So, Was Facebook Responsible for the Arab Spring After All?

Without better information, the debate was largely theoretical. Now, a report out of both Tunisia and Egypt fills in key details.


The hot and at times vicious debate about whether Facebook (where "Facebook" stood for all things social on the Internet) unleashed the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia has been long on theory and short on reporting. Despite the shouting match, there is one thing everyone agrees on: activists in these countries used social media. Even Malcolm Gladwell who has argued repeatedly against Twitter's power wrote, "Surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please." The debate has pretty much accepted this as a given and has instead centered around what effect, if any, these tools had.

The Democracy ReportBut while everyone "knows" this at some level -- we've seen the Facebook groups and the retweets -- the details have been fuzzy. And without better details the debate has been "dumb," as Jay Rosen of NYU put it. That's no one's fault: In the midst of a revolution, it was not always easy to suss out the details of who was leading it, what social tools they were using, and what effects those tools were having. But now that the dust has started to settle, journalists and academics are beginning to piece together that story. And unlike the story so often told that begins with a poor vegetable seller lighting himself on fire in the middle of last December, the story that examines these questions begins more than a decade ago, when Tunisian activists first started going online.

The details come to life in an essay by John Pollock in Technology Review. Editor-in-chief Jason Pontin writes in an introductory note:

How did Tunisians and Egyptians use social media during the uprisings?

We decided to answer that question by reporting what actually happened, and we sent Pollock, a writer who specializes in Africa, to interview the principals behind the region's youth movements.

Pollock's piece (and for the love of journalism read the whole thing, not just my reflection on it) follows the journey of two Tunisians known as "Foetus" and "Waterman" (their real names are unknown even to Pollock) whose organization, Takriz, helped incite the mass protests against Tunisia's president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Takriz, Pollock writes, began as a "cyber think tank" in 1998. Early on, its aims were freedom of speech and affordable Internet access. Pollock writes:

Waterman recalls that the Internet was the only viable option for organizers in 1998, because other media were controlled by Ben Ali. Foetus, Takriz's chief technology officer, a skilled hacker who started hacking because he couldn't afford Tunisia's then-exorbitant phone and Internet costs, saw another advantage online: safety. Takriz meetings "in real life" meant "spies and police and all these Stasi," he says, using the term for East Germany's secret police. "Online we could be anonymous."

Over the next decade, more and more Tunisians slowly came online. Even in 2008, when protests broke out in Tunisia's mining region, fewer than 30,000 Tunisians were on Facebook. Ben Ali's online censorship was so severe that Tunisia ranked below Iran and China on measures of Internet Freedom. But by the end of 2009, more than 800,000 Tunisians had Facebook accounts and when Ben Ali fled earlier this year, the number was just shy of two million, nearly a fifth of the country's total population.

Takriz used many other online tools: It created a fake Twitter account and website for Tunisia's foreign minister. Activists used Skype and Mumble to talk to one another over the Internet. One activist even used Foursquare to broadcast his location when he was being held in the Ministry of the Interior. "We were online every day," Foetus told Pollock, "and on the streets pretty much every day, collecting information, collecting videos, organizing protests, getting into protests."

In the days following the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, protests erupted in towns across Tunisia's poor interior. Dozens of protesters were killed. One video emerged filmed inside a hospital in the town of Kasserine: a young man lay dead with his brains spilling out.

Posted and reposted hundreds of times on YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere, [the video] set off a wave of revulsion across North Africa and the Middle East. Like thousands of Tunisians, Rim Nour, a business consultant, was "online almost 24 hours a day," spending a lot of time identifying government stooges on Facebook groups. She remembers the video vividly: "A friend put it up and wrote something like 'You don't want to see this, it's horrible, but you must. You hae a moral obligation to look at what is happening in your country.'"

Even though these other tools played their parts, Facebook was on a plane of its own. Foetus calls it "the GPS for this revolution" -- quite a helpful analogy. Facebook is what guided the protests, but the true vehicle for change was the protests themselves.

Pollock's look at Egypt's social movements doesn't go as far back into the history as his study of Tunisia. He begins that chronicle with the April 6, 2008, textile-worker strike in the city of Mahalla. Early on, organizers did not use Facebook because so few people were on it at the time, but when they did start up a page, they gained 3,000 fans a day. Following the protests, one of the planners was arrested, beaten, and threatened with rape. When he was released he announced the beginning of the "April 6 movement" and he and his fellow organizers began to study nonviolent civil disobedience online at an Arabic site called Academy of Change, inspired by the Serbian youth movement Otpor.

As in Tunisia, one of the key turning points in Egypt came from a display of state brutality that went viral online: On June 6, 2010, police dragged a computer programmer named Khaled Said out of a cybercafe and beat him to death in the street. Police said he had resisted arrest but his family says he had videos showing the police dealing drugs that police feared he would upload to YouTube or Facebook. Pollock writes:

Said became a revolutionary icon when ghastly post-mortem photos, taken on his brother Ahmed's cell phone, were post to Facebook. We Are All Khaled Said emerged as an enormously influential Facebook group; it now has almost 1.5 million members.

Pollock's portrayal of Egyption activism displays strategies and tools similar to Tunisia's. Of course, that's no accident: The Egyptian activists were following the events in Tunisia, learning from them, and even communicating with some of the leaders -- over Facebook, of course. When one of the Egyptian movement's leaders heard the news from Tunisia, he started texting: "Ben Ali gone. Possibility." As Pollock puts it, "Recipients understood the possibility he had in mind."

In the end, no matter the importance of the online tools, "history happened on the streets," editor-in-chief Pontin writes. But how those streets became flooded by so many, well, it wasn't random, and social media's role boils down to two simple but central accomplishments: First, Facebook and elsewhere online is where people saw and shared horrifying videos and photographs of state brutality that inspired them to rebel. Second, these sites are where people found out the basic logistics of the protests -- where to go and when to show up.

Pollock's piece still leaves open many unanswered questions, not least of which is how we will assess the power of these tools if the regimes that rise next are cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. Moreover, consider the ongoing situation in Syria. Once we start really looking at this role of social media in political change, we will realize that, from place to place, its power is not the same.

Image: Reuters.