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.