Think of the categorical picture of the rebellions 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 undeniable fact of Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, which acted as a trigger for all of the events that have unfolded.
As an alternative that outlining image is this : a young girl or a young man with a smartphone. She’s 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 an aid station stooping to capture the image of someone with a head injury from missiles thrown by Mubarak’s fans. Or it is a Libyan in Benghazi running with his telephone switched to a jerky video mode, surprised when the youth in front of him is shot through the head.
Every one of them are images that have found their way on to the internet through social media sites. And it is not just images. In Tahrir Square I sat one morning next to a 60-year-old surgeon cheerfully tweeting his involvement in the protest. The barricades today do not bristle with bayonets and rifles, but with phones.
As commentators have attempted to envision the character 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 often, though, they have tried to conceive them through the media that informed them as the result of WikiLeaks, as “Twitter revolutions” or electrified by Facebook.
All of which, as American media commentator Jay Rosen has written, has generated a similarly controversialist class of article in answer, most often written a long way from the revolutions. These stories are not simply distrustful about the contribution of social media, but anxious to deny it has played any part.
Those at the vanguard of this discussion 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’s folks who make revolutions, how could it be important?
Except social media has played a role. For those of us who’ve covered these events, it’s been inescapable.
Exactly how we communicate in these moments of historic crisis and change is important. The medium that carries the message shapes and outlines as well as the message itself. The immediate nature of how social media communicate self-broadcast concepts, unlimited by publication deadlines and broadcast news slots, explains in part The speed at which these revolutions have unscrambled, their nearly viral spread all over a region. It explains, as well , the frequently loose and non-hierarchical organisation of the protest movements unknowingly modelled on the networks of the web.
Speaking recently to the Huffington Post, Rosen argued that those taking positions at either acute of the talk were acting lazy and wrong. “Wildly overdrawn declarations about social media, frequently made with weaselly question marks (like : ‘Tunisia’s Twitter revolution?’) and the derisive debunking that follows from those claims (‘It’s not that simple!’) only appear to be opposite perspectives. Actually they’re 2 modes in which the same weightless discussion is conducted.
“Revolutionary hype is social change analysis cheaply. Debunking is techno-realism cheaply. Neither one tells us much about our world.”
Rosen is right. And when I commenced researching this subject I too started out as a sceptic. But what I experienced on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt challenged my preconceptions, as did the evidence that has sprang from both Libya and Bahrain. For neither the idea of the “Twitter Revolutions” or their un-Twitterness, accurately reflects the reality. Often , the contribution of social networks to the Arab uprisings has been as significant as it’s also got been complex, paradoxical 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 outlined by specific local factors (not least how folk live their lives online in individual countries and what state boundaries were in place). Its role has been formed too by how well arranged the groups using social media have been.
When Tarak Mekki, an exiled Tunisian entrepreneur, politician and net activist returned to Tunisia from Canada in the days after the Jasmine Revolution he was welcomed by a group of hundreds. Most of them know Mekki for A Thousand and One Nights, the Monday-night video he used to post on YouTube deriding the regime of the left President Zine Alabidine Ben Ali.
“It’s amazing that we took part thru the web in ousting him,” he said on his arrival. “Via uploading videos. What we probably did on the web had credibility and that is the reason why it was successful.”
Tunisia was exposed under the Ben Ali regime to the type of external and internal dissent represented by A Thousand and One Nights. In a state where the media were tightly controlled and the opposition cynically daunted, Tunisia not only exercised a tight monopoly on Internet provision but blocked access to most social networking sites except Facebook.
“They wanted to close Facebook down in the first quarter of 2009,” says Khaled Koubaa, president of the Internet Society in Tunisia, “but it was really complicated. So many folks were using it that it would appear that the regime backed off because they suspected banning it may essentially cause more issues (than leaving it).”
Indeed, when the Tunisian executive did shut it down momentarily, for 16 days in Aug 2008, it was challenged with a threat by cyber activists to shut their net accounts. The regime was compelled to back down.
Instead , claims Koubaa, the Tunisian authorities attempted to pester those posting on Facebook. “If they became mindful of you on Facebook they would attempt to divert your account to a fake login page to take your password.”
And despite the claims of Tunisia being a Twitter revolution or impressed by WikiLeaks neither played much of a part. On Twitter you can find a lot of interesting twitter pictures.In Tunisia, pre-revolution, only around 200 active tweeters existed out of almost 2,000 with registered accounts. The WikiLeaks pages on Tunisian corruption, announces Koubaa, who with his friends tried to line up sites where his fellow citizens could view them, were blocked as quickly as they appeared and anyhow, the data was barely stories to Tunisians. However , “Facebook was huge,” he asserts. Koubaa argues that social media during Ben Ali’s dictatorship existed on two levels. About a thousand “geeks” like him communicated via Twitter, while maybe two million talked on Facebook. The activism of the first group informed that of the latter.
All of which left a strange loophole that endured till December, when the regime eventually launched a large scale attack against Facebook. This in in a country that already tortured and imprisoned blog writers, and where the states Internet censors at the Ministry of the Inside were nick-named “Amar 404″ after the 404 error that appeared when a page was blocked.
“Social media was completely crucial,” claims Koubaa. “Three months before Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Sidi Bouzid we had a similar case in Monastir. But nobody 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 common in lots of these states, Facebook has functioned in the way the media should as a source of information. 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 former members of the old regime.
“We still do not believe the news and television,” he is saying, a not amazing fact when many of the orginal correspondents are still working. “I research what’s going down on Facebook and the internet.” Like many Bhourri has become a foot soldier in the web campaign against the old Tunisian regime.
“I put up beginner video on Facebook. For instance, a chum got some footage of a sniper on Avenue de Carthage. It’s what I’ve been doing, even during the crisis. You share video and photos. It was if you wrote something or made it yourself that there had been a real problem. ” as reported tagza.com.