Facebook: Friend of the Revolution?

The Revolution will not be televised…but it is on facebook. One recurring theme during our conversations with all the grassroots Tunisian activists we have spoken to is the key role that new media played in propelling the revolution beyond Sidi Bouzid and into the consciousness of all Tunisian people. We were fortunate enough to meet with a number of key new media journalists and writers, all of whom played a significant role in spreading the message.

Liliah Westlay spoke of her frustration with her bosses at the magazine she was working on, as they tried to restrain her from reporting on incidents of repression and torture she knew to be going on under the Ben Ali regime. She was told that if she spoke out, she would have problems. He went as far as to encourage her to join the then ruling RCD party with a view to making the political changes she craved from inside the establishment. Her reaction was to publish her material instead on blogs and Facebook.

In order to avoid bring harassment on herself and her family, she would frequently have to change her online identity, IP address and email and she was always careful not to give too much personal information away in her posts.

Other bloggers such as Henda Hendoud were less concerned, blogging in a personal capacity under her own name and speaking out on controversial issues such as religion and sexuality as well as politics.

Liliah described it as a need to shock people into realising what was happening. There were always rumours about torture and repression by the political police but there was never anything reported in the mainstream (and government controlled) media. Blogs and Facebook allowed young people to expose the secrets of the Ben Ali. And the message started spreading like wildfire.

Towards the end of 2010, Henda had received about 1 million hits to her blog and there were numerous others like hers. This gives you a sense of the size of the phenomenon. This of course was a totally grass-roots movement, untouched by the internal politics and government interventions that plagued event the best intentioned trade unions and other activist organisations. This is something that the organisations themselves now recognise and they know that they have to work to engage the youth of Tunisia and to remain accountable them as the revolution continues as it is clear that they will not tolerate a return to the bad old days of cronyism.

Facebook also deserves a special mention here. Some in the west think of the ubiquitous social networking site as potentially intrusive and banal but it’s role as an open platform for the instant exchange of ideas, information and as a tool of revolutionary organisation can not be underestimated. Just one look at an open profile such as

What is even more unexpected is the lengths that Facebook itself went to in order to assist the revolutionaries. Many Tunisian activists were having their sites hacked, blocked and corrupted. Many complained to Facebook’s administrators and Liliah Westlay sent a list of names of people who had been blocked presumably by the government. Joey Sullivan, head of security for Facebook acknowledged that they never had such problems with people trying to block and hack into Facebook as they had with Tunisia. Facebook then took the step of improving their security and when a Tunisian page became blocked, providing them with a secure domain (https://) in order to allow their posting to continue.

The bloggers continue to promote the revolution. One group, nawaat.org was recently awarded the 2011 Netizen Prize by Reporters Sans Frontiers and others dream of jobs in a new, free press. Whatever happens in the coming months in Tunisia, you can bet that you can read it here first;

http://nawaat.org/portail/

http://www.facebook.com/TunisianRevolt

https://twitter.com/#!/actu_tunisie

Anna Morris

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