Wednesday, July 30, 2014


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Tunisia: Can We Please Stop Talking About 'Twitter Revolutions'?

While the tear gas was still hanging in the streets of Tunis, many pundits were quick to christen Tunisia’s revolution. Andrew Sullivan has asked (again) whether it’s a Twitter Revolution. Elizabeth Dickinson, among others, speculated in “Foreign Policy” that it might be a “WikiLeaks revolution.” Anonymous, the online activists who recently attacked targets perceived to be against WikiLeaks, claimed it as their own after their DDOS attacks on various government targets. For cyber-utopians, the unfolding events in Tunisia and the role of social media, was a cause célèbre, a knockdown to the naysayer Malcolm Gladwell. (See my critique of Gladwell’s argument here.)

First off, it looks like social media did have an important role to play here. An estimated 18 percent of Tunisia’s population is on Facebook and, left unblocked by the government, it was a place where many Tunisians shared updates pertaining to the protests. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, the video-sharing sites Dailymotion and YouTube were also important. And with a paucity of on-the-ground media coverage, Twitter excelled as a medium in getting the message out, in driving mainstream media coverage, and in connecting activists on the ground with multipliers in the West.

Revolutions, of course, are notoriously slippery customers to evaluate. As Juan Cole writes, "Revolutions are always multiple revolutions happening simultaneously." It's difficult enough looking at revolutions from years ago and attributing relative importance to each of the many factors, let alone when people are still on the streets and chaos reigns. When you look at the complex mix of factors in Tunisia -- the economy, a frustrated over-educated, unemployed middle class, the trade unions, rampant censorship and government corruption, and, yes, social media -- establishing a single cause for the revolution, especially for something as marginal for most Tunisians as WikiLeaks, seems preposterous. If there is a need to apply a single cause and moniker for the events in Tunisia, it would make as much sense to call this the “Mohamed Bouazizi Revolution,” after the man who set himself on fire a few weeks ago to protest the government. But that too would be overly simplistic.

As the events in Tunisia continue to unfold they will be ripe for study by academics and experts, but in so quickly applying our theories of social mobilization, or our frameworks of revolutionary change, we become blind to what is really happening. As Evgeny Morozov’s makes clear in his recent book, by over-focusing on the technology, we lose sight of what’s really important.

The problem is that we so desperately want there to be a Twitter revolution. In a 24-hour news cycle, we don’t just seek instant news but instant answers, clear explanations and narratives that can be book-ended with events and wrapped up into a three-word headline. At first it is just a catchy headline beloved of journalists in need of page views, but quickly that moniker becomes a narrative, an established truth that is often wildly divergent with the reality on the ground.

In our search for a single cause, we're much more likely to settle on an "new technology" explanation rather than something as dull as a great many of the participants were unemployed or wearing socks. Not only do "Twitter revolution" explanations mean more page views, but they fulfill some deterministic urge within us -- the dual promises of technology and modernity. There was as much breathless enthusiasm about the power of the telegraph to do good as there is the Internet. In Tom Standage’s wonderful book on the growth of the telegraph he says these reactions are amplified by what he terms "chronocentricity," "the egotism that ones own generation is poised on the very cusp of history."

More than that, Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves. When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves. Some of us are not only praising the tools we know and love and use every day, but also the tools we build and have stakes in. To proclaim a Twitter revolution is almost a form of intellectual colonialism, stealthy and mildly delusional:  We project our world, our values, and concerns onto theirs and we shouldn’t. We use Twitter and so must they. In our rush to christen the uprising, did we think to ask Tunisians what they wanted to call their revolution?

I've been to Tunisia a few times, the last time to a town called Tabarka close to the Algerian border. I went with my wife, lured by the promise of a jazz festival and a decent-enough hotel. It was a slightly unnerving, windswept place, with a decayed colonial grandeur, very different to the more modern resorts along the coast. In the hotel there was a gym, but the ancient machines were covered with dust. A Jacuzzi, but with no water. A lot was broken. The hotel reminded me of the scene in Empire of the Sun where the young Jim comes back to his family’s abandoned home at the end of the war. A reminder of past lives, as if the wrong people (in this case sun-seeking Eastern European tourists) had been transplanted there.

