Tunisia & the technologies of freedom

Tunisia Flag

A debate is raging about the contribution or not, of social media to revolutions. Malcolm Gladwell recently poured cold water on the idea. Social media did not require commitment and its unlikely to have a real impact on the “real world” he said:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.

The Tunisian uprising has focussed minds once again on the issue.

Now its arrogant to presume one could make such a call, that social media did make a significant difference, without being in thick of things. I have only been watching from the sidelines. From social media that is. Because western media – unlike in the Iranian case – have been very late in covering events in Tunisia.

But this is what I have learned thus far, and why I think the role of interactive people media has been significant.

The ex Tunisian information ministerSamir Labidi, Tunisia’s ex communications minister, said the protests had been hijacked by ‘extremists’ [AFP] – now replaced

First off its important to define what we mean when we say social media. Social media to me includes letter writing, telephone calls, mobile video and texting or any other media with a low barrier to entry. Ie. not institutional professional media, which is by and large one way broadcast media.

It is of course only recently that these inexpensive forms of people media acquired the ability to reach audiences of thousands.

Of all the Arab countries, Tunisia has the highest penetration of internet users. The BBC reports that more than 34% of Tunisia’s 10 million people are online. Nearly two million people, or more than 18% of the population, use Facebook. Mobile penetration exceeds both these numbers.

I don’t want to sound like a technological determinist. But once that many people have the power to self publish it must have consequences. I concur Zeynep Tufekci when she remarks in an excellent post:

I find it hard to believe that the ability to disseminate news, videos, tidbits, information, links, outside messages that easily, transparently and without censorship reached one in five persons (and thus their immediate social networks) within a country that otherwise suffered from heavy censorship was without a significant impact.

And it would seem the Tunisian regime agrees with us. It went to great lenghts not only to try and censor and control the mainstream media, but in particular social media.

That brings me to a second piece of evidence. Shortly before the riots began Wikileaks published damning cables of the extent of government corruption in Tunisia. Many commentators have poo-poohed this revelation. Surely the Tunisians were well aware of the corruption. I agree. They must have been. But that does not follow that the detailed cables did not contribute to the rage.

For a start. It cast doubt that the governments supposed ally – the US – were firmly behind it.

Secondly, the detail of the revelations might have been news to some. Remember, were talking about a country where no such criticism of government gets published in any official form.

Thirdly, what matters is not only the message, but the authority of the messenger. If an opposition newspaper carries a damning story about government, depending on the partisan nature of the politics of the country and the independence of the media, one could expect various degrees of denial and agreement from different sectors of the political devide.

Tunisia has no independent or opposition papers.

If the US government (or even Amnesty Inyernational) had accused Tunisia outright, it would have had some impact, but it would have been tempered by years of experience and perception of Western colonial dominance.

But Wikileaks’ content has a strange authenticity. Before the Tunisian uprising Ghaddafi was singing its praises. The US government was gunning for Assange. The Arab world was lampooning US hypocrisy.

In short, the detail revelations in the leaks carried authority.

Nawaat, one of the main organizations fighting the regime included a Wikileaks section on their website. Tagged for easy navigation.

One Tunisian blogger opinioned:

“Wikileaks played a major role in fueling the anger / determination of Tunisians. However, the Wikileaks reports only put further light on what we already knew. They confirmed our doubts and detailed the different events.”

The attempted blocking of access to the Wikileaks cables by the Tunisian authorities added more fuel to the fire. And it brought unexpected allies of its own.

Anonymous, the hacking group that had recently sought to attack enemies of Wikileaks trained their resources on the Tunisian regime.

Reports Al Jazeera:

The group’s DDoS attacks, which began on Sunday night, local time, succeeded in taking at least eight websites, including those for the president, prime minister, the ministry of industry, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the stock exchange.

Now this did not register in the West. But inside Tunisia, to its beleaguered middleclasses, this must have seemed a big deal. Anonymous launched Ops Tunisia. Al Jazeera again:

It is hard to generalise the Anons’ diverse range of motivations and ever-changing targets, but most appear to share an outrage over the Tunisian government’s censorship and phishing activities, and a sense of solidarity with Tunisian web users.

Attacking government-linked websites is much more dangerous for those living within Tunisia, they noted, who risk arrest if they are identitied by the authorities.

“Although many Tunisians understandably do not feel comfortable participating in this operation out of precaution, I estimate there [were] about 50 Tunisians participating, to whom we provide the means and knowledge to properly secure their online behaviour from exposure to their government,” one Anon activist wrote via email.

Anonymous’s Ops Tunisia video of 5 January

Rage against the machine

An even more important reason I think social media played a huge part is the incredible act of self immolation by a jobless university educated Mohamed Bouaziz.

Street vending is illegal in Tunisia, and city authorities regularly confiscated Mohamed’s small wheelbarrow of fruit. But Mohamed had no other option to try to make a living, and he bought his merchandise by getting into debt. It was a vicious circle.

That Friday morning, he had contracted roughly $200 in debt for his goods. Police spotted him, confiscated his cart and reportedly slapped him in the face in the process.

