Rash Report: Social media as a tool for social unrest

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Updated: January 30, 2011 - 4:28 PM

Facebook helps, but old-fashioned courage ends repressive regimes.

John Rash

John Rash

Photo: File photo, Star Tribune

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Like so many Tunisians, Mohamed Bouazizi couldn't find a job. Desperate to scrape by, he took to the streets to sell fruits and vegetables.

But soon, in the kind of soul-crushing repression that typified Tunisia's government, police confiscated his produce because he lacked a permit.

Hopeless and humiliated, he lit himself on fire in front of a government building. The self-immolation would kill him 18 days later.

Bouazizi's family protested.

Soon a few others joined in, and some captured the clash with security forces on a cell phone. The images were posted on Facebook. Almost overnight, the protest video went viral.

What he couldn't accomplish in life, Bouazizi was able to do in death -- get someone to listen.

Quickly, Tunisians took to the streets, often using Twitter to coordinate spontaneous protests. With astonishing speed, the "Jasmine Revolution" pushed President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile.

The Arab world's first spontaneous, democratic revolution electrified the region and terrified regimes.

Similar antigovernment protests erupted in Egypt this week, and authorities first moved quickly to disrupt the Facebook and Twitter activity that was key to organizers, and then shut off the Internet altogether.

The revolution in Tunisia appeared to deliver on the premise long held by cyberutopians: The Web will set the world free.

The reality is more nuanced, but there is no doubt that more widespread use of social media is helping drive social and political change worldwide.

One result is that the new-media tail is wagging the old-media dog: Facebook and Twitter chatter triggered mainstream media coverage of the Tunisia story.

"It was important that Al-Jazeera was covering it all wall to wall," because the popular pan-Arabic news channel reachers viewers who aren't online, said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It's simplistic to say social media caused the Jasmine Revolution; the underlying economic and political causes were decades in the making. It's also unlikely that Facebook and Twitter will fill the leadership vacuum that now exists in the country.

"When the time comes to form a government of national unity, or when the time comes to win an election, you need a real organization,'' said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Networks of young people do not win elections."

Indeed, even in the most Internet-intensive democracies, it's still the face time of retail politics that matters more than Facebook.

The inherent decentralization of social media makes it difficult for one clear leader to emerge. So far, there's no Tunisian George Washington or Vladimir Lenin, as the only central figure is the martyr who started it.

Most important, the Tunisian turmoil's cause was less media, and more social. Sure, viral videos help, but the courage contagion made the difference. Cell phones and laptops were simply tools.

And, like all tools, they work differently in different hands, according to Evgeny Morozov, author of the new book "The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom." And there are serious risks for the users.

Morozov argues that the same technologies that can topple tyrants can also ensnare dissidents.

"As the social and political conversations switch to cyberspace, so do the surveillance practices of the regimes," he said.

"It does help mobilize people, but it does pose risks to people because you can actually trace people individually. ... While the social media might be making protest more effective and more ubiquitous, it's also possible that the crackdown will be much harsher."

Despite the double-edged digital sword, social networks can be a net positive in the eternal struggle for freedom. But ultimately successful protest is less about being on the Internet and more about being intrepid.

Tunisians taking part in the Jasmine Revolution risked everything. More than 30 lost their lives in bloody battles with security forces. That takes more than fingers on a keyboard -- it takes guts.

The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash at @rashreport on Twitter.

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