I’m reading the book, The Net Delusion, in which the author casts serious doubts on the ability of Twitter to actually overthrow a regime. I come home today to see that very event being proclaimed on ABC News. Are they right and my book wrong, or is there more to the story?
There’s more to the story.
A month ago, a protester set himself on fire because of injustices he was suffering. That is not a tweet on Twitter. That is an act of protest that is much more significant in its scope and demanding in its implementation. That sacrifice, which set into motion the protests against the regime, was infinitely more involved than a Facebook group or a 140-character tweet.
All the same, Twitter and Facebook did come into play as protesters warned each other of sniper locations and arranged protests. Fair enough. The Tunisian government went after those people, as well, launching DDoS attacks on protest websites and arresting the people that matched the email addresses and online profiles. The government didn’t fall for lack of blocking websites. But it did fall. Was it the online flow of information that did it?
No. It wasn’t.
Go back to the guy that set himself on fire. That is a huge statement, on the same plane as the self-immolating monks in Vietnam in the 1960s, to protest the restrictions on their ability to worship. The people began to pour out into the streets as a spontaneous reaction to that sacrifice, like the spontaneous uprising in Algiers in December 1960. The online aspect of this revolution was a side concern, not a driving point. Yes, there was information about the corruption of the president from WikiLeaks. But what more did the starving, desperate people need to convince them that their lives were greatly troubled beyond their own conditions? Can people tolerate massive unemployment and extremely high food prices if they are ignorant of the way their leaders fly in ice cream from overseas?
The real key here is that the outgoing president had already lost the will to continue. The biggest protests didn’t begin until after he said he would relax restrictions on free speech and that he would step aside. Like the East German implosion, the crowds in the streets faced a government with a tail between its legs.
I would dare say it was also a government that didn’t know how to properly handle its people. I read of how heavily censored Tunisian media was. Well, there’s the problem right there. People with access to pornography and entertainment news and online games don’t get politically involved. That’s why the Russian government runs both a state-sponsored porn site and a state-sponsored online game community. If Tunisia’s government was too busy scrubbing eyeballs, the people got bored and had nothing else to do but turn to politics.
And what of old media? As events increased in tempo and intensity, a government-run newscaster openly criticized the president. The show came to an abrupt end, but the words went out over the airwaves. Clearly, everything was coming apart for the regime, and the fundamentals were the same as in other popular movements: massively bad conditions, a sparking incident, and then a loss of will to fight on the part of the ruling powers. It’s the same as the French Revolution. Twitter and Facebook? Not necessary to the conditions and could, in fact, have been used very effectively to round up leaders of the movements if the rulers had kept their will to power.
And what about the looters? Did they coordinate activities with Twitter and Facebook? Possibly. If it’s plausible that tweets could alert about the presence of police snipers, they could also indicate shops that were unguarded. This tweeting business cuts both ways, you know. Now that the president is out, what factions will be forming? Will someone use Twitter to plan a bloody coup? Will there be a faction that calls for revolution in other nations, triggering more bloodshed? Will we necessarily like the people that emerge as Tunisia’s new rulers?
There are more questions. Will this mean authoritarian regimes in the world will have to step up their game in terms of dealing with dissent? One look at Algeria, and I’m not at all satisfied this Tunisian thing is over with a happy ending. Like the French Revolution, this may very well launch a long series of bloody days, weeks, months, and years.
And Twitter? As soon as another celebrity dies or has a bad cosmetic surgery, the West will be sure to forget about the dead and dying in some dusty, faraway land.