Arab world shaken by power of Twitter and Facebook

Posted: January 27, 2011

When dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on Jan. 14, it was the first time in history that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media had helped bring down a government.

With Egypt now in its third day of Facebook-organized political flash mobs, it may not be the last.

Recent uprisings midwived by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and the cable news network Al-Jazeera might not be a "Twitter revolution." But the Middle East has been shaken, and social media have done some of the shaking.

"In the Arab world, this has never happened before," says John Entelis, director of Middle Eastern studies at Fordham University. "A dictator has been deposed by the people. That is an extraordinary first step, even if nothing else comes of it. And believe me, the whole Arab world is watching."

Mustapha Tlili, director of New York University's Center for Dialogues and himself Tunisian, says: "For the first time, we became a world moral community, thanks to Twitter."

Tlili says dictators in the region's other countries can block social media, but not forever, "so they must deal with the way social media make it easy to flout authority, organize opposition, and appeal to the moral conscience of the world."

In Tunisia, nothing happened overnight. Demonstrations had been widespread since December on issues including unemployment, economic conditions, and official corruption.

On Dec. 17, in Sidi Bouzid, deep in the interior, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame in front of a government building, in protest after police confiscated his produce stand.

Horrible images of his act circulated lightning-fast on the Internet. Protests followed. The world witnessed what Neil Postman wrote in his prescient 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: "Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution."

"Thanks to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, images of those first protests went around the world instantly, and everyone knew about it," says Tlili. "Even 20 years ago, you could have had those uprisings in the interior and few would have known."

Bouazizi's image went out in thousands of tweets, e-mails, and Facebook posts. He became an image of resistance. About a dozen copycat self-immolations occurred in neighboring countries. A purported last note to his mother appeared on a Facebook page in Bouazizi's name: "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 . . ."

Al-Jazeera - drawing indignant criticism from the regime - covered the growing protests. "Al-Jazeera has been very in-your-face covering the uprisings," Entelis says.

David Nassar, chief executive officer of Hotspot Digital and a Middle East expert, says, "Here as elsewhere, cable news has been a breath of fresh air, a powerful unifying force in the Arab world."

One thing about information: Once it's out, you can't put it back. As Richard Goedkoop, associate professor of communication at La Salle University, puts it, "The sheer multiplicity of venues and sources makes it impossible for would-be dictators to get the genie back in the bottle. And once info is out at all, it's easily, infinitely copiable."

Protests punctuated Bouazizi's two weeks in the hospital. He died Jan. 5, and the cycle repeated: Protesters texted and tweeted info and images, organized flash-demonstrations, and warned of police activity. Al-Jazeera kept the camera steady, covering Bouazizi's death and funeral, the unrest that followed, and the often violent government response. More repression, more protest, more tweets, more coverage. Within nine days, Ben Ali was gone.

This tech-powered uprising marks a generation gap, in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

"This is being driven by youth, and their familiarity with technology is helping them," Nassar says. "There is a divide between them and the older men who hold power."

He says several Arab countries - "Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Algeria, even, increasingly, Syria" - have created an educated middle class that is largely unemployed, leading to social tension.

"You hear them called the 'lost generation,' " Nassar says.

For Tunisia's young technocrats, says Tlili, "social media are second nature, in a country with a tradition of science and scholarship going back to the 16th century, when Spanish Muslims emigrated to Tunisia, bringing with them culture and sophistication."

That sophistication shows in the way protesters use mobile media.

"At one point, young people had transported a man to hospital, and doctors were rushing to save his life," says Tlili. "But people were there with their iPhones and were shouting, 'Wait! We want to share the picture before you clean him up!' "

Response from neighboring dictators was unhappy, to say the least. Protests arose in Jordan, Yemen, and Algeria, where Facebook again played a role. Government responded brutally, and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika complained about Wikipedia and Facebook. Libya's Moammar Gadhafi appeared in a video - widely seen on Al-Jazeera and YouTube - in which he called the Internet "a great vacuum" that "sucks everything." In Egypt, protests were carefully planned via Facebook, and 30-year ruler Hosni Mubarak finds himself under siege.

Behind the scenes rages a struggle for media control. Government blocks or muddles Twitter and cell-phone use; tech-savvy protesters find workarounds that get out the message. Facebook pages, Twitter tweets, and YouTube posts appear and are taken down. (Twitter confirmed it had been blocked in Egypt. Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes told CNET on Wednesday that Egypt had not blocked Facebook.)

It would be misleading to overstress the impact of media. Mona el-Ghobashy, assistant professor of political science at Barnard College, says: "The prospects for Tunisia-style reform in Egypt are dim. The Egyptian government is well-versed in managing and containing even large-scale protests, and has been doing so for decades."

On the other hand, says Entelis, "no one saw this coming in Tunisia, either. The main thing is, the unthinkable first step has happened."


Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com, or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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