Demonstrators flooded the streets in Tunisia this week calling for an end to corruption and ousting President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Many have attributed the wave of protests to the rise of the internet and social media in a country notorious for its censorship but Foreign Policy blogger Marc Lynch says it’s not that simple. He says the internet, social media and satellite channels like Al Jazeera have collectively transformed the information landscape in the Arab world.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This is what popular uprising looks like.
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FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Protests over corruption and unemployment were sparked after a man set himself on fire.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You might remember the song from the 1970s that said, the revolution will not be televised. More modern lyrics might read, the revolution will be tweeted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amid the protests in Tunisia there has been much talk about the activity of Tunisians online and the role that new media are playing in the uprising. Some have called it a WikiLeaks revolution, attributing the unrest to leaked diplomatic cables about corruption in the Tunisian government. Others have called it a Twitter revolution because of all the social media activity surrounding the protests. But political scientist and foreign policy blogger Marc Lynch has assiduously studied the Arab press and says it’s not so simple. He says the Internet, social media and Al-Jazeera have collectively transformed the information environment in the Arab world. Welcome back, Marc.
MARC LYNCH: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've been following the evolving Arab media landscape for the last decade. What’s the big change in that time?
MARC LYNCH: Well, there have been two big changes. One, of course, was the rise of Al-Jazeera and satellite television. That had the effect of really making it very difficult for Arab governments to control the flow of information. And the next big change has been the rise of mass participation in social media, which has really increased the ability of individual citizens to circumvent all efforts to control the media. A remarkable portion of the Tunisian population is on Facebook, for instance. YouTube was extremely important as a repository for these user-generated videos. All of it together, the combination of what’s on the new media and what’s on Al-Jazeera, you can almost think of it as this massive signaling device. In the absence of the media coverage, people in one part of Tunisia might not have known what was happening in another part of Tunisia. In a sense, you almost have to see the images of other people braving the military, going out in the streets, before it even occurs to you to say, you know, I could do that, too. And then, once it’s on Al-Jazeera, there’s this very strong sense of the whole Arab world is watching us. That gives them moral support, encouragement, and you get this kind of feedback effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me a kind of scenario, how, say, a single cellphone could lead to a, a huge report on Al-Jazeera.
MARC LYNCH: So the way it might work is you've had people watching a demonstration on Al-Jazeera. They're inspired by it. They get a group of their friends that they coordinate over SMS. They all come together. They use their mobile phone to shoot a video of themselves demonstrating. They upload it, through Twitter or YouTube or something like that. That then becomes a focal point for more protests, and the coverage follows it. You've got lots of people, all with their phones, shooting images of it, tweeting about it, writing about it on their Facebook page, which creates images for newspapers, videos that can be used on the air, even if you don't have a single journalist on the ground.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In your blog posting, you said that Al-Jazeera didn't just spread information, that it facilitated the framing of events and a robust public debate about their meaning. It seemed like Al-Jazeera’s coverage was cheering the Tunisians on. It was a different role from straight newsgathering, wasn't it?
MARC LYNCH: They see themselves as the voice of the Arab street, of the Arab people. It’s not actually obvious that what happens in Tunisia should be relevant to a Jordanian or to a Yemeni, yet the way Al-Jazeera frames it, it naturally fits. This is a common struggle of Arab peoples against oppressive regimes. And when people are talking about Tunisia, it’s not just Tunisians. It’s Egyptians, Moroccans, Jordanians, Palestinians, Saudis. It really doesn't matter because they're framing it as part of this very broad Arab public struggle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do they apply the appropriate amount of skepticism to reports that they get from Twitter and Facebook from people they don't know?
MARC LYNCH: I think that they face the same problems that a lot of Western journalists face in trying to assess the credibility of events, when it’s moving extremely fast and, crucially, when the government is still clamping down on all ordinary sources. And so, in a sense, they're trying to pick out the truth from this chaotic information environment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you distinguish then between how, say, Al-Jazeera used Facebook and Twitter and how Western news outlets did?
MARC LYNCH: I think it’s similar, except that Al-Jazeera and other satellite TV stations in the Arab world simply cared a lot more. In the United States, Tunisia wasn't a story that anybody really cared about. When people in the United States talk about Arab democracy, pretty much all they talk about is Egypt. And so, the fact that you had a democratic revolution going on in Tunisia didn't register on their radar as something that mattered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why wasn't the Tunisian government more effective in blocking the new media, as Iran did during its so-called Twitter revolution?
MARC LYNCH: There’s no question that they tried. They had, I would say, state-of-the-art [LAUGHS] censorship and repression capabilities. They tried to interfere with the new media sites. They tried putting a kind of false flag people on there to spread disruptive messages. They tried to arrest people when they could find prominent figures who were using new media; they would arrest them, try to make an example of them. I think that though they simply got caught up in the flow of events, and they just weren't able to adapt as quickly as they had expected.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how come this revolution succeeded and the one in Iran didn't?
MARC LYNCH: One thing which you have to acknowledge is that in Iran you had an evenly divided society. The Green Movement represented a significant portion of the population, but there also was real support for the regime on the other side. And in Tunisia the military took itself out of the game, in large part. And if there was support for the ruling regime, it didn't really manifest itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So fundamentally the lesson here is that you need the media but it can't work in a vacuum.
MARC LYNCH: I think that if people try and make the media the cause, calling this a Twitter revolution or an Al-Jazeera revolution, it kind of misses the point. That’s the background. That’s the system in which people operate. But the revolution was made by people, Tunisians getting out in the streets, taking personal risks, working towards a common goal, who were able to use this environment to do some genuinely new things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc, thank you very much.
MARC LYNCH: Well, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Marc Lynch teaches at George Washington University and blogs at Foreignpolicy.com.