Oh, not again...!
Obviously, I'm far from being anything close to an "expert" on Tunisian affairs. Yet, throughout the day, it's been interesting to watch the reaction - especially within the U.S. - as the news spread that President Ben Ali had stepped down. One of the major highlights of the story was the media and social networking angle of it... At least they found something for the audience to relate to, right? More importantly, provides for some interesting headlines.
Certainly, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube provided a great outlet for the people to express themselves, connect, communicate, and perhaps even coordinate. Yet, one should not over-hype their role. And here, I don't even need to go into reciting Gladwell's argument regarding the "weak social ties" all over again. Rather, I'll just point out that this is not even a "revolution", per se. Not yet, at least.
According to Merriam Webster, "revolution" means:
a fundamental change in political organization; especially: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.
I don't think anyone can claim - yet - that there has been a "fundamental" change in the political organization, while the old ruler was certainly not substituted by another "by the governed." In fact, not only have there been reports of manipulation of the constitution by the Prime Minister, violence and clashes are still reportedly going on, despite the curfew, as the protesters - seeing him as a member of the same clan - demand that he, too, steps down. In short: it's still too early to say if it's a "revolution" at all, or, especially, to start talking about the "successful" role of social media in it.
What's even more important: social media was not the first thing that brought people out to the streets. Poverty, unemployment, stagnation, lack of freedoms and human rights abuses definitely played a much bigger role in the events than Facebook updates and the such. Let's not repeat the Iran story all over again, please.
On a related note: In the midst of this all, Evgeny Morozov - who's out promoting his newly published book on "Net Delusion" - surely couldn't ask for a better occasion to bring the issue back into limelight.
[Here is a discussion of the book at the New America Foundation. Interesting to watch.]
I just started reading the book (rather, I started a couple of days ago...), but from what I see so far the overall argument is fairly predictable for anyone familiar with Morozov's overall stance regarding the uses and abuses of the Internet. When promoting a "Net Freedom" agenda as a major component of its public diplomacy, the West, and particularly the United States, should not fall into "cyber-utopianism". Rather, there needs to be a "realist" recognition that the very same tools can be used by authoritarian governments against the "cyber-activists": whether to identify, locate or silence them.
In this sense, I agree with him. After all, Secretary Clinton has made Internet freedom one of the core issues of American diplomacy - especially public diplomacy - conspicuously promoting it as a tool that would, magically, strengthen human rights and bring freedom to the oppressed people. What about government crackdowns, however? Washington might find it easy to send condemning statements across the Atlantic or the Pacific, post factum. Yet, when matters of essence are at stake, cooperation with these very governments becomes an issue of "national interest". And this is where the American "public diplomacy of deed" suffers.
As had been reported by Al Jazeera more than a week ago, the Tunisian government has been involved in a major cyberwar with both, local activists and international "hacktivists". Obviously, it is not an impossible task for oppressive regimes (after all, no elaborate processes of misinformation or attempted delusion were involved in this outright crackdown). The same is true of all the neighboring states, who are watching with increasing alarm as the events in Tunisia unfold. Wouldn't they take even more aggressive precautionary actions against their own "trouble makers"?
Almost two weeks ago, Jillian York lamented the American administration's silence over these events. Today, after Ben Ali fled the country, President Obama issued a somewhat vague and obviously cautious statement. I am glad to see that there are no obvious references to "Internet" freedoms coming from the administration. Not yet, at least. That would only give way for further paranoia and panic among local and regional leaders, and subsequently, oppression.
I'm not saying that the State Department, or the U.S. Government for that matter, should give up the agenda of promoting democracy or Internet freedom, as a part of it. It is extremely important, however, to consider the local circumstances and focus on long-term, sustainable, and true changes. To quote from Clay Shirky's most recent article:
Despite this basic truth -- that communicative freedom is good for political freedom -- the instrumental mode of Internet statecraft is still problematic. It is difficult for outsiders to understand the local conditions of dissent. External support runs the risk of tainting even peaceful opposition as being directed by foreign elements. Dissidents can be exposed by the unintended effects of novel tools. A government s demands for Internet freedom abroad can vary from country to country, depending on the importance of the relationship, leading to cynicism about its motives.
The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the "environmental" view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.
Now that Tunisia is on the front pages of mainstream media around the world and foreign reporters rush to get to the country, the "Tweet-o-Revolution" aspect of the story might become less relevant. Yet, it would be interesting to watch what happens, since the political outcome here will, in many ways, determine the nature of online activism and governments' responses to it (at least in the region) for the years to come.
UPDATE [1/15/2011; 2:30pm]: I just saw Ethan Zuckerman's piece on the very same subject in Foreign Policy. I do think it's noteworthy.