A Social Media Revolution? Tunisians Weigh In

The following is a guest article by Ben Kerson, who lived and worked for an American NGO in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, for two years. Kerson reached out to nearly two dozen Tunisian citizens for their take on recent events. Ben Kerson currently lives in New York City.

We welcome your comments, feedback, and any social sharing of this report, which brings to light personal perspectives and insight on these events that are available nowhere else, online or off.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg On Tunisian Protest Sign
Photo by Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, used with permission.

On January 14, 2011, Tunisia became the first Arab nation to expel its leader through a popular revolt. For 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali ran Tunisia as a tightly gripped police state, where minor advances in quality of life were at the sacrifice of basic civil liberties.

The unrest began a month earlier, on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, unemployed and university-educated, doused himself in paint thinner, and set himself aflame. In doing so, he put a face on decades of fermented dissatisfaction, and instigated countless Tunisians to voice their outrage at the state of their union.

A rally was subsequently held in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid, calling for the creation of new jobs. Over the next two weeks, two more young men committed suicide, and several more protests were held. Tunisians were fed up with the lack of opportunities, increasing food prices, escalating taxes, and the bribe-based system of social mobility that Ben Ali and his corrupt regime had established.

By early January, the strikes and protests had moved from the impoverished countryside to Tunisia’s main economic centers. As events intensified, each rally resulted in numerous casualties, as Ben Ali employed what many in the world community condemned as excessive military force.

At the point when demonstrations reached the nation’s capital, Tunis, protesters had stopped calling for policy changes, and started calling for President Ben Ali’s removal. On January 14, Ben Ali absconded to Saudi Arabia. In just under a month, the people of Tunisia had successfully brought down their dictator.

Seeking a Narrative

The global media was quick to brand it a “Twitter Revolution” or “WikiLeaks Revolution.” Taking a cue from a pair of 2009 Twitter-fueled demonstrations in Iran and Moldova, the international press sought to highlight the role of social media in launching the anti-government protests in Tunisia.

According to Elizabeth Dickinson at ForeignPolicy.com, while some journalists stuck with classifying Tunisia’s protests as a “Social Media Revolution,” other reporters disputed that. Editorials appeared claiming — rightfully so — that to call the situation in Tunisia a Twitter, WikiLeaks or social media revolution would undermine the actual cause of protest: the years of suppressed frustration and the fraudulence of Ben Ali’s regime.

Ben Wedeman, CNN’s on-the-ground reporter in Tunisia, agreed. On January 15, he tweeted: “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.”

It is a salient point, as the roots of Tunisia’s indignation indeed lie in the lack of opportunity and the government’s abuse of power. But the roots of Tunisia’s uprising? Those are online.

Currently, journalists struggle to strike a proper balance between social issues and social media. However, in doing so, many are failing to understand the role of the Internet in Tunisia’s uprising.

I spoke with nearly two dozen Tunisian citizens on this subject, and collected their responses. It’s glaring just how vital the Internet was to broadening this Tunisian revolt. To underwrite the role of social media in the toppling of Ben Ali’s regime would be a fallacy; perhaps Mr. Wedeman (@benCNN) should “friend” some Tunisians.

A Source of Information

Prior to the uprising, Tunisia had long been considered the most stable country in the region. However, beneath the veneer of its resort hotels and zones touristiques, was a population deeply unhappy with their leadership. A purported democracy, Tunisia was run without many of the tenets of a free society. Elections were falsified, public assembly was banned, and perhaps most crippling, there was no free press.

When it came to information, Ben Ali’s control was rampant. He maintained a zero-tolerance policy on dissent, and many anti-government journalists were notoriously imprisoned. In their most recent Press Freedom Index, out of 178 countries, Reporters Without Borders ranked Tunisia at 164.

The government’s version of news hardly resembled journalism. The joke was, that no matter what was happening in the country, Tunisian newspapers only ran one article: Ben Ali is doing a fabulous job. So ludicrous was the extent of government censorship that nightly news programs would air video of dancing children. Over the years, Tunisians learned to ignore the mainstream media.

