Are the Internet and Social Media ‘Tools of Freedom’ or ‘Tools of Oppression?’

The role of the Internet and social media in what has been described as the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and the rest of the Middle East is one of the hottest topics in technology and foreign policy. Ever since the #IranElection hashtag first gave the world a look at social media as forum for information exchange about civil unrest outside of state-controlled media, there has been a huge explosion oof forums and op-eds exploring the question of whether YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, cellphones, crisis mapping and other technology platforms were creating the conditions for revolution — or acting as an accelerant to the embers of revolution. The State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy has come into conflict with both autocrats whose iron rule has carried over from the 21st century using Facebook and mobile technology to track down dissidents and Western democracies seeking increased electronic surveillance powers over the network of networks that now spans the globe.

As with so many other communications tools, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the connection technologies whose use has rapidly brought more of us together can be used in both positive and negative ways, much in the same way the printing press, radio or television changed the distribution of ideas and news in past centuries. Cellphones equipped with cameras and connected to the rest of the world have become the eyes and ears of young people in the Middle East. They can also be used to track them.

In a year when the leader of Libya mentioned Facebook by name and Egypt shuts down the Internet, it would be easy to simply celebrate the role of people power accelerated by social media. Not so fast. These social media platforms of 2011 can and will be used to people, governments and covert organizations to greenwash, astroturf or distribute propaganda or misinformation. This reality has been articulated by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and emphasized again in a commentary today on the role of social networking in the Arab Spring. While Wael Ghonim said that without social networking, this wouldn’t have happened, Morozov emphasizes that it took the bravery of millions of young people to show up in real life in Tahir Square in Egypt or in the streets of Tunisia for this to become a reality.

Smarter social networking” in the service of the ends of dictators and autocrats can and will happen, along with so many other spheres of public life. As Ben Scott, innovation advisor of the State Department acknowledged at an AMP Summit in D.C. on social networking and Egypt last month, it is happening, with more use of tools for negative purpose to come. “The question is no longer does technology matter,” he said. “It’s how, and in what ways.”

“Network effects are politically agnostic,” said Scott. These connection technologies are not causing revolution. “They’re accelerating them.”

The question of whether these connection technologies are by their nature aligned with greater freedoms has also, literally, been up for debate. When it comes to a bigger question — whether connection technologies are more useful for democrats or dictators — Scott said that on the whole, he thought the proliferation of connection technologies is good for democracy. The online audience in a recent debate at between Stanford’s Evgeny Morozov and Harvard’s John Palfrey decided by a narrow margin that the Internet is “inherently” a force for democracy. The full dialogue between the two men is well worth reading in its entirety.

Whether that view or this architecture of the Internet itself persists has other members of the academy concerned as well. As Harvard computer science professor Jonathan Zittrain observes in the Scientific American, keeping the Internet open, distributed and free is not a certain outcome.

Attacks on Internet sites and infrastructure, and the compromise of secure information, pose a particularly tricky problem because it is usually impossible to trace an attack back to its instigator. This “attribution problem” is so troublesome that some law-enforcement experts have called for a wholesale reworking of Internet architecture and protocols, such that every packet of data is engraved with the identity of its source. The idea is to make punishment, and therefore deterrence, possible. Unfortunately, such a reworking would also threaten what makes the Internet special, both technologically and socially.

The Internet works thanks to loose but trusted connections among its many constituent parts, with easy entry and exit for new Internet service providers or new forms of expanding access. That is not the case with, say, mobile phones, in which the telecom operator can tell which phone placed what call and to whom the phone is registered. Establishing this level of identity on the Internet is no small task, as we have seen with authoritarian regimes that have sought to limit anonymity. It would involve eliminating free and open Wi-Fi access points and other ways of sharing connections. Terminals in libraries and cybercafes would have to have verified sign-in rosters. Or worse, Internet access would have to be predicated on providing a special ID akin to a government-issued driver’s license—perhaps in the form of a USB key. No key, no bits. To be sure, this step would not stop criminals and states wanting to act covertly but would force them to invest much more to achieve the anonymity that comes so naturally today.

The history of the introduction of new communication tools is a reminder that most disruptive technologies have dual uses. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge was the first President of the United States to make a radio broadcast from the White House. A decade later, Hitler and Stalin were using the same tool to spread a different kind of message.

