Tunisia’s revolution, digitally accelerated?

by Tom on January 15, 2011

Digital media has played a role in shaping the way in which events have unfolded in Tunisia recently, and an interesting debate is underway about the exact nature of that role. Talk of a “Twitter Revolution” or “Wikileaks Revolution” may sound far fetched, but it’s clear that these new digitally enabled technologies have helped determine how events have unfolded, through enabling communication and co0ordination between activists.

A Guardian article by a young Tunisian sets out some of the real, long term social reasons behind the discontent in Tunisia… the abuse of power by the ruling family, the fear of informants, the corruption, unemployment. Then, it seems, events catalysed the protests that have exploded in recent days, one of which was the revealing of what the US knew about the regime, that it was definitely corrupt, but also, crucially, becoming weaker…

And then, WikiLeaks reveals what everyone was whispering. And then, a young man immolates himself. And then, 20 Tunisians are killed in one day.

Information about the regime generated by US diplomats was subsequently made public by Wikileaks, giving further details of the ruling family’s corruption, their unpopularity and the fragillity of their grip on power. In total, 9 US cables relating to Tunisia have been released by Wikileaks.

Tunisian authorities responded by blocking access to the website of a Leabanese newspaper which published the US cables revealed by Wikileaks which described the corruption and hatred of the regime. This, in turn, prompted pro-Wikileaks hackers to attack Tunisian government websites and raise the profile of the whole story, in a classic replaying of the Streisand Effect.

While there was already widespread contempt for the regime in Tunisia, and there were undoubtedly other important events in the lead up to the protests,  the Wikileaks revelations acted as one catalyst to action by making this truth a public fact and revealing the US government’s view of the regime as sclerotic and, ultimately vulnerable. This may well have shifted the consciousness of the Tunisian population to believe that they could actually do something about the situation.

During the protests, Facebook (which has 18% penetration in Tunisia), Al Jazeera Cable TV, DailyMotion and YouTube provided alternative media voices to the state run media, but it was Twitter that apparently excelled itself as a platform which enabled rapid communication and co-ordination between protesters.

While some like Ethan Zuckerman have asked whether this constitutes the first “Twitter Revolution”, suggesting that it played a crucial, but not necessarily deterministic role, others such as Luke Allnutt, taking a lead from Evgeny Morozov have countered by suggesting that by reducing our analysis to the technology we are merely focussing on our own debates in the west and ignoring the really important changes that were already underway in Tunisia.

While the events in Tunisia are clearly the result of a wide range of historic and social pressures, current difficulties and events, it does seem that new digital channels and tools have certainly played a part in enabling the protests and ‘revolution’ that has resulted (although ‘revolution’ seems quite a strong word to use at this stage, as power has merely been seized by other parts of the established power elite within the country, and no major structural changes have happened as yet).

The debates in the west about the role of digital media technology in undermining existing power structures seem to focus on the extent to which the technology can be seen to be deterministic, which feels like a stale debate. As Clay Shirky put it,

The way that these issues are being discussed in the west may make sense in the wider context of the debate around the argument that Malcolm Gladwell made in his article for the New Yorker, “The Revolution will not be Tweeted”. Gladwell argued that the ties created by social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are not strong enough to sustain the kind of pressures that relationships endure in revolutionary circumstances.

It has to be argued back to Gladwell that when activists who are already engaged in political struggle harness the enabling power of socialised digital media channels, that their activity can be massively amplified. Social media has the power to change the scale of the existing work of political activists. And very often they are able to act at a massively quicker rate than government and other traditional institutions, who rely on much slower forms of management communications and structures.

Charlie Beckett has argued that those loose ties may be sufficient to being people into a sense of belonging to a social movement, and that once social and media changes create sufficient pressure to tip into action, that might just be enough to create revolutionary changeTunisia suggests that once there is a tipping point of momentum in social movements, those ‘weak ties’ make well be just enough to engage people sufficiently to bring them out onto the streets.

Whether or not social media causes revolutions seems a matter for debate. What does seem clear is that it creates a revolutionary new context in which social and political revolutions occur, changing the way that people are able to communicate, co-ordinate and collaborate. When there are sufficient, real causes for revolutionary consciousness and activity, such as mass poverty, corruption and state violence , these media make a hell of a difference. Corrupt, authoritarian regimes which have relied on police violence and state control of the media are on notice.

  • http://twitter.com/tombeardshaw Tom Beardshaw

    The Twitter hashtag to follow is #sidibouzid – i.e. http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23sidibouzid

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  • http://quixoticquisling.com Carl Morris

    I think Gladwell overlooked the fact that often people live across platforms and are connected in a multitude of ways online and offline. He appeared to contrast the US civil rights movement with a supposed latter day exodus to online, as if online had superceded everything else and was the sole means for people to communicate and form ties.

  • http://www.tombeardshaw.com Tom

    I think you’re right Carl. It’s like there’s some kind of ‘cyberspace’ which is detatched from the real world and Gladwell feels that activism is either happening there or in the real world. The truth is that these are just new forms of communications media, which create opportunities for new types of communication and connecting. The telephone is a communication tool, but hasn’t attracted the same kind of attention because it never seemed to create a new “world” in quite the same was as the internet has. Gladwell is thinking lazily, really. A more interesting critique which I want to read is Evgeny Morozov’s The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.

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