With the hotel being no great shakes, we often wandered into the town. From traveling a little bit in the Arab world, I was used to seeing a lot of men on the streets. But I had never seen anything like Tabarka. With the tourism industry in that part of the country on the wane, it was full of angry young men with no jobs.

People hissed at us in the streets (my wife was careful to dress appropriately); a boy in a group of children made a throat-cutting sign to us when we walked out of the town to visit a fort. People made pig noises at us. While it wasn’t particularly pleasant, it wasn't the end of the world. (I’ve been much more fearful in London pubs at closing time and many other Tunisians were lovely to us during our stay there.)

I’m not making excuses for unpleasantness, but if I lived in Tabarka without any chance of work under a corrupt regime and saw Western tourists throwing their money around, I might feel the same. Nor do I claim to know anything about Tunisia because I’ve been there on holiday several times. But when, as a tourist, you can feel that street-level anger and aggression, and see the hopelessness many of the town’s young men felt in trying to sell a few pieces of pottery to a few lousy tourists, then it does seem rather ridiculous and narcissistic to talk about the role of WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

So when I hear about Tunisians rising up, I think of the men of Tabarka, and hope that they'll get a better deal and a government they finally deserve.

Tags: twitter,Tunisia

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by: Thom from: London
January 15, 2011 12:23
You suggest that, "we desperately want there to be a twitter revolution"...one wonders who the "we" to which you refer is? i suspect it's those self-facilitating media nodes who forge a living out of selling spurious 'social media' mythologies. I'm personally not that bothered how a country gets what it popularly desires, but more than that, I'm fairly certain that new technologies of communication, I.e. Social media, neither create nor sustain the conditions of 'revolution'.
In Response

by: Abhijit Sahay from: Short Hills
January 15, 2011 21:20
What makes you so sure that technology can (does?) not create social social revolutions? Before running away, the tyrant tried to bargain using the most important chip he had (NYT, Jan 15) -- “I am telling you I understand you, yes, I understand you,” Mr. Ben Ali, 74, declared. “And I decided: total freedom for the media with all its channels and no shutting down Internet sites and rejecting any form of monitoring of it.” This is a Twitter revolution, like all others.

by: Alasdair Ross from: UK
January 15, 2011 13:14
Interesting, but misconceived. Calling this a Twitter revolution is just shorthand to draw attention to the role played by social media in sustaining and amplifying the movement. Tunisia (and Libya, and Egypt, and numerous others) rely on intimidating, co-opting and suppressing institutionalised opposition to perpetuate authoritarian regimes. The tactic has worked pretty well in the past, but social media has allowed the disaffected to bypass those opposition institutions and organise in the streets. Only direct, violent repression can counter such an upswell in public anger, and in this case not even that was enough. The contention is quite simple, whether true or not: this revolution wouldn't have succeeded without social media. That's a powerful precedent, and one that surely has more than one autocrat reaching nervously for the tools of net censorship.
In Response

by: Anonymous
January 19, 2011 13:53
It looks like you have no idea about the old Tunisian system with Ben Ali!!
This revolution was driven by Facebook and to some extent by twitter!
people were to network through facebook
In Response

by: Dan from: Indiana
January 24, 2011 06:02
You're right Alasdair, the revolution in Tunisia has relied on social media to coordinate protests and the movements activities, and without these tools it would be a much more difficult process, but to say that this movement is a social media revolution is misguided. All movements that cause substantial social change need to be organized, just as the U.S. Civil Rights movement used SNCC and the NAACP to coordinate their activities, or the French Revolution used the National Constituent Assembly. But to suggest that these movements would not have taken place without the presence of these organizational entities is reaching too far. You cannot claim that the French Revolution would have not happened if the National Constituent Assembly was not coordinating its activities, because some other entity would have stepped in to fill the organizational demand for the actions to bring about social change. In the case of Tunisia, social media has just provided the easiest way for the revolution to organize. We do not call the Civil Rights Movement the NAACP Revolution, so why call this a "Twitter Revolution?"

