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Tunisia and the power of social media

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17 January 2011 12:08

Since the uprising in Tunisia, I've received a number of emails and read a few articles ridiculing the idea that Twitter, Facebook or even WikiLeaks somehow had a hand in the downfall of the president. But at the heart of the critique seems to be a misunderstanding of the power of these new tools. This article in the Christian Science Monitor, aimed at debunking the WikiLeaks link in particular, is a good example:

Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali's stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: "No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It's all about unemployment, corruption, oppression."

Why on earth would the protesters mention Twitter, Facebook or WikiLeaks as an explanation for protesting' It would be like a protester from an earlier era citing a Xerox photocopier or the telephone as the cause of their anger. Twitter and Facebook don't make people want to protest; they are just handy communication tools, and plenty of sources claim the protesters used them.

It is still hard to imagine that anything serious can come out of a message 140 characters long, let alone if it is called a 'tweet', but the political power of these tools is not the chance to tell the world you've just had the best latte ever or 'luvvv the new Justin Bieber single'; it's the ability to communicate with millions of people easily and for free. Most of the time, this communication will be inane, but when it's harnessed by motivated actors upset about corruption, oppression, unemployment or food prices, it can be powerful. 

I can't imagine there are too many authoritarian states out there dismissing these tools with the same nonchalance.

As for WikiLeaks, some such as the NY Times have claimed the cables 'helped fuel the anger'. That seems a harder link to prove, but with only a fraction of the cables released, it is easy to imagine WikiLeaks will spark consequences that cannot easily be foreseen. This website by Dazzlepod has already revolutionised the way you can access, comment on and search the cables.

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