Did social media propel the Tunisia uprising?

From what I can tell so far, no — or it’s way too early to tell since January 14th, when Tunisia’s authoritarian leader fled the country in the face of a month of public protests [though see my update below].

I spent a lot of time reporting in the Middle East, but I haven’t been there since the rise of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, so I can’t pretend to be a first-hand expert on the use of social media there (I did give a Seattle Town Hall talk last year on Digital Media, Storytelling and the Repression of Communication and referenced Iran’s so-called “Twitter Revolution”).

So as I hear rumblings on the role of social media (and Wikileaks) in Tunisia’s recent uprising, I feel compelled to resort to those whose observations I trust on this matter: Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center), Evgeny Morozov (author, The Net Delusion) and Andrew Sullivan (The Daily Dish).

Foreign Policy published thought pieces from both Morozov and Zuckerman yesterday.

The First Twitter Revolution? Not so fast writes Zuckerman.  He observes that Facebook may have played some role in facilitating communication there, but there’s a lot more going on there:

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.

Morozov points out that the Tunisian government had the power to shut off access to the Internet (and has tampered with it in the past, which goes to the premise of his The Net Delusion book — that repressive regimes use the Web to repress further, via surveillance).  He also asks the causation question: would the Tunisian uprising happened even had social media not been available to the citizenry?

Yes, there will be YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and Twitter messages — some written by people on the ground and some by those outside — accompanying any revolution, successful or not. To deny this would be silly.

What strikes me about events in Tunisia is that social media seems to have failed in what many of us thought would be its greatest contribution (outside of social mobilization) — that is, in helping to generate and shape the coverage of events in the mainstream media. On the contrary, despite all the buzz on Twitter it took four weeks to get the events in Tunisia on the front pages of major newspapers, at least here in the U.S. (the situation in Europe was somewhat better — and it was way better in the Middle East — for all the obvious reasons).

This Christian Science Monitor piece also has some good insights, and also looks at the (non)role of Wikileaks in driving the street protests:

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali’s stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.” (Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick in Cairo, who’s still trying to get a flight to Tunis, writes this afternoon that country’s like Egypt and Jordan are looking on nervously at events in the Maghreb.)

Even Gawker got in on the act:

  • Nobody’s citing Foursquare yet, but it’s only a matter of time before some journalist finds a few protestors checking into a riot.

The Economist may have the best analysis of what this could portend for the region, from a communications technology point of view:

It is too soon, and too simplistic, as Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar who studies the media in the Middle East, argues to call this a Twitter revolution. But Arab televisions stations such as al-Jazeera, still probably the most important media outlet in the Middle East, picked the videos and pictures circulating online of Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed college graduate who set himself ablaze in an act of despair. The combination of old and new media has been a potent force, one that could be replicated across the region.

Most importantly, this combination has undermined authoritarian regimes’ ability to control the flow of information to their citizens. As Arabs throughout the Middle East watch scenes of protests in Tunisia on their computers and their televisions, it is increasingly difficult for their governments to intervene.



My colleague at the University of Washington, Dr. Phil Howard, runs the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam and e-mailed me the following response:

To me, Tunisia is interesting because it is a country where the opposition is ONLY online.  In other words, most countries have some local political party or banned group that does opposition organizing.  Mubarak made some confined spaces for the Muslim Brotherhood, and tolerated some blogger-organized protests.  Ben Ali never did that, and the things that have been most embarrassing to his regime have involved tech savvy activists exposing serious corruption.  In Egypt, the state media sometimes acknowledges dissent, in Tunisia the state media never does.   There has been a month of protests, and Tunisians went to the internet to learn about what was going on.

The Huffington Post through Firas Al-Atraqchi from the American University of Cairo wrote this:

Bechir Blagui, who runs the Free Tunisia website, says that people have tossed around different names for this “revolution.”

“They called it the jasmine revolt, Sidi Bouzid revolt, Tunisian revolt… but there is only one name that does justice to what is happening in the homeland: Social media revolution, or back home, better called the Facebook revolution,” Blagui said.

He says that in the absence of traditional media – government bans on reporting and the jailing of independent journalists like Fahem Boukaddous – Tunisians resorted to their cell phones and going online to document the history of their nation in the past four weeks.

“Combined with Twitter, this helped on the ground organization of massive crowds from around small towns in remote areas. It was crucial for the organizing effort,” Blagui added.

Nasser Weddady, a civil rights outreach director for the American Islamic Congress who has been closely monitoring events in Tunisia, believes that while social media didn’t cause the popular uprising, its most important role was to inform the outside world of the protests, the number killed in clashes with police, etc.