Branding the Uprising


And Anonymous! Don't forget Anonymous!

I noted yesterday that some pundits have been calling the Tunisian revolt a "WikiLeaks revolution." The phrase "Twitter revolution," last spotted wandering around Tehran in a daze, has made a comeback as well. So now we're in for a big boring debate about whether these boosterish labels fit, an argument that threatens to overshadow some much more interesting questions. The Internet is a series of tools. Some of those tools were used in Tunisia. I'd love to see some detailed investigations of how they were used, how they affected the use of older tools and tactics, how they advanced and/or held back the struggle, and how the regime responded to them. Debating whether their presence makes this a "[fill-in-the-blank] revolution," by contrast, seems pointless.

Yes, "Twitter revolution" is a silly simplification -- like calling the truck blockades of the '70s a "Citizens Band revolution." Social media were a part of the uprising, but social media did not cause the uprising, social media were not the only tools used in the uprising, and social media were not the only important media in the uprising. And Twitter was hardly the only significant social media platform at work. As for WikiLeaks -- well, indications right now are that it played at best a minor role in what went down, though the possibility that it played any role at all seems worthy of our attention. Not because that will help us understand the big picture with regard to Tunisia, but because it may help us understand the big picture with regard to WikiLeaks.

But saying "this wasn't a Twitter revolution" is a simplification too, because it makes it sound like Twitter wasn't part of the picture. As Juan Cole points out, "Revolutions are always multiple revolutions happening simultaneously." I'm far more interested in how those insurrections fit together than in how they'll be branded.

Update: Marc Lynch has some sharp thoughts on the subject:

it would be more productive to focus more broadly on the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions. That feels like a sentence which I've written a hundred times over the last decade….and one which has never felt more true than the last month in Tunisia.

Calling Tunisia a "Twitter Revolution" is simplistic, but even skeptics have to recognize that the new media environment mattered. I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition ("Twitter vs. al-Jazeera"), but instead think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space. Without the new social media, the amazing images of Tunisian protestors might never have escaped the blanket repression of the Ben Ali regime --- but it was the airing of these videos on al-Jazeera, even after its office had been shuttered, which brought those images to the mass Arab public and even to many Tunisians who might otherwise not have realized what was happening around their country. This is similar to how the new media empowered Egyptian "Kefaya" protestors in the early 2000s and Lebanese protestors in 2005, but in a significantly changed media space.

Al-Jazeera may be so 2005, but it is still by far the most watched and most influential single media outlet in the Arab world. It has also embraced the new media environment, creatively and rapidly adopting user generated content to overcome official crackdowns on its coverage of various countries -- a practice perfected in Iraq, where it had to rely on locally-generated content after its office was closed down in 2004. Other satellite television stations have followed suit, leading to genuine and highly significant integration among new and slightly-less-new Arab media. All of these media platforms and individual contributors layer together to collectively challenge the ability of states to control the flow of information, images, and opinion. This is the latest stage in the new media revolution in the Arab world about which I've been writing since the early 2000s, and it's profoundly exciting to watch.