The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

Worrying about why Tunisia doesn’t dominate the headlines seems to be missing the point. This has been a social media revolt, both in the mobilisation of middle class intellectuals via Facebook and Twitter and in the gathering and distribution of detailed information about what was happening on the ground. Much inflated hyperbole is talked about the effect of social media on politics and society in Europe and the US. But here in the Middle East, it is impossible exaggerate the importance – actual and potential – of informal media. (An earlier post of mine on this here).

Anyone doubting its importance to the events in Tunisia should look at the actions of the authorities. At first, traditional reflexes operated. Newspapers were disrupted and journalists detained. Then the authorities realised that the printed press was a nuisance but not the real problem: they went after the bloggers and the web. This sequence of events is well summarised here by IFEX.

The blogs in English and French that people in Europe and the US can easily read are of course not the real networks that matter. Caroline Faraj, the editor-in-chief of cnnnarabic.com, says that they have logged 28,000 Arabic bloggers and the true total must be much larger. The release of the US diplomatic cables gave bloggers and the bolder local media (such as Al-Jazeera) truly dramatic material, not least about the greed of the Tunisian elite. One unamed Tunisian was quoted this morning as complaining about “thievery at high levels”. The American ambassador in Tunis didn’t go that far, but his private view isn’t that different.

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5 comments

  1. Though your points about geopolitics are well taken, I take issue with this statement:

    “The blogs in English and French that people in Europe and the US can easily read are of course not the real networks that matter.”

    Both the Tunisian and Moroccan blogospheres (the latter of which I’ve studied for the past four years) are, and have historically been, largely Francophone. There are indeed large swaths of Arabic bloggers as well, and as Internet penetration increases (Tunisia’s at about 30%) and the middle class gains access, the Arabic blogosphere grows, but nevertheless, many of the networks that “matter”, as you put it, are indeed Francophone, or a combination of Arabic and French, anyway.

    • Jillian – I was making a point generally about the Arab world but your distinction on Tunisian and Moroccan bloggers is of course quite right. Did I listen to you on this subject at the Al Jazeera Forum last April? George

  2. Indeed, George, that was me. You’re definitely correct vis-a-vis the Arab world in general.

  3. My two cents:

    Well, one other consideration is that his regime is friendly to the West- wheras hundreds of thousands have died, if not over a million, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and STILL there isn’t a unified popular uprising, the nation of Tunisia has successfully revolted against Tyranny.

    So… maybe the West, particularly the U.S. is hypocritical and friendly dictatorships like that of Ali, and thus isn’t keen to publicize our support of tyranny or romanticize the heroic effort of these Tunisian patriots who risk life and limb to do what the West superficially claims to do: support democracy.

  4. The development of Translation tools has made it possible for the non French/Arabic speaking World to link in with the Tunisian bloggers, which I have done since mid December and distributed their material.

    Tunisia is a very popular holiday spot for the UK community. They have met the Tunisian community and are a bit more knowledgable than we would give them credit for.

    The media statements made by British holiday makers on return home were clearly one of sympathy and support for Tunisian people.

    My point is, other factor now play an important role in the new model of Revolution. Gone are the days when some sort of old style Bureaucracy giving Direction and Strategy to a repessed group of workers.

    This is the beauty of The Tunisian people and their Jasimie Revolution. Thats why the whole World is watching.

    Terry Stewart