The revolution in Tunisia has been called by some a “Twitter Revolution.” While the popular social media site was heavily used during the revolt, several other sites like Facebook and YouTube were also key parts of the protests. Also, there were several other factors that contributed to the revolt which resulted in former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fleeing the country last Friday. These factors provide a fuller view of the Tunisian revolution and also provide clues for how future revolts may rise and use social media to coordinate and communicate their message.
A Clear Villain
Although Ben Ali was the nominal president of a country that elected him to office, he ruled Tunisia with an iron fist. Ben Ali instituted a system of government that restrained the political rights of the people of Tunisia and personally engaged in widespread corruption.
While Ben Ali was able to use his presidency to enrich himself and his family, his authoritarian rule made him a clear target for the anger of Tunisian citizens.
While Tunisia has long benefited from the strength of industries like agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and oil, unemployment has been high, particularly in rural areas and among the young. The unemployment rate in Tunisia is 14% with 30% of the unemployed between the ages of 15 and 29.
The Ben Ali administration instituted a program of widespread censorship of old media outlets like radio and television. The rise of internet led to further censorship of new media with the notable exception of Facebook.
As Tunisian citizens tried to circumvent the controls placed by the state owned ISP, the government created phishing attacks which resulted in the compilation of a list of activist email addresses. These email lists were used to track and arrest several activists.
Technologically Sophisticated Youth
Tunisia has a highly educated population, and many of them are sophisticated users of the internet. Approximately 34% of Tunisians are online, and 18% use Facebook. They are adept at using proxy servers to circumvent government censorship. Many of the Tunisians who are the most skilled at using the Internet are also among those affected by the high unemployment rate. Therefore, they naturally used social media sites like Facebook to voice their dissatisfaction with Ben Ali. For example, activists posted web videos of Ben Ali’s wife using the presidential jet to go on shopping sprees in Europe.
In some ways, the death of a young person has been the catalyst for revolutions for centuries. The biblical book of Acts tells of the martyrdom of Stephen which led to the spread of Christianity. The martyr in the Tunisian revolution was a young man named Mohamed Bouazizi who lived in Sidi Bouzid.
Bouazizi was one of the many young educated yet unemployed citizens of Tunisia, and he resorted to selling fruits and vegetables in the streets to provide income for his family. Local food inspectors harassed him regularly, and eventually confiscated his cart. Bouazizi went to a government office to complain, but he was refused. He then went to a government building, doused himself in gasoline, and set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. He later died of his wounds.
Bouazizi became a symbol of the Tunisian government’s corruption and high unemployment. His self-immolation set off protests in Sidi Bouzid which began to spread throughout the country. The account of Bouazizi’s death was circulated on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and videos of the violent police response to the protests were posted on Facebook and Dailymotion.
Mainstream Media Multipliers (picked up by Old Media, Al Jazeera)
While social media sites are effective tools for real time communication, mainstream media is still needed for amplification. Although Western media outlets were slow to react to the Tunisian revolt, Middle Eastern news sources like Al Jazeera followed it closely. These media sites multiplied the message of the protesters and helped spread the revolt.
While not a traditional mainstream media outlet, Wikileaks provided key information for the protesters. It contained information about the frustration of US diplomats with Ben Ali. According to Wikileaks, Ben Ali was described as having lost touch with his people and the creator of a police state. Tunisian hackers set up a site focusing on these leaded diplomatic cables called Tunileaks.