The effect of the social media in Tunisia’s Uprising

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Abstract

The Tunisia’s revolution shocked the entire world, not because of its structure and nature, but because of the use of social media. Twitter and Facebook became the major platforms employed by the protesters to organize and share information. As the protests proceeded, people shared videos, sound bites and images on the main social networking sites. Unemployment and marginalization of the South and the interior parts of the country fueled the protests. President Ben Ali responded by initiating development projects, but such actions were in vain. The inability of the regime to quell the demonstrations and protests caused the president to flee the country. This paper focuses on three areas that include the Tunisia’s revolution and the use of social media before, during and after the revolution.

Introduction

The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia was a turning point for the North African country. In 2011, Tunisia became a fertile ground for Internet-enabled revolution as the people demanded a transformation of the Tunisian society and change in the governance system. Despite the Tunisian populace being well-educated, the government had not created enough employment opportunities for the secondary and college graduates. Specifically, those in the western and interior parts of the country were marginalized to the extent that they had no access to essential resources and infrastructure that could enhance development. Before the revolution, the Tunisian citizens were fervent users of technology. Close to eighty percent of the population owned cell phones. Additionally, over two million people were Facebook users with those on Twitter being slightly above five hundred. At the time of the revolution, Twitter did not have many followers. However, the people who were tweeting had immense significance because the messages they posted captured the attention of the masses. Social media had immense importance in promoting the revolution in Tunisia.

Revolution in Tunisia

The technological transformation in the modern dispensation has altered the social, political and cultural dynamics of the human society. Particularly, the digital age has played a significant role in the acceleration of development. The digital age has witnessed the widespread use of the Internet, especially with the emergence of the social media (Dhillon, 2014). The social media networks have become vital communication tools used by people in various social constructions. Initially, social networking sites were used for communication purposes. Friends and family members used the networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to communicate and interact with friends (Delany, 2011). Today, people have come up with new uses of social media, and they use it to demand accountability and answers from their governments.

In 2011, social media found a new meaning in Tunisia because it was the main tool used by the protesters to promote their activities and organize the protests. Due to corruption and marginalization by the Tunisian government, the citizens started demanding a change in the management of the country’s affairs. The revolution unfolded in three major dimensions. First, protests started in the interior part of the country after a young man burned himself to protest against his ill-treatment in the hands of law enforcement authorities (Delany, 2011). That incident sparked uproar in the entire country with many people condemning the acts of brutality and the excessive use force by the officers. The brutality leveled against individuals protesting the actions of the government provided individuals with shocking images that they posted online (Delany, 2011). The images of violent tendencies by the police shocked the nation and angered the people. As the images were spreading online, the uprising started taking shape in different parts of the country.

The second part of the protests started in the affluent parts of the country. The people moved to the streets in cities such as Tunis and Sfax and started organizing themselves through the use of the cell phones (Delany, 2011). Facebook helped people to connect and share information. Social networking sites were used by the protesters to organize themselves, dispel misinformation and counter the security forces and those who were out to loot and cause destruction (AbuZayyad, 2013).

The dramatic turn events moved to different parts of the country such as Jandouba, Nabeul, Hammamet, Gasserine, Baja, and Bizerte. The emergency situation forced the government into action. For instance, the government announced that it was going to start development projects in the South and any deprived areas. President Ben Ali pledged about five billion Tunisian dinars for development purposes in Sidi Bouzid and other areas (Delany, 2011). Additionally, the government stated that it would create three hundred thousand jobs in the subsequent years. President in response to the protests sacked the government officials who were thought to be corrupt. Despite the many changes that the president initiated, the protests remained. Faced with limited options and the growing civil unrests in the country, President Ben Ali allowed freedom of expression in the media (Delany, 2011). Further, the president opened up political life and pledged to bring justice to the corrupt individuals. However, the promises and actions of the president did not stop the uprising and protests in every part of the country.

The revolution in Tunisia continued unabated as the people tried to force the regime of President Ben Ali to vacate office. Years of neglect and political oppression in Tunisia forced the people to rise against the regime. Unemployment, repression, corruption, and inflation in the country were also some of the reasons that caused people to protest (Dhillon, 2014). The political space and freedom of the masses had become so limited to the extent that those who opposed the regime were met with full force. The fear of retribution was a major issue in Tunisia. During the revolution, the government tried to censor the use of the Internet to deal with those who opposed the regime through the digital platforms (Dhillon, 2014). Tunisia’s heavy Internet censorship policy became an issue of concern for the citizens.