Mohamed was desperate and angry. So he went to regional government headquarters to try to plead his case with the governor.

Nobody would listen to him and he was thrown out. Mohamed, enraged, bought two bottles of paint thinner and set himself alight in front of the building. He was rushed to hospital, but died Jan. 4.

Local protests erupted as soon as Mohamed was taken away.

Reported Al Jazeera on the 5th of January just before his death.

This act of self-immolation ignited simmering anger at policies that the government’s critics say favour an elite minority. Demonstrations across the country have continued unabated since December 17.

Most video-sharing sites face blanket censorship in Tunisia, as do news websites like Nawaat, Al Jazeera Arabic, and, most recently, Al Jazeera English.

Yet many Tunisians share videos on Facebook, via email or use proxies to break through the media blackout.

A video of his funeral posted on Facebook can be found here.

Mohamed Bouazizi

Social media is not programmed. There is no editor. It is what marketeers calls earned media or word of mouth. It’s the most valuable and effective media because it requires people to take action to spread it. For this reason it’s also the hardest media to disseminate, because it should be remarkable – people don’t share duds.

Anybody that has spent any time on the internet knows that remarkable content finds you. Even when your not looking for it.

Wikipedia says that Mohamed left a message for his mother on his Facebook page asking her to forgive him after losing hope in everything.

Regardless if that is true It has been confirmed. See image below:

Mohammad-Bouazizi-last-Status-update facebookMohammad Bouazizi’s last Status update

Translation “I will be traveling my mom, forgive me, Reproach is not helpful, i am lost in my way it is not in my hand, for give me if disobeyed words of my mom, blame our times and do not blame me, i am going and not coming back, look i did not cry and tears did not fall from my eyes, Reproach is not helpful in time of Treachery in the land of people, i am sick and not in my mind all what happened, i am traveling and i am asking who leads the travel to forget.”

The news of the actions of the young trader undoubtedly shot across the mobile and computer networks of Tunisia. The fact that the government media ignored this event at first would have only heightened the specialness of the message appearing in their personal Newsfeeds. The news would have spread like wildfire.

Going to the capital

Fabrice Epelboin claims (see comments) that then flashmob (below) was instrumental in spreading the insurrection to the capital:

“that flash mob was the event that spread the protest into Tunis (it was limited to small cities before that), it was definitely organized via Facebook.”

A Tunisian Flashmob – not possible without social media and mobile phones

Not a Twitter revolution

Even a cursory digg into the Tunisian social media world shows that there has been considerable information sharing around the uprising (not surprising really). But it wasn’t on Twitter where the main action took place. It was on Facebook.

What is the extent of the information sharing on Facebook? One popular blog by Nawaat, features hundreds of mobile and other videos of protests and fighting. Here’s just one rough comparison of the levels of activity. Nearly every post on this blog has more than 14,000 Facebook Likes. For comparison, Lady Gaga, who has over 25 million followers on her Facebook page gets about 60,000 likes on her updates. If Lady Gaga had as many followers as Tunisia had Facebook users (lets assume all of Tunisia is members of one Facebook fan page), namely two million people, she would be getting less than 5,000 Likes per update. Three times less than the Nawaat blog posts.

This begs the question. Why did the Tunisian government not block Facebook like they did with other sites like YouTube? I posted the question on Quora and here is a reply from Fabrice Epelboin:

They tried to censor Facebook (somewhere in 2008 I think) and some big protest begun, so Ben Ali quickly stopped censoring FB and instead, setup a massive ‘community management’ team to do some police on Facebook, to monitor conversations, filter specific pages, and eventually, during the revolution, block some specific functions like video uploading (the video sharing was a key element in helping spreading the revolution in the country).

They also did phising attack to steal password. As far as we know, two (probably more got unnoticed). First one was outed by Slim Amamou in ReadWriteWeb France in june 2010, second one was outed during the revolution, in early 2011 by TechRepublic.

Details & links

Yip indeed. It was blocked on the 18th of August 2008, but then unblocked after a huge outcry (see some of the comments on this site) and the president Ben Ali’s intervention.

It would seem the social media horse had bolted and Tunisia was struggling to put the Genie back into the bottle.

There are other pointers to the impact of social media. According to an answer on Quora even Foursquare played a role.

When Slim Amamou (newly appointed minister for youth) was arrested on the 6th of january, again the first information about him missing was over the location based social media platform foursquare (It seems this was in fact Google Latitude – see comment below), where he posted his whereabouts (The Ministry of Interiors) so that his friends (and followers) immediately took action and, as he was internationally known, could again be able to put pressure on the national government.

Our blogger again:

Twitter and Facebook played a very important role in our revolution, and I am confident that if we were not using social media we wouldn’t have accomplished our goals.
Social media empowered our communication infrastructure.
It countered the traditional media, the propaganda machine of our government. It allowed us to detect patterns that one would not notice if left alone, such as noticing that all the presidential police cars are rented (rented cars in tunisia have blue license plates). Social media fostered crowdwisdom, by sharing thoughts, feedbacks, and opinions. And finally on the battle field, we even used in the final hours of our government to share snipers’ positions. Then, the final demonstration was an event on facebook that everybody shared.
And now we are using it to find the militias, and share their positions. There are volunteers working on developing web 2.0 applications to place events on maps.”

