Tunisia, social media and the politics of attention

Over Twitter, Sami ben Gharbia - who, I hope, will finally get a chance to return to Tunisia after his long exile - pointed out that social media did play an important role in "feeding" information to Al-Jazeera and France 24, conceding that at the same time it didn't have much of an impact on the coverage of the protests in the US.

Sami's remark made me think about my earlier blog post a bit more. My argument isn't really about the efficacy of social media in improving the coverage of the protests in the mainstream media (i.e. their venue, schedule, leaders, etc). Rather, my argument is in the vein of Ethan Zuckerman's reflections on media attention patterns - and ways of shifting them.

But while Ethan's work is focused mostly on getting ordinary Americans to care about foreign affairs, my interest here is on a somewhat different, more pragmatic level: getting Americans to care is likely to push Washington to care as well. This in itself can create powerful incentives for dictators to play by the rules or exit peacefully. (There is probably an element of this to Ethan's thought as well, even though I'm not sure if the citizens-government connection is essential to his analysis). 

As I deconstruct the original hype behind the "Twitter Revolutions" in Iran and especially Moldova, their real promise (aside, of course, from liberating the country from oppressive rulers) seemed to lie in using social media as some kind of a Trojan horse to get their countries onto the front pages of American newspapers  - and then, hopefully, on the top of Washington's agenda.

There were good grounds for believing this hype. If my memory serves me right, the time gap between me christening the events in Moldova as a "Twitter revolution" and the New York Times running a front page story about it was less than 12 hours. In the case of Tunisia, this time gap has been almost a month...I don't buy the theory that Moldova is more important than Tunisia (not to mention that few Americans ever go on holiday to Moldova...)

Now, I know that Al-Jazeera and France 24 (to their credit) began reporting on Tunisia much earlier than their American counterparts. But then it was probably not a factor of social media's influence but rather of Tunisia's unique position in the Arab and Francophone world. There is little doubt that social media has helped to make their coverage better. Has it also played a role in generating new coverage that wouldn't have happened without it? This would be one good question to investigate. 

There are probably many dissertations to be written about the way in which the rise of non-American global broadcasters like Al-Jazeera and France 24 has helped to balance the geopolitical myopia of the American media. However, as much as I'd like to think that it has led to some fundamental shifts in how the American public (and, by extension, the US government) choose their news diet, I cannot possibly see much evidence that this is actually happening.

Thus, that early promise of the Twitter Revolution - that social media could offer a way to hijack the news agenda (and thus influence foreign policy) in the US - rings somewhat hollow to me. I do hope that I'm wrong.

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