out of our own ignorance that the tools and toys we hold so dear to us are still seen as luxuries in other parts of the world.

    Did SMS help in organizing – I don’t see how it didn’t but you are absolutely right – would this revolution have happened in the ’80s when none of these social media tools were around – oh you can bet on it.

    Just as you said – this happened because people lost their lives, other sacrificed and many more decided they had had enough – not because the tools of social media told them to do so but because the tools of oppression drove them to do so.

  3. Congrats to Tunisia!

    Obama and Biden couldn’t remove this dictator. Wikileaks, though, DID play a role!


  4. The catalyst, I would say, was Mohamad Bouazizi’s act. Only after his death protests became ferocious enough.

  5. Right on the money. Some people are getting way ahead of themselves, calling this a Twitter/ Wikileaks/ social media revolution. Give credit where it’s due – to the Tunesians who took to the streets. Let’s hope the coming days and weeks will calm things down so the transition process can be done without the spilling of lives and with the respect and dignity the first modern revolution in MENA deserves.

  6. Où sont les cris “criminels de guerre”? est ou’ sont ceux qui sont préparés en criant “crimes contre l’humanité » – Pourquoi Lorsque les dirigeants tueur du mond arabe qui tue pour aucune raison leurs citoyens sont tous silencieux? Pourquoi quand Israël est la lutte contre les terroristes, tout le monde se lever? ou est Moubarak? Où est le Hezbollah? Où est l’ONU? Où est Sarkozy? Qu’est- Obama? Pourquoi le sang des jeunes Tunisien est en bon marché? moi je suis Israelienne est je pleure pour le sang de ces jeunes gens assassinés sans raison … (Hope ypu understarnd French)

  7. I had the impression that the military declined to crack down. Was that not a factor?

  8. the revolution was fought on the streets and it was fought on the net..

    Thank you Anonymous News Network for the role you have played in helping get all the information and facts to the people. You have played a major part in helping get rid of the scum Ben Ali and his dogs. Please stay with us till the end because the fight isn’t over yet. I love you guys. You are heroes too

    We will not abandon you Tunisia. But please DO not forget you were one of many countries controlled by a dictator and denied your freedom. When the time comes, do not forget Anonymous. Help us bring revolution and freedom to other countries and peoples around the world

  9. you report on the news you see and read about… the mainstream news avoided this story in the hope it would go away… tunisia is an oil rich country and ben ali is there man they never wanted him to go… this revolution was both analog and digital….


  10. it’s not over yet. and internet social media pundits seek to validate their own ego.

  11. I should rather credit SMSing for enabling collaboration, as much as things like Twitter.

    Having been in Tunisia just as this was starting, for business, I should not be so quick to discount the impact of the American diplomatic cables. Calling it driven by Wikileaks is bollocks, but I can attest from conversations with … let’s say the Tunisian business elite, who by late December and early January had clearly turned against Ben Ali, the Wikileaks confirming that in private the US diplomats cared no more for Ben Ali and the Trabelsi than they had an impact.

    The loss of these people is not trivial, it is clear to me from my conversations that the private non-support made an impression on certain portions of the “apparatus.” It is my personal evaluation that a reason why the Regime could not go as far as say the Algerian one in using violence in cracking down was they were hearing from powerful Non-Family that they were sick of it all. And Wikileaks helped there.

    Of course, it was the youth on the streets dying that tipped things and drove the events, but while this is not over yet, Ben Ali might have been able to do what he did in the 1990s against the Islamists (that is quite savage repression) if he had kept these people and the middle / upper middle class on board.

  12. We also don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and call it a “revolution” when, at the moment, all that has changed is the president–while the RCD and military elite are still in power. After all, what finally forced Ben Ali out of power were not the street demonstrations per se, but also the willingness of the political elite to jettison him in the hopes of maintaining power.

    By contrast, in Iran in 2009 the regime faced far, far larger demonstrations–but the essential core of the ruling system remained intact, undivided, and willing to use whatever force might be necessary to preserve the status quo.

    This isn’t to say that full regime change isn’t possible it Tunisia–it is. Events in Tunisia are likely to have substantial demonstration effects in the region, for both good and ill.

    At the moment, however, we have seen a limited rearranging of elite power and the promise of possibly transitional elections.

