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As Tunisia experiences remarkable popular protest, many in the Western mainstream media have again focused on the role of the internet and social networking in catalysing socio-political change, writes H. Nanjala Nyabola. But to what extent do these tools foment such change, Nyabola asks, and who are the real heroes behind successful protests?

If you’re not a big fan of clichés, now may be a good time to cut back on your internet usage. In fact, you may want to stop reading things altogether for a few days (except, of course, this website). Following the remarkable events of last Friday that led to the ousting of one of Africa’s longest serving rulers, the evergreen President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, you may want to protect yourself from the rampant use and misuse of Gil Scott-Heron’s famous line ‘the revolution will not be televised’. Then again, maybe you won’t have to. By all measures it seems that no matter how, unless the situation in Tunisia takes on a dramatic turn for the worse (as it’s threatening to), the mainstream European and North American media will continue to discuss two things: one, what the crisis means for the region, and specifically key US ally Egypt, and two, what the increasing use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are doing to promote increased social activism in young people.

On the first point, given the geostrategic obsession that Europe and North America have had with Egypt, it is almost understandable that any potential dramatic destabilisation of the country is at the front of everyone’s mind. If he remains in place until October of this year, Mubarak will have been in power for 30 years, and throughout that time he has managed to position himself as a key regional US ally against the sea of hostility towards the state of Israel, in return for commanding the largest portion of US foreign aid (mostly military, but that’s another story). Sadly, Mubarak does not have a history of treating his own citizens with the same magnanimity that he has extended to the state of Israel, and there is perceptible resentment towards the old man in many quarters. At the same time, Egypt has not been spared the effects of the international rise in food prices, and recalling that nothing threatens long-term political oppression as much as powerlessness in the face of imminent economic collapse, some commentators argue that it is only a matter of time before the crisis in Tunisia sets of a chain reaction in the Maghreb and beyond.

The second point is a little more interesting for me because it represents a rare moment of self-reflection for those who produce and consume technology. Rare, because conventional wisdom has always had it that more technology is always better, making increasing access to technology a priority for governments and corporations. Starting with the mobile phone and extending all the way into the penetration of the African market by social networking sites, the argument runs that increased access to such facilities increases political participation; giving voice to those who would be silenced by conventional political process. Thus Twitter, Facebook and other sites – and their availability on mobile phones and not just computers – have been credited with bringing the youth especially into the democratic space and, in part, sparking revolutions like those in Tunisia.

It seems like a straightforward enough account, except that it has been and continues to be challenged, primarily by Africans. On one hand runs the argument that the so-called communication revolution is nothing more than the cooption of democracy and all its ideals by corporations in order to move more merchandise. Mobile phones and the attendant phone plans are neither free nor cheap in many African countries, and the extent to which they are actually having an effect beyond raising standards of living for African middle classes is debatable. It’s marketing 101 that attaching a social value to a good increases the desire of individuals to be associated with it. Thus, portraying Facebook and Twitter as platforms for social change rather than the ultimate tools for procrastination and self-aggrandisement is more likely to draw people in, and charging people a fortune for the ability to be plugged into these platforms 24/7 on their mobile phones seems a more wholesome endeavour.

At the same time, there are those who question even the extent to which these platforms are actually fomenting social change. Some analysts are crediting increased access to these sites as major catalysts of the events in Tunisia, particularly by bringing Tunisian youth in contact with electronic vigilante groups such as Anonymous, who used their hacking skills to crash many of the Tunisian government’s websites. Indeed, the Jasmine Revolution, as the events in Tunisia have been dubbed by the Twitterati, is only the latest in a stream of similar events in Iran, Moldova and Belarus, of which the Green Revolution in Iran received the greatest attention. When the US State Department requested Twitter to suspend scheduled site maintenance so as not to interrupt the flow of information from Tehran, many analysts suggested that the electronic social revolution was finally coming of age. Or was it? Anonymous and other internet users are usually just that – anonymous. Aren’t the real heroes of the revolution, the thousands of Tunisian men and women who went out onto the streets everyday, risking their lives, even if their web-based counterparts helped egg them on? Would all the postings and updates in the world have made even the slightest bit of difference had many long-suffering ordinary Tunisians not poured out into the streets to express their frustration at their government?

As someone who has tried to use social networking sites to organise political action and failed, I’m still inclined to stay on the middle-ground with this one. I agree with those who argue that the internet and the mobile phone, much like the Gutenberg Press before them, do not create revolutionaries. The desire to effect social change in one’s community is more a reflection of personality and passion, and a revolutionary will emerge whether or not he or she has access to the internet or to Twitter. Indeed, the greatest change-makers on the continent, the revolutionaries of yore like Cabral and Kimathi, did not even need the printed press to get their message out and organise successful resistance to colonialism. Many of the young people who came out in support of the PAIGC (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde - African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) and Mau Mau couldn’t even read or write, let alone produce pamphlets in support of their causes.

Even so, I believe that increased access to the internet and social networking – much like the printed press – is changing the way in which revolutionaries are able to interact with their intended audience. Any student of social and political change knows that lasting change, especially in capitalist societies, must come from the middle, and what the internet and mobile phones have done is to increase access for the middle classes to information on the state of their nations. To be middle class in many African countries usually means to be politically disengaged, and what social networking sites do is create space for these young people to plug into the political sphere with limited personal risk. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but if you think about it, young middle-class people – rightfully or wrongly – often sense that they have more to lose by speaking up for a cause. These are people who would live relatively comfortable lives, often insulated from the excesses of tyrannical governments, and what the internet does is bring these excesses to their doorsteps while taking the element of personal risk out of the equation. This brings in a broader audience for the revolutionaries in question, and no doubt Kimathi or Cabral would have been grateful for the opportunity to take their revolutionary message right into the homes of the African clerks, teachers or civil servants.

Acknowledging that social networking or technology in general has a role to play in catalysing activism doesn’t diminish the agency or power of those who participate. Rather, what it does is acknowledge that the world has changed, and social activism with it. Technology, in the hands of passionate and organised individuals can and has been vital in fomenting social change in Tunisia and further afield, and this should not be underplayed. To corrupt an old saying, in as much as a good worker never blames their tools because they know that a tool is only as effective as those who wield it, anyone who’s ever work on a farm will tell you, it doesn’t hurt to have good tools.


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