Rich And Gladwell, Wallflowers At History: Tunisia


It must have been a little galling for Malcolm Gladwell to observe the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. In an atypically mediocre piece, Gladwell not so long ago denied the fact that Twitter or social media or cell-phones or Facebook had anything much to do with the Iranian Green Revolution. His point, such as it was, was that such things were never sufficient in and of themselves to create a revolution. They were weak connections not strong ones, and a revolution needed strong ones to endure. Well, as almost everyone but his editors noted at the time: duh.

Of course, strong connections like unions or political parties or churches or mosques and simply the courage of masses in the street are essential for revolutionary action. But this was true for decades - and yet the 1979 Revolution in Iran was indisputably galvanized by audio-tapes of Khomeini sermons smuggled in from abroad; and the 2009 Green Revolution was originally triggered by young people using Twitter and blogs and cellphone cameras to broadcast their numbers and outrage and courage. Then followed revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where the same technologies were deployed as weapons against the authorities.

Perhaps sensing the lameness of his point, Gladwell went online again to reiterate his point with respect to Egypt last week. Perhaps the best rejoinder was the following January 29 Onion headline:

Panicked Malcolm Gladwell Realizes Latest Theory Foretells End Of His Popularity

Then came another old media dinosaur, Frank Rich. Here's what he wrote only a week ago:

The talking-head invocations of Twitter and Facebook instead take the form of implicit, simplistic Western chauvinism. How fabulous that two great American digital innovations can rescue the downtrodden, unwashed masses. That is indeed impressive if no one points out that, even in the case of the young and relatively wired populace of Egypt, only some 20 percent of those masses have Internet access.

For Rich, reference to Facebook or Twitter and social media in the recent revolutions is a function of American parochialism, chauvinism or condescension! Hey, Mr Rich, check out the false consciousness among these US-brainwashed capitalist tools here:


And let's look at the reality in Tunisia. Between one in ten and one in five Tunisians have a Facebook account - not that surprising when you consider that half the population is between 20 and 30, well educated, relatively secular and denied public forms of expression. In that revolution, the ability to upload videos of police brutality and post them on Facebook was central to why this time, the movement spread. In fact, it took off:

By January 8, Facebook says that it had several hundred thousand more users than it had ever had before in Tunisia, a country with a few more people than Michigan. Scaled up to the size to the U.S., the burst of activity was like adding 10 million users in a week. And the average time spent on the site more than doubled what it had been before.

Why on earth, according to Gladwell and Rich, would this happen if Facebook were irrelevant? The Facebook users kept one step ahead of the censors. Twitter helped keep dissidents in touch with the outside world when arrested:

Less than two weeks ago, Slim Amamou, a Tunisian blogger and activist, was using his @slim404 Twitter feed to let friends know that the police had been to his house. Later the same day, after he was arrested, the 33-year-old computer programmer managed to turn his phone on and log on to Google Latitude to broadcast his location: inside the country’s feared ministry of the interior.

Let's listen to a leader of the Tunisian revolution, Slim Amamou, now in the Tunisian government, explain how the Internet made a difference:

In 2008, there were uprisings in Redeyef, similar to what happened in Sidibouzid. But back then it seems that the internet community did not reach a critical mass. And then at that time, Facebook got censored for a week or two. I don't remember if it was related. But it was like a training for this revolution. People think that this revolution happened out of nowhere but we, on the Internet have been trying for years, together and all over the Arab world. The last campaign that mobilised people was for Khaled Said in Egypt, and we Tunisians participated. And you have to remember that Egyptians (and people all over the world) participated in the Tunisian revolution: they informed, they participated in Anonymous attacks and they even were the first to demonstrate for Sidibouzid in Cairo.

So, yes Internet was very important.

But what does he know from Tunisia, compared with Frank Rich on the Upper West Side?

(Photos: Peter MacDiarmid/Getty and Tumblr.)