Screen Shot From the Facebook Wall of Mohamed Nafti 1/14/2011

But truth will out. Over the past three years, social networking has become the premier way to receive unsanctioned information in Tunisia. Rad Adalla, a business student at IHEC Carthage, explained how, in a country facing widespread censorship, social media “was basically the only means [of expression] that the government couldn’t completely control.”

As such, maintaining an online presence has become central to the livelihood of young Tunisians. “Social networks have always been a space for us to speak and express ourselves,” Tarek Marouani, a call center employee, told me. “We can post articles and videos showing the truth — no channel or newspaper can do that.”

In Tunisia, the most frequented social networking site is Facebook. Initially popular for superficial reasons, Facebook has assumed a profound relevance for a people fed up. Wièm Masmoudi, a Ph.D. candidate living in Tunis, explained it best: “We used it for fun… but Facebook has always been considered a source of information.”

On the News Feed

Before fleeing the country, Ben Ali broadcast a series of speeches in response to the demonstrations. While he made some concessions, mostly his regime’s official stance was to deny the facts, and to dilute the protesters’ reasoning. Recalling the president’s comments at that time, student activist Ibrahim Ben Slama remembered how “irrelevant they were, and how insulting they were.”

For the truth, Tunisia looked to the Internet. “Our first source of information was Facebook,” Wafa Ben Slimane, an unemployed university graduate told me. “A lot of new pages were created, new notes and videos were shared.” Activity surged, and thousands of Tunisians joined groups dedicated to tracking the progress of the protests, and to holding the authorities accountable — such as this Facebook Page with nearly 19,000 “Likes.”

Screen Shot From the Facebook Wall of Mohamed Nafti 1/14/2011

News on Facebook was immediate. As events unfolded, the site was crucial in spreading information. Mohamed Nafti, a 33 year-old doctor in Tunis (who provided the images included in this post), told me how he “was sticking by Facebook day and night.” Written personal accounts, images, and video captured on mobile phones flooded the site. In turn, an atmosphere emerged where, for the first time in their lives, young Tunisians voiced their opinions.

Ms. Ben Slimane, who grew up in the northern city of Bizerte, recalled, “Comments were said without fear… We knew that we were all suffering from the same problems.” The discontent ran deep, and social networking fostered a newfound unity among the youth of Tunisia.

As protests continued over the next three weeks, so did police violence — the echoes of which were amplified online. A demonstrator shot by the police would appear on Facebook’s newsfeed before even arriving at the hospital.

“The most important video I saw showed the massacre in Kasserine,” Ms. Masmoudi said, referring to a rally on January 8, in which six protesters were murdered by Tunisian authorities. “This kind of video couldn’t be seen on Tunisian television,” she added.

On Facebook, however, the content was unavoidable. Meriem Agrebi, an international law student, explained how, in reaction to these images, “a kind of strong solidarity was built even by those who did not go outside to protest.”

It was that solidarity that changed the rhetoric of the protesters: Where Tunisians first demanded more jobs, they ultimately began demanding a new government.

The Strongest Tool

Social media thus proved pivotal in turning localized rallies into a nationwide demand for change. Majed Fantar, a computer engineer, elaborated: “It’s true that the anger of the population had existed a long time before the protests began, but sharing opinions in social networks made these protests grow at a speed that the government could not predict.”

And, as the people of Tunisia came together online, so did they in person.

Numerous protests were planned on Facebook, several of them in synch around the country. According to Slimane, “People could make plans to protest in different cities at the same time, which made it difficult for the government to control.” Such was evident early in the struggle, on December 25, 2010, when three separate rallies were held in different cities across the country simultaneously.

To a logistical end, Facebook was “definitely the strongest tool,” Ibrahim Ben Slama explained. The site was integral to the organizing of actual demonstrations. In fact, the January 14th protest in Tunis — the decisive rally during which Ben Ali fled the country — was organized the night before as a Facebook event.

The political vigor of young Tunisia, fresh as it was, thrived on Facebook. Many admit to falling asleep with their browsers open, only to wake up a few hours later to hit refresh. Fahd Bourogaa, who grew up in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, described the lifestyle: “We spent the day protesting in front of strategic places… and at night, Facebook Time.”

“During the day, we protested on the street,” Ben Slama concurred. “During the night, we protested on Facebook.”

