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Tech and the Pooling of Tunisians' Disgust

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, January 18 2011

Image credit: magharebia

The Twitter triumphalism that we saw around Iran's "green revolution" post-election protests in 2009 seems like it might be causing something of a hangover effect, with few people seeming to be particularly eager to credit technology with playing a determinative role in an uprising in Tunisia that has already seen President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali jet out of that country. That caution is probably a sign of the maturation of our conversations about social media and the like. But there's plenty to pay attention to when it comes to how our modern technologies are shaping the context in which Tunisians are rising up and saying enough is enough.

One way of looking at the history of humanity that sees it as a story of dissipated rage. People, of course, have long gotten fed up with the ineptitude of their rulers, with corruption of markets and institutions, with those who would exploit the weaknesses of others while pretending that that's not at all what they're doing. But over the course of the last month or so, we've seen that rage pool in Tunisia in curious ways.

When a university-educated fruit seller in the north-central city of Sidi Bouzid decided that the time had come to set himself on fire, that blazing expression of human emotion was captured and amplified on Twitter. Tunisians found other Tunisians on Facebook who had reached the same breaking point. Wikileaks, and the Tunisian-themed spin-off TuniLeaks lent weight to the sense in the minds of some Tunisians that their elected leaders were criminals. It's not saying that, yes, Twitter somehow caused Tunisia to say that Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and email and blogs and the rest have shaped the historic moment that Tunisians have found themselves in. The risk is that downplaying that context out of concern over looking silly can be as obfuscating as tooting tech's horn with abandon when the situation on the ground and on the networks might not have warranted it in Iran. Writing for Foreign Policy, Ethan Zuckerman looks back at the hubbub over Iran, and considers the attention being paid to tech when it comes to Tunisia:

The irony is that social media likely played a significant role in the events that have unfolded in the past month in Tunisia, and that the revolution appears far more likely to lead to lasting political change. Ben Ali's government tightly controlled all forms of media, on and offline. Reporters were prevented from traveling to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid, and the reports from official media characterized events as either vandalism or terrorism. Tunisians got an alternative picture from Facebook, which remained uncensored through the protests, and they communicated events to the rest of the world by posting videos to YouTube and Dailymotion. As unrest spread from Sidi Bouzid to Sfax, from Hammamet and ultimately to Tunis, Tunisians documented events on Facebook. As others followed their updates, it's likely that news of demonstrations in other parts of the country disseminated online helped others conclude that it was time to take to the streets. And the videos and accounts published to social media sites offered an ongoing picture of the protests to those around the world savvy enough to be paying attention.

As Ethan mentions, if you're tallying these things up, one point in favor of the importance of social media and tech when it comes to Tunisia is perhaps the vehemence with which Tunis has gone after bloggers and others active online with various phishing schemes and raw intimidation, and the government's efforts to censor the web. If the goal is to better understand why a "Tunisia" happens, ignoring Twitter et al doesn't seem like the path to enlightenment anymore than simply chalking it up to tweeting would be. Information flows in new ways today, and one of the major battle of the next years seems like it will be over who is going to understand those flows enough to use them to their own benefit.