The (Jasmine) Revolution Will Be Tweeted
By Thomas Ghys & Hakim Zemni
After one month of non-stop demonstrations brutally repressed by dictator Ben Ali, the Tunisian public succeeded in something unseen to the Arab world. Ben Ali was forced to flee the country after 23 years of iron fisted reign. In the background of speculations that Tunisia could become the first Arab/Muslim democracy, the debate on the role of social media in these events began..
The events were initially not televised on Tunisia’s tightly controlled national television station, but spread like a wildfire on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Examples include:
- – Tunisian youths used their Facebook status update box to inform friends and family on the situation in their villages and cities.
- – A majority of Tunisian Facebook members changed their profile picture to the logo of the national democratic uprising showing images of solidarity and a black & white version of the national flag.
- – Witnesses massively recorded the violence against protesters and uploaded their evidence on YouTube.
- – On the day Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, “#sidibouzid” (the city where youngster Mohammed Bouazizi immolated himself as a desperate act of opposition) was the most used hashtag on Twitter.
- – The non-stop stream of protester-generated content was live reported on Al Jazeera TV, which was prohibited to send in any correspondents during the revolt.
Does this mean the Jasmine revolution can really be dubbed a Twitter or Social Media revolution? Founder of Global Voices Online Ethan Zuckerman gives a clear answer:
“Any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor—technological, economic, or otherwise—is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.”
We have to get the role of social media right. These tools form platforms of communication rather than platforms for activism. To retweet sociologist Zeynep Tufekci:
“Some of this is like asking was the French Revolution a printing press revolution? Who can say no? Who can say yes?”
In her great article on the topic, Tufekci lists a number of ways in which social media can support political action, but their main contribution is twofold. First of all, social media help spread information, break censorship and – even more dangerous – silence. Secondly, these tools create an alternative public sphere in a media-controlled regime, lowering the problem of society-level prisoner’s dilemma. Everyone knows everyone is unhappy, but no one knows just how unhappy others are. This confirmation fuels the motivation to mobilize.
In sum, social media can never start a revolution nor be the revolution, but they do accelerate change. What matters most is that the Jasmine revolution is tweeted, facebooked, uploaded, texted, mailed, printed and televised. And that the rest of the world is reading, following, listening and watching and hopefully even supporting Tunisians in building a new, open and accountable state.
The story of 33-year-old Slim Amamou symbolizes accelerated change. Under the alias Slim404 – a satirical pun on the ubiquitous ‘404 not found’ message shown for censored sites – Amamou blogged for years about the systematic violation of human and political rights in his country. He had broken the story of the government’s recent phishing attacks on activists’ Gmail and Facebook accounts and was arrested on 6th of January after sharing his location on Foursquare and Google Latitude. A week of silence ensued, until he reassured his followers: “je suis libre”. On the 17th of January, many could not believe what he had just tweeted:
“Je suis secrÃ©taire d’Ã©tat a la Jeunesse et aux sports :)”
“I am Secretary of State for Youth and Sports :)”
From public enemy to Secretary of State in less than two weeks. As we speak, Slim404 is tweeting about his meeting with other politicians. A clear indication of the new democratic wind that is blowing over the Tunisian sun-baked hillsâ€¦