Was What Happened in Tunisia a Twitter Revolution?

As it did during the recent shootings in Arizona, the Twitter network provided a ringside seat for another major news event on Friday — the overthrow of a corrupt government in the African nation of Tunisia, after weeks of protests over repression and economic upheaval. And even as the country’s ruler was being hustled onto a plane, the debate began over whether Twitter had played even more of a role in the revolution than just reporting on it as it happened: was this the first real Twitter revolution? The correct answer is probably yes and no. Did it help protesters, and thus the end goal of overthrowing the government? Undoubtedly. Was it solely responsible for that happening? Hardly.

Among those arguing the question — on Twitter, of course — were foreign affairs commentator Evgeny Morozov, who writes for Foreign Policy magazine, along with Jillian York of Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, Ethan Zuckerman — who founded Global Voices Online while he was a fellow at the Berkman Center (and has written his own post about Twitter’s role in Tunisia) — as well as media theorist Clay Shirky and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci from the University of Maryland. After some debate on the issue, Shirky (responding to Morozov) said that “no one claims social media makes people angry enough to act [but] it helps angry people coordinate their actions.” The Foreign Policy writer, meanwhile, responded by arguing in a blog post that Twitter did not play a strong role in the events in Tunisia on Friday:

Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter? I think this is a key question to ask. If the answer is “yes,” then the contribution that the Internet has made was minor; there is no way around it.

Jillian York also cautioned against attributing too much of what happened to social media, saying: “Don’t get all techno-utopian. Twitter’s great for spreading news, but this revolution happened offline” (she later amended her comment, however, saying that she definitely believed social media played a role in the day’s events). Tufekci, meanwhile, wondered why there had to be such a dividing line between offline vs. online activity, asking: “I don’t get this was it online or offline dichotomy. The online world is part of the world. It has a role.” She added that trying to answer the question of whether it was a Twitter revolution was “like asking was the French Revolution a printing press revolution?”

There’s no question that Twitter definitely helped to spread the information about what was happening in Tunisia, as demonstrated by the tweets and videos and other media collected by Andy Carvin at National Public Radio while the events unfolded. And at least one Tunisian revolutionary, who runs a website called Free Tunisia, told a Huffington Post blogger that social media such as Twitter — along with cellphones, text messaging and various websites — was crucial to the flow of information and helped protesters gather and plan their demonstrations. Said Bechir Blagui:

They called it the jasmine revolt, Sidi Bouzid revolt, Tunisian revolt… but there is only one name that does justice to what is happening in the homeland: Social media revolution.

The role of social media in activism is something that has been debated a lot over the past year or so, in part because of a piece Malcolm Gladwell wrote poo-poohing the idea that tools like Twitter and Facebook could ever have much to do with real activism. Shirky responded to this argument — at least somewhat — in a piece he wrote on the topic for Foreign Affairs magazine recently, arguing that social media and other modern communication networks may not directly lead to revolution, but they sure help.

The reality is that Twitter is an information-distribution network, not that different from the telephone or email or text messaging, except that it is real-time and massively distributed — in the sense that a message posted by a Tunisian blogger can be re-published thousands of times and transmitted halfway around the world in the blink of an eye. That is a very powerful thing, in part because the more rapidly the news is distributed, the more it can create a sense of momentum, helping a revolution to “go viral,” as marketing types like to say. Tufekci noted that Twitter can “strengthen communities prior to unrest by allowing a parallel public(ish) sphere that is harder to censor.”

So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution. But the reality of modern media is that Twitter and Facebook and other social-media tools can be incredibly useful for spreading the news about revolutions — because it gives everyone a voice, as founder Ev Williams has pointed out — and that can help them expand and ultimately achieve some kind of effect. Whether that means the world will see more revolutions, or simply revolutions that happen more quickly or are better reported, remains to be seen.

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Steve Jurvetson