Nearly a century later, the current occupant of the White House is using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, apps and live video on to communicate with citizens, both of the United States or in other countries. While the White House can claim some open source cred for running on Drupal, much of the rest world has long since becoming aware of the disruptive nature of a more wired society that is connected to the Internet.

The debate about the role of connection technologies in Internet freedom spans many audiences. Last month, the discussion came to the Cato Institute, where a debate on social media and revolutions was moderated by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at Cato. The discussion featured Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato Institute, Tim Karr, Campaign Director, Free Press, and this correspondent.

The same platforms that can and are being used to transmit breathtaking moments of wonder,
hear digital cries for help or lift up the voices of the citizens in oppressed societies to the rest of the world will also be used against them. Palfrey has further explored Middle East conflict and an Internet tipping point for the Internet at MIT’s Tech Review. His conclusion is worth sharing again:

Today, we are entering a period that we should call “access contested.” Activists around the world are pushing back on the denial of access and controls put in place by states that wish to restrict the free flow of information. This round of the contest, at least in the Middle East and North Africa, is being won by those who are using the network to organize against autocratic regimes. Online communities such as and peer-to-peer technologies like mesh networking provide specific ways for people to get involved directly in shaping how these technologies develop around the world.

But it would be a big mistake to presume that this state of affairs will last for long, or that it is an inevitable outcome. History shows us that there are cycles to the way that technologies, and how we use them, change over time, as Timothy Wu argues in his new book, The Master Switch. The leaders of many states, like China, Vietnam, and Uzbekistan, have proven able to use the Internet to restrict online discussion and to put people into jail for what they do using the network. We should resist the urge to cheer the triumph of pro-Western democracy fueled by widespread Internet access and usage. The contest for control of the Internet is only just beginning.

As the rest of the world watches the changes sweeping the Middle East through snippets of cellphone video uploaded to YouTube and curated by digital journalists like Andy Carvin, connected citizens have unprecedented capacity to drink from the firehose of revolutionary media. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing. The challenge is what people do with it.

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A Tunisian on the role of social media in the revolution in Tunisia

Last week, dozens of people made their way through streets clogged with “thundersnow” to hear a special guest speak about social media and the Tunisian revolution at the January meeting of DC Media Makers. Much has already been written about Twitter, Tunisia, revolutions and the role of the Internet. For this dedicated audience at NPR headquarters in Washington, the reflections of Rim Nour, a young Tunisian techie who personally took part in the “Jasmine Revolution,” were not to be missed. Their interest was born by the spotlight on Web tools and change that digital activism in North Africa and the Middle East has created.

Her perspective can’t be taken as the definitive version of what happened or why, but given that she participated from on the ground, as a witness to history she provided a valuable account of the role of technology. In Nour’s account, this Tunisian revolution was fundamentally powered by people and the conditions of their lives. Tunisia wasn’t a Twitter or Facebook or Wikileaks revolution, said Nour. It was Tunisians on the ground. Regional disparities, corruption, unemployment were primary drivers, she emphasized.

That said, the online and offline worlds appear to have interacted in unprecedented ways in Tunisia. (That insight reflects new Pew research on the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action in the United States, where many expert observers see the decline of the distinctions between “cyberspace” and the material world). The disruptive effect of cameraphones and other devices was particularly important in Tunisia, and, really, everwhere. As Bryce Roberts observed, “mobile devices are the Gutenberg presses of our generation.”

Nour said that Twitter played an important initial role in Tunisia for much of December. As the revolution gathered steam, the new minister of youth and sports, was an inspiration for bloggers in Tunisia, said Nour. @slim404, as he’s known in 140 characters or less, was been a constant source of insight into Tunisia’s inner workings on Twitter. After December 24th that soon Facebook became the main organizing tool for protests and sharing videos. That’s congruent with the statistics the DC Media Makers audience heard. According to Nour, there is about 85% cellphone penetration in Tunisia, with around 30% of Tunisian citizens are on the Internet. She said that there are 500 or so active Twitter accounts there, as compared to more than 2 million active Facebook users.

NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin, co-founder of DC Media Makers and an expert analyst regarding the role of online communications in uprising, observed that Facebook was the open platform for Tunisians to share videos. People in Europe would migrate those videos into Posterous, then upload to YouTube, and then share them using Twitter. Carvin pointed out the also aggregated Facebook videos almost as fast as they went up. All of the services worked together on top of platform that the Internet provides.

