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Who Organized Tunisia's Revolution?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, January 15 2011

I'm trying to finish my Qwikileaks book, but events in Tunisia and the commentary around them spurs this quick comment:

Image credit: Sam Husseini
Does anyone remember the Meetup Revolution of 2003, where the Internet put Howard Dean at the front of the Democratic presidential primary? No, you don't. What you hopefully do remember are names like Joe Trippi, Zephyr Teachout, Mathew Gross, Zack Exley, Nicco Mele, Michael Silberman, Amanda Michel, Jerome Armstrong, and Karen Hicks; and organizations like and the Service Employees International Union, as well as Meetup.

Does anyone remember the #TCOT Revolution of 2010, where the Twitter hashtag for "Top Conservative on Twitter" put the Tea Party movement on the map and drove conservative candidates like Scott Brown on Massachusetts into office? No, but hopefully you do pay attention to the efforts of people like Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Jenny Beth Martin, Mark Meckler, Ralph Benko, Keli Calender and organizations like Freedom Works, Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express, as well as Twitter.

Communications tools don't organize social movements. Organizers and organizations do. Media helps, but that is all.

I am as thrilled as the next guy at the sweeping pace of change in Tunisia, but so far nearly all the commentary about the revolution-in-progress there is the view from afar. This afflicts almost all the coverage that I've seen of the events happening there. "Protests spread from city to city... As the protests pressures increased....all that failed to placate the crowds....Protesters have taken to the streets in Algeria and Jordan....As protests in Tunis heated up....As unrest spread from Sidi Bouzid to Sfax....Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration...." "the details noted in the cables...stirred things up. Matters got worse, not better ..."

Notice how all of these statements are couched in very indirect terms? Who led these protests? Who came up with the slogans and printed the banners? Who picked the targets? Who figured out how to coax soldiers into not firing on the crowds? Who issued the call for a general strike, and how did they go about making sure workers and merchants would participate? What mistakes did the government make as it tried to quell the protests?

I've taken these quotes from Ethan Zuckerman and Elizabeth Dickinson's excellent posts on Foreign Policy's blog, and in fairness to them it needs to be said that they are both trying hard to carefully parse the role that online social media may be having in helping topple the Tunisian government. But even they are stuck using shorthand language that, alas, tells us little about how the protests of the last few weeks have actually been organized, and by whom.

It's not their fault that most Western media perennially fails to ask, let alone answer, those questions with any rigor or detail. (Why is that?) And a lot of today's bloggers seem to be falling into the same pattern. Everyone wants to name the next "Device Revolution," which will do wonders for their search results and media hits, but explains little. At best, we may get vague references to "trade unions" or "political parties." Jillian York is right to insist that Tunisia is not a Twitter or WikiLeaks revolution, it is a "human revolution." But even that statement, while it does clear some of the social media clutter out of the way, leaves me wanting more. Which humans? Which organizations? How?

For some old context to this conversation, see also this.