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

Facebook, Twitter and WikiLeaks seem to have played important roles in the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator.

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 youths. 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 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 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.

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