No “Twitter Revolution,” But a Connected Revolution in Tunisia

18 January 2011

When Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in front of a government building after being robbed and slapped around by the local police, his desperate and tragic act sparked a tinderbox of anger and resentment against the Tunisian state. As news of Bouazizi’s self-immolation spread, so too did a nationwide wave of protests, and on Friday, longtime dictator Ben Ali fled the country.

With most Western media looking elsewhere, and journalists in Tunisia sharply censored, Twitter became one of the only sources of information about what has come to be called the “Jasmine Revolution.” Among the protesters, Facebook and YouTube allowed them to share stories, videos, and encouragement, while e-mail, text messaging, and other social media were among the ways that Tunisians communicated, rallied, and coordinated their movement.

To call this a “Twitter Revolution,” as some have, is to grossly oversimplify the complex social factors that brought people into the streets to demand change. At first, Tunisians protested the state of the economy-despite years of strong economic growth, the country’s wealth is unevenly distributed, with high unemployment and high food prices leaving many disaffected and hopeless-and as weeks passed the protests became overtly political, a reaction against decades of oppression, censorship, and brutality. Likewise, calling this a “Wikileaks Revolution” is to overestimate the impact that a few American diplomatic cables could have on Tunisians’ understanding of their government’s corruption-nobody knew better than they about the rotten core of their state.

But despite the hype, the events in Tunisia bear out the idea that social media, mobile phones, and the internet can be very useful tools for organizing a movement and sharing a story with the world. Could the Jasmine Revolution have taken place without these technologies?  Certainly.  Would it have? Perhaps, but without the benefit of new media, the uprising might have played out more slowly, giving the government more time to respond. It seems the Tunisian government was caught a little off-guard by the use of new technologies-particularly among youth-to organize the protests and share information.  Maybe not an essential element of the revolt, but mobile tech and social media gave the protesters an early leg up.

To be sure, the Tunisian government made an effort to use these same technologies to their own advantage. For years they have heavily censored the web, and used phishing schemes to gain control of the e-mail and social media accounts of activists.  During the protests, police arrested prominent internet activists, while the government tightened censorship and took advantage of new media to analyze the social networks and communications of activists. But in the end, it didn’t matter; despite the government’s best efforts to control cyberspace, they couldn’t stop people in the streets using the online censorship and surveillance any more effectively than a mob could overthrow a dictator with a storm of Facebook updates.

Ultimately, the essential factors for democratic revolution are no different in the 21st century than they were in the 20th: an angry populace, a weakened government, and, in the end, a military unwilling to simply crush the uprising-think Iran in 2009, Tiananmen in 1989, or Hungary in 1956.  But as we’ve seen in Tunisia, the advent of social media and other new technologies can provide helpful tools to a movement, without necessarily giving repressive governments a trump card.

Speaking in Qatar this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn’t mention Tunisia directly, but called out the autocratic governments of the Middle East and Maghreb on their “corrupt institutions” and “stagnant political order.” A year after Secretary Clinton’s address introducing “internet freedom” as an objective of U.S. foreign policy, the events in Tunisia help illustrate the ability of new communications technologies to give voice to oppressed peoples, and empower them to stand up to their stagnant, corrupt governments. So while a few Tweets won’t topple any dictator, in the right circumstances, the right tools can help get the job done.

This was originally posted at Global Mobile.

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