The Social Media Revolution Nobody Watched

“Huh?” I thought to myself as a Twitter retweet from @Galrahn flashed across my screen: “I just watched a government fall on Twitter while #CNN interviewed the Jeopardy host about a robot contestant.” Then I saw another retweet from @pareen reading: “I am relying on someone live-tweeting al-Jazeera to keep up with Tunisia news. MSNBC reports that Martha Stewart’s dog split her lip open.”

“Wow,” I thought, “what is going on?” So I checked the Washington Post’s web page but couldn’t find any reference to Tunisia’s government falling. Then I ran Twitter searches for Tunisia and “Ben Ali.” Sure enough, I found a tweet from @SultanAlQassemi reading: “BREAKING NEWS: Al Jazeera Tunisian dictator Ben Ali has left Tunis and Tunisian Parliament Speaker Fuad Mbazaa has taken power.”

Obviously, Twitter scooped U.S. network television and print journalists on this event by a landslide. But after reading more about the events in Tunisia, I learned that wasn’t the most important Twitter connection to the toppling of the Tunisian government story. Many news outlets are reporting that social media played a key role in the government change over, while others are saying it played a small (but not insignificant) role. Unlike Iran’s Twitter revolution, which I wrote, about last year, events in Tunisia were less clear, at least from the United States. As Foreign Policy magazine noted:

“Iran’s diaspora was especially effective at promoting the Green Movement to an online audience that followed tweets, Facebook posts, and web videos avidly, hungry for news from the front lines of the struggle. … For users of social media, the protests in Iran were an inescapable, global story. Tunisia, by contrast, hasn’t seen nearly the attention or support from the online community.”

Global Voices blogger Ethan Zuckerman wrote:

“What’s fascinating to me is that the events of the past three weeks in Tunisia might actually represent a ‘Twitter revolution,’ as has been previously promised in Moldova and in Iran. … So why isn’t the global twittersphere flooding the internet with cries of “Yezzi Fock!” (the rallying cry of the movement, which translates as “We’ve had enough!” in local slang)? …

“Perhaps we’re less interested because the government in danger of falling isn’t communist, as in Moldova, or a nuclear-armed member of the Axis of Evil, Iran? Perhaps everyone’s read Evgeny Morozov’s new book and followed his path from celebrating the Moldova twitter revolution to concluding the internet is most useful for dictators, not for revolutionaries? …

“I don’t know whether most people are missing the events in Tunisia because they don’t speak French or Arabic, because they don’t see the Mahgreb as significant as Iran, because they’re tired of social media revolution stories or because they’re mourning the tragedy in Tucson. I’m disappointed and frustrated, not just because I care deeply for Tunisian friends who have been working for justice in their country for years, but because real change in the world is a rare thing, and it’s a shame that people would miss the chance to watch it unfold.”

All I can say is I am glad I happened to be viewing tweets from a Twitter list about Sudan’s referendum around 4 p.m. when the news caught my eye. I lived in France in 1988 and 1989 and remember many news stories about Ben Ali promising to bring democracy to the former French protectorate.  He had ousted predecessor Habib Bourguiba in 1987 in a bloodless coup by declaring the then 83-year-old mentally unfit to hold office.  Ben Ali’s promises of a democratic Tunisia never materalized and he essentially became a dictator over the years.

While I recall hearing recently about riots in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid as well as a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable describing Ben Ali’s family as “the nexus of Tunisian corruption,” I had little sense, as a consumer largely of U.S. media, that Ben Ali was about to be ousted and the role social media was playing.

It will be fascinating to read more analysis on social media’s role in Ben Ali’s departure (as well as whether it will mark any real change) as more of the U.S. media and blogosphere jumps on board the story—albeit a day late and a dollar short.

Do you think the events in Tunisia were a social media revolution, Twitter revolution, Facebook revolution, WikiLeaks revolution, or none of the above? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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About Monica

Monica specializes in strategic communications, web and new media, and print materials with an international or multi-cultural context. She has worked on national public outreach campaigns targeting multi-cultural audiences and has conceptualized, written, and/or designed multiple websites. Monica also has written, edited, and/or designed high-profile newsletters, brochures, and reports, including some prepared in collaboration with the White House. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master of international service with a focus on international communication. Monica is based in Washington, D.C.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Would a nuclear-armed Iran really be so dangerous? Advocates of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities assume that a nuclear-armed Iran would be able to blackmail its neighbors. History suggests that’s wrong. Read more on The Christian Science Monitor.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. Iran and nuclear arms is kind of outside the topic of this blog, but some readers of this post might be interested in Middle East policy in general. For that reason, I am leaving your comment in. I normally delete off-topic comments. Incidentally, you didn’t provide a link to the article you referenced. I hope you come back and provide the link. Thanks again!

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