Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country today after weeks of unrest sparked by the suicide of produce vendor Mohamed Bouazizi. Bouazizi, who reportedly killed himself after police seized his fruit stand, became a galvanizing symbol for unemployment and corruption in Tunisia.
How do I know all this? Twitter. And where did you first hear about the Tunisian revolution? If the answer’s not Twitter, it’s probably Facebook. If the answer’s not Facebook, then it’s probably a blog, or some other sundry social feed.
For bloggers, crying “Twitter revolution!” has become fashionable when analyzing international events, natural disasters and political uprisings through the lens of social media. You’re reading TechCrunch so you’re in the elite of the elite when it comes to technology access; Most of us wake up, check our computers and our smart phones and are quickly dragged in to what ever collective events bubble up, today that just happened to be #Tunisia.
My jarring entry point into today’s news was Salon columnist Alex Pareene’s tweet that “I am relying on someone live-tweeting al-Jazeera to keep up with Tunisia news. MSNBC reports that Martha Stewart’s dog split her lip open.”
By the time similar glib retweets hit my Twitter stream I was suddenly familiar with @sultanalqassemi, Al-bab, the WikiLeaks connection, Nawaat, the Anonymous connection, the censorship angle and all the bits of Internet ephemera that make a news story told online amazing, like the fact that blogger Slim Amamou used GPS to break the news of his arrest (!).
Still, the most jarring thing about today’s revolution was the constant commentary about how the amount of Twitter and Facebook buzz didn’t seem to translate over to mainstream Anglophone media. After 4 weeks of protests, Paid Content founder Rafat Ali tells us he had not seen any “traditional” Tunisia coverage until yesterday and then “only [a] bit in NYT.” When asked to clarify his humorous tweet, Pareene said, “MSNBC has just mentioned Tunisia briefly a couple times, no video that I’ve seen.”
Analyst Evgeny Morozov thinks that unlike the Twitter revolutions in Moldova and Iran which got mainstream coverage, the novelty of “Social Media Changes Everything” stories has worn off just in time for Tunisia.
“What strikes me about events in Tunisia is that social media seems to have failed in what many of us thought would be its greatest contribution (outside of social mobilization) – that is in helping to generate and shape the coverage of events in the mainstream media.
On the contrary, despite all the buzz on Twitter it took four weeks to get the events in Tunisia on the front pages of major newspapers, at least here in the US (the situation in Europe was somewhat better – and it was way better in the Middle East – for all the obvious reasons).“
Many, most notably Malcolm Gladwell, have been quick to dismiss the effects of Twitter revolutions as shallow, and already there is the customary speculation over how integral reports on Facebook and Twitter were to the fall of the Tunisian government. Says Ali to a one skeptical tweeter, “Credit goes to Facebook, which has heavy youth usage in Tunisia. Twitter [had a] more amplification role.” The case of this article, in point.
When contacted for an official statement on the part Twitter played in today’s events, Twitter representative Sean Garrett told us,
“We might be able to provide thoughtful analysis after all the events of Tunisia unfold. But, right now, along with the rest of the world, we sit back and watch in awe at how people are using Twitter and other platforms to provide on-the-ground-perspective at what might become a truly historic moment. (and, as some might say, it’s still very much of a Developing Situation).”
A Facebook representative said that there is often an increase in Facebook usage around times of political change, like in the case of the jump in fans on opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi’s Facebook page during the #iranelection protests.
Teaser image: Sultan Al Qassemi