Saturday, January 15, 2011

Smart Stuff on Tunisia

Some sharp stuff written on Tunisia at

First, Nathan Brown argues that a constitutionally governed process of change is good in theory, but in practice pretty difficult given that the constitution was set up to keep the old status quo in place.

Second, Ethan Zuckerman addresses the question of how much did twitter matter in all of this.  Just because someone uses a # in a poster does not mean that tweeting brought down the regime.  I am pretty sure it was the folks with the guts to go out in the streets and the guys in the army with the guts not too shoot.  Does twitter facilitate collective action by informing people that there are fellow gutsy people out there protesting and not shooting?  The case Zuckerman makes is that it is about grievances more than anything else, and that is interesting people this set of grievances is not unique to Tunisia in the Middle East.  But Zuckerman makes a good point:
One way to understand the significance of social media in Tunisia is to examine the government's attempts to control and silence it.
So, social media did matter in spreading information about what was happening, but we should not exaggerate it.  On the other hand, it may not be so much social media but attempts to repress it that might matter:
Not content just to filter content, last summer Tunisian authorities began "phishing" attacks on activists' Gmail and Facebook accounts. By injecting malicious computer code into the login page of those services through the government-controlled Internet service provider, Ben Ali's monitors were able to obtain passwords to these accounts, locking out the activists and harvesting email lists of presumed activists.
That would surely anger me.  One of the big unresolved questions in Political Science is the impact of repression.  Sometimes, it decreases dissent, sometimes it increases it, and sometimes it does not make a difference at all.  One testable hypothesis to emerge out of this is whether repressing internet access is more or less effective than less high tech means of repression.  What we do know is that frustration over the long term does tend to breed dissent and violence.  Zuckerman concludes that "Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update."

We can count on Marc Lynch to have a nuanced take on all of this, arguing we ought to

"focus more broadly on  the evolution of the Arab media over the last decade, in which new media such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, forums and blogs work together with satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera to collectively transform the Arab information environment and shatter the ability of authoritarian regimes to control the flow of information, images, ideas and opinions."

Thus, it isn't twitter broke the government, but that authoritarian regimes in general have less control over what people know and think.  One reason why the regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed was that they could see how the other side lived via TV.  Now that satellite televisions, cell phones and internet connections have proliferated, it is much harder (unless you are Fox News) to convince people of things that are untrue.  Lynch argues that it is the combination of internet and satellite TVs and all the rest that together undermine authoritarianism.  "I would suggest that analysts not think about the effects of the new media as an either/or proposition ("Twitter vs. al-Jazeera"), think about new media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, SMS, etc) and satellite television as collectively transforming an complex and potent evolving media space."

Why does this matter?
  Al-Jazeera and the new media  ecosystem  did not only spread information -- they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning.    Events do not speak for themselves.   For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance.    Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest ---the "al-Jazeera narrative" of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike.    Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative.  From al-Jazeera's talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.  

A note of caution: Do not call it a revolution.  It is certainly a popular revolt, but a revolution is more than that--it is an event with significant political and social change (yes, Theda Skocpol's book was one of the few that I really got my first quarter in grad school).  It is way too soon to tell where this is going.  If the military stays around, then it is really a coup more than anything else.  If the old guys stick around using a not-so democratic rules to do so, it shall not be a revolution.  But if this leads to significant revisions (democratic or not) in how the political system is organized, then we can call it a revolution.

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