June 14, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Over recent days, many analysts have been quick to highlight the prominent role that social media technology has played in driving the Tunisian revolution. Of course, Twitter is already widely acknowledged to have played a role in the 2009 Iranian election protests and amateur videos posted online in 2007 allowed the world to see the Burmese authorities’ disgraceful treatment of pro-democracy activists. So what’s the difference this time round? Well, it’s simple really: this time the revolution was a success.

Of course, the idea that technology can play a role in driving social change is by no means a new one. If the events in Tunisia can be described as the world’s first ‘twitter revolution’, then could not the French revolution likewise be described as a revolution of the printing press?

Andrew Purcell

This Monday, I caught up with protesters outside the Tunisian embassy in London to find out what role they thought social media technology had played in aiding the uprising. Noura Ellgoulli, a management consultant born in Tunis, said: “Facebook and Twitter have meant that, for the first time, all Tunisians can be on the same page. When the shooting started, it was because of social media that the people got to know that the presidential guard were turning on their own people.”

Twitter was also used by many Tunisians to send wishes of good health to Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26 year old market stall worker, whose desperate act of self-immolation triggered the start of the uprising back in December. Many of these well-wishers also formed online communities, thus providing ordinary Tunisians with a forum to share their common experiences and dissatisfaction with Ben Ali’s regime. Suddenly, the Tunisian people were united.

However, Twitter is not the only website which may have had a hand in driving the Tunisian people’s revolt. There is also an argument for viewing Ben Ali as WikiLeaks’ first major scalp. Cables released in 2009 revealed the appalling depth to which the Tunisian government’s corruption permeates and likened the country’s ruling elite to a Mafia clan. There were also revelations regarding money received by Ben Ali’s wife and other family members. Ironically, a WikiLeaks cable published in December reported Ben Ali warning of the dangerous situation in Egypt, where he prophesied “sooner or later the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.” Ben Ali also warned of potential uprisings in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Now, with the clarity of hindsight, it would seem that he would have perhaps been better off concentrating on matters a little closer to home.

The use of social media in civil action is, however, a double-edged sword. Careful monitoring of Twitter and Facebook allowed police in the UK to keep one step ahead of student movements during last year’s fees protests. Also, in 2009, an American man was charged with hindering prosecution after he allegedly used the social networking site Twitter to help protesters at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh evade the police.

It is important to make a distinction here between the way social media has been used in the US and UK and the way it was used in Tunisia. In the US and UK, Twitter and Facebook have been used to coordinate protests and generate huge lists of online supporters, otherwise known as ‘slacktivists’. By contrast, social media was used in Tunisia as a way of getting basic information about the government out to the people. The Tunisian press is highly censored and no criticism of the government is permitted. As such, it was through Twitter and other social networking sites that many Tunisians first became aware of the corruption and the decadent lifestyles being led by government officials, thus stoking the flames of anger.

So, whilst it is important not to take credit away from the Tunisian people and it would be a huge oversimplification to suggest that this revolution was all about social media, this sort of technology clearly has played a role in liberating the Tunisian people from Ben Ali’s 23-year dictatorship. At the very least, the events in Tunisia have provided us all with a good excuse the next time the boss catches us checking our Twitter accounts at work.