A Tunisian on the role of social media in the revolution in Tunisia

Last week, dozens of people made their way through streets clogged with “thundersnow” to hear a special guest speak about social media and the Tunisian revolution at the January meeting of DC Media Makers. Much has already been written about Twitter, Tunisia, revolutions and the role of the Internet. For this dedicated audience at NPR headquarters in Washington, the reflections of Rim Nour, a young Tunisian techie who personally took part in the “Jasmine Revolution,” were not to be missed. Their interest was born by the spotlight on Web tools and change that digital activism in North Africa and the Middle East has created.

Her perspective can’t be taken as the definitive version of what happened or why, but given that she participated from on the ground, as a witness to history she provided a valuable account of the role of technology. In Nour’s account, this Tunisian revolution was fundamentally powered by people and the conditions of their lives. Tunisia wasn’t a Twitter or Facebook or Wikileaks revolution, said Nour. It was Tunisians on the ground. Regional disparities, corruption, unemployment were primary drivers, she emphasized.

That said, the online and offline worlds appear to have interacted in unprecedented ways in Tunisia. (That insight reflects new Pew research on the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action in the United States, where many expert observers see the decline of the distinctions between “cyberspace” and the material world). The disruptive effect of cameraphones and other devices was particularly important in Tunisia, and, really, everwhere. As Bryce Roberts observed, “mobile devices are the Gutenberg presses of our generation.”

Nour said that Twitter played an important initial role in Tunisia for much of December. As the revolution gathered steam, the new minister of youth and sports, was an inspiration for bloggers in Tunisia, said Nour. @slim404, as he’s known in 140 characters or less, was been a constant source of insight into Tunisia’s inner workings on Twitter. After December 24th that soon Facebook became the main organizing tool for protests and sharing videos. That’s congruent with the statistics the DC Media Makers audience heard. According to Nour, there is about 85% cellphone penetration in Tunisia, with around 30% of Tunisian citizens are on the Internet. She said that there are 500 or so active Twitter accounts there, as compared to more than 2 million active Facebook users.

NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin, co-founder of DC Media Makers and an expert analyst regarding the role of online communications in uprising, observed that Facebook was the open platform for Tunisians to share videos. People in Europe would migrate those videos into Posterous, then upload to YouTube, and then share them using Twitter. Carvin pointed out the nawaat.org also aggregated Facebook videos almost as fast as they went up. All of the services worked together on top of platform that the Internet provides.

Nour also emphasized the role of Al Jazeera, which she said was “the only channel worth following.” As many people have seen around the world this week as events in Egypt unfold, Al Jazeera is playing a galvanizing role in Arab protests. A global audience is tuned into the Al Jazeera English livestream at AlJazeera.net.

Nour highlighted four ways that social media played a role in the Tunisian revolution, all of which can be applied to other contexts.

  1. Grassroots mobilization. Nour said that some of the organization of protests happened on Facebook, which effectively played the role of community organizing platform
  2. Organize the rise of civil society and active citizenship. Citizens used social media to identify the positions of snipers, police and looters, and to alert one another to other violence, said Nour, who also noted that networks formed to clean streets, protect shops or organize bread lines.
  3. Counter rumor or propaganda tool. When there were concerns about water being poisoned, people sharing information on Facebook helped to counter that falsehood, said Nour. When reports came in that there was massive shooting in a neighborhood, a few minutes later, a few dozen people said that was untrue.
  4. Helped people analyze government statements. Nour said that when government went on TV, people went on online to analyze what president aid and to form a consensus on whether the positions met their requirements. Ultimately, they did not.

Would the revolution have happened without social media? Yes, asserted Nour, but “it wouldn’t have happened as fast.”

Now Tunisians face the next steps: what happens after this uprising. “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end,” observed Nour, quoting de Tocqueville.

In this historic moment, we’re all living stories. When combined into the narratives of entire countries, they make for fascinating, sometimes heartrending reading.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.