Analysis: The limits of a Facebook revolution

Bloggers and tweeters emphatically helped mobilize Tunisia’s protesters. But online power has its limits.

Tunisia Facebook 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Tunisia Facebook 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Over the last few days the Tunisian flag has become the profile picture of hundreds of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users in the Arab world.
Looking at the web, exploding with Tunisia’s news and sights, reading the endless posts of Tunisian bloggers and Egyptian Facebookers, it’s plain that Mark Zuckerberg’s creation and others like it are playing a high-profile role in the unfolding unprecedented people’s revolution in Tunisia.
RELATED:Violence-scarred Tunisia announces new governmentOur World: Tunisia’s lessons for WashingtonDid young Tunisian “netizens” ever imagine that they would become a moving force of “intifada tunisie” when they created their web pages and Twitter accounts a couple of years ago? That they would move from publishing angry notes, and “liking” each other’s statuses, and actually take it to the streets, forcing the ouster of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? That they would contradict the experts and analysts who asserted that Facebook, for all its cyperpower, wouldn’t ever change something tangible?
“Why the revolution will not be tweeted,” headlined Malcolm Gladwell, with an authority that brooked no challenge, in the New Yorker only last October.
“It started as a fashion, a joke and became a real thing,” says Alaa, a 24-year-old resident of Tunis who has participated in several demonstrations since the protests intensified over the past month. Alaa reports, via Facebook, that the displays of people power were catalyzed by Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of desperation – the unlicensed young fruit and vegetables vendor, a desperate college graduate, set fire to himself after his goods were confiscated by the police in Sidi Bouzid.
Tweets and Facebook posts about Bouazizi’s suicide protest spread fast and wide, Alaa says.
“The Internet exploded with the news, and seemingly it was the last [straw] for us Tunisians,” he says.
It would erroneous to assert that the bloggers, tweeters and other netizens were the only moving force behind the revolution, or even the prime one. Decades of low income, unemployment, lack of political freedom and media censorship created the breeding ground for the outpouring of public anger.
But there was unrest in 2001 as well; a key difference a decade later is the new capacity to get the word out and stay in touch.
This new communications capacity has turned the Internet into a useful – and in the case of Tunisia, even a mortal weapon – in the hands of the common people against a loathed leadership. The accessibility, the unlimited options for creating new connections, the sheer, overwhelming speed of communication – all of these qualities contributed to the popular uprising against Ben Ali, because long-frustrated and angry citizens felt less alone and therefore less fearful, united by the power of the Internet.
During the demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, north of Tunis, when the police was shooting live ammunition at the participants, untold numbers of Tunisians nationwide were following events via Facebook and Twitter, tools that were underestimated by the Tunisian regime, and that also could prove critical where other vulnerable regimes are concerned.
Many bloggers had been arrested and prosecuted by the regime since 2005. Some Facebook and Gmail accounts were broken into; the Internet providers in Tunisia are state-controlled.
But evidently that didn’t deter computer- savvy young Tunisians.
And now everybody else in the Arab world is getting ready. Some Egyptian netizens openly vow to repeat the Tunisian experience by the end of the year. So, too, do some in Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and beyond. Crushed last year, the Iranian blogosphere is conspicuously silent.
The only problem is that even on Monday, just four days after Ben Ali fled the country, the Facebook posts and the tweets from Tunisia are naturally less excited than at the weekend.
The rules of social media dictate that each post must be intriguing, sensational, daring. If not, the author won’t be “liked” by his “friends.”
Real life doesn’t work this way, though. After the ruler has been ousted, his relatives killed and his palace set on fire, it’s hard to find a matching or superior sensation. In cyberspace on Monday, it seemed as though the peak online moment for posts headlined “Revolution in Tunisia” was already over.
On the ground in Tunisia, the focus is on the search for an acceptable political solution, a way forward, with old players and new – including long-outlawed Islamic parties – eager to stake a claim.
Facebook revolutions are also faceless revolutions, with no head and no collective mind of their own. The goals are fuzzy, and the revolutionaries know even less than the Arab revolutionaries of half a century ago about how to attain them. There’s a lesson there, too, for the would-be emulators elsewhere in the region of Tunisia’s forces of change.
Someone real, with a real face and a real name, now has to deal with the consequences of this revolution – to put Tunisia’s pieces back together. The netizens won’t do that.
But they will be watching. And updating.