  13. Hi Jilian,

    I agree, from what I ‘saw’, Wikileaks has nothing to do with the igition of the Tunisian revolution, a month ago. Chances are this revolution would have reach the current point without Wikileaks and without Twitter (I wouldn’t say the same about Facebook, far from it, it has been instrumental in giving Tunisian a sample of free speech and hook them to this powerfull drug, not to mention structuring local cultural life and intellectual life for quite some time now).

    Still, I think Wikipedia helped tremendously gathering a worldwide support by clearly exposing Ben Ali’s crimes, and of course by pushing Anonymous into the fight. Lots of other purely internet things have been in action, not only during the revolution, but long before, preparing it.

    Now, it is important to say that this revolution is far from over, things are still very uncertain.
    With Wikileaks and the ‘trend’ in transparency it propose, it is going to be very difficult for a new dictator to step in, as it is usually the case in theses situations. Here, Wikileaks will make a huge difference ;-)

    Once again, this Tunisian revolution is far from over.


  14. I was just working on the same idea for a post,

    as you are being read more, no need to write right now :-)

  15. Jillian,

    Is there a site that has a map showing protests around the world over time. Like an active X movie?

    Given our media (TV expecially) would have us believe we are living in a candy puff world off peace and I know we are not, I’m wondering if we are missing just how much discord there is around the world, particularly politically and also with regard to labour protests and strikes.

    I’m thinking about a spinning globe with markers showing the protest and size, where each spin is a single day. i’ve never seen anything like that and would like to if it exists. Do you know of any?

  16. @Margaret

    Nawaat is working on launching such a projet :-)

  17. It strikes me as absurd to say that Wikileak cables had nothing to do with the timing or form. Their placement on Nawaat, their being cited by some of at least the well-to-do demonstrators indicates they most certainly did play a role as a catalyst. My own experience in Tunis end-December / early-January with business leaders detouring from our investment focused conversation to discuss The Family and mentioning Wikileaks highlighted that. While the desire to highlight the Tunisian ‘agency’ to use the precious academic lingo is understandable, denying a role is absurd.

    It would seem to me that the concentrating role, utility as a reference to say “see even the Americans are saying what we’re saying”and, and this is important, the ‘confirmation’ of the fears that Leila Trabelsi Ben Ali expected / desired to take over from Ben Ali certainly had an effect among the middle class.

    As for transparency, I rather would observe that it is not all that difficult for a dictator to step in, all this revolution talk aside. The looting and the like are already provoking a reaction. The call in on TV7 Tunis was as much about people desiring security as ‘revolution’- Someone not Ben Ali connected, not Trabelsi connected and offering a safe haven can easily step in, easy talk about Wikis aside.

  18. Hi Jillian, great blog, but I have to disagree. From my vantage point – admittedly far away – I cant see how this uprising would have happened without modern communications technologies like mobile phones, texting, Facebook etc.

    I just sepnt this weekend researching events and found tonnes of evidence that Facebook and mobile phones in particular were lethal.

    As for Wikileaks. Maybe a bit of staw on a heavily packed camels back.


  19. Hi Wessel,

    I understand your point, and note: I did mention the importance of mobile phones (SMS); my argument is not that technology wasn’t integral, but rather that social media as we think of it — public, open — was not, at least in terms of organizing.

    In the link you site, the author puts forth a broad definition of social media — letter writing, telephone usage, etc. I posit that Facebook/Twitter are in a very different category than text messages. If I were to take that author’s definition, then I would be in agreement with him.


  20. Hola, les dejo aquì un articulo del BLOG http://eldiablosellama.wordpress.com/ con el titulo: “Túnez: las revoluciones reales, Twitter, Facebook y un mensaje para todos los muros…”
    Lo pueden leer en este link: http://eldiablosellama.wordpress.com/2011/01/17/tunez-las-revoluciones-reales-twitter-facebook-y-un-mensaje-para-todos-los-muros/

  21. Thanx for the great piece. In Tunesia that trigger was longterm on the one hand (unemployment, bad regime etc) and shortterm: the burning of the unemployed guy which sparked the open violence.

    First people, than social media.
    Although: do’nt forget that it took us a month to realise what was going on in Tunesia, meanwhile in France it was already on the news. So ofcourse social media is a trojan horse to infiltrate in the heart of bad regimes and oppression, it still needs an audience that is interested in those stories.
    If it can be online in seconds, why does it takes a month to cross the atlantic?

