Debunking the Myth of Tunisia’s “Social Media Revolution”

I see that the blogosphere has pounced all over #SidiBouZid and all that it implies (here’s a great round-up — the comments section are also worth a read). So let’s jump in.

From Jeff Neumann at Gawker:

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. Among the issues that brought about the events of the last month: Low wages, few job prospects for a growing educated class, high food prices, and a heavy-handed government lead by former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Did social media have an effect on events in Tunisia? Undoubtedly, yes. Is this a social media revolution? Absolutely not.

Jeff’s admonition made me think, uncomfortably, of Maureen Cain (2001):

The opposite of orientalism, occidentalism presumes the ‘sameness’ of key cultural categories, practices and institutions.

From Foucault’s analysis that language allows and perpetuates discriminations of otherness and sameness, Said took up the former. Our simplistic, quick-on-the-draw impulse to laud the Jasmin revolution as borne out of our Western high-technology and on a trajectory toward Western-style democracy is not only reflective of the latter, but smacks of cultural imperialism, Hall– and Schiller-style.

In Luke Allnet’s Tangled Web post-mortem, he links technological utopianism to the misguided and jejune lure of modernization theory:

The problem is that we so desperately want there to be a Twitter revolution… 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.

Indeed, perhaps since the first sharpened rock, a long tradition exists of wanting to attach agency to emerging technologies. The determinism debate — tired as it is — is seemingly inexhaustible as new innovations continue to be discovered and made, along with new uses for them — to do good and bad.

The #SidiBouZid protesters weren’t the only tech-savvy party in the conflict: The Ben Ali regime muzzled public discourse both offline and in cyberspace, including by arresting Internet activists and phishing its citizens’ on-line accounts.

On Foreign, Evgeny Morozov, after a bit of shameless self-promotion, raises the prospect of a Foucauldian cyber-Panopticon and alludes to the Internet-is-making-us-dumb and “slacktivism” theses (Sidenote: Kelly Gates, a former professor, does some compelling research on post-9/11 biometric surveillance):

Part of the argument that I’m making in The Net Delusion is that it’s wrong to assess the political power of the Internet solely based on its contribution to social mobilization: We should also consider how it empowers the government via surveillance, how it disempowers citizens via entertainment, how it transforms the nature of dissent by shifting it into a more virtual realm, how it enables governments to produce better and more effective propaganda, and so forth.

The Internet’s utility for the quick and broad dissemination of information — whether mind-numbing, propagandistic or seditious — cannot be discounted. A facet of the role-of-new-media-in-Tunisia debate is the role of mainstream media — where were they?

Contrary to some claims that in established outlets there was absolutely zero U.S. coverage of the rising unrest since Mohamed Bouazizi‘s self-immolation on Dec. 17, Reuters moved a story that showed up on NPR’s site on Dec. 21, featured a piece on Dec. 23, and the AP’s Bouazza Ben Bouazza was filing articles (which were being printed in U.S. newspapers) on the situation as early as Dec. 25.

Still, despite these examples, coverage of the country’s worsening political climate was meager in Western media.

Why wasn’t the turmoil in Tunisia on the mainstream agenda? If we apply Dan Hallin‘s theory of public discourse to this case, the answer is simple: because the political and media elite deemed it an unworthy story — U.S. political, economic and cultural interest in the country just doesn’t measure up in comparison to other places to which we pay attention.

In a post on this blog, Emad Mekay observed:

The United States was clearly far more busy with the collapse of the government in Lebanon, a country central to U.S. main ally in the region, Israel, after the Lebanese opposition there withdrew their ministers from the coalition government.

Until yesterday, when Ben Ali’s own regime buckled (a “newsworthy” event across the board), the story stood firmly in the Sphere of Deviance.

But up until then, it was almost exclusively being written and talked about elsewhere. If one was so inclined to learn more about the crescendoing turmoil in Tunisia, a simple Google search would have offered a wide array of non-mainstream, non-traditional news sources — including from independent outlets (Emad ran an article on Dec. 31), and yes, blogs, Twitter and YouTube.

Rob Gehrke, commenting on my last post, observed:

Tunisians surely didn’t need Wikileaks to tell them that life sucked under the dictator, they knew that already — events just seemed to reach a boiling point here, in part because of the economic hardships and general repression. What it did do, along with the new media, was to make US, as “westerners” more aware of the situation.

That was certainly true for me. But, Morozov also makes this note of #SidiBouZid cyber-observers:

Let’s not kid ourselves: This is still a very small audience of overeducated tech-savvy people interested in foreign policy. I bet that 90% of Twitter users are not like that.

Incidentally, what did hold the Twitterverse’s attention span this week? From Mashable, the top ten trending topics of Jan. 8-14:

And this morning, CNN Correspondent Ben Wedeman tweeted:

No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression. #Tunisia

According to Ben, the Tunisian people aren’t talking about Twitter and, according to Mashable, Twitter isn’t talking about them.

So what are we talking about here?

In a newer post by Morozov (in which, [Sidenote:] he jokes about picking a fight with Clay Shirky, “social media guru” [whom I quoted last time] but ultimately chooses to aim his cross-hairs at shameless champion of globalization Thomas Friedman), he zooms out a bit:

Yes, we can have an intelligent debate about the virtues and downsides of social media — but I would not like us to lose sight of the broader intellectual debate about the Internet and democratization, especially in this post-Cablegate era.

Allnet — whom I quoted way up there, if you’ve already forgotten — wrote of the “dual promises of technology and modernity” but failed to mention a third promise often implicit in this kind of rhetoric: that of democracy.

Morozov’s work aims to debunk the cyber-optimist assumption that political uses of the Internet leads to democratization. It can go the other way, too, he argues.

The Tunisian example is an apt case study of both.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. So Lobelog has finally joined the movement for pseudo-intellectualism in cyberspace. I suppose it had to happen.

    Call me old fashioned, but mentioning Foucault, Herbert Schiller, and the Sphere of Deviance in one short piece is just a bit much. The reader enters a world — Ms. Muscara’s world, apparently — where the right references in passing are more important than the solidity of one’s arguments. Or am I completely off base? Has Lobelog introduced a bit of parody into the mix? Is Ms. Muscara actually a composite character created to mock the pretensions of youthful internet pontificators? If I couldn’t see two feet of snow outside, I’d say it’s April 1st.

  2. Whoah ! Informative.

    Here’s a discussion with a Tunisian who was actually there, who says that internet communication amongst Tunisians did make a real difference :

    “For the media dissemination of the uprising, yes, the Internet has replaced the media. The Tunisians have become the reporters on the social networks. Five years ago, without Facebook and Twitter, the same uprising would have been smothered.”

    Here’s what I said to Morozov, to which he didn’t respond :


  3. A friend read this piece and told me to take another, longer look. I’ve done so. And once one gets past the parading of references to the major names included in a college semiotics course, there are points worth considering. Certainly, as someone who has published pieces stating that JFK was killed by a conspiracy, that Bigfoot probably exists, and that there may be more than hoax and delusion to the UFO phenomenon (see the recent book by journalist Leslie Kean on that last topic), I am very familiar with the “Sphere of Deviance.” And the phenomenon exists in more mainstream areas of controversy as well, as anyone who remembers the debate over the Vietnam War well knows. Today, to question Israel’s policies in Palestine places one squarely in that outer sphere of “deviant” behavior — at least in America, that is (the rest of the world is somewhat less prone to cast doubters of Israeli virtue into the outer darkness).

    Is the coverage (or lack of same) of the Tunisian uprising an example of this phenomenon at work? I really don’t think so, for two reasons. First is the very basic fact that major news organizations exist to make money. With few exceptions, they do as little as possible with stories that lack public interest. They want viewers/readers; these translate into dollars. The second flows from the first: the great mass of the American news-consuming public doesn’t give a rat’s posterior about Tunisia; most haven’t even heard of the place. To believe otherwise is to make the mistake so common among intellectuals, viz., that something IS important because intellectuals think it should be. Sometimes it just ain’t so.

    Now, don’t get me wrong — no question there exists a nexus between government and media elites that keeps certain subjects taboo. The legitimacy of Israeli policies in Palestine is an example. As regards I-P, silence is the norm, accompanied at times by outright disinformation. On a topic like the possible reality of UFOs, silence is combined with ridicule to keep the topic out of serious public discourse. (See on this the interesting 2008 paper “Sovereignty and the UFO” published by two very respectable academics in the journal Political Theory. A shortened version is available in the Leslie Kean book mentioned above.)

    But does this sort of behavior account for the initial paucity of coverage about Tunisia in the U.S.? Methinks not. Unemployment, looming fiscal disaster at every level of government (local, state, federal), soaring gas and food prices, and domestic political tussles are the things on which interest is currently focused. And the media is right to cover these (if only it did a better job of it!), to the (relative) exclusion of places like Tunisia, about which the average American cares not a whit. It’s really that simple.

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