Meanwhile Reuters reports that returning bloggers are being received as national heros.

“I feel proud to return to Tunisia after the dictator left. The Internet played a big role and was the basic motor in getting rid of the tyrant,” Tarek Mekki told Reuters at the airport where he was received by around 500 fans.

“It’s amazing that we participated via the Internet in ousting him, via uploading videos. What we did on the Internet had credibility and that’s why is was successful.”

Mekki become known for posting himself on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter offering commentaries on Ben Ali’s speeches that ridiculed the leader of 23 years.

Another man was holding up a picture of Mekki. “We only knew him through Facebook but now we see him in person. We welcome him and call on him to run in elections,” he said.

Tunisian police loot a shopA picture taken of Tunisian police looting a shop at night, posted on this blog 68 Twitter mentions, over 10,000 Facebook likes.

One of the most consistent and considered critiques of the power of social media and why it could not deliver a revolution is by Evgeny Morozov:

“I don’t deny that the Internet may have played a role in publicizing the protests in Tunisia; it’s just that the conditions in which the protests took place do not strike me as those where the leaders of the protest movement had to post updates on where to meet and when. Maybe I am wrong, but it all seemed to be somewhat chaotic and decentralized.”

But perhaps new communications technolgies do not rely on large hierachies as John Perry Barlow tweeted yesterday:

“The most striking thing about the Tunisian Revolution is that, like the Internet, no one’s in charge.”

So even if Mr Morozov is right thats its a bit chaotic and decentralised, he might be wrong to think that the decentralisation could not deliver an uprising.

Update – OK, so the new Tunisian leadership have just attended Davos, and here is some feedback on the Question of the role of social media:


Related deployments:

  1. Tunisia was hit by a Facebook Tsunami
  2. Wael Ghonim was admin of Khaled Said Facebook page

10 Responses

  1. Fabrice says:

    Nice post. I’m really curious to digg more about Wikileaks real impact inside the country (it did help outside).
    Facebook is really the main thing here, imho. It brought a taste of freedom, and got them hooked for more.

    BTW, Slim didn’t sign in after his arrest on Foursquare but with Google Latitude.

  2. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Hi Fabrice. Thanks for the correction. I too would love to know. Hopefully some social researchers will do some proper surveys in the years ahead. I can’t see how otherwise we would know.

    It seems from all I’ve read that Facebook was indeed the most powerful, largest network for information spreading.

  3. Fabrice says:

    I’m pretty sure they have all they need in tunisia to do their own survey ;-) Sociologist, technnologist, historians… they got it all. Facebook could help by opening part of its archives for historian to peek, Twitter is pretty open already…

    I’m quite sure we’ll have quite a complete picture in no time :-)

  4. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    Fabrice, I hope your right. As an aside Fabrice, do you speak Arab?

  5. Fabrice says:

    Not a word, beside the usual stuff spoken by everybody here in France, mainly slang in don’t really understand and stuff like “inch’allah”… Since Google sucks big time at translating arabic (witch is something arabs should be working on), I totally rely on my tunisian network to translate everything. I’ve been using a few people in Tunisia as translators quite often this last year, and without their help, I would never have been able to bust Ben Ali’s cyber police. Actually, hundreds of Tunisians helped in the process, giving information, translating, explaining to a foreigner local customs, introducing me to local power-bloggers, and of course, showing me the reality of Ben Ali’s Tunisia (as you all know, according to French media, Tunisia, until yesterday, was a charming place to take some vacation, nothing else, although I had Tunisian Friends who tip me long ago about what was behing the curtain).

  6. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    I noticed most of the videos on the Nawaat blog gets about 14,000 likes or more. That’s a lot for a country with 2 million Facebook users. Lady Gaga has 26 million fans on FB and gets more or less 60,000 likes on her updates.

    My guess is the Nawaat blog was blocked. But Facebook was not. Why not, (I know they tried to Phish passwords), but was this not a big oversight from the authorities??

    Are the descriptions on RRW and Ars Technica around the battle with Ben Ali’s cyber police more or less correct?

    And what did it achieve – you think – taking them on?

  7. Kameraad Mhambi says:

    OK, I added the answer to the above question to the post. Thanks, Fabrice.

  8. Quora says:

    Is the Tunisian revolution a “Wikileaks Revolution”?…

    All revolutions are per definition ‘people’s’ revolutions. The debate is whether social media like Wikileaks and other tools played a significant role. It would seem that Facebook and mobile videos were the most widely used by ordinary Tunisians. Pa…

  9. [...] It turns out it was a Facebook revolution. More than any other platform, Facebook was used and used widely by ordinary Tunisians. [...]

  10. [...] from people that were involved. The result is arguably two of the most detailed blog posts on Tunisia and Facebook in the [...]