Blood, Sweat and Tear Gas

The internet has developed an impressive effect from Teheran to Tunis. Nevertheless, we should not speak of social media revolutions. 140 characters have never brought down a dictator.

All too often, Western pundits talk about digital activism in developing countries as if it were some phenomenon bestowed upon poor young foreigners by the moguls of Silicon Valley or worse, the US government. To listen to the recent speech of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, you’d think they were right; after all, he found reason to credit the January Tunisian uprising to American social media companies.

Pundit journalism in the Middle East

If we dialed the clock back to the summer of 2009, we would see that Qaddafi is not unique in his thinking: As young Iranians took to the streets in protest of what they deemed to be a rigged election, the global media was quick to catch onto their use of the Internet to disseminate information from inside the state to the outside world, dubbing the young people’s efforts as a “Twitter revolution.”

Indeed, from Tehran to Tunis, tech-savvy youth have taken it upon themselves to incorporate digital tools into political and social organizing, logging onto Facebook to create protest events or share videos and photographs from the streets. Slim Amamou—the digital activist who would later be nominated to the country’s ministry—alerted Twitter followers of his arrest by checking in to the Ministry of Interior on FourSquare. As he attended his first cabinet meeting some week or so later, he tweeted throughout, the first minister to do so.

Less than a month later, as unrest spread to Egypt—undoubtedly influenced by the growing firestorm online—demonstrators were seen pre-planning online strategy nearly a week prior to January 25. Egyptians on Twitter discussed the best hashtag to use days in advance, settling on #jan25, while the hundreds of thousands of members of the “We are all Khaled Said” group on Facebook collected e-mail addresses in a Google Doc in case of a Facebook ban. Even after the government forced ISPs to shut down, individuals on the one remaining ISP—Noor—and using dialup still managed to send missives to the world.

Whose revolution is it?

Poring over the evidence, it becomes clear that social media has played an important role in all of the aforementioned uprisings, and then some. With that in mind, it begs the question, “What’s so wrong about calling this a social media revolution?”

First, the implication of such nomenclature is that Twitter or Facebook can make or break a protest, turn a revolt into a revolution. This is not the case: Neither in Iran nor Tunisia was social media the catalyst for uprising. In Iran, it was the allegedly rigged election that brought Ahmadinejad to power for the second time that pushed the young leaders of the Green Movement to call for action, gathering thousands into the streets to chant for him to step down. In Tunisia, it was unemployment and poverty and the self-immolation of young Mohammed Bouazizi that spurred citizens to take to the streets, eventually causing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

It is also important to take note of the nature of such rhetoric: Iran’s revolt wasn’t a Twitter one until the Western media said so, and Tunisians had taken to online organizing long before the West took notice. In fact, so had much of the Arab world: In Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, and beyond, youth utilize online tools to organize against everything from widespread corruption to sectarianism.

It’s fair to say that the Internet has changed the game, but to credit it for revolutions is disingenuous and takes credit away from the blood, sweat, and tear gas that make up a revolution.

Read more in this debate: Sheldon Himelfarb, Firas Al-Atraqchi, Jeffrey Carr.

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