Postscript on Twitter in Tunisia

Posted January 21st, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Tunisia’s popular uprising began in December when a man set himself on fire in protest against a repressive, US-allied government. Quickly, one man’s gesture sparked a national movement that within a month toppled a dictator, a first-time event for the Arab world.

Even before the fleeing autocrat had found refuge in another country, internet boosters were calling Tunisia a “Twitter Revolution” and a “Social Networking Revolution.” Chroniclers of the revolt – mostly bloggers and journalists – traced the revolt to disclosures from Wikileaks that quickly spread among Tunisians through Facebook and Twitter. In this telling the social networking sites were pivotal to organizing the street protest that toppled the regime.

Luke Allnut on Tangled Web writes that our Western eagerness for an easy, quick explanation for a distant revolution blinds us to truer but less jazzy narratives – like the one about people in Tunisia rising up because of chronic unemployment and violent government repression. “Twitter revolution narratives are popular because rather than being about Tunisia, they are often really about ourselves,” Allnut writes. “When we glorify the role of social media we are partly glorifying ourselves.”

The enthusiasm of social media evangelizers echoed their breathless reaction to Iran’s massive anti-regime protests in 2009. Jared Cohen, a whizz kid at the State Department who put social networking at the center of democracy promotion, intervened to keep Twitter online during the protests. He made a much-ballyhooed trip to Syria promoting the idea that better web access would lead to more freedom. Last fall he left government to found a “think/do tank” for the web monolith called Google Ideas.

Clay Shirky, an NYU professor who is one of the most eminent theoreticians of the internet, argues that the tools of social network have forever altered the geography of power in the world. His view is a more staid and academic version of Julian Assange’s radical claims about the power of Wikileaks to counter American power. (He is best known for his gospel of crowd sourcing, “Here Comes Everybody,” and his latest book is “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”)

A backlash has taken root though, with some serious scholars and analysts calling into question the information innovation bubble. Their counter-narrative tells a deflating story.

Malcolm Gladwell argued in a very influential New Yorker essay that the “weak ties” of Facebook and Twitter could effectively mobilize people to donate a few cents for Darfur, but only “strong ties” created by face-to-face life could inspire people to make the kind of physically risky sacrifices necessary for real protest, like the American civil rights movement.

Even less kindly, Evgeny Morozov – a scholar who has spent his career studying the effects of the internet on political life and comes across as an ornery skeptic – mocks what he derisively calls the American government’s “internet freedom agenda” as a chimera “that can boast of precious few real accomplishments.” He has just published a book called “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.”

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I have always been slightly puzzled by the certainty of the internet-freedom-utopians, who for a decade have been blogging their revolutionary ideas about how the world wide web has created a new taxonomy of power, tilting the balance away from central venues of control and toward the little man, the anarchic hacker, the crowd.

They seem always to be posting over comfortable connections in the United States; I sensed in their vertiginous web euphoria that they were surfing at warp speed on fiberoptic networks, streaming video or music over their ample bandwidth.

In contrast, I’ve spent much of the last seven years accessing the internet from places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq and Lebanon. As a matter of course connections there are balky and heavily censored; watching YouTube or listening to Pandora was out of the question. Entertainment articles often fell astray of sloppy filters that target political content or un-Islamic porn. My own coverage of political events in American newspapers has been at times inaccessible to me online from the country in which I was reporting. This past summer as I covered a government crackdown on dissidents, I could follow the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights postings on alleged torture and detentions. Suddenly, the next day, their site was blocked.

Secret police loiter in the hotel lobbies; they listen in on phone calls and show up at interviews with dissidents that were scheduled by text message (this happened to me in Cairo this summer, when I met a Muslim Brotherhood webmaster). They’re carefully monitoring online activity too, and if it better suits the police state’s interests, they can sever access in an instant. Friends in Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere assumed that secret police were reading their email. Often enough the monitors would leave traces in my friends’ webmail, either out of carelessness or to send an intimidating message.

The people of Tunisia, or China for that matter, aren’t surfing our American internet. Information might want to be free, as the tech bubble generational saw has it, but many governments around the world still don’t want their people to be. Twitter and Google Chat are no match for a well-funded authoritarian ministry of the interior.

American thinkers have a tendency to project their own theories and tastes on political waves elsewhere; perhaps that explains the Twittermania and Facebook faddism over Tunisia today and Iran in 2009.

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One danger that Morozov often highlights is that the more the United States interferes with an internet it doesn’t really understand, the more unintended harm it might cause.

“The Internet is far too valuable to become an agent of Washington’s digital diplomats,” he wrote in a recent Foreign Policy essay.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech just over a year ago at the Newseum in Washington acknowledged that the same technologies that help dissidents promote accountability also empower Al Qaeda and human rights transgressors. But she contrasted the divisive symbolism of the Cold War Berlin War with the open internet, which she called “the new iconic infrastructure of our age.”

“On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does,” Clinton said. “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.”

The implications are stark. At best, the contrarians suggest that the web in all its incarnations and with all its tools and hype-fueled pseudo-philosophy – social media, crowd-sourcing, citizen reporting, web 2.0, the long tail, flattening the world, Skype and all the rest – are potent communication tools like the telephone and the television. What naïve boosters often ignore is that these tools and the multiplier effects they create are just as available to a repressive government looking to extend its control as they are to activists looking to overthrow it.

At worst, the internet skeptics point out, the world of web activism has disproportionately empowered despots. It gives frustrated citizens a harmless outlet to blow off steam, channeling their rage at a nasty regime into ribald blog posts rather than into underground organizing, street protests, or violent attacks that might truly threaten a police state. Even more importantly, the web concentrates opposition and other activists in forums that feel private and unified but which in fact are easily monitored and penetrated by state security. As a result, more than ever before in the wired age police states know exactly what their opponents are thinking, debating and planning.

Recent events illustrate the silliness of believing that new communications platforms have erased the advantages of old-fashioned coercive sources of power – secret police and surveillance for governments, and massive demonstrations and crowd violence for anti-government activists. Dictators in history haven’t been shamed out of office; they’re overthrown. Today, police states won’t be Tweeted, Facebooked or Wikileaked out of power either.

One Response to “Postscript on Twitter in Tunisia”

  1. Andrew K says:

    A nice dose of reality. But I respectfully disagree that social media has not/ will not continue to provide a valuable tool to protesters around the world.

    “At worst…It gives frustrated citizens a harmless outlet to blow off steam, channeling their rage at a nasty regime into ribald blog posts rather than into underground organizing, street protests, or violent attacks that might truly threaten a police state.”

    I think we can see that Facebook/Twitter has been used for more than just blog posts — most of the *physical* protests have been organized online. Granted, Iran’s revolution did not come about and traditional security forces surely won that day, but I think it’s too early to tell with Egypt. Just my opinion… but in any case, I wouldn’t be so dismissive of the power of the press. Which is exactly what Facebook/Twitter is in the Arab world… newspapers/radio are too censored to provide that crucial civil service.

    That said, it *is* just a tool. The real heroes in this story are the people themselves, and the sacrifices they are facing to assemble and demand accountability.

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