The government through President Ben Ali tried to portray an image of promoting digital age and technology. However, the idea of embracing the digital age was coined with stifling of the dissenting voices that tried to rebuke the government and the presidency. It is imperative to underscore that Tunisia enjoyed major technological transformations because of the government’s efforts to ensure the penetration of broadband to various areas. Honwana (2010) states that by the year 2011 almost a third of the population used the Internet in Tunisia and close to 2.4 million people had Facebook accounts. The technology provided a platform for the people to connect and share ideas. Some of the ideas shared on the digital platforms became catalysts for the resistance and revolution.

Throughout the different stages of the revolution, the social networking sites became significant communication platforms for reaching out and sharing information. The leaders of the different factions communicated to the people using Twitter and Facebook (Stokel-Walker, 2011). For example, during the revolution, the leaders and the citizens shared information on planned crackdowns and intelligence concerning government moves. As the law enforcement agencies and government supporters moved to calm down the protests, the organizers planned on the next moves. People poured into the streets whenever the violence escalated. The images shared on Twitter and Facebook caused anger among the people. President Ben Ali’s efforts to stop the protests did not bear any fruits. The viral videos that featured on Twitter and Facebook moved the people to stand up against police brutality and the government crackdown (In Werbner et al., 2014). President Ben Ali’s failure to quell the uprising caused him to flee the country and seek asylum in Saudi Arabia.

Before the Revolution

Before the commencement of the revolution Tunisia, there were numerous activities on the Internet. The Internet application ranged from normal use to the bloggers some of whom focused on criticizing the regime. The government took certain steps to ensure that the Internet did not become a platform for perpetuating dissenting opinions and persuading the masses to rise against the regime of Present Ben Ali (Ziccardi, 2013). The government blocked most of the video sites such as DailyMotion and YouTube. Occasionally, the government blocked Facebook and only restored it after an uproar from the citizens. The government understood that the people could use the internet to criticize the government and spread negative rhetoric against the regime (Delany, 2011). As a consequence, frequent censorships were targeting the bloggers and others who were hell-bent on causing the downfall of the regime.

Censorship became a common phenomenon as the government sought to crack down on the dissidents. Some sites were deliberately blocked by the government. Close to a hundred blogs were blocked and a majority of the sites censored (Dhillon, 2014). Despite the government efforts to block the sites and prevent people from criticizing the regime, some of the young people used proxies to access the platforms that the regime had interfered with in Tunisia. Some of the videos could not be uploaded to YouTube, and as a result, Facebook became the alternative. The proxies became the new frontier where people engaged in cyber wars. Using proxies was a greater risk because those found were either labeled as terrorists or accused of being hostile to the regime.

Protests against the censorships began in certain places as people decried the tendency of the government to undermine the freedoms and rights of the people. The protests continued despite the government’s move to curtail communication and sharing of information through the social networking sites. Moreover, cyber activists and bloggers were arrested and their gadgets confiscated (Dhillon, 2014). Some of the officials hacked into the private accounts of the activists and posted slanderous information about them. As the crackdown continued, cyber activists and bloggers used the Internet and the social networking sites to reach out to the rest of the world. Some of the activists and bloggers from other countries posted videos and information in solidarity with their counterparts in Tunisia. However, the government responded by ensuring that such sites were blocked from the masses in Tunisia.

In the days leading to the revolution, there was a major occurrence that concerned breach of security on the Internet. Madrigal (2011) states that Facebook was the first company to notice an irregularity in the sense that there was a malicious code that retrieved people’s login information. The information retrieved was then sued by the government officials to block the users from accessing Facebook. Fortunately, Facebook realized the problem and provided an alternative route for Tunisian users (Madrigal, 2011). The route provided encrypted information, and that made it difficult for the regime to retrieve people’s login details. Other security layers were created to ensure that access to people’s private data was curtailed. Through Facebook’s intervention, the social networking company managed to enhance safety by curtailing access to information by the regime of President Ben Ali. The tech-savvy population and the concerns of other social networking stakeholders managed to overpower to some extent the regime’s behavior of censoring the use of the Internet and social media.

During the Revolution

The self-immolation of a young man called Mohammed Bouazizi caught the attention of the entire nation. The young man set himself on fire protesting his treatment in the hands of law enforcement officers (Çakır-Demirhan & Demirhan, 2017). The impoverished young people, especially those in Sidi Bouzid moved to the streets to protest against the regime’s inability to change the circumstances and welfare. For instance, the young people decried police brutality. At the time the dissidents became more proactive, and the cyber war escalated. A higher unemployment rate for the educated populace was a major issue that pushed people to the streets (Çakır-Demirhan & Demirhan, 2017). Government censorship was not the primary reasons that caused the people to protest. People from different backgrounds poured into the streets to protest against the failures of the regime. The youth unemployment was very high in 2010, and the inaction of the government caused anger. The image of the burning body caused more pain among the protesters and called them to action. The resentment of the regime and the growing outrage caused people to start the protests.

