Between Twitter and revolution


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In the past two weeks, I have joined many Twitter users in paying close attention to the abrupt end of a 23-year-long autocracy in Tunisia, following such hashtags as #Tunisia, #OpTunisia, and #SidiBouzid.

Tunisians, seething after revelations from WikiLeaks last month about the opulence and corruption in the ruling elite, erupted after a college graduate’s desperate act. In a country where the average unemployment rate for college graduates is 23 percent, Mohamed Bouazizi had to sell fruits and vegetables on the street of Sidi Bouzid. After the police confiscated his wheelbarrow and publicly humiliated him, he left a final letter to his mother before setting himself on fire in protest of Sidi Bouzid city officials and widespread unemployment.

As the news of his death was quickly disseminated through Facebook and Twitter, North Africa’s most wired country was swept by fierce street protests that were broadcast on social media, eventually leading to the exile of President Ben Ali on Jan. 14.

Some are already calling the protests a “Jasmine Revolution,” after the national flower of Tunisia. Other frequently-used terms describe it as a “Twitter Revolution” or a “Wikileaks Revolution,” coined by enthusiastic global Internet users and journalists who closely followed the events on social media.

Twitter and Facebook still clamor with calls for a similar popular effort to be repeated in other Arab nations, and on Tuesday, Egyptian demonstrators followed Tunisia’s lead with a series of countrywide protests broadcast through Facebook and Twitter. The Egyptian government allegedly responded by asking ISPs to block Twitter — an attempt circumvented by proxies, mobile providers, and onion routers.

Indeed, the Tunisian case could make authoritarian leaders across North Africa and the wider Arab world nervous: They have learned that government censorship and complete media control are no longer enough to secure power. Citizens will seek alternative routes of communication on social media and will exchange tips to break through government-installed firewalls.

There is no question that social media were a valuable tool for protesters, accelerating the spread of news and crystallizing scattered grievances into forceful protests.

However, as I see it, the space between Twitter and Revolution in the “Twitter Revolution” may indicate a long road ahead.

If revolution means the forcible overthrow of an existing system and subsequent substitution of a new one, social media have proven their power regarding the first part. However, we have yet to see the effectiveness of the other half: building a new system.

The 2009 popular revolts in Moldova and Iran, both against what the public viewed as vote fraud by the ruling parties, were also called “Twitter Revolutions.” The turmoil afflicting the countries was broadcast worldwide almost entirely by social media. However, the once-fierce protests did not lead to political changes, and citizens of Moldova and Iran are realizing that democratization is not a sprint but a marathon.

Social networks are optimal for expressing instant responses or uninhibited emotions, particularly when they resonate with those of other users. This may be the reason that social networks often induce and amplify sensational news, and even unsubstantiated rumors.

Nevertheless, social media have yet to prove that they can be a locus for the calm and patient deliberation that building a new system would demand.

A “Twitter Revolution” will be complete only when strangers on social networks forge alliances and commit with patience to the long conversation to come, so that they can envision what should happen after the uprising.

Jiyeon Kang is a UI assistant professor of communication studies and Korean studies.

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