Last week, as years of frustration by the Tunisian people culminated in self-immolation, street protests, and the ouster of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the Western media was faced with the problem of how to frame the story. It’s a story with powerful implications for political stability and power throughout the region, a story rife with drama and rich in historical significance, but also a story that many American news readers were not previously familiar with. Too many journalists faced with this challenge took the easy way out.
“In days, social media ended 54 years of dictatorship,” declared a headline on a GlobalPost piece by Mort Rosenblum. “Social Media Gets Credit For Tunisian Overthrow,” said NPR. Similar headlines ran in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, ABCNews.com, and CNN, just to name a few. Other outlets emphasized other catalysts for revolt: the accounts of lavish spending by the Tunisian government revealed by WikiLeaks cables; the Ben Ali government’s attempt to block access to those cables by its citizens. “The First WikiLeaks Revolution?” asks a headline by Foreign Policy’s Elizabeth Dickinson.
Perhaps this should be the subject of a separate piece, but I have a real pet peeve for question headlines, a growing irritation that my future-of-news beat is doing nothing at all to alleviate. An op-ed on Al Jazeera English by Noureddine Miladi hedges its bets with not one but two questions, one in the headline and one in the sub-head:
Tunisia: A media led revolution?
Are we witnessing the birth of the second republic fueled by social media?
The piece is headed by two questions, and after a rambling missive, it ends with two more: “Will the January 2011 social unrests in Tunisia turn into the first peaceful revolution to be driven by social networking sites?… Will this unabated social activism lead to a real breakthrough in the country’s democracy, the birth of the Second Republic?” (I don’t know, will it? Shrug!)
Ethan Zuckerman wrote a great piece for Foreign Policy’s website that warns writers and opinionators not to fall for the easy narrative. (His post also has a question for a headline, but since he answers his own question in the subhed, he gets a pass.) An excerpt:
Pundits will likely start celebrating a “Twitter revolution” in Tunisia, even if they missed watching it unfold…. But any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor — technological, economic, or otherwise — is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.
But as we learn more about the events of the past few weeks, we’ll discover that online media did play a role in helping Tunisians learn about the actions their fellow citizens were taking and in making the decision to mobilize. How powerful and significant this influence was will be something that academics will study and argue over for years to come.
It’s no stretch to say that the fact that the government has blocked its citizens’ access to the Internet was an ongoing factor in public unrest. Reporters Without Borders has consistently given Tunisia low rankings in its world press freedom index, and Secretary of State Clinton named Tunisia as among the world’s worst for Internet censorship—along with North Korea, China, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Egypt—in a speech last January. A great post on Ars Technica by Nate Anderson goes into greater detail about the extraordinary lengths the Tunisian government went to, to try to slow down organization via Facebook groups and blogs: by hacking into accounts and erasing them and by arresting bloggers and journalists, for instance. And because Tunisian media was so limited by the government, it makes sense that savvy citizens would use alternate methods of communication.
So my argument here is not about whether Twitter “caused” the revolution or merely “facilitated” it as the most efficient means of communication at hand. (GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram wrote, “So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution.” Clay Shirky responded in comments, “No one believes social media causes otherwise complacent citizens to become angry enough to take to the streets. It’s a convenient straw men for the skeptics, because, as an obviously ridiculous narrative, it’s easy to refute.”)
Rather, my question is about why the press has been focusing so much on this narrative in its coverage of this complex story; why, in the first day or two after the situation heated up in Tunisia enough to enter the American mainstream consciousness, this narrative was the dominant one, echoed back and forth online throughout the past week. I don’t know the answer, but I’ll offer a few ideas: