First thoughts on Tunisia and the role of the Internet

News from Tunisia looks good. For better or worse, many of us will be pondering the role that the Internet played or didn't play in the events of the Jasmine Revolution. Below are some preliminary reflections, which, if you know me well, are likely to change by the end of next week!

One thing to keep in mind is that revolutions will continue and Twitter won't go away anytime soon. So, it's reasonable to assume that there WILL be some new-media activity for any social or political turmoil. But correlation, as well all know, doesn't always mean causation.

To reiterate: Yes, there will be YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and Twitter messages -- some written by people on the ground and some by those outside -- accompanying any revolution, successful or not. To deny this would be silly.

What strikes me about events in Tunisia is that social media seems to have failed in what many of us thought would be its greatest contribution (outside of social mobilization) -- that is, in helping to generate and shape the coverage of events in the mainstream media. On the contrary, despite all the buzz on Twitter it took four weeks to get the events in Tunisia on the front pages of major newspapers, at least here in the U.S. (the situation in Europe was somewhat better -- and it was way better in the Middle East -- for all the obvious reasons).

How does it fare historically? Well, much of the enthusiasm related to the "Twitter Revolutions" in Moldova and Iran was based on the expectation that social media would help to push these events on the agenda of traditional media -- and it actually worked. By 2011, however, I think that the novelty had worn off -- and few media outlets were interested in carrying "Social Media Changes Everything!" stories. I'm sure there are many other reasons why Tunisia matters less than Iran for most media -- but then so did Moldova…

This is not to deny that many of us were watching the Tunisian events unfold via Twitter. But 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 -- and that percentage will get worse as Twitter becomes more mainstream. So, if we evaluate it in terms of awareness-raising by exploiting and building off the mainstream media, Tunisia's "Twitter Revolution" (as Andrew Sullivan was already quick to dub it), seems to have failed.

I'm curious to see more data about the role that social media have played in the mobilization of protesters. I hope that Sami ben Gharbia and others would enlighten us here. Off the top of my head, it strikes me as improbable that some people in Tunisia had a higher chance of learning about the protests from the Internet than they did from conversations in the streets. Besides, many people got killed, the situation was highly emotional -- and I'm not sure how much anger tweets and blog posts could add to such visceral developments.

I don't deny that the Internet may have played a role in publicizing the protests in Tunisia; it's just that the conditions in which the protests took place do not strike me as those where the leaders of the protest movement had to post updates on where to meet and when. Maybe I am wrong, but it all seemed to be somewhat chaotic and decentralized. Once again, it would be great to see more data on this.

What also strikes me as very odd is that just two weeks ago the Tunisian government was bold and strong enough to break into the email accounts of Tunisian activists -- surely, they could turn off the Internet in the whole country if they really wanted to and saw it as a lethal threat? This speaks either to their misjudgment of the situation or to their dismissal of the Internet as a tool of mobilization -- which, given the profile of those who started the protests (mostly the poor and the unemployed), doesn't strike me as an unreasonable assumption.

The question of social mobilization is a difficult one, and we should continue asking it. We should not, of course, forget the structural conditions -- especially the worsening economic situation in Tunisia -- as one factor that may have made the conditions for such a revolution more likely.

Now, let me ask something really wild: Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter? I think this is a key question to ask. If the answer is "yes," then the contribution that the Internet has made was minor; there is no way around it. On this logic, we shouldn't expect similar outcomes in other countries just because they also have vibrant communities of cyberactivists.

Finally, I think we shouldn't lose sight of the broader political and social impact of the Internet prior to mobilization (or, as some would put it, the "revolutionary situation"). 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. All of this might decrease the likelihood that the revolutionary situation like the one in Tunisia actually happens -- even if the Internet might be of tremendous help in social mobilization.

The point here is that while the Internet could make the next revolution more effective, it could also make it less likely. (And yes, I know that other factors -- primarily economic and political ones -- are probably way more influential than the Internet in influencing the odds of the revolutionary situation either way).

This, in part, is a lesson that I draw from events in Belarus in December: There was plenty of activity on Twitter and there was potential for mobilization -- but to focus on this at the expense of understanding the more sinister ways in which the Belarusian authorities exploit the Internet and in which their citizens become less politicized because of it would be to miss a much more important role that the Internet has been playing in the country.  

Nevertheless, I do hope that the events in Tunisia serve as an inspiration to people in Belarus and elsewhere.