I recently had the opportunity to meet Kouraich Jaouahdou. Kouraich owns a communications agency in Tunis, and as a former information-communications expert and organizer of several events highlighting bloggers and other groups acting against Ben Ali, tracked the media elements of the revolution from the beginning. Once the protests began in Tunis, he was also out in the street protesting with his fellow citizens. This is how Kouraich remembers the role of the media in the Tunisian revolution, and as the account of a single individual, there are bound to be inconsistencies and errors of memory. In some instances, I have made changes in Kouraich’s account based on news accounts of events. In these cases I link to the source.
2008: Back to Gafsa
Kouraich begins his account of the Tunisian Revolution not in December of 2010, but in January of 2008. Phosphate is a major Tunisian export and Gafsa, a town in the 90,000, is a key production site. In 2008 it served as the epicenter of protests against the Ben Ali regime, and many protesters were killed.
A friend of Kouraich’s posted a video of the massacre to the site Dailymotion. While the Gafsa massacre did not make the news internationally, this small use of digital media for activism did alert the Ben Ali regime to the political uses of social media. As a result, the regime blocked DailyMotion, YouTube, and later on Facebook. However, protests against the blocking of Facebook causes that one site to be reopened that same year.
Tunisian access to Facebook would prove critical to activists in 2010 and social media would ensure that a silent massacre like Gafsa did not repeat itself.
2010: Mohamed Bouazizi’s Act of Despair
By now the world is familiar with the actions of Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller who set himself on fire outside the local municipal building on December 17th, 2010, in his home town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia.
That same day, protests began in Sidi Bouzid. Kouraich was not present, but from what he could tell through postings on Facebook and Twitter (a hashtag #sidibouzid quickly emerged) and videos uploaded to YouTube and DailyMotion, the protests seemed not to be organized by institutions, but rather by free agents – “just ordinary people.” This mirrors the pattern of leaderless networked protests in Egypt a few weeks later.
Of course, the Ben Ali regime noticed that protesters were using social media. They had learned in 2008 that blocking Facebook could result in a Streisand Effect, where blocking a popular service actually brought greater attention to the political purposes for which it was banned and was a black eye for the regime. Rather than blocking Facebook they blocked the personal and group pages that Tunisians were using to share content about the protest. Digitally-savvy Tunisians like Kouraich were well-versed in the use of proxy servers, and were still able to view the pages, but for most Tunisians, access was effectively blocked.
Al Jazeera the Amplifier
In his TED talk few days ago, Wadah Khanfar, the Director General of the Al Jazeera Network, validated this role explicitly:
We in Al Jazeera were banned in Tunisia for… for years and the governments did not allow any Al Jazeera reporters to be there. But we found that these people in the street all of them are our reporters, feeding our newroom with pictures, with videos, and with news! And suddenly that newsroom in Doha became a center that received all this kind of input from ordinary people, from people who are connected …. And then we took that decision.. we are the voice of these voiceless people, we are going to spread the message.
The Value of Sneakernets
In the town of Kasserine, another Gafsa was in the offing. Protests had spread to this town and security forces had blockaded the citizens inside and several deaths had already occurred. It seemed that the regime was hoping to squash the protests with another brutal massacre.
But this time it was impossible to implement an effective information blockade. Activists took memory cards with video on them and passed them over the border to Algeria, from whence they were transported to Tunis and onto the Internet, where they were picked up by stations like Al Jazeera. The Tunisian government was no longer able to operate in an information vacuum.
The Role of Radio
Television played an important role in raising awareness of protests, but so did radio. In late 2010 two new radio stations were launched in eastern Tunisian and the capital region: Express FM and Shams FM. Though the founders of both had ties to the Ben Ali regime, they were not die-hard loyalists, and the stations hired young and independent journalists who were digital natives. In late December – the 29th, 30th, and 31st as Kouraich remembers it – the stations began broadcasting information about the human rights abuses occurring in other parts of the country.
Around the same time Nessma TV, a satellite station based in Tunis, broadcast a forum in which opposition members and activists were allowed to freely explain the situation to the Tunisian public. These figures would never have previously been allowed on national television. The Internet could be seen as starting a domino effect in which more and more media outlets started covering, even on a small scale, the protests against the Ben Ali regime.
Seeing opposition figures on TV and hearing them on the radio served to reduce public fear of the regime, a key turning point in any nonviolent revolution. By the time major protests started in Tunis in late December and early January, thousands were in the streets.
The Phone-to-Computer Network
But the role of social media was not over once news of the protests jumped into the mainstream media. During the protests in Tunis ordinary citizens, now unafraid of Facebook monitoring by the regime, said in the status updates that they were going to the protests, influencing their friends to go as well. On a darker note, Facebook, Twitter, SMS, and digital images were used by citizens to warn of the locations of snipers shooting at protesters , especaailly after Ben Ali escaped, leaving his regime’s armed militia trying to recover the streets.
This online-mobile synergy was another trend in the protests. Sometimes digital analysts like to argue whether the Interet or mobile phones are more important for activism, but in Tunisia computers and mobile phones were merely separate entry points to the same network. People would report sniper positions via SMS or a voice call and then someone sitting in front of a computer would post the information to a Facebook page or tweet it.
The protests in Tunisia reveal three key trends in digital activism:
1. Leaderless Revolutions
In both Tunisa and Egypt we have seen robust protest movements arise online. As Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, leaderless revolutions do not necessarily stay that way, but the means of leader selection are more democratic than in traditional top-down structures. In a network “meritorious growth” (increased network connections to those who provide value) snowballs through “preferential attachment” (quickly increasing connections for those who are already well-connected).
This is one theory of how Wael Ghonim became the face of the Egyptian Revolution. He was dubbed a leader by the media, but (more significantly) a represenative by the youth movement, not because of top-down patronage but because he inspired the other members of the movement that he was a part of.
Will networked leaders make the transition into the stiff hiercharchies of the state? Will they lose their networks or will their networks change the institutions they enter? Will the networked movements elect traditional politicians to represent them? These are hugely interesting questions which we will see playing out live.
2. The End of Information Vaccuums
It used to be possible for an authoritarian regime to kick out the media and then butcher hordes of its own people through the (often willing) blindness of the international community. As the Chinese and Burmese governments – as well as the Tunisians – have seen recently, even one tourist with a digital camera can bring evidence of an atrocity to international awareness.
The “international community” has also changed. While diplomats have been aware of the atrocities of foreign governments for years and have often made strategic choices not to act, ordinary people may not have such sange-froid. When an atrocity occurs, foreign governments may be pushed by their own citizens and the media to act, even when they otherwise would not.
3. The New Media Domino Effect
During the Cold War, the domino effect referred to the theory enunciated by President Eisenhower that if one country in a region became communist, surrounding countries would follow. The new media domino effect is that if one type of media outlet is broadcasting important information, other media outlets will follow or become obsolete.
This seems to have been the case in Tunisia, where the Internet was the first domino, the freest form of media in an un-free country and the one closest to events on the ground because it was being created by participants in those events. Though state-owned media did not topple in Tunisia, it almost did in Egypt, where anchors on state TV began speaking publicly (though off-air) in support of the protests before Mubarak fell.
As evidence of a new reality becomes harder to ignore, media outlets closer and closer to the regime begin to fall, until the information space is saturated with the alternative narrative of the revolution. Although Muammar Gaddafi says “all my people, they love me” everyone knows he is lying.