Its being called a Twitter Revolution. Think about the categorical picture of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa the idea that combines Egypt with Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya. It’s not been, in itself, the celebrations of Hosni Mubarak’s fall nor the battles in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Nor even the plain fact of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, which acted as a trigger for all the events that have unfolded.
As an alternative that defining Twitter Revolution image is this : a young lady or a young man with a smartphone. She is in the Medina in Tunis with a BlackBerry held aloft, taking a picture of a demonstration outside of the prime minister’s house. He is an angry Egyptian doctor in a help station stooping to capture the image of a man with a head injury from missiles thrown by Mubarak’s supporters. Or it’s a Libyan in Benghazi running with his phone switched to a jerky video mode, surprised when the youth in front of him is shot through the head.
Each one of them are pictures that have found their way on to the Net through social media sites. And it is not just pictures. In Tahrir Square I sat one morning next to a 60-year-old surgeon cheerfully tweeting his inclusion in the protest. The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones.
As commentators have attempted to imagine the nature of the uprisings, they have tried to cast them as many things : as an Arab version of the European revolutions of 1989 or something similar to the Iranian revolution that toppled the Shah in 1979. Most frequently, though, they have tried to conceive them thru the media that informed them as the result of WikiLeaks, as “Twitter revolutions” or provoked by Facebook.
All of which, as American media commentator Jay Rosen has written, has generated an equally controversialist class of article in reply, most often written some distance from the revolutions. These stories aren’t simply distrustful about the contribution of social media, but determined to deny it has played any part.
Those at the vanguard of this debate include Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker (Does Egypt Need Twitter?), the New Statesman’s Laurie Penny (Revolts Do Not need to be Tweeted) and even David Kravets of Wired.co.uk (What’s Fuelling Mideast protests? It’s More Than Twitter). All have argued one way or another that since there were revolutions before social media, and it is people who make revolutions, how could it be crucial?
Except social media has performed a part. For those among us who’ve covered these events, it’s been inevitable.
Exactly how we communicate in these moments of historical crisis and evolution is crucial. The medium that carries the message shapes and defines as well as the message itself. The immediate nature of how social media communicate self-broadcast ideas, unlimited by publication cut offs and broadcast reports slots, explains in part The speed at which these revolutions have untangled, their virtually viral spread over a region. It explains, as well , the regularly loose and non-hierarchical organisation of the protest movements subconsciously modelled on the networks of the web.
Talking lately to the Huffington Post, Rosen argued that those taking positions at either extraordinary of the talk were lazing around and inaccurate. “Wildly overdrawn declarations about social media, regularly made with weaselly query marks (like : ‘Tunisia’s Twitter revolution?’) and the derisive debunking that follows from those claims (‘It’s not that simple!’) only seem to be opposite viewpoints. In fact , they are 2 modes in which the same weightless discourse is conducted.
“Revolutionary hype is social change analysis inexpensively. Debunking is techno-realism cost effectively. Neither one tells us much about our world.”
Rosen is right. And when I started researching this subject I too began as a sceptic. But what I witnessed on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt challenged my preconceptions, as did the evidence which has issued from both Libya and Bahrain. For neither the concept of the “Twitter Revolutions” or their un-Twitterness, accurately reflects the actuality. Regularly the contribution of social networks to the Arab uprisings has been as important as it’s also got been complicated, contradictory and misunderstood.
As an alternative the signification and impact of social media on every one of the rebellions we have seen this year has been defined by specific local factors (not least how folk live their lives online in individual states and what state limits were in place). Its role has been formed too by how well organised the groups using social media have been.
When Tarak Mekki, an exiled Tunisian businessman, officeholder and Internet activist returned to Tunisia from Canada in the days after the Jasmine Revolution he was greeted by a bunch of hundreds. Many of them know Mekki for One Thousand and One Nights, the Monday-night video he used to post on YouTube disparaging the regime of the fled President Zine Alabidine Ben Ali.
“It’s amazing that we took part via the internet in ousting him,” he revealed on his arrival. “Via uploading videos. What we did on the internet had credibility and that’s why it was successful.”
Tunisia was exposed under the Ben Ali regime to the kind of interior and exterior dissent represented by One Thousand and One Nights. In a state where the media were firmly controlled and the opposition cold heartedly deterred, Tunisia not only exercised a tight monopoly on net provision but blocked access to most social networking sites except Facebook.
“They wanted to close Facebook down in Q1 of 2009,” claims Khaled Koubaa, president of the Internet Society in Tunisia, “but it was very complicated. So many folk were using it that it appears that the regime backed off because they suspected banning it’d really cause more Problems (than leaving it).”
Indeed, when the Tunisian executive did shut it down briefly, for 16 days in Aug 2008, it was challenged with a threat by cyber activists to shut their Internet accounts. The regime was forced to back down.
Instead , claims Koubaa, the Tunisian authorities attempted to pester those posting on Facebook. “If they became aware of you on Facebook they might attempt to divert your account to a fake login page to steal your password.”
And despite the claims of Tunisia being a Twitter revolution or inspired by WikiLeaks neither played much of a part. On Twitter you can find a lot of interesting twitter links.In Tunisia, pre-revolution, only around 200 active tweeters existed out of about two thousand with registered accounts. The WikiLeaks pages on Tunisian corruption, asserts Koubaa, who with his chums tried to line up sites where his fellow citizens could view them, were blocked as fast as they appeared and anyhow, the information was hardly reports to Tunisians. However , “Facebook was huge,” he says. Koubaa disagrees that social media during Ben Ali’s dictatorship existed on two levels. A couple of thousand “geeks” like him communicated thru Twitter, while perhaps 2,000,000 talked on Facebook. The activism of the first group informed that of the second.
All of which left a strange loophole that endured till December, when the regime eventually launched a full-scale attack against Facebook. This in in a land that already tortured and imprisoned bloggers, and where the country’s web censors at the Ministry of the Interior were nick-named “Amar 404” after the 404 error message that appeared when a page was blocked.
“Social media was absolutely crucial,” asserts Koubaa. “Three months before Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Sidi Bouzid we had a similar case in Monastir. But no one knew about it because it was not filmed. What made a difference this time is that the pictures of Bouazizi were put on Facebook and everyone saw it.”
And with state censorship rife in many of these states, Facebook has functioned in the way the media should as a source of info. Around a week after Ben Ali’s fall, I run into Nouridine Bhourri, a 24-year-old call-centre employee, at a demonstration in Tunis against the presence in the governing body of previous members of the old regime.
“We still don’t believe the news and television,” he is saying, a not surprising fact when lots of the orginal correspondents are still working. “I research what’s occuring on Facebook and the internet.” Like many Bhourri has turned into a foot infantryman in the Net campaign against the old Tunisian regime.
“I put up newbie video on Facebook. For example, a buddy got some pictures of a sniper on Avenue de Carthage. It’s what I have been doing, even during the crisis. You share video and photographs. It was if you wrote something or made it yourself that there was a genuine problem. ” as reported tagza.com.
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