Can WikiLeaks and Social Media Help Fuel Revolutions? The Case of Tunisia

By Burcu Bakioglu and Peter Ludlow · 21 Jan 2011

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Picture: SACSIS
Picture: SACSIS

On January 14, 2011, Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced from office, and by some accounts he thereby became the first political casualty of the age of Wikileaks and social media.  Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter provided communication outlets for many of Tunisia's unemployed youth. Tunisians posted amateur videos of police repression, firing squads and riots on their personal profiles from their homes and cybercafes. Relatives living abroad were then able to view the videos that were posted on Facebook and linked them to profiles that subsequently appeared on newsfeeds back in Tunisia. It rapidly became impossible for Ben Ali to control the information flow within Tunisia despite his ability to control all other media outlets. So important were the social media reports, that for the first two weeks of the protests, Al Jazeera and France24's footage was exclusively provided by Tunisian social media users.

Equally noteworthy is that the revolution seemed to have jelled days after Wikileaks released a secret cable, written in 2008 by Ambassador Robert F. Godec that seemed to make it vivid that the external world saw his corruption as clearly as the Tunisians did. As Godec put it in the leaked cable, “...beyond the stories of the First Family's shady dealings, Tunisians report encountering low-level corruption as well in interactions with the police, customs, and a variety of government ministries… With those at the top believed to be the worst offenders, and likely to remain in power, there are no checks in the system.” The Tunisian Government, the Ambassador wrote, seemed to believe that “what’s yours is mine”. Was the leaked document significant? Libya’s Moammar Khadaffi certainly thought so, speculating that the US Government had leaked the cables through Wikileaks specifically to foment revolution in Tunisia.

No sooner did talk of a Wikileaks revolution or Facebook revolution surface than pushback came. Laila Lalami, a Los Angeles-based writer from Morocco, wrote on Twitter, "Please stop trying to give credit to WikiLeaks, or Twitter, or YouTube for the toppling of Ben Ali." The Tunisian people did it." Later, she tweeted that "The Internet facilitates communication, but it alone doesn't keep people in the streets for four weeks." Meanwhile Adrian Chen, writing in the tech-savy and snarky Valleywag derisively said, “Nobody's citing Foursquare yet, but it's only a matter of time before some journalist finds a few protestors checking into a riot.”

The comments above (all from outside Tunisia, it should be noted) seemed to echo a view put forward in a recent article in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell argued that the political impact of social-media based protests has been minimal, and that this was entirely predictable. Drawing upon the famous lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro North Carolina in 1960, Gladwell observed that the initial four participants in that protest were childhood friends. They had strong personal ties, and great trust in each other, and it was the strength of these ties that made their risk taking possible. In Gladwell’s view, social networks yield only weak ties; revolutionary political action requires strong ties.

More significantly, Gladwell claimed that political action organized through social networks – what he disparagingly called “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.”

Gladwell’s point was not entirely off target. Risk-taking political action probably does require close social ties. However, it would be a blunder to think that social media are only utilized by people with weak ties. As we will see, in this case social media were valuable tools for people with close ties and much at risk.

It would also be a blunder to claim that the social media by themselves caused or created or was even a sufficient condition for the revolution in Tunisia. But to our knowledge, no one has ever claimed that, even though people may toss around vacuous phrases like “twitter revolution”. The serious question is whether social media played an important role in Tunisia – whether they were valuable tools that saved the lives of protestors and made the fall of a government possible or at least quicker and less painful.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact causes of an event like this. Surely there was enough economic desperation and pent up anger over the corrupt government to fuel a revolution, but the world is full of people in economic desperation under the thumb of corrupt governments. That is not enough for a revolution. Regime change also requires an igniter and an accelerant.

The igniter surely came when Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, immolated himself after his produce was confiscated by the police because he was selling without a permit. Bouazizi's act of desperation was followed by another suicide, that of Houcine Falhi, a 22-year-old, who electrocuted himself in the midst of another demonstration over unemployment in Sidi Bouzid, after shouting out "No to misery, no to unemployment!" From then on, rallies quickly spread across the state. On December 27, police and demonstrators scuffled as 1,000 Tunisians held a rally in Tunis, calling for jobs in a show of solidarity with those protesting in poorer regions.

