Another Facebook revolution: Why are we so surprised?

The New Yorker recently ran a terrific article by Peter Maass about one of the most-reported moments in the Iraq war: the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, opposite the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. You will doubtless recall the TV footage — a mob of excited Iraqis, helmeted US marines, an M88 Hercules tow truck equipped with a crane, the noose around Saddam’s neck, a gentle tug from the M88 and — bingo! — the evil dictator’s likeness crashes to the ground. The Iraqis gather round, shouting exultantly and slapping the brazen head with their shoes.

The message was clear: the Iraqis welcomed their liberation — and their liberators. The neocon mantra about US forces being greeted with flowers by a grateful populace was right after all. Job done; next step democracy.

Er, not quite. Maass’s article tells the whole story of what was, effectively, a pseudo-event that took place in front of the hotel housing the majority of the media then in Baghdad. “Very few Iraqis were there,” he writes. “If you were at the square, or if you watch the footage, you can see, on the rare occasions long shots were used, that the square was mostly empty. You can also see, from photographs as well as video, that much of the crowd was made up of journalists and marines.”

So much for journalism being “the first draft of history”. It’s more often the first draft of misapprehension, especially if the internet is involved. The story is always the same: something unexpected happens in the real world; journalists notice that some of the people involved are users of the web/cellphones/Facebook/Twitter (delete as appropriate); the unexpected is then labelled “the Facebook/Twitter/smartphone (delete as etc) revolution/protest/demonstration/election”.

The latest example is the current political upheaval in Tunisia, which has already been excitably pigeon-holed as a “Twitter revolution” or a “WikiLeaks revolution”. This rush to categorise has sparked a thoughtful discussion in parts of the blogosphere.

‘Social media revolt’
For example, journalism professor George Brock asserted that “this has been a social media revolt, both in the mobilisation of middle-class intellectuals via Facebook and Twitter and in the gathering and distribution of detailed information about what was happening on the ground”. He pointed out that the Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali regime apparently also seemed to understand the importance of the internet.

“At first, traditional reflexes operated. Newspapers were disrupted and journalists detained. Then the authorities realised that the printed press was a nuisance but not the real problem: they went after the bloggers and the web.”

On this analysis, the regime’s mistake was to ignore Facebook. Ben Ali & Co succeeded in preventing journalists from travelling to cover protests in Sidi Bouzid, and the reports from government-controlled media portrayed demonstrations as either vandalism or terrorism.

Third biggest ‘country’ on Earth
But, as Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard pointed out, “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.”

In a way, there is an intriguing parallel between the failure of the Tunisian regime to spot the significance of social networking, and mainstream media’s conviction about its overriding importance. Both camps persist in regarding this stuff as exotic, which for them it is, which in turn highlights how out of touch they have become with reality. For the reality is that the net and social networking have become mainstream, even in societies that seem relatively underdeveloped to Western eyes. Nearly a third of the world now has an internet connection. Facebook is the third biggest “country” on Earth, in terms of population, and if things keep going as they are, it will soon have more users than India has people.

What is happening is that connectedness is becoming a relatively mundane part of people’s lives. So when significant things happen — riots, strikes, elections, conflicts and social upheavals of all kinds — it’s only to be expected that they will use the communication tools with which they are familiar. The message for dictators, elected politicians and newspaper editors alike is simple. This is the way things are: get used to it. –


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