February 10th, 2011
Also published on The Huffington Post
For more on social media and the Arab Spring, see the book “Distant Witness,” by Andy Carvin.
Did Twitter and Facebook “cause” the Tunisian Revolution and the protests in Egypt? Not according to Malcolm Gladwell, since he and others have questioned the role of social media in social change in North Africa. But he’s not there, and neither are most other Western observers weighing in on the subject, giving their debate a whiff of the abstract and the academic.
Fortunately, the people who change the world these days get to tell their own stories, and on January 26th I was lucky enough to hear one of them. Despite a snow storm that shut down the District of Columbia, a few dozen of us made it to a presentation and discussion at NPR’s headquarters led by Rim Nour, a young Tunisian protester. Organized by social media guru Andy Carvin, Social Media & Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution: A Firsthand View provided fantastic details on how Tunisians used technology to accelerate their revolution, and in the process gave us a preview of how other people around the world might do the same.
Nour’s background in technology and public policy not only makes her uniquely qualified to speak on these questions, but she was also on the street as the revolt happened, risking the consequences of standing up for her beliefs and the rights of her people. In her eyes, social media tools didn’t CAUSE the revolution — it was a Tunisian Revolution, not a Twitter/Facebook/Wikileaks revolution — but they definitely seem to have speeded it up. Plus, they let the rest of the world watch and offer such support as we could. And as the country risked descending into chaos, digital tools also helped people organize themselves to protect their communities and the political gains they had won.
Tunisia was fertile ground for an internet-enabled uprising. Despite a well educated population (with a median age of 24), the country had not created enough jobs for the vast number of young people obtaining secondary and college degrees, particularly in the interior and western parts of the country. Tunisia’s 10 million residents and two million expatriate citizens are avid users of technology, however: 85% of the population has cell phones (5% smart phones), and roughly two million of them are on Facebook. At the time of the Revolution Twitter had a far smaller footprint, with perhaps 500 active users within the country’s borders, but as we’ll see, who was tweeting mattered more than how many people were doing it. In practice, these were the only Web 2.0 tools available for activism, since other channels such as YouTube were government-censored.
According to Nour, the Revolution unfolded in three basic phases. First, protests broke out in the interior of the country after a young man burned himself alive to protest his treatment at the hands of the authorities. A brutal police crackdown resulted, providing activists with shocking imagery to spread online and generate unrest. Second, as protests spread to the more affluent parts of the country, people poured into the streets of cities like Sfax and Tunis and began to organize themselves with cell phones and Facebook. Finally, as President Ben Ali fled and the country risked disorder and random violence, people across the country used social media to dispel misinformation and organize themselves to counter security forces, regime-supporters and looters alike.
The Initial Protests
Actually, the events in December and January were preceded by a spontaneous campaign against government repression in May of 2010, in which people reacted to an opposition leader’s attempt to start a protest march by posting supportive photographs on Facebook, a development that Nour believes emboldened cyberactivists. But the Revolution really began in mid-December, as civil unrest broke out in the interior of the country after a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire — to protest mistreatment by a government functionary, but also likely as a deep expression of helplessness in the face of a lack of opportunity.
The protests started in his own city of Sidi Bouzid, far from the centers of Tunisian power, but they quickly provoked a violent response from the government’s internal security forces. As protesters marched and police beat them down, political organizers traveled to the area and started using digital video and Twitter to spread the word throughout the country. They had plenty of ammunition, from police brutality to acts of self-sacrifice inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi’s example. At this moment, the fact that only a few Tunisians twittered didn’t matter — those who did were experienced activists primed to use new media tools to make sure that the violence didn’t go unnoticed in the broader population. Within a day of Bouazizi’s immolation, they were already organizing around a common Twitter hashtag.
The Uprising Goes Viral
Within two weeks, and ominously for the government, protests began to spread to the more prosperous parts of the country, including the cities of Sfax and Tunis. It was then that the movement became almost a viral phenomenon, and as it drew more and more people, the center of online action moved to Facebook. A much more popular medium in Tunisia than Twitter, it was also a more visual one — photos and videos posted on Facebook made the protesters’ case in a visceral way (for instance, Nour said that it was an online video that provoked “a physical response” that persuaded her to make the jump into open activism) as they spread through people’s online social circles.
