Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

I was discussing the Wikileaks cables and Tunisia today with Ali Jaber, the Dean of the School of Communications at the American University in Dubai and a leading expert on Arab television, and he put the significance of the leaked American despatches neatly. What the revelations of those cables did, he said, was to remove the regime’s “plausible deniability”. In other words, when confronting claims of corruption a government can usually hope to cloud the issue somehow with a carefully spun denial: rumours put about by people with an axe to grind, external agitators, where’s the evidence. That sort of thing. They can’t make rumours lie down, but they can blur and soften the impact. As Ali Jaber says the cables destroyed any pretence that there was any doubt about the luxury in which the President’s family or that the Americans discussed his corruption. There was denying to be done. Facts are more powerful than rumours.

People make revolutions. Did Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and begin the whole train of events because he had read that President Ben Ali’s son-in-law keeps a pet tiger? No. But ideas can make people act. People who knew a little more about what their government was really, truly like might have been just a little more emboldened by that extra knowledge.

As to Twitter, Marc Lynch is quite right to to stress that it’s just a piece in the mix and that television remains the key medium. But informal, instant peer-to-peer networks are a layer in this and played a part. And they are more important where mainstream media is not believed. Mistrust in government-controlled media motivates people to make their own news networks. And they did.

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