Changing Facebook Profile Pictures In SolidarityMany Tunisians changed their Facebook profile pictures in solidarity.
Here, an image of Mohamed Nafti’s Facebook friends with recently updated profile pictures.

If Not for Facebook

Yet the question remains: Could this uprising have been possible without social networking sites? When asked, many Tunisians, jaded by lifetimes of a controlled press, seemed doubtful.  “Absolutely not,” replied Ms. Agrebi. “The biggest part of [the uprising] was done by social media: the videos, the shocking images.”

Tarek Marouani agreed, “We could only get information via the internet. It allowed young people to communicate, and even the protests were planned on Facebook. Everyone contributed to this make this revolution happen, even with a short sentence as a status update.”

In examining the trajectory of the uprising, freedom of information remained a popular theme. “No, I do not think we could do what we did without Facebook,” argued Fahd Bourogaa. “The media was under control of the President…We had many people who died before Mohamed Bouazizi under this corrupt government. But we could not know what is happening in the country because they hid the truth.”

Jeber Belkhiria, a Tunisian veterinary student studying in Berlin, was more concise. “Hell no,” he told me. “Nobody would have noticed what was going on.”

Our Media

With the Tunisian government still in flux, the outcome of the uprising remains in question. What is clear, now that the media has been emancipated, is that the dam is broken. Slimane pronounced via email, “I’m not afraid anymore… I have the courage to send you what I wrote here, to discuss political issues on the phone, and to make comments on Facebook.”

It is not a stretch to say that much of that burgeoning confidence can be attributed to social media. “These websites were the weapon that the population used to claim their right to free access to information,” Fantar said. “They were the medium to make the government — and even the whole world — listen to our demands.”

Seventeen percent of Tunisia’s population is under 35, according to Ranjit Lall and Robin Wigglesworth at the Financial Times, which is a lower figure than in most Arab countries. Nonetheless, the country is home to an increasingly tech-savvy minority. This fluency with new media has enabled young Tunisia to level the firewalls of its dictatorship. It has created a generation that refuses to accept the official word of a police state.

“We don’t want to be fooled anymore,” said Agrebi, who is 24. “We’ve had enough of your media. We see all that you are doing with ours, and we won’t stay quiet anymore.”

Source: “The First WikiLeaks Revolution?,” Foreign Policy, 01/13/11
Source: “Tunisia: That ‘WikiLeaks Revolution’ Meme,” The Christian Science Monitor, 01/15/11
Source: “Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement,” TIME,  06/17/09
Source: “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter,” The New York Times, 04/07/09
Source: “Tunusia’s Revolution Was Twitterized,” The Huffington Post, 01/14/11
Source: “Tunisia, social media and the politics of attention,” Foreign Policy, 01/14/11
Source: “Press Freedom Index 2010: Europe falls from its pedestal, no respite in the dictatorships,” Reporters Without Borders
Source: “Timeline: Tunisia’s civil unrest,” Al Jazeera, 01/23/11
Source: “Where’s the next ‘Jasmine revolution’?,” Beyond Brics blog, Financial Times, 01/18/11
Featured photo by Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, used with permission.
Images from the Facebook Wall of Mohamed Nafti, used under with permission.

About David Reich

David Reich is co-founder and CEO of SixEstate, blending a background in traditional marketing and public relations with over 5 years of experience managing hundreds of online marketing campaigns for all kinds of organizations -- from small businesses and nonprofits to public companies. David is responsible for keeping SixEstate and its clients at the forefront of the rapidly evolving search and content marketing landscape. Connect with David on Twitter, Google+ or via email.

   

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  1. Karen Khaznaji says:

    Well written Ben and so true Facebook is how I stayed current with what was happening and we even used facebook to say if we needed help from the army in our neighborhoods and others who were on Facebook at the same time would call for help for us. I received all emergency numbers through Facebook along with SOS email information for Embassies. It was also how I kept my family in Canada informed on the events and how I did an interview for The Chronicle Herald, a newspaper in Halifax Nova Scotia. It is how we were encouraged by support from around the world and how we saw demonstrations in Canada in support of those of us here. I would have felt cut off if it wasn’t for Facebook and their team for helping us get our identities back that the government here stole by using https for us when we logged in. My identity and sign in was stolen twice before the 14th of January. Thanks to the Facebook team for recognizing that there was a problem and for helping us here.