by: Rahul Varshney from: McAllen, Texas, USA
January 15, 2011 13:41
This article seems to have a cynical bent towards Twitter/FB/social media. If Twitter/FB were in parts tool used by the youth in Tunisia to promote positive change, and if youth in other parts of the world can adapt these tools in their community, wouldn't all of us benefit? Even those who don't use twitter? "Tweeting" (or actually posting updates on Twitter) is not required to improve one's community through Twitter, anymore than making a website is required to learn from the web. Indeed, should we deem this article unimportant because I'm reading it digitally, and not in print? So why make this revolution about being ALL or NOTHING. The article itself states, "And with a paucity of on-the-ground media coverage, Twitter excelled as a medium in getting the message out, in driving mainstream media coverage, and in connecting activists on the ground with multipliers in the West." We have so many corporate filters on these days.... Anyhow, here's an article that I think places Twitter in its appropriate context as an agent of change :
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/14/AR2011011405084.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

by: Hans Ibold from: Indiana
January 15, 2011 13:44
Thanks for the essay. Especially like the point about the Twitter revolution narratives as signs of ethnocentricism. But it seems to me that these narratives are really being spun by a just a few voices and then trounced by even fewer, though louder, voices. In my experience, the vast majority of scholars and other observers interested in the interaction between social media and social change are much more skeptical. Curious, yes. Focused, yes. But hardly evangelical.

by: Sara Wedeman from: USA
January 15, 2011 15:56
To your point: <a href="http://muckrack.com/bencnn/statuses/26288163903250000">No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.</a> Ben Wedeman, CNN, in Tunis.

by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
January 15, 2011 20:05
Why does the concept of a Twitter revolution bother you so much, really?

Twitter *itself* is a revolution and has revolutionized some communications in ways we don't even understand yet. That doesn't mean human nature has changed; it is the same. But there are some accelerated and new things about connectivity and communications and pretending there aren't doesn't diminish them.

Grumping about it and batting it away can't change the fact that increasingly people rely on and heavily use this micro-blogging platform in ways they never did on anything before, even telephone, fax, or email.

But more to the point, where are these evil people touting this techno-driven cyber-utopian narrative? In fact, as I look around, I don't see a pundit, journalist, or even State Department official (the favourite target of the cyber-cynicals) crowing about any Twitter revolutions. Ok, well, maybe Andrew Sullivan had an interrogative headline. That's it! This is one of those figment's of the left's imagination which they now use to club people they don't like.

Even so, there is no doubt that the recents events in Tunisia -- to pick a popular global leftist cause -- became a world cause celebre in large part because of Twitter. A highlight was the use of Google maps to geolocate a dissident blogger who sent out his location from inside a government prison via this Google feature. That doesn't mean people actually used Twitter in the squares to make or break their protests, but enough used it -- and more importantly, enough talked about it on Twitter, to make it "count".

The *combination* of Twitter with tools like that as well as Live Journal, Facebook and so on make it revolutionary. It's precisely because of that more subtle complexity that debunkers keep banging on it.

"Revolutionary" doesn't mean "unambigiously good" or "only used by good actors" or "used evenly with the same results all the time" or "used to overthrow a dictator". It just means a sweeping change in the way people communicate -- and I hardly think you can argue that, when you yourself are on Twitter a hundred times a week.

And to pick a cause *unpopular* with the global left (and therefore derided as "not a Twitter revo" although it certainly was benefited greatly by Twitter, there were THOUSANDS of tweets about the events in Belarus *from inside Belarus*. Indeed, with opposition websites down, with world news agencies not there, with some following events only from their Moscow bureaus, with the Live Journals not written yet, Twitter was the best and fastest way to find out news, and especially to begin to make sense and curate and aggregate the welter of materials that did appear. Twitter's role as curator never seems to be appreciated, but without that curation, these events would be hopelessly fragmented.