Nour also emphasized the role of Al Jazeera, which she said was “the only channel worth following.” As many people have seen around the world this week as events in Egypt unfold, Al Jazeera is playing a galvanizing role in Arab protests. A global audience is tuned into the Al Jazeera English livestream at

Nour highlighted four ways that social media played a role in the Tunisian revolution, all of which can be applied to other contexts.

  1. Grassroots mobilization. Nour said that some of the organization of protests happened on Facebook, which effectively played the role of community organizing platform
  2. Organize the rise of civil society and active citizenship. Citizens used social media to identify the positions of snipers, police and looters, and to alert one another to other violence, said Nour, who also noted that networks formed to clean streets, protect shops or organize bread lines.
  3. Counter rumor or propaganda tool. When there were concerns about water being poisoned, people sharing information on Facebook helped to counter that falsehood, said Nour. When reports came in that there was massive shooting in a neighborhood, a few minutes later, a few dozen people said that was untrue.
  4. Helped people analyze government statements. Nour said that when government went on TV, people went on online to analyze what president aid and to form a consensus on whether the positions met their requirements. Ultimately, they did not.

Would the revolution have happened without social media? Yes, asserted Nour, but “it wouldn’t have happened as fast.”

Now Tunisians face the next steps: what happens after this uprising. “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end,” observed Nour, quoting de Tocqueville.

In this historic moment, we’re all living stories. When combined into the narratives of entire countries, they make for fascinating, sometimes heartrending reading.

A reader: Tunisia, Twitter, revolutions and the role of the Internet

The social web can be a powerful tool for communication, sharing and remembrance. The Internet would be a neutral tool that could be used for organizing, enlightenment and commerce, or repression, propaganda and crime. Which will it be? In 2011, the safest bet is both. Today, that truth was self-evident in the United States, as a nation remembered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. online. Over the past week, however, the Internet and its social layer has been given a starring role in the recent events in Tunisia that may be overblown.

If you need some quick background on the Tunisian uprising over the past week, click over to Global Voices and read Ethan Zuckerman on revolution in Tunisia. To see a collection of some of the tweets and videos in question, consult the online reports from social media curated by Andy Carvin for NPR.

So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution?

In a word, no. At least, not on those terms. “No one I spoke to in Tunis today mentioned twitter, facebook or wikileaks. It’s all about unemployment, corruption, oppression,” tweeted Ben Wedeman, reporting for CNN from on the ground in Tunisia. Dan Murphy minced no words in his piece in the Christian Science Monitor rebutting the Wikileaks revolution meme that Wikileaks itself spread. “The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia is being driven by flesh and blood and conditions on the ground, not because WikiLeaks ‘revealed’ to Tunisians the real face of a government they’d lived with their whole lives,” wrotes Murphy.

“Any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor — technological, economic, or otherwise — is simply untrue,” wrote Zuckerman in Foreign Policy. “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.”

On amplifying voices:

For users of social media, the protests in Iran were an inescapable, global story. Tunisia, by contrast, hasn’t seen nearly the attention or support from the online community.

The irony is that social media likely played a significant role in the events that have unfolded in the past month in Tunisia, and that the revolution appears far more likely to lead to lasting political change. Ben Ali’s government tightly controlled all forms of media, on and offline. Reporters were prevented from traveling to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid, and the reports from official media characterized events as either vandalism or terrorism. Tunisians got an alternative picture from Facebook, which remained uncensored through the protests, and they communicated events to the rest of the world by posting videos to YouTube and Dailymotion. As unrest spread from Sidi Bouzid to Sfax, from Hammamet and ultimately to Tunis, Tunisians documented events on Facebook. As others followed their updates, it’s likely that news of demonstrations in other parts of the country disseminated online helped others conclude that it was time to take to the streets. And the videos and accounts published to social media sites offered an ongoing picture of the protests to those around the world savvy enough to be paying attention. – Ethan Zuckerman, Foreign Policy

Here’s a reader that provides more perspectives on the Internet in the past week’s events in Africa.

