The political situation in Tunisia is still very much in flux. Even though Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator for the past 23 years, has left the country, a peaceful democratic transition is still far from assured. Still, the “Jasmine Revolution” is a subject of study in and of itself, especially by those like myself interested in studying the digital angle. Fortunately, no one is calling this a Twitter (or Facebook or YouTube) revolution, which represents a great step forward, given the strength of that trope in previous uprisings in Moldova and Iran.
At this point we do not know which technologies were most critical in initiating and then maintaining the street demonstrations that were the ultimate cause of Ben Ali’s exit. However, in telling the digital story of these protest, there is a right way and a wrong way to proceed. Here’s how to do this analysis in the right way:
Don’t Look with an Outsider’s Eye
We outside of Tunisia cannot use our own media experience as a proxy for that of the Tunisian people. As Evgeny Morozov points out:
This is not to deny that many of us were watching the Tunisian events unfold via Twitter. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is still a very small audience of overeducated tech-savvy people interested in foreign policy…. I’m curious to see more data about the role that social media have played in the mobilization of protesters. I hope that Sami ben Gharbia and others would enlighten us here.
Don’t Start with Technology
Evgeny underlines another good point: we need to start with the actions that resulted in Ben Ali’s fall (mobilization of street protest) and work backwards to see whether and how digital technology was used. We cannot begin by looking for instances of social media use and then weaving them into an accurate story of cause and effect. With that kind of selection bias, there is simply too great a possibility for over-stating technology’s significance. If you are looking for the “critical role” or YouTube, or Facebook, or Twitter you will find it.
Remember that Technology is Not a Cause
At the same time, it is important not to be swept into the “people vs. technology” dichotomy implied by articles like “Tunisia: Social Justice or Social Media?”, a piece written by Jamal Dajani of Internews in the Huffington Post, in which he writes:
Although they are an educated tech-savvy generation who were able to use social media as a tool, the underlying force was not a byproduct of this and the current situation would have come to pass with or without it. Crediting social media with these revolutions however, trivializes them and does a disservice to the deep rooted issues that cause them.
Technology has never been a cause of protest and revolution. It has always been a facilitator (or obstacle). And it cannot be separated from human action because technology only has meaning as it is used by humans.
The Answer is “Yes”, Now Ask “How Much?”
As my colleague Rasmus Kleis Nielsen likes to remind me, as the world becomes ever more digitized, it will be difficult to find a political movement that does not have some digital element. With that in mind, the question should be “how much and to what extent did digital technology play a role?”
In some cases it will be through broadcasting the message out to the world via citizen media. In other cases it will be in generating citizen media that is not absorbed directly but that is shared in a kind of two-step flow through through the traditional media where content – particularly digital video – boomerang back into the country of origin. In this case, people learn of protests not be seeing them directly on YouTube but by seeing them on popular news channels like Al Jazeera, who broadcast those videos. Given the popularity of these types of news channels in the Middle East and the lack of evidence that social media guided the protests directly, this is certainly a possibility for Tunisia.
In this case, citizen media would have played a role in digital “information cascades” (see Clay Shirky) by showing Tunisians that their fellow citizens were out in the streets. I believe this is what my colleague David Faris was getting at when he wrote that it is becoming ever more difficult for governments to lie to their citizens.
Yet this is just one hypothesis linking digital technology to the mobilizations that brought down Ben Ali. I think if we are guided by the right principles of analysis we will learn what role digital technology played in the Jasmine Revolution.
UPDATE: Looks like my hypothesis about the interplay of citizen media and regional TV was right on the money. (Jury’s still out on whether there was a boomerang effect.) From Evgeny Morozov:
Over Twitter, Sami ben Gharbia – who, I hope, will finally get a chance to return to Tunisia after his long exile – pointed out that social media did play an important role in “feeding” information to Al-Jazeera and France 24, conceding that at the same time it didn’t have much of an impact on the coverage of the protests in the US.