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.