Al Jazeera on ‪the role of social media in the Tunisian uprising‬:

The digital origins of dictatorship and democracy, via Patrick Meier:

“In contemporary systems of political communication, citizens turn to the Internet as a source of news and information in times of political crisis. It is not only that online social networking services are influential as a communications media; rather, they are now also a fundamental infrastructure for social movements. And the Internet globalizes local struggles.

Information and communication technologies are the infrastructure for transposing democratic ideals from community to community. They support the process of learning new approaches to political representation, of testing new organizational strategies, and of cognitively extending the possibilities and prospects for political transformation from one context to another.

But it would be a mistake to tie any theory of social change to a particular piece of software.”-Philip Howard

Technology clearly played a role in amplifying the voices of Tunisian citizens. The question is how much of a role, given the reality. Using social networks, SMS and online video, they could be heard by on another and the rest of the world (along with, one can assume, government agents.)

Did Twitter matter?

The reality is that Twitter is an information-distribution network, not that different from the telephone or email or text messaging, except that it is real-time and massively distributed — in the sense that a message posted by a Tunisian blogger can be re-published thousands of times and transmitted halfway around the world in the blink of an eye. That is a very powerful thing, in part because the more rapidly the news is distributed, the more it can create a sense of momentum, helping a revolution to “go viral,” as marketing types like to say. Tufekci noted that Twitter can “strengthen communities prior to unrest by allowing a parallel public(ish) sphere that is harder to censor.”

So was what happened in Tunisia a Twitter revolution? Not any more than what happened in Poland in 1989 was a telephone revolution. But the reality of modern media is that Twitter and Facebook and other social-media tools can be incredibly useful for spreading the news about revolutions — because it gives everyone a voice, as founder Ev Williams has pointed out — and that can help them expand and ultimately achieve some kind of effect. Whether that means the world will see more revolutions, or simply revolutions that happen more quickly or are better reported, remains to be seen.”-Mathew Ingram, GigaOm

Tunisia’s Twitter revolution?

“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.”-On the Media

A Francophone analysis:

Car malgré l’immense respect que j’ai pour ce qu’a réussi à accomplir le peuple tunisien, et les twitterers qui ont rejoint leur cause, il convient de dire que l’engouement des twitterers pour la révolution Tunisienne est resté, somme toute, trés modeste.
Ainsi, au plus fort de la crise, le tryptique Tunisie+Tunisia+tunez n’a atteint que 100 tweets par minutes. On m’objectera que ce trypique ne permet pas de mesurer le nombre de tweets réels parlant des événements tunisiens. C’est tout à fait vrai, mais cela reste un indicateur, et en comparaison le dyptique (equateur + ecuador) dépassait lui les 400 tweets/minutes lors de la tentative de coup d’etat en Equateur du 30 septembre dernier… Qui s’en souvient?

Autre indicateur intéressant, le mot Tunisie (en français), est resté égal à Tunisia (en anglais) et superieur à Tunez (en espagnol) avec constance jusqu’aux 2 derniers jours, les courbes des différents mots clefs épousant par ailleurs exactement le même tracé. Ceci nous permet de conclure 2 choses:
Les twitterers impliqués appartenaient globalement aux mêmes fuseaux horaires. En réalité, la révolution tunisiennes a été essentiellement suivie, commentée et retweetée en Europe et au Moyen-orient.

Les événements ont sans doute fait le plein des voix francophones intéréssées par l’actualité internationale, celles-ci restant, n’en doutant pas, bien modestes à l’echelle de Twitter. Mais, les grandes communautés de Twitterers hispanophones et anglophones d’Amerique du Nord et du Sud, ainsi que celles des pays asiatiques anglophones sont elles, en proportion, restées trés en marge de l’actualité Tunisienne. (je ne possède pas de données concernant les autres communautés linguistiques notamment japonaise, russe, etc…)

Et à cela il y a me semble-t-il une explication qui va au delà des facteurs géographiques ou historiques: la trés faible et pour le moins tardive implication les medias US et UK qui, sur Twitter, sont eux, les véritables catalyseurs, et c’est un fait constant, des discussions touchant à l’actualité internationale.”-Quelle Twitter revolution en Tunisie?

Clay Shirky commented on the role of technology in Tunisia:

“…you quote Zeynep asking “was the French Revolution a printing press revolution?” To which the answer is _of course_ the French Revolution was a press revolution; it was unimaginable without the press.

