I heard an interesting interview this morning on CBC Radio with Ethan Zuckerman, a technologist who specializes in the analysis of the Internet and social media. He was talking about the recent revolutionary uprisings in Tunisia, which resulted in the authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country. Zuckerman mentioned that most Western media only caught on to the story the day Ben Ali fled, being quite caught off guard by this extraordinary event. However, Zuckerman said that for folks like him who follow social media, they'd been watching the events unfold day by day since December 17, 2010, when "an unemployed Tunisian man, Mohamed Bouazizi, aged 26, from Sidi Bouzid, in southern Tunisia, set himself on fire to protest against joblessness, sparking a popular uprising against the government" (Bouazizi later died). The international news network Al Jazeerahad also been closely following the events.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, which you can read here, Zuckerman talks about the importance of social media- particularly Twitter and Facebook- in this revolutionary series of events. While he does caution at the end of the article that, "Any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor -- technological, economic, or otherwise -- is simply untrue", he also talks about the very real importance of social media in the communication, dissemination and amplification of the struggles in Tunisia. Here's the main passage from the article on social media's role:
"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".
All this also got me thinking about Andrew's latest article The Genetic Origins of Democracy: Our Shared Inheritance. One of the key points I took away from the article, and one that's yet to be given any attention in the good discussion happening there, is the proposed historical relation between increased communication and popular/democratic movements (among other things, protesters in Tunisia have been demanding democratic reforms). Control of information and communication has always been a key ingredient in authoritarian rule. But what happens when we're allowed to more freely and directly communicate with one another, whether by alphabet, printing press, telegraph, or now social media? In the case of Tunisia anyways, it seems that increased communication helped enable a popular communion, with something new being born within the Tunisian collective. Is this the uprising of our "collective genetic heritage" as Andrew (via Gwynne Dyer) claims? Well, I'll leave that for the ongoing discussion over at that article.
In the meantime, Godspeed to the Tunisian people and may their transition to a more free and just society be a stable, peaceful and successful one.