Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

To complete the corrections: I was also sweepingly dismissive of the relative importance of bloggers writing in English and French. Arab new media expert Jillian C. York posted a comment which pointed out that this is a shade unfair to bloggers in Tunisia and Morocco, where non-Arabic sites are significant. Jillian’s broader argument that this is a human and not techno-driven revolt and a host of relevant links is here. And drumming away in the background is the debate started by Evgeny Morozov’s new book The Net Delusion.

By now there is a host of posts out there wondering if Tunisia is the first of a series of Arab government “dominoes” likely to fall.  Lebanese broadcaster Abeer Madi al-Halabi said that Tunisia teaches “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.” Digital communications will change power balances in the Middle East where mainstream media are often ossified and controlled, but two things to note:

  • Historically, most domino predictions don’t happen. The specific and varied circumstances of individual countries see to that. The comparison with Gdansk in 1989 is understandable in a moment of euphoric optimism but far-fetched. The communist regimes of Central Europe went down like dominoes, but for reasons which were particular to the region, time and events (for more on this see here).
  • Be careful what you wish for. No Arab government will now be caught out by a yawning gap between the messages of the controlled mainstream media and digital social networks. And revolts and revolutions have a way of not turning out as expected. They get hi-jacked and distorted. On the freedom-of-expression level, would anyone have guessed that Hungary and South Africa, when they acquired more democratic governments in 1989 and 1991, would just two decades later by proposing repressive media laws which resemble the measures of their authoritarian pasts? I thought not.

Update 15/1/11:  Useful analysis here from Roula Khalaf of the FT: “Arab leaders should watch TV”.


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1 comment

  1. Excellent summary.

    I spent the weekend looking for evidence and I found quite a bit. that modern communications tech played a big role is very likely IMO.