“Prototypically, this type of press can be observed in times of revolution, when the journals of the tiniest political groupings and associations mushroom–in Paris in the year 1789 every marginally prominent politician formed his club, and every other founded his journal; between February and May alone 450 clubs and over 200 journals sprang up.” (Habermas, _Structural transformation of the public sphere_)

So Tunisia was no more a media revolution than the French Revolution was, but no less either. And though Twitter has become the short-hand for the changed media environment in Tunisia, my vote goes to mobile phones and Al Jazeera as the monikers for the media that made the most difference.

Weighting the variables, though, are details, in my view, compared to the much larger change in the conversation taking place.

No one believes social media _causes_ otherwise complacent citizens to become angry enough to take to the streets. It’s a convenient straw man for the skeptics, because, as an obviously ridiculous narrative, it’s easy to refute.

And the effect of a new medium on society is so full of feedback loops there is no way to prize apart those effects while they are happening, and prizing them apart afterwards takes decades and consumes academic careers.

The argument about the effect of social media centers on something much less causal and much more contributory: the idea that social media helps angry people achieve shared awareness about how many other people are angry, and helps those people take action. AJ contributed more to the first half of that equation, mobile phones to the second, FB more the first, Twitter more the second, and so on.

In Tunis, this effect clearly played a role. How and how much will be debated for years, but its importance seems obvious, just as the importance of newly cheap printing presses fueled political organization in France. But even the people pointing out that calling this a Twitter Revolution is simplistic and insulting are alway saying social media had an effect. Luke Allnut’s widely circulated piece, “Can We Please Stop Talking About Twitter Revolutions” says:

“First off, it looks like social media did have an important role to play here. An estimated 18 percent of Tunisia’s population is on Facebook and, left unblocked by the government, it was a place where many Tunisians shared updates pertaining to the protests. As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, the video-sharing sites Dailymotion and YouTube were also important. And with a paucity of on-the-ground media coverage, Twitter excelled as a medium in getting the message out, in driving mainstream media coverage, and in connecting activists on the ground with multipliers in the West.”

“Twitter Revolution” is a headline, a label that compresses and distorts wildly, but arguing over whether we should use or drop the phrase (I think its dreadful, and never use it) is a lot less important than the underlying clarity the events in Tunis provide: no one thinks social media is the source of the anger, some people think social media was one of the things that helped convert that anger to action (Allnutt, Zuckerman, me), some people think that social media has little or no effect (Morosov and Gladwell, most famously). And from my point of view, that latter belief has become harder to support.
“-Clay Shirky, commenting on GigaOm

Shirky posted a correction as well:

Evgeny has pointed out to me in mail that I have wrongly lumped his views in with Malcolm Gladwell’s, which I’d like to retract.

Malcolm seems to have taken a “Bah, humbug” approach to social media, stretching Tom Slee’s ‘slacktivism’ critique (Facebook shout-outs for overthrowing SLORC won’t free Burma) to encompass all uses of social media. Where I went wrong was in imputing Malcolm’s “social media is politically inert” view to Evgeny as well, when he believes something considerably more complex.

Here’s my precis of Evgeny’s thesis: although the internet and mobile phones _can_ lead to things like improved ability to mobilize, those improvements will not necessarily lead to a net increase in political freedom. The governments threatened by increasingly synchronized populations can still avail themselves of Evgeny’s troika of surveillance, propaganda, and censorship, thus retaining or even strengthening their hold on the populace. (Rebecca Mackinnon makes a similar argument in her work on networked authoritarianism.)

This a subtler view than the one I hastily attributed to Evgeny. He and I still disagree, but our disagreement is only slightly affected by the Jasmine Revolution, as it is only a data point for the larger question of the net effect on all the world’s countries.

Shirky wrote more about the political power of social media in Foreign Affairs (sub. required) written before Tunisia broke upon the wider wold consciousness.

More from a “technosociology” viewpoint:

I find it hard to believe that the ability to disseminate news, videos, tidbits, information, links, outside messages that easily, transparently and without censorship reached one in five persons (and thus their immediate social networks) within a country that otherwise suffered from heavy censorship was without a significant impact. (More background here on the particulars of the general political situation in Tunisia). To say that social-media was a key part of the revolution does not necessarily mean that people used GPS-enabled phones to coordinate demonstrations; that is simplistic and misses the point in which social media shapes the environment in general. What it means is that the people acted in a world where they had more means of expressing themselves to each other and the world, being more assured that their plight would not be buried by the deep pit of censorship, and a little more confidence that their extended families, their neighbors, their fellow citizens were similarly fed up, as poignantly expressed by the slogan taken up by the protestors: “Yezzi Fock! Enough!”-Zeynep Tufecki

On “rebooting” Tunisia:

What happened this week has nothing to do with previous Twitter-revolutions (sorry Iran), and is more about Facebook than Twitter anyway. Social media was not just a tool to communicate and coordinate action, it was a tool to create worldwide support in little time. From a retweet to an Anonymous LOIC attack, a blog post or a translation, millions have shown their support and took action.” –Fabrice Epelboin, ReadWriteWeb

Of “cyberactivists” and a dictator:

As during Iran’s Green Revolution, the primary function of social media has been to get around the government’s iron grip on information flows. International media can pull the information from sites like Àli’s, then broadcasts it back into Tunisia via satellite TV, a process in which Al Jazeera in particular has played a critical role. Social media, along with SMS and traditional word-of-mouth, has also been an important tool to coordinate the grassroots protests which don’t really have any leaders yet. There is no political party or unifying figure behind the demonstrations, which were going on for almost a month before people outside the country started to take note.-Mike Giglio, Newsweek

A view on the role of social media from within Tunisia:

Wikileaks played a major role in fueling the anger / determination of Tunisians. However, the Wikileaks reports only put further light on what we already knew. They confirmed our doubts and detailed the different events.

Twitter and Facebook played a very important role in our revolution, and I am confident that if we were not using social media we wouldn’t have accomplished our goals.

Social media empowered our communication infrastructure.

It countered the traditional media, the propaganda machine of our government. It allowed us to detect patterns that one would not notice if left alone, such as noticing that all the presidential police cars are rented (rented cars in tunisia have blue license plates). Social media fostered crowdwisdom, by sharing thoughts, feedbacks, and opinions. And finally on the battle field, we even used in the final hours of our government to share snipers’ positions.

Then, the final demonstration was an event on facebook that everybody shared.

And now we are using it to find the militias, and share their positions. There are volunteers working on developing web 2.0 applications to place events on maps. – Youssef Gaigi, Tunisian blogger

A “Human Revolution?”

But to call this a “Twitter revolution” or even a “WikiLeaks revolution” demonstrates that we haven’t learned anything from past experiences in Moldova and Iran. Evgeny Morozov’s question–”Would this revolution have happened if there were no Facebook and Twitter?”–says it all. And in this case, yes, I–like most Tunisians to whom I’ve posed this question–believe that this would have happened without the Internet.

The real question, then, is would the rest of us have heard about it without the Internet? Would the State Department have gotten involved early on (remember, their first public comment was in respect to Tunisian Net freedom)? Would Al Jazeera–without offices on the ground–have been able to report on the unfolding story as they did? Most importantly, would any of that have mattered?

Social media may have had some tangential effect on organization within Tunisia; I think it’s too soon to say. No doubt, SMS and e-mail (not to be mistaken with social media) helped Tunisians keep in touch during, before, and after protests, but no one’s hyping those–e-mails and texts simply aren’t as fascinating to the public as tweets. In fact, assuming SMS and e-mail did play a role in organizing (and again, I don’t doubt they did — Tunisian’s Internet penetration rate may be only 33%, but its mobile penetration rate is closer to 85%), then we ought to be asking what it is about social media that is unappealing for organization? Could it be the sheer publicness of it, the inherent risks of posting one’s location for the world to see? Given the mass phishing of Facebook accounts, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Facebook were seen as risky (Gmail accounts were also hacked, however, which undoubtedly led some to view digital communications in general as risky).”-Jillian C. York, Cantabridgian blogger

The view from the State Department:

In my view, success in the 21st Century depends on effective governance. A free and vibrant press plays an important role around the world in the development of civil society and accountable governments. As a general rule, the freer the press, the more transparent and more democratic the government is likely to be.  In the context of this seminar, Media and Politics, think of the places around the world recently where existing governments are clearly guilty of substantial election fraud, fraud that either skewed the results to a significant degree, or stole elections outright. This involves the election in Iran in June 2009, where the government harassed the traditional media as they covered the election and the fraud that was evident, as well as the opposition that very effectively used social media during the campaign, and has refused to be silenced to the present day.