The idea that they "have" to come from inside a public square during a demonstration -- when the government shuts down cell service and even electricity, like Lukashenka did, is just plain silly. They don't have to. In fact, the tweets of ordinary people, of relatives of prisoners, of staff of human rights groups -- they are what constitute the "revolution" -- when the main actors either thwart communications of other main actors, there's Twitter to fill in the interstices.

Read #electby for the period of December to date, and you'll see this. It's only profound cynicism and slavish adherence to some theory of RealPolitik defeatism that causes Morozov to claims that #electby "trended in Washington, DC" (and I'm not convinced it actually did that, or did that as a *top* trend for any significant kind).


by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
January 15, 2011 20:08

As for your experience of hate and poverty, hate and poverty, I'm going to assume you aren't ascribing any silly economically-determist "root causes" here with Marxist solutions. The fact is, however, when people's desperate protests get tweeted about, they get validated, and not just by tourists and journalists, but many others.

An Iranian who was making some of the videos said, when people kept asking how they could help (and in the West, far away, there isn't an awful lot to do), that just watching, just talking about the films, just connecting, was already a form of help. And that's what Twitter enables.

I find it particularly distasteful to suggest that "Twitter revolution narratives" are "ethnocentric," i.e. Western or even just American concoctions. That's just plain silly. People are signing up for Twitter in droves in the post-Soviet space you cover, and you can obviously see that on the many hashtags on Twitter and see it in your own re-tweets for God's sake.

Interestingly, the narrative re: false claims about the alleged violence of the Belarusian opposition, countered on Twitter and Youtube and various blogs and independent news sites, has trouble getting heard because mainstream Russian and even Western media can't let go of their own early and mistaken take which was "some radical element of the opposition stormed the building". Your own reporting here on this site belies that. Yet there's a certain liberal snark about it all that says "colour revolutions are astroturfed from the West and aren't authentic".

Meanwhile, despite ample visual evidence of the use of violence by the Tunisian opposition, both alternative and mainstream media overlooked the obvious facts of burning objects and stones thrown and all the rest because they felt the cause was just and there wasn't any "astroturfing" to be found, real or imagine

Let me say it again: by overfocusing on Evgeny Morozov, you are missing the many more nuanced and informed opinions out there about this phenomenon and you definitely need to vary the palate. He never said a truer word when he tweeted about Belarus, "I'm 130 km from the action." Indeed. Here's a good critique of Morozov until I can get mine done: http://is.gd/ntPlNh

by: Jef Wallace from: Hollywood CA
January 15, 2011 23:28
How about a Twitter Revolution right here in the USA ? Sure could use one !

by: JH from: DC
January 18, 2011 15:35
This is a really smart piece that points up the intellectual laziness of established media outlets in confusing the recent with the important. My hat is off to the author.

by: GORDON HAROLD DOWTON from: CANADA
January 19, 2011 20:49
Can it be: That smell. That ever so fragile whiff of sanity amongst the stink of rhetoric. It is so fragile, unobtrusive a pheromone, that it is easily passed by the noses placed elsewhere. Is it species specific? But....we are all human beings. Beings, of a sort, yes...but human...as in 'humane'...'humanity'...? I would have to put that in question. Technology? Read the accounts of Oppenheimer and the 'kids' at Los Alamos...Oh the joy...until Leslie Groves said 'Playtime is over kids...give us the toys.' Read of the contrite vomiting at watching footage of what the 'toys' to protect 'our boys' had done to unsuspecting civilians. 'Oh..but why two bombs?' ' 'Well,you see, it is based on the THEORY OF MULTIPLES, which states, if you only use one, the enemy(civilians)only think that you have 'one.' But if you use two, then they think that you have more.' So rational. Makes sense to me. But...an even better logic. Waste one bomb....explode it in a non populated area, like an act of arrogant superiority saying...'This is what we can do...and the next is on your city.' To actually waste one shows that you MUST have more. Appropriate seeing/perception first..un biased...then logic, reason, appropriate thinking on appropriate use. The operative words being PERCEPTION(seeing what ACTUALLY IS)and APPROPRIATE(make one's own...take to oneself).

Do you, the reader, see or think that the human brain, as it presents now...is actually capable of the latter? Sorry. GHD
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Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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