The Role the Internet Did – And Didn’t – Play In Tunisia’s Turmoil
Like any revolution, a host of factors can help explain the fall of long-time Tunisian ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Faltering economic conditions, decades of autocratic rule and media suppression and a civic culture of corruption and nepotism are but a few. And as many have noted, the self-immolation of 26-year-old Muhammad Al Bouazizi and resulting public outrage served as something of a catalyst for many of these factors to pour out into the streets.
But before the riots, before Al Bouazizi, even before the economy went sour, Tunisian social media and blogs struggled for years to talk about Tunisia’s ills, identify the causes and perhaps even propose solutions.
The Tunisian public were first given access to the Internet in 1996; it took nearly 10 years for broadband to become available – not so surprising for a poor nation. But in that time, the government of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kept an ever-tighter rein on what the public could see, and what they could say, online.
A 2005 Harvard report criticized Tunis for implementing “…an Internet filtering regime that aggressively targets and blocks substantial on-line material on political opposition, human rights, methods of bypassing filtering, and pornography.” In 2009, the free-speech advocacy group Freedom House ranked Tunisia second worst in the world – ahead of Iran and behind only Cuba – in terms of web freedom. And the group Global Voices documents 23 Tunisian bloggers who have been harassed, threatened, jailed, and in two cases killed by the Tunisian government.
And yet web culture and social media have rapidly been adopted by the young Tunisian populace. Most recently online activists used the web to document the various protests across Tunis, and Twitter served as the most reliable news outlet for updates on Al Bouazizi’s condition. For a time tweets about Tunisia far outpaced those regarding the situations in Sudan or Cote d’Ivoire.
There’s no question the web has influenced the unfolding events in Tunisia. And these days, rather than being seen a threat, elements in the new government are seeking to embrace the Internet. One need look no further than today’s news of the appointment of Slim Amamou – longtime blogger and critic of the government – as Secretary of State for Youth and Sports. And much in the way the Internet works almost one step ahead, there’s already a Facebook App – “Defender of Tunisia” – where users defend 24 Tunisian cities against government tanks trying to roll back the revolution.
Still, can the Internet be credited with Tunisia’s revolution? It’s almost a default position among some in Western media to label any contemporary unrest as “a Twitter Revolution.” But is Twitter really to blame? And if it happened in Tunisia, where else may the Internet topple a government?
Over at the excellent “Tangled Web” blog (run by VOA’s sister organization RFE/RL) Luke Allnut wonders why journalists hunt for singular explanations such as Twitter, YouTube or Wikileaks for a process as complex as a national revolution:
“In our search for a single cause, we’re much more likely to settle on an “new technology” explanation rather than something as dull as a great many of the participants were unemployed or wearing socks. Not only do “Twitter revolution” explanations mean more page views, but they fulfill some deterministic urge within us — the dual promises of technology and modernity.”
Ethan Zuckerman writing in Foreign Policy grants that social media “…played a significant role in the events that have unfolded in the past month in Tunisia.” As an example he details how images from early protests in Sidi Bouzid, ignored by official Tunisian media, moved from Facebook to YouTube to Dailymotion, drawing wider viewership across the nation. But he cautions:
“…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.”
And in the rush to find a “webby” explanation, journalists may be overlooking more traditional – and thus more boring – media forms. Inside Tunisia, VOA’s Lisa Bryant spoke with journalists struggling to re-learn a craft long-hobbled by government sanction and punishment. And former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton, writing in the GlobalPost, credits an external force – Al-Jazeera Television – for “awakening Arab public opinion.” He writes:
“Its news, talk shows and discussion programs have raised the level of political sophistication of its Arab viewers and increased their reluctance to believe the pronouncements of their own governments. Traditional Arab rulers see it as subversive. By helping to educate and reshape Arab public opinion, it changed the political landscape and created the mindset that encouraged the overthrow of Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.”
As unpredictable as they are rare, revolutions result from the interplay of almost impenetrably complex factors and forces. Answering the questions of “how” and “why” may not be possible. But if there are answers, they’re likely to be closely examined not just in Tunisia, but in many other nations around the world where leaders fear the next “Twitter” revolution.