Dictatorships understand the power of the media, where in Burma, the ruling junta held an election in November for which it refused to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to participate, nor allowed outside media to cover. The result was a kind of election laundering, where the existing military government attempted to use the election to transform itself into a civilian government. But it lacks the legitimacy that only civil society, backed by a vibrant press, can bestow.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of present-day examples, from Cote d’Ivoire to Belarus, where the media continues to document the actions of repressive governments that in one case refuses to accept the results of an election that it did not expect to lose, and in the other has literally jailed every opposition figure that dared run against Europe’s last dictator.

The former Yugoslavia is my best example of a case where the investment in independent media helped to transform a country and we hope over time a region, contributing to the dynamic that led to the end of the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, and his transfer to The Hague where he died in prison while facing charges for crimes against humanity.  We also know that the media can be used to incite ethnic violence, as we saw tragically in the 1990s in Rwanda. We continue to have concerns regarding state-controlled, particularly in the Middle East, that continue to foment religious tension across the region.

No one is a greater advocate for a vibrant independent and responsible press, committed to the promotion of freedom of expression and development of a true global civil society, than the United States. Every day, we express concern about the plight of journalists (or bloggers) around the world who are intimidated, jailed or even killed by governments that are afraid of their people, and afraid of the empowerment that comes with the free flow of information within a civil society.

Most recently, we did so in the context of Tunisia, which has hacked social media accounts while claiming to protect their citizens from the incitement of violence. But in doing so, we feel the government is unduly restricting the ability of its people to peacefully assemble and express their views in order to influence government policies. These are universal principles that we continue to support.  And we practice what we preach. Just look at our own country and cable television. We don’t silence dissidents. We make them television news analysts. -P.J. Crowley, U.S. State Department

And thoughts from one of the toughest critics of State’s “Internet freedom” policy, Evgeny Morozov:

Anyone who has seen reports about Tunisia’s “WikiLeaks Revolution” would know that those accounts mostly focus on the role that the cable revelations about Tunisia played in enticing the protests (this is an account I don’t agree with, if it’s not yet obvious). To suggest that a term like a “WikiLeaks Revolution” does not also celebrate – perhaps, implicitly – the factors most commonly associated with the Internet (its resilience against censorship, its spirit of mutual collaboration, etc) would be extremely disingenuous. When people say that events in Tunisia were a “WikILeaks Revolution”, they are consciously or subconsciously cheering the fact that there is this former-hacker guy Assange who used the Internet to do the unthinkable. If this is not what is celebrated by the term “WikiLeaks Revolution”, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.

WikiLeaks, alas, is not “social media” – so it doesn’t meet Clay’s rigid definition. But if you broaden the terms of the debate to the Internet proper – and those are the terms that are most interesting to me – you are bound to notice that there are plenty of pundits and analysts celebrating the power of the Internet to politicize future protesters – not only to help them organize. This, by the way, is the same argument that was used by plenty of neocons in the wake of the Soviet collapse: it was assumed that the Western radio informed Soviet citizens about the superior value of Western goods – and the Soviets eventually rebelled. Apologies for self-promotion, but anyone who thinks these are not real intellectual narratives being pimped in Washington DC should take a look at my book, where they are extensively documented (including in the 70-page bibliography!)” -Evgeny Morozov, The Net Effect, Foreign Affairs

(As it happens, this correspondent is reading it this month. He’s also headed to the State of the Net later this morning, where the events above were the subject of discussion.)

National Post published a Q&A on the role of social media in Tunisia’s revolution with Nasser Weddady, Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc from above), Zuckerman and Jillian York:

Q: Tunisians were using Twitter for logistics, from warning of sniper locations, to calling for blood donation at hospitals, to organizing protests. Does this mark a new era in Twitter use, where people use it to navigate danger and save lives under tumultuous circumstances?

ZT: Twitter is a very good tool for using in emergencies thanks to its short message format, multi-platform access, and the ability to use cell phones. This was also shown during the Haitian earthquake, Tuscon shootings, etc. So, yes, social media in general, and Twitter in particular, are now woven into the fabric of our responses to tumultuous circumstances.