At this stage, the outside world began to play more of a part. The Tunisian expat community was heavily wired, for instance, and Nour descibed it as having an echo effect — when in-country Tunisians slept, the outside world took over the role of sharing information and persuading. For instance, the Netherlands-based organization Nawaat.org (whose founder had created a Google Map of secret Tunisian prisons a couple of years ago) would post videos originating on Facebook (and no doubt mostly shot with cell phones) to its posterous blog, where activists would find them and spread them through every online channel imaginable. And of course, this amplification effect went far beyond the extended Tunisian community itself, with activists in many countries and from many backgrounds helping to promote the cause.
Television also came into play as the protests spread, though not the heavily-censored domestic channels. The satellite/cable channel Al Jazeera in particular began taking videos posted to the web and broadcasting them to a mass audience, something that Nour mentioned was crucial in spreading the revolution beyond a younger demographic: as long as anti-government messages were restricted to personal internet channels, the protesters’ parents and grandparents could ignore or dismiss them. But once they started showing up on television, they became real.
Finally, as the government pushed back via mass media, the internet provided a way for protesters to poke holes in stories promulgated through official channels. When video of a counter-protest in favor of President Ben Ali was shown on television, for instance, activists could post their own footage of the same event that showed that very few people had actually attended — the television cameras had been carefully placed to give the illusion of a large crowd (a tactic common at political rallies in the U.S., too).
In another example, activists were able to show that cars parading in the streets in support of the government were actually rentals, not exactly a sign of a spontaneous event. More tragically, they posted videos of people killed by police only minutes after the president declared that the government would no longer respond with violence, including one of a young woman shot in the head as she came back from the market with a carton of milk — she had wrongly trusted that it was safe to go out.
Throughout the last days of the street protests, social channels also helped people come to consensus quickly as the situation changed from hour to hour. When bloggers, activists and musicians were rounded up and taken into custody, protesters could switch their emphasis to arguing for their release. Every time the president spoke, people would write in mass numbers and reach an agreement that demonstrations need to continue. And when the country’s Prime Minister attempted to invoke the country’s constitution on January 14, lawyers and others were able to show that he was citing the wrong part of the document and hence was trying to act illegally, a move that backfired.
Self-Organizing Against Chaos
As the Revolution came to a head, the president prepared to flee the country and the police began to pull out of the streets, simple chaos became the greatest danger. Here again, social media channels gave people a way to organize themselves to protect their neighborhoods and stop the spread of destabilizing rumors. Some gathered on Facebook to form teams to clean up streets and shops, others organized to ration out food and bread. Meanwhile, neighborhood watch groups relayed information on snipers and armed militia groups or spread the word about looters so that they could be intercepted and thwarted.
Online channels helped people fight more insidious enemies as well: rumors and disinformation. Claims might spread of massive shootings in a neighborhood, for example, but people in the area could pipe in and say what was really happening. In other cases, rumors of poisoned water or cutoffs of electrical power might threaten to spark a public panic, but again Facebook and text messages let people pass along the truth. Overall, online social tools helped activists counter those who were trying to terrorize the population, helping to calm the entire situation down — they spread the message that people were helping to keep things in control.
After the Revolution comes the hard part: creating a new society. And as Tunisians use social media (and the newly freed mass media channels) to communicate amongst themselves and collectively write the next chapter of their history, it seems clear the internet’s ability to make anyone a publisher played some role in what may be the first of a wave of revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East.
Again, social media didn’t cause the Tunisian Revolution, but they enabled it — without the ability of a small number of activists to pass along shocking news and imagery from the first wave of protests, they might have fizzled out as so many street demonstrations in so many countries have in the past. Without the means to counter official propaganda through digital distribution channels, the government’s spin on the situation might have become conventional wisdom. And without ways for people to organize themselves and dispel rumors before and after the president’s fall from power, the entire situation could have descended into chaos — something that would have given the government an excuse to take just about any actions imaginable in the name of public order.
Revolutions are risky — anyone who acted online in Tunisia was potentially trackable, which the government knew. And though officials didn’t shut down the internet, they did try to hack into the Facebook accounts of organizers and others (they were thwarted by Facebook itself, fortunately). But in 2010 and 2011, Tunisians were a people armed with the tools to fight back — including proxy accounts and other means of hiding online activity that had become common in the days of web censorship. Most importantly, they were armed with the will to speak out in public even at the cost of their own lives and livelihoods. In the end, they won their country, and let’s hope that they keep it. And let’s also hope that their example inspires despots around the world to consider other job opportunities now, not later. This world needs no more kings.