Report on the real role of social media in Tunisia and Egypt

Item 1 to 3 are excerpted from a journalistic report by Peter Beaumont in the Guardian. Item 4 is a report on the ‘internet smugglers’ in Lybya from the LA Times. It shows the interconnection between ‘physical’ courage and organisation, that is the very condition for the social media networks to operate.

1. Tunisia

“When I began researching this subject I too started out as a sceptic. But what I witnessed on the ground in Tunisia and Egypt challenged my preconceptions, as did the evidence that has emerged from both Libya and Bahrain. For neither the notion of the “Twitter Revolutions” or their un-Twitterness, accurately reflects the reality. Often, the contribution of social networks to the Arab uprisings has been as important as it also has been complex, contradictory and misunderstood.

Instead, the importance and impact of social media on each of the rebellions we have seen this year has been defined by specific local factors (not least how people live their lives online in individual countries and what state limits were in place). Its role has been shaped too by how well organised the groups using social media have been.

When Tarak Mekki, an exiled Tunisian businessman, politician and internet activist returned to Tunisia from Canada in the days after the Jasmine Revolution he was greeted by a crowd of hundreds. Most of them know Mekki for One Thousand and One Nights, the Monday-night video he used to post on YouTube ridiculing the regime of the fled President Zine Alabidine Ben Ali.

“It’s amazing that we participated via the internet in ousting him,” he said on his arrival. “Via uploading videos. What we did on the internet had credibility and that’s why it was successful.”

Tunisia was vulnerable – under the Ben Ali regime – to the kind of external and internal dissent represented by One Thousand and One Nights. In a state where the media were tightly controlled and the opposition ruthlessly discouraged, Tunisia not only exercised a tight monopoly on internet provision but blocked access to most social networking sites – except Facebook.

“They wanted to close Facebook down in the first quarter of 2009,” says Khaled Koubaa, president of the Internet Society in Tunisia, “but it was very difficult. So many people were using it that it appears that the regime backed off because they thought banning it might actually cause more problems [than leaving it].”

Indeed, when the Tunisian government did shut it down briefly, for 16 days in August 2008, it was confronted with a threat by cyber activists to close their internet accounts. The regime was forced to back down.

Instead, says Koubaa, the Tunisian authorities attempted to harass those posting on Facebook. “If they became aware of you on Facebook they would try to divert your account to a fake login page to steal your password.”

And despite the claims of Tunisia being a Twitter revolution – or inspired by WikiLeaks – neither played much of a part. In Tunisia, pre-revolution, only around 200 active tweeters existed out of around 2,000 with registered accounts. The WikiLeaks pages on Tunisian corruption, says Koubaa, who with his friends attempted to set up sites where his countrymen could view them, were blocked as soon as they appeared – and anyway, the information was hardly news to Tunisians. However, “Facebook was huge,” he says. Koubaa argues that social media during Ben Ali’s dictatorship existed on two levels. A few thousand “geeks” like him communicated via Twitter, while perhaps two million talked on Facebook. The activism of the first group informed that of the latter.

All of which left a peculiar loophole that persisted until December, when the regime finally launched a full-scale attack against Facebook. This in in a country that already tortured and imprisoned bloggers, and where the country’s internet censors at the Ministry of the Interior were nicknamed “Amar 404” after the 404 error message that appeared when a page was blocked.

Social media was absolutely crucial,” says Koubaa. “Three months before Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself in Sidi Bouzid we had a similar case in Monastir. But no one knew about it because it was not filmed. What made a difference this time is that the images of Bouazizi were put on Facebook and everybody saw it.

And with state censorship rife in many of these countries, Facebook has functioned in the way the media should – as a source of information. Around a week after Ben Ali’s fall, I run into Nouridine Bhourri, a 24-year-old call-centre worker, at a demonstration in Tunis against the presence in the government of former members of the old regime.

“We still don’t believe the news and television,” he says, a not surprising fact when many of the orginal journalists are still working. “I research what’s happening on Facebook and the internet.” Like many, Bhourri has become a foot soldier in the internet campaign against the old Tunisian regime.

“I put up amateur video on Facebook. For instance, a friend got some footage of a sniper on Avenue de Carthage. It’s what I’ve been doing, even during the crisis. You share video and pictures. It was if you wrote something – or made it yourself – that there was a real problem.”

2. Egypt

“If Twitter had negligible influence on events in Tunisia, the same could not be said for Egypt. A far more mature and extensive social media environment played a crucial role in organising the uprising against Mubarak, whose government responded by ordering mobile service providers to send text messages rallying his supporters – a trick that has been replicated in the past week by Muammar Gaddafi.

In Egypt, details of demonstrations were circulated by both Facebook and Twitter and the activists’ 12-page guide to confronting the regime was distributed by email. Then, the Mubarak regime – like Ben Ali’s before it – pulled the plug on the country’s internet services and 3G network. What social media was replaced by then – oddly enough – was the analogue equivalent of Twitter: handheld signs held aloft at demonstrations saying where and when people should gather the next day.”

3. The international aspect

“There has been another critical factor at work that has ensured that social media has maintained a high profile in these revolutions. That is the strong reliance that mainstream media such as the Doha-based television network Al Jazeera has had to place on material smuggled out via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. This arrangement means that videos have often been broadcast back in to the country of origin – when Al Jazeera has managed to avoid having its signal blocked.

For me it is a phenomena best summed up by an encounter I had with a group of young Tunisians I met during a demonstration on the day after my arrival in Tunis. I asked them what they were photographing with their phones.

“Ourselves. Our revolution. We put it on Facebook,” one replied laughing, as if it were a stupid question. “It’s how we tell the world what’s happening.”

4. Lybia’s Internet Smugglers, by David Zucchino:

“Suleiman Zjailil is a modern-day town crier. He spends his days driving his battered car back and forth across the border with Egypt, smuggling out grainy cellphone videos so the world can see the news from his quarantined land.

Zjailil, an engineer in the Libyan coastal city of Tobruk, is determined to deliver visual proof of President Moammar Kadafi’s bloody tactics against a mounting populist rebellion.

Armed only with thumb drives and CDs, he downloads videos taken by Libyans and makes the 95-mile trip from Tobruk to Egypt.

“I don’t even know how to fire a gun, but I have the most powerful weapon of all: the media,” Zjailil said Friday as he rested with a glass of hot sweet tea after another punishing trip.

For the last week, an ad hoc network of smugglers such as Zjailil has been delivering videos and word-of-mouth accounts of protests, chaos and killings in Libya.

Zjailil said the get-out-the-message effort began haphazardly as Libyans seeking to depose Kadafi quickly realized that tumultuous events weren’t being relayed beyond the borders of this vast desert nation.

“No one called a meeting and said, ‘We need to do this,’ ” Zjailil said. “Everyone had the same idea. Every day, I meet someone new at the border who is bringing more videos.”

Because the Libyan regime has severely restricted access to the Internet, the smugglers use Egypt to post videos on Libyan-centered Facebook pages and to television websites, particularly that of Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

Some of the videos show Kadafi’s militiamen and African mercenaries firing at protesters last week in eastern parts of the country, where the rebellion has wrested control from the regime. Others show disheveled and frightened mercenaries captured by protesters or by police and army units that have defected to the resistance. Still others depict wild celebrations by Libyans.

Even as news fragments pour east into Egypt, aid and messages of support are surging west into Libya. The border crossing is jammed with vehicles lined up to deliver food, medicine, blood and other supplies.

Bedouins and others along the border are relying on social media to rally and chronicle support and assistance for the rebellion and civilians caught in the chaos.

Aymann Shweky, 40, a gaunt Bedouin with a clipped silver beard, uses Twitter to share news of events in Libya and to report on aid efforts.

Before the rebellion erupted, Shweky said, he had cranked out 28,000 Twitter posts on Egyptian politics. But now he is focused on Libya.

He informed his 2,000 Twitter followers Friday of 200 cars passing into Libya carrying food and supplies donated mostly by fellow Bedouins along the desert coast. Another tweet described 700 liters of donated blood heading west.

“It’s our duty to help them,” Shweky said.

Zjailil said the defining purpose of his video-smuggling efforts is to expose and publicize the killings by Libyan soldiers and militias, and especially the mercenaries.”

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.