But there was also the accelerant. As a response to the aforementioned cable releases, the Tunisian government blocked Wikileaks, a Tunisian WikiLeaks mirror, and several media outlets reporting on the cables. In response to this action, late December and early January, Anonymous, a loosely organized group of hacktivists famous for its support of freedom of expression, started recruiting for #optunisia (Operation: Tunisia). On January 2, Anonymous proceeded to hack a number of Tunisian state-run websites, temporarily defacing them and shutting them down. In an open letter to the Tunisian government, the Anons said “attacks at the freedom of speech and information of its citizens will not be tolerated.” Their press release stated that “The Tunisian government wants to control the present with falsehoods and misinformation in order to impose the future by keeping the truth hidden from its citizens. We will not remain silent while this happens. Anonymous has heard the claim for freedom of the Tunisian people. Anonymous is willing to help the Tunisian people in this fight against oppression. It will be done.” Curiously, most of these DDoS attacks were from within Tunisia itself and were in support of those on the ground protesting.

Whether or not the actions of Anonymous and social media activists were having consequential effects, the Tunisian government treated them as though they were. It was discovered that the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) was injecting JavaScript into web forms, using it to harvest usernames and passwords. In response to this surveillance operation, Anonymous released a browser add-on that stripped the added JavaScript code, thereby allowing the Tunisian internet users to access Blogger, Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, and Twitter without exposing their login details.

Meanwhile, in an effort to support the protestors in Tunisia, members of Anonymous also provided links to what they called a “care package” for protestors. In it, they included how-to guides for a number of things including how to make homemade gas masks, as well as links to Tunisian proxy servers, instructions for LiveCD usage, and they uploaded a book titled Bypassing Internet Censorship.

Critics will no doubt pooh-pooh the significance of these actions, but the Tunisian government certainly took them seriously. Surely it would be remarkable that a government caught in the throes of a popular uprising would devote its police force to cracking down on social media critics if they didn’t consider them an important threat. And let there be no mistake about the intensity of the crackdown. The Tech Herald collected some of the details:

"Hamadi Kaloutcha, a blogger and activist, was arrested at his home. While arresting him, police confiscated his computer equipment. Sleh Edine Kchouk, a student activist, was also arrested last week and had his computer seized as well. They have not been seen since.

Hamada Ben Aoun, a rapper who recently released two songs on his Facebook account criticizing the Tunisian regime and its social policies, was arrested around the same time as the others. According to Reuters, he was released on Monday. Slim Amamou, one of the more visible Tunisian bloggers online, has also dropped off the grid. There has been no word of his status since Thursday. In their story, Reporters Without Borders said that sources told them he was being held at the Ministry of Interior. Azyz Amamy, who had covered the Tunisian protests from the beginning, has also gone missing, presumably arrested. His Blogger account and Facebook account have both been deactivated. There is no word as to his status."

All of this shows that the events in Tunisia were not the stereotypical “Facebook activism” critiqued by the likes of Gladwell. Tunisian social media activists Kaloutcha, Kchouk, Amamou, Aoun, and Amamy, all arrested, certainly had risked much. Their activism was certainly not the kind of stuff “that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

The error in play seems to be the assumption that just because social media allows for weak ties, it is only used for communication that creates weak ties. As everyone who uses social media knows, we also use it to regularly communicate with our BFFs and family members. When other lines of communication fail in times of crisis, social media can be the only means of sharing information that we have. Even a group like Anonymous has its share of strong ties between members. Indeed, on January 15, hundreds of members of Anonymous hit the physical streets in cities ranging from Sydney and Vancouver, to Dallas and Istanbul in support of Wikileaks. Just because they are anonymous to us does not mean they are anonymous to each other.

The standard critique of the role of social media in political change fails not merely in its blindness to the risks taken by social media activists and the powerful effects it can have in a place like Tunisa. The critique also gets things backwards when it supposes that the importance of social media is concocted by Westerners who are overimpressed by their own technology. It gets things backwards because social media is not our technology – people in the developing world are not too poor or ignorant to use social media – they have embraced social media at least to the degree that we have and they have extended its applications and retasked it to be political tool. Social media is not Western media; it is world media. And the rest of the world is finding the tools of social media to be a potent tool in times of revolution.

© 2011 Independent Media Institute.

This Article was originally published by Alternet. SACSIS cannot authorise its republication.

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