The WikiLeaks provided a different twist to the already dangerous situation by releasing information that outlined the state of corruption in the country. The cyber activists and bloggers picked the information from WikiLeaks and posted them on various blogs. In Tunis, protests started in solidarity with the young protesters in Sidi Bouzid. The protests in Tunis were broadcast live through the mobile phones. Consequently, the videos were posted online, especially on Facebook.

On Twitter, the hash tag #sidebouzid trended for many days as people stood in solidarity with the impoverished young people (Lowrance, 2016). The bloggers and cyber activists critical of the Ben Ali administration communicated and rallied supporters to join the revolution. Additionally, the bloggers shared sound bites, videos and photos and such initiatives called people to action. The International news organizations also played a critical role in telling Tunisia’s story to the rest of the world. For instance, the videos and photos posted on Facebook and Twitter were picked by CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera and broadcasted them to the entire world (Çakır-Demirhan & Demirhan, 2017). The international community got concerned about Tunisia’s situation and starting appealing to President Ben Ali to consider stepping down.

The cyber world turned its guns on President Ben Ali by denouncing censorship and calling for a democratic space where freedom of speech and liberty thrived. Different groups on Twitter and Facebook continued to support the protesters in various parts of Tunisia. For example, some groups posted information on how to deal with the violent riots by the law enforcement officers. First aid information and safety procedures were posted online as appropriate.

Dhillon (2014) argues that the need for sustained protests and demonstrations was the clarion call amid violent tendencies by the law enforcement agencies and supporters of President Ali. The Internet was a vital tool used by the citizens to organize themselves and deal with the emerging issues. Moreover, the social networking sites became the platforms used by the protesters to show the world what was happening in Tunisia. The social media was used by the youth to connect, and through that, they shared information that aided them during the demonstrations. Ideally, the Internet allowed the people of Tunisia both in the coastal cities and the mainland to reach out to one another.

After the Revolution

After the regime of Ben Ali crumbled, there has been a major focus on ensuring that Tunisia becomes a democratic society. The democratization process may take time to realize the predetermined goals and objectives. Social media remains relevant in the post-revolution era Dhillon (2014) states that during the 2014 elections, social media was employed extensively for campaigns. Presidential candidates organized rallies and sort donations through the online platforms. The moderate Islamist Party utilized social media for campaigns and other purposes. The party had three Twitter accounts with diverse linguistic orientations that included French, Arabic, and English. After the elections of 2014, the supporters of different parties went online to show their marked fingers (Dhillon, 2014). The irregularities and any issue concerning the elections were posted on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking platforms.

Social media remains a powerful tool that is used in Tunisia. Today, the government has allowed more leverage on the use of social media. The censorships that were witnessed during the Ben Ali regime have since declined. In Gana (2013) states that the citizens have become more enlightened and proactive. The social media is playing a vital role in the democratization process in Tunisia (Miller, 2012). The electorate has become more active in the governance to the extent that they raise issues and offer condemnation whenever it is apparent that certain elements are not appropriate. Blogging has gone to the next level. For instance, there are some bloggers who focus on women’s rights, sexuality as well as politics (Zoubir & White, 2015). Others focus on putting the government in check and spelling out issues that need the input of the administration.

Social media played a vital role in the revolution in Tunisia. In fact, most international news organizations relied on the information posted on Facebook and Facebook. It is this same information that was relayed to the world. France 24, CNN, Al Jazeera, Al-Hiwar, and BCC got most of their information from the social networking sites (Al Jazeera, 2011). There are some who have questioned the role of social media in fueling the uprising. It must be noted that social media has fundamental flaws. For example, images can be altered and videos edited to project certain information intended to achieve certain objectives. Negative forces can also use the social media to perpetuate some agenda that overrides the positive objectives. In the case of Tunisia, it has not been established that social media was used for purposes of malice or negative tendencies. The young people used the social networking sites to organize themselves, share ideas and spread images concerning incidences around the country (Al Jazeera, 2011).

Conclusion

Social networking sites played an essential role in fueling the revolution in Tunisia. Through corruption and marginalization by the Tunisian government, the citizens started demanding a change in the management of the country’s affairs. The self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi caught the attention of the entire nation and that called people to action. Government initiatives aimed at quelling the violence did not bear in fruits. Before the revolution, the government was big on censorship and cracked down on bloggers and cyber activists who denounced the regime. However, during the revolution, social media was used to share information and organize the protesters. In the post-revolution era, social media continues to be a significant element in the democratization process in Tunisia.

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