It’s a little sickening watching the Western media suddenly start trying to “explain” events in Tunisia. For weeks they blithely ignored what was happening in that country — presumably because the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali wasn’t despised like the butchers of Iran’s theocratic-military complex are. Indeed, Ben Ali was a Western ally in the fight against terrorism, and the recipient of generous US military aid.

Despite the rampant corruption “revealed” by the WikiLeaks cables and Ben Ali’s mammoth internet censorship (which attracted the attention of Anonymous via a series of effective DDOS attacks on Tunisian government websites) perhaps that’s why Western governments were conspicuously quiet before Ben Ali’s fall.

In any event, the commentary and analysis (today’s facile editorial in The Australian is a good example) has mostly been a mash-up of traditional Western clichés about the Middle-East — the innate instability of Arab society, the dangers posed by al-Qaeda, the vague call for greater freedom — although not of course at the risk of doing anything to encourage “Islamists”. Whether generalist or expert media, the events in Tunisia seem to get clumsily shoehorned into whatever narrative Western journalists and commentators want to run.

The argument over the role of social media and WikiLeaks is a particular example of this shoehorning. Ben Ali’s plane was still in the air to that noted retirement home for dictators, Saudi Arabia, when commentators turned the revolution into a debate about Twitter and WikiLeaks.

I suggested in a piece on Saturday that social media played three roles in recent events in Tunisia:

  1. An information role — Facebook, Twitter and blogs were used as organisational tools for protests, and exchanging critical information during and after them.
  2. A motivational role. Videos and photos of what Tunisian authorities had done to protesters — there are several profoundly distressing photos videos of shot protesters — appears to have played a role not in deterring but in inspiring them, as did coverage and discussion of the self-immolation on December 17 of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose actions set off the unprecedented wave of protests.
  3. A media role — in the virtual absence of Western media coverage (some honourable exceptions such as  the Guardian’s Brian Whitaker) social media and al-Jazeera — became the only way for those outside Tunisia without contacts there to monitor what was happening. The Twitter hashtag #sidibouzid — named after the central Tunisian town where Mohamed Bouazizi lived — became the primary way to keep track of events on the ground in Tunisia as protesters — having seen Ben Ali blink last week with a range of concessions — moved to force him out altogether.

I called these roles “facilitative”, and suggested they not be confused with causation, which several commentators appear to have done. To talk about a Twitter revolution, or a WikiLeaks revolution, I think, does a very great disservice to the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians who risked their lives standing up to Ben Ali’s forces, and particularly to the scores who died at the hands of Tunisian police, and their families, and most especially to the memory of Mohamed Bouazizi. It smacks of infantilising Tunisians, as though they were incapable of acting themselves until cool Western technology or Julian Assange enabled them to throw off their chains.

That hasn’t stopped a furious debate breaking out between critics and opponents of social media and WikiLeaks — right up to the US State Department, which yesterday took the extraordinary and highly-revealing step of explicitly rejecting any suggestion the reviled WikiLeaks could played a role in what is happening in Tunisia.

Even Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi — now facing his own riots over housing — bought into the debate with a bizarre rant in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s flight attacking Facebook, Youtube and “Kleenex” (although Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to link Tunisia and his refusal to negotiate with Palestinians was almost as ludicrous).

One of the fiercest disputants has been Evgeny Morozov. Morozov has recently released a well-received book, The Net Delusion, which has received a charmed run from the mainstream media because, one suspects, one of its basic contentions — that online media tools ultimately benefit repressive regimes and social media advocates are guilty of cyber-utopianism — gives the MSM an excuse to dismiss social media as irrelevant.

Apparently mortified that events in Tunisia seemed to undermine one of the premises of his book, Morozov rushed out not one but two pieces attacking any links between social media and the outcome on the ground. The second, “What if Tunisia’s revolution ended up like Iran’s?” (Answer: Um … well, it didn’t) was a quite bizarre attempt to prove his point by arguing that the opposite may very well have happened in Tunisia.

I’m fundamentally with Morozov on the need to debunk the idea of any “Twitter revolutions”. But he appears guilty of the same thing as social media advocates. Both sides appear to be obsessed with media platforms — Twitter and Facebook — or an internet phenomenon — WikiLeaks — to the extent of seeing far more important issues purely through the prism of how they feel about social media or Julian Assange. Whether it’s Morozov, or the US State Department, or Andrew Sullivan, it all looks like Westerners fitting what’s happening in Tunisia into a mental framework constructed around issues they’re familiar with and predisposed to debate.

Blogger Karin Kosina was intrigued by the issue and decided to obtain a Tunisian perspective on the debate. It’s only one person’s view, but as they say, “we are living it. We are the witnesses.” The rest of us are mostly just Western observers with our own obsessions and agenda.

Peter Fray

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