    • Mate, very simply it took a while for the Americans to notice Tunisia, re public press, because *they don’t really bloody care about Tunisia*. A bit of realism.

      In the grand scheme of things Tunisia is not a big country. It is not a country where the US has a lot of direct interest (contra Europe, esp. France and Italy). And it is Francophone, which the Americans often miss due to language. Contrasting France and the US media in this instance is simply silly.

      Never mind that while it popped up in European media – without doubt because of the legions of French, German, Nordic, etc. tourists – the actual Actors involved (the Governments), France completely missed the importance while the Americans got on the ‘right path’ pretty much right away.

      So, it takes a month to rise to the radar of popular media simply because it took a month for it to rise to that level of importance relative to their direct interest. Nothing to reproach the American media about, one can’t pay attention to every bloody thing.

  22. @ Lounsbury: good point, tnx. Although i do not blame anyone for not noticing EVERYTHING, and wether i’m silly or not; i’ll leave it to others to judge that

    But:Dont forget the political history tunesia has with France.. This is another reason they are interested while the USA is not.

    And even more important: mainstream media is commercial in the USA, moreso than here in Europe. So it caters more to what will score. And riots score, a revolution in an arab country as well. This is what people in the USA want to see, well, they get it!
    I am not debunking anyone or any choice made by any media in framing a certain subject, it is simply the real reason i believe for the month it took to swim accross the atlantic. Mediacorporations had to little interest at first (for a lot of reasons i can understand).

    And maybe it only became mainstream in America

  23. forget the last sentence, did not delete quit enough (sorry about that)

  24. I don’t see how American media being more commercial has any real impact as such on highlighting Tunisia – I don’t see the French media going on about provincial ongoings in Australia, for example. Interest is interest and for the Americans, except among strategic thinkers in government, not much reason to pay attention to Tunisia (even now to be frank).

    For the UK, for France, and for Europe, there is a direct reason. I don’t think Americans have any particular “want to see” re riots in an Arab country, they simply don’t give a bloody damn, and frankly for the average citizen there is not much reason to.

  25. The Lounsbury

    A whole nation coming together to throw a corrupt regime out of power, a regime supported by the West no less, is hardly provincial.

    To describe it as such is to demonstrate the precise problem…..

  26. No it describes bloody realism.

    A popular overthrow of a quite minor regime of a small country is not something of any real interest to 99% of the world. Not any more than replacing say Marcos ended up being. Romantic claptrap aside. I am quite happy for my Tunisian colleagues and wish the best for the country, with which I have long ties. But the reality is this is not something of world importance.

    • nope, it is. You are right, in the shortterm not for you and me as average citizens. But in the longterm it can be an issue. What if, for instance, fundamentalists get the upper had? or Egypt is next (where social media shows signs of unrest as well)..
      It can cause instability in an already volitile region, and that can be bad news for us.

      therefore it is of importance.

      And for the commercial part: it is true that media mergers left only a handful of big mediacorporations. These corporations need viewers/readers. these readers are interested in certain topics. So these topics are deliverd to them. Other topics, like a small revolution in an even smaller country are of less interst to the mediacompany than the oscarnominiees, to name one.
      Again: nothing wrong with that, just ‘bloody realism’.

    • But the reality is this is not something of world importance.’


      I think events are showing that perhaps a lot of people in the world do find the events in Tunisia of immense importance.

      As asuterity bites, I wonder just what will happen in Greece, UK and for that matter the US. Just how long will the millions of unemployed, the poor, the homeless sit back looking at these millions of people fighting not only for democracy but for economic justice and remain silent, peaceful even on the sidewalk.

  27. Maarten bRand
    …What if, for instance, fundamentalists get the upper had? ‘

    Well, then it would be in the same position as the US. The volume of christian fundamentalist voices in the US is truly something that we should all be worried by.

  28. Information is a powerful tool, but think about people that since the beggining of the civilization has fought for its rights. They didn’t have any kind of way to communicate their ideas but the speech. When any society is against the government there’s no way a revolution can be stopped. Social networks are useful but the only factor to “get rid of the scum” is the power of the society itself. It doesn’t matter how many technology you have (or have to fight against) if the ideas are strong enough then victory of any social movement will be surely achieved.

  29. I often read your blog and always find it very interesting. Thought it was about time i let you know , Keep up the great work

  30. HaHa Twitter ought to be outperforming other social media websites

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