Jesse Walker finds attempts to brand the Tunisian revolt as a “Twitter” or “Wikileaks” revolution to be very unhelpful:
Debating whether their presence makes this a “[fill-in-the-blank] revolution,” by contrast, seems pointless.
Yes, “Twitter revolution” is a silly simplification — like calling the truck blockades of the ’70s a “Citizens Band revolution.” Social media were a part of the uprising, but social media did not cause the uprising, social media were not the only tools used in the uprising, and social media were not the only important media in the uprising. And Twitter was hardly the only significant social media platform at work. As for WikiLeaks — well, indications right now are that it played at best a minor role in what went down, though the possibility that it played any role at all seems worthy of our attention. Not because that will help us understand the big picture with regard to Tunisia, but because it may help us understand the big picture with regard to WikiLeaks.
But saying “this wasn’t a Twitter revolution” is a simplification too, because it makes it sound like Twitter wasn’t part of the picture. As Juan Cole points out, “Revolutions are always multiple revolutions happening simultaneously.” I’m far more interested in how those insurrections fit together than in how they’ll be branded.
There is no question that protesters made use of Twitter, and it is also quite clear that Twitter was a valuable tool for disseminating information about the revolt, but that doesn’t make the revolt a “Twitter revolution” except in the very narrow sense that more people learned of what happened in Sidi Bouzid more quickly than they would have otherwise. Arguably, this accelerated the escalation and spread of the protests, but there seems to be general agreement that the trigger was Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the real causes were widely-shared economic and political grievances. Labeling something a “Twitter revolution” seems to trivialize what we’re talking about, as if other nations’ political struggles can be defined by the technologies and websites that happen to be trendy elsewhere.
As for the “Wikileaks revolution” claim, I have to agree that Wikileaks’ role was minimal. Everyone who was demonizing Wikileaks last week for undermining the Zimbabwean opposition must be feeling rather stupid this weekend if they have given the matter any thought, since Wikileaks’ supporters can put forward a somewhat more plausible case* that the cables that it leaked catalyzed resistance to Ben Ali’s regime. Of course, the leaked cables merely confirmed in specific detail what Tunisians already knew: their government was a deeply corrupt police state dominated by Ben Ali and the Trabelsi clan. Tunisians didn’t need Wikileaks, and Wikileaks didn’t do much more than confirm the obvious about Ben Ali and the Trabelsis, but no one can say that the leaks did the protesters any harm.
* That is, the pro-Wikileaks argument regarding the Tunisian revolt is somewhat more plausible than the absolutely dense claim that Wikileaks endangered Morgan Tsvangirai.
Update: As Dan Murphy at The Christian Science Monitor says:
Ben Wedeman, probably the best TV reporter employed by an American channel (he works for CNN) when it comes to the Arab world, is in Tunis and had this to say about Ben Ali’s stunning fall yesterday, the WikiLeaks theory, and the public fury that amounted to the first succesful Arab revolt in a long time: “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression.”