NW: There was a report on a French TV station called TF1, where a Tunisian man said, ‘Twitter a sauve mon vie,’ which means, ‘Twitter saved my life.’ What happened was that at one point the presidential guard went on a rampage. The man said he was about to leave his house, but he saw masked, armed gunmen. He went online and tweeted, and asked for help. People saw this in Tunisia, and started calling the army’s emergency lines, reporting his exact location. The army showed up immediately and arrested these people. This is the power of social media.

JY: It does seem like a new thing, it’s not something that I had seen before. But I saw more [logistical information] being shared on facebook, behind closed doors using private messaging. I had one friend who sent a message to a group of people to stay away from a specific neighbourhood in Tunis because of snipers. Another person sent out a message saying, ‘I’m going to be [at a particular place] this afternoon, and I should be back online by 10:30 p.m..’ That way, if that person is not back online by 10:30 p.m., somebody is going to be concerned. I saw a lot of that happening.

Did tweeting topple Tunisia?

“There’s no such thing as a Twitter revolution,” says Jared Cohen of Google Ideas, Google’s new think tank — and that’s coming from someone who once served as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s principal advisor on what the State Department calls its “Internet Freedom Agenda.” In 2009, Cohen telephoned the managers of Twitter and persuaded them to delay a maintenance break so Iranian protesters — who filled the streets of Tehran at the time — wouldn’t lose their access.

Cohen does think technology has a major impact on incipient revolutionary movements: “It’s an accelerant,” he said. Social media make it easier for grass-roots dissidents to find each other, identify potential leaders, share information and connect with the outside world. But in the end, he noted, “a successful revolution still requires people to go into the streets and risk their lives.”-Doyle McManus, L.A. Times

McManus shared a further, highly relevant observation in that column: “An old-fashioned lesson for revolutionaries: It’s nice to have Twitter, but it’s even nicer to have the army on your side.

After the revolution, Tunisia’s inner workings emerge on Twitter, via @slim404, the new minister of youth and sports, the dissident blogger Slim Amamou:

“The first conflict with the old RCD-ists,” Mr. Amamou, 33, told his 10,000 Twitter followers from the closed-door cabinet meeting, along with the rest of the fly-on-the-wall details reported above. “I like the minister of Justice,” he wrote on Twitter a few days later. “I am going to wear a tie just to please him.”

In the week since Mr. Ben Ali’s flight, Mr. Amamou has become a symbol inside the cabinet of the revolution’s roots in the online world of Twitter and Facebook. Before the advent of such networks, local outbursts of unrest here were quickly crushed. This time, the revolt flashed across the country as protesters shared video of their own demonstrations. Grainy cellphone images of a clash with the police in one town egged on the next.

Now Mr. Amamou’s idiosyncratic commentary on Twitter is telling the still-evolving story of the revolution’s early days and providing an important source of information about the new administration’s plans.

His news bulletins have included advance word that the prime minister would resign from his party, and that the education minister planned to reopen the schools. After four new ministers resigned Tuesday in protest of the continued role of the R.C.D., the French initials for the Constitutional Democratic Rally, Mr. Amamou wrote that the government planned to seek their return instead of replacing them.

US diplomacy embracing Twitter amidst global crises:

Crowley’s Saturday post about Tunisia was just the latest in a series aimed at encouraging calm and reform in the country. “The people of Tunisia have spoken,” he wrote on Thursday. “The interim government must create a genuine transition to democracy. The United States will help.”

Both Crowley and Ross dispute that the revolution in Tunisia was fomented by either WikiLeaks revelations of U.S. assessments of rampant corruption, which was already well known, or social media. But, they said Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media played an important role in how the revolt played out.

“Dramatic change is happening in Tunisia,” Crowley told the AP. But “real social deprivations, including the lack of political and economic opportunity combined with obvious corruption, are the real underlying causes. . Social media served as an accelerant.”

“Connection technologies succeeded where mainstream media was blocked or slow to identify and report news,” said Ross. “Tools like Twitter can stand-in where traditional media is blocked by an authoritarian regime from reporting. At times like this, the ability of P.J. Crowley to communicate with people through Twitter is very important.”

“We are not utopian about technology,” he said. “We understand that it just a tool. However, if you want to be relevant in 2011, you need to understand how to harness the power of technology.” -Matthew Lee, Washington Post

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