    Karen Khaznaji

  2. Dabney Porte says:

    Wow…What a powerful and important article for all to read. We often speak to the point that “word of mouth” has gone global as it relates to branding and buisness. However, many of us forget that this same ability that we use for local, national and global reach, has a tremendous effect on situations such as what is going on in Tunisia. I thank you Ben for writing such an important piece so that we may all be reminded of the Global power social media has on governments and lives. I thank you David, for taking the to share it with me.

  3. Marleen Kassel says:

    In the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard of copy-cat self-immolation and other public acts of protest in countries near Tunisia. Can the author comment on this idea: As Tunisa Goes, so go Lybia and Algeria and the rest of the Middle East?

    In the Opinion Pages of the New York Times on Sunday, Jan. 23), Robert D. Kaplan discusses the ways in which Tunisia is unique among nations in the Middle East.

    At the same time he says, “Arabic-language cable television makes the Middle East a virtual community, so that an event in one part of the region can more easily affect another part. It’s worth hoping that Tunisia’s secular Jasmine Revolution can seed similar uprisings in a restive Middle East that has undergone vast economic and social change, but suffers under the same sterile national security regimes that arose half a century ago.”

    But Kaplan ends with this caveat, “in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy. It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader — just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza. In fact, do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.

    Thoughts?

  4. Ben Kerson says:

    While it’s exciting to speculate as to how the unrest in Tunisia will affect the greater region, it’s also important to remember that Tunisia’s uprising hasn’t yet finished. Demonstrations continue, calling for the removal from government of members of Ben Ali’s nefarious RCD political party.

    That being said, enthusiasm around the Arab world is high. Students at the University of Sana’a recently held a rally for change, and just today, an anti-government protest was held in downtown Cairo. (The latter, I’d like to point out, was organized on Facebook.)

    Earlier, I received a message from a Tunisian friend. “Prepare yourself,” she wrote, “It’s moving to Egypt.”

    I appreciate the kind words.

  5. Steven Aldrich says:

    Interesting point of view, I would be even more interested in how Facebook and other social media sites are evolving the culture in the long term; here, it seems social networking grew out of necessity to vent frustration; now that the established organization has been brought down, will Facebook continue to receive the same level of attention it has during the revolution?

    From an anthropological point of view, can we expect a cultural shift in Tunisia in how the youth, particularly those involved in the protests, will communicate with each other in the future. In other words, will Facebook continue to be an anchor for open communication between Tunisians throughout the entire country or will it become localized…

    To comment on Professor Kassel, will an organized social media uprising allow for a dictatorial regime to take hold, or will it continue to foster a democratic voice amongst the citizens; in other words, can a dictatorship or closed security regime flourish in areas where free and open communication are shared amongst individuals? If the dictatorship is actually beneficial for the people, will social-media connected youth accept it? Facebook, or social networking communication, is now embedded into Tunisia’s lifestyle for its organizational use, will Tunisia ever stop using it now that it is available to them?

  6. S. Sen says:

    This is an interesting and insightful analysis, and I agree with you that the Internet and related technologies have generated revolutionary tools and underground channels of communication that are very difficult for governments to disable. This is not to say that they don’t try: witness China’s attempts to restrict Google, India’s attempts to regulate Blackberry, and the American attack on Wikipedia. We’re in the very early stages of a totally unpredictable new relationship between media technology and the state, and it might be a good idea to place the Tunisian situation in that wider context.

  7. Jonathan Groner says:

    Ben, that’s a very thoughtful piece. Malcolm Gladwell, certainly an influential writer, argued in the New Yorker last fall that social media will never spark a social revolution. He used Iran as an example. Here’s an interesting summary of his article:
    http://theweek.com/article/index/207589/malcolm-gladwell-tackles-twitter.

    And here is the full article (I’m not sure if it’s subscriber-only): http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/04/101004fa_fact_gladwell?printable=true#ixzz10vnpdC2p

    What are your thoughts on this thesis of Gladwell’s?