Technology’s Role in Tunisia

The easiest narrative isn’t the only one that matters

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,, 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:

Because the medium becomes the message. Social media is a part of the story, but it is also the way that we—meaning bloggers and reporters sitting in cubicles far away from the action—have a window into the story. We’ve been trained in the past few years to monitor Twitter all day for news tips, and then to use it to drive Web traffic to the stories we write. We’ve got social media on the brain. So when we see something happening on Twitter, it feels that much more important. Twitter is our conduit of information, and it often becomes the story. As Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy put it on PBS NewsHour on Monday night,

But it’s very important to remember that Twitter didn’t cause the Tunisian revolution. Rather, it gave us a front-row seat to what happened….

Because it’s an easy story to report and write. All over the Web we saw powerful quotes about the significance of bloggers in the Tunisian revolution from…bloggers in Tunisia. This is not to say that bloggers are not a significant force for change in Tunisia. But they are surely the easiest people to get in touch with when a reporter is looking for sources for a story. Likewise, this “social media creates change” narrative is also the easiest one to grasp for those who don’t have any background knowledge of the particular history and culture of Tunisia. When news breaks, it’s our impulse to fit it into the framework of the world we already know. (“This is just like Moldova!” or “This is just like Iran!”) We should be wary of frames that fit too easily around interchangeable countries and cultures. We should push ourselves to go beyond the first impulse, stick to the facts, and if we aren’t experts, find those who are. In fact, this story is yet another argument for the necessity of foreign bureaus.

Because it’s an easy story to read. Maybe editors were afraid that readers won’t be interested in the collapse of the government in a relatively small, Arab, Muslim country in Africa, a country that most people weren’t thinking much about before a man set himself on fire. But fresh-faced kids with smartphones taking down an oppressive tyrant? That’s a heartwarming, America-friendly story everyone can get behind! Jeff Neumann on Gawker had a smart take:

We should stop trying to fit the events in Tunisia into a Western context. It simplifies things, but it also overlooks the real forces of change at work in the North African country. This isn’t about Facebook, or Wikileaks, or Twitter — it’s about the people of Tunisia being fed up with decades of marginalization at the hands of a Western-backed kleptocracy, and taking charge of their own future. […] Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.

And while we’re bursting bubbles here, let’s remember that while the abstract idea of “saying enough is enough” and “taking to the streets” feels inspiring from a distance, it doesn’t completely account for the reality of tear gas, riot police, and the possibility of violent retribution from a self-protective government. A man (several men, now) lit himself on fire, for a start. Read Anne Applebaum’s excellent and nuanced essay on Slate, which begins:

Violent street demonstrations, followed by the toppling of a dictator, are an exhilarating way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society. They are not, however, the best way to bring democracy to an authoritarian society.

While watching Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” unfold, remember this: Street demonstrations can unexpectedly bring extremists into power, as they did in Iran in 1979. They can create unrealistic expectations and then unravel, as did the Orange Revolution that began in Ukraine in 2004. And they can end badly, with reactionary violence, like the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square.

The questions surrounding the moral imperative of—and various methods of—
protest against an oppressive dictatorship are, of course, the subject of a much wider discussion, as is the role of the Internet in affecting political change. Those are subjects of perpetual study and debate. Every country is different, every generation is different, and every political revolution will have different, long-lasting effects on the people who participate in it. Likewise, the implications of Ben Ali’s ouster and the rippling effects of these protests in other equally oppressive environments in the region will not be known for some time.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering that the euphoria of the Twitterati watching from the West and cheering on their brothers-in-cellphones overseas isn’t the whole story. It’s just the easiest story to tell. Because it’s the easiest story to tell, it’s bound to be the first one that gets told.

As the story continues to unfold in Tunisia, ideally we will move beyond oversimplification and provide the historical and cultural contexts necessary to understand what happened there and what will happen as a result of it. But those first, simple stories deserve scrutiny, too—especially stories like this one, where many readers don’t have much background knowledge about the region. These stories don’t always have legs; Tunisia will soon drop from the front page, and likewise drop from readers’ minds. That’s why we must stay vigilant against the double dangers of oversimplification and easy narratives. When something happens that kicks a slowly-developing international story into the mainstream, as we saw late last week, the first frames are the ones that stick.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner