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“Netroots Rising,” Tunisia Version?

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I’ve been watching the events in Tunisia with great fascination for a number of reasons: 1) because I studied the Middle East in graduate school; 2) because I’m always happy to see corrupt, oppressive, slimy regimes like this one – and many others in the world – fall, especially to “people power”; and 3) I’m fascinated with what role, if any, social/new media played in this case, and in other cases around the world, in undermining authoritarian regimes.

On the latter question, there’s been a good amount of academic work done, in particular by the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Back in 2009, Nate Wilcox and I had a chance to speak at Stanford, in the context of publication of our book, “Netroots Rising: How a Citizen Army of Bloggers and Online Activists is Changing American Politics,” and to speak with some of the leaders in the “liberation technology” program. The question that came up then, as well as now, is whether that “citizen army” – and, more broadly, the citizens “armed” with a variety of social media tools — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, WikiLeaks, ubiquitous video recording and photographic technology, etc. — is not just changing American politics, but politics in Tunisia and elsewhere around the world as well?

According to the Stanford Liberation Technology program:

The last few years have seen explosive growth in the use of information technology to defend human rights, improve governance, fight corruption, deter electoral fraud, expose government wrongdoing, empower the poor, promote economic development, protect the environment, educate consumers, improve public health, and pursue a variety of other social goods.  Lying at the intersection of social science, computer science, and engineering, the Program on Liberation Technology seeks to understand how (and to what extent) various information technologies and their applications — including mobile phones, text messaging (SMS), the Internet, blogging, GPS, and other forms of digital technology — are enabling citizens to advance freedom, development, social justice, and the rule of law.

Specifically, what I’m wondering is whether we just saw an example of “liberation technology” — or one could say “Netroots Rising” — at work in Tunisia?  Here’s what the New York Times had to say:

The protests were accelerated by the heavy use of social-media web sites likeFacebook and Twitter by young people, who used the Internet to call for demonstrations and to circulate videos of each successive clash.

Some demonstrators also cited the evidence of cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks providing vividly detailed accounts of the first family’s self-enrichment and opulent lifestyle.

[…]

Zied Mhirsi, a 33-year-old doctor carried a sign that said, in English, “Yes We Can,” a reference to President Barack Obama, above “#sidibouzid,” the name of an online Twitter feed that has provided a forum for rallying protesters. On the other side his sign said, “Thank you Al Jazeera,” in reference to the Arab news network’s month of extensive coverage.

For the first time in the month of protests, the demonstration on Friday also included large numbers of women – almost none wearing veils – and many snapping cellphone pictures of the crowd to post on the Internet.

In a nutshell, that’s “liberation technology” right there — the use of social media, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs, combined with cable news, plus images and ideas from America and around the world (via cable, the internet, etc.), to help effect major political change. I’m not sure how that would have happened in Tunisia, or most anywhere else, even 5 or 10 years ago. Consider the fact that in 2003, blogs were just getting going; in 2005/2006, Facebook and YouTube were just starting to gain traction, with one of the first major uses of YouTube for political purposes being the “macaca” video in the Webb-Allen race; in 2008, the Obama campaign used these tools heavily, raising $500 million online, gathering 2 million Facebook fans and 3-5 million mobile numbers, and having videos about Obama viewed an estimated 2 billion times. Today, we see the “Tea Party” movement also using those same tools, although obviously not in a progressive direction, which is interesting in and of itself.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen numerous examples of “liberation technology” at work around the world. According to a paper by Stanford Professor Larry Diamond, cases include the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine in 2004, the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, the 2007 “Saffron Revolution” in Burma, and the 2009-2010 “Green Movement” in Iran. Now, it looks like Professor Diamond – and the rest of us – might be able to add another country to that list.  The question is, overall, does the proliferation of social networking and new media make these types of events more likely, less likely, neither or both? I’d argue for “more,” although how much more I’m not sure. What do you think?

P.S. My friend Yosem Companys, a research associate in the Program on Liberation Technology and a PhD student at Stanford conducting his dissertation on the origins of the netroots movement, points me to this story, which demonstrates that an authoritarian government can also use the same technologies to oppress people and suppress dissent. Of course, as Internet security expert Daniel Colascione has pointed out, it would help if Facebook and other tech firms did a better job at securing the data of their users to protect them from stuff like this. Yosem adds:

What’s enabling liberation is not so much the Internet technology itself but the ideas behind the technology.  On the technology design front, the US military promoted the design of the Internet as a decentralized communication system to survive a potential Soviet nuclear strike.  Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s so hard to control people’s activities on the Internet without rendering the Internet’s capabilities useless.  (This is what makes the net neutrality debate so important; the level at which one can best “control” the Internet is at the point of connectivity, which is the one that the large telecommunications companies “own.”  But that’s a separate story.) On the technology use front, the ideology — grounded in the Libertarian counterculture of the 1960’s — is that technology can liberate the individual from the larger structures that have traditionally governed society, such as the government and corporations, and individuals can thus create a better world through communal governance.  This ideology promoted the emergence of the commercial Internet through the initiative of Stewart Brand and the creation of vast fortunes in Silicon Valley, fostered opposition to the government’s regulation and corporations’ commercialization of cyberspace, and thus launched numerous “netroots” movements including blogging, crowdsourcing, file sharing, the netroots, the tea parties, and so on.