The Arab Revolution – A Triumph for Social Networks?


Keynote: Sami Ben Gharbia (Advocacy Director, Global Voices / Co-founder,, Tunis)


Chair: Golnaz Esfandiari (Senior Correspondent, Radio Free Europe, Washington)


Panel: Sami Ben Gharbia (Advocacy Director, Global Voices / Co-founder,, Tunis); Sihem Bensedrine (Editor-in-chief , Radio Kalima, Tunis); Said Essoulami (Centre for Media Freedom in the Middle East and North Africa, Casablanca); Dr. Asiem El Difraoui (Researcher, Institute for International Politics and Security (SWP), Berlin); Xan Smiley (Middle East and Africa Editor, The Economist, London)

The first panel discussion of the day was introduced by a keynote address from Sami Ben Gharbia outlining the role of social media in the Tunisian revolution. As one of the most influential Tunisian activists, he explained that new media has been very important for his work and for the work of his colleagues for over a decade now, starting with the emergence of blogs in the late 1990’s. Since then, the Tunisian government has been pursuing a strict course of Internet censorship, blocking around 200 blogs and, since late 2010, all video sharing platforms, Twitter and the websites of opposing yet legitimate political parties and civil society NGOs. In this sense, the censorship model in Tunisia is quite different from the model in China, which provides alternatives after blocking certain websites. Because there were no alternatives for the above-mentioned banned social media platforms, people turned to Facebook.


The crucial question is why Facebook was not blocked. In 2008, the Tunisian government tried to block Facebook after riots occurred in the mining town of Redeyef. The incident caused a big uproar within the population and among government circles and created momentum for Facebook. As a result, roughly 20 to 30 per cent of the Tunisian population were signed up on Facebook. "President Ben Ali feared that blocking Facebook would fuel protests in the streets. We saw what happened in Egypt when Hosni Mubarak ordered the blackout of mobile phones, the Internet and the satellite broadcasting of Aljazeera – people went out on the streets to obtain information.”


“Facebook was great for publishing video content and organising people, but it has limitations for international journalists,” Ben Gharbia explained. “Because it’s not easy to navigate when you don’t speak Arabic, the information isn’t fact-checked and it doesn’t provide an archive.” But outside of Tunisia there were curators who translated, checked and edited the information to pass it on to mainstream media like Aljazeera.


Tunileaks (the Tunisian version of Wikileaks cables) also represented a big step towards convincing a part of the establishment to try and reform the regime of Ben Ali. Another important step was the “Anonymous” DDos-attack against the Tunisian infrastructure. “Before that, there was no coverage of the Tunisian revolution by the Western media (apart from Aljazeera English and some French newspapers). The “Anonymous” attack, however, sparked hundreds of international articles and brought the revolution into the Western public sphere. This triangle of hubs created an information cascade that convinced people who were waiting that a revolution was taking place.


The new and Internet-savvy generation of activists, who had been bypassing censorship for over ten years, knew how to use social media as a means to their ends. “The nature of Web 2.0 is that you can block websites but you can’t block information.”

Said Essoulami (CMF MENA) noted that from a historical point of view, activists and revolutionaries have always incorporated the latest media into their activities. In doing so, he supported the opinion that the revolution would have happened even without social media. However, there was a general agreement that social media gave a voice to those people who would have otherwise been marginalised and/or excluded from the decision-making processes of the autocrat systems in which they lived.

Sihem Bensedrine reminded participants that social media also created a sense of solidarity irrespective of geographic limitations and led to the dissemination of citizen-generated content upon which mainstream media could rely when correspondents where lacking.
The negative aspects of social media were taken into consideration as well, including the lack of professionalism and the infiltration of the Internet by government forces and the secret police. Just before its 10th anniversary, Aljazeera was acknowledged to have had an indispensable impact on the Arab mediascape and world in general.


Khaled Hroub (Cambridge Arab Media Project and also former Aljazeera employee) remarked in the open panel discussion: “Historians will mark Arab society pre-and post-Aljazeera, regardless of the agenda they have.” Aljazeera’s hidden agenda was criticised in connection with the lack of reporting about upheavals in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Additional challenges that will have to be addressed in the future include growing Internet censorship and the infiltration of the Internet by the secret police and other forces who seek to abuse it. There is also the possibility of a growing mistrust in traditional media by the population due to the fact that many individuals formerly loyal to the government have remained in their positions.


Xan Smiley (The Economist) argued that in spite of the existence and use of new media, the revolution will have to follow a traditional path in order to be successful in the long run. “The spirit of democracy will not be suppressed. But there is still a long way to go. What we need to do is to transform the revolution in the air and on the media into boring institutions like parliament, like devolutionary assemblies.”


Dr. Asiem El Difraoui (Institute for International Politics and Security) highlighted how social media can help in the difficult transition process that Arab countries will now have to go through. “As Europeans, we should really reach out to those long-neglected parts of Arab society, i.e. to the millions of people who live in cities hundreds of miles away from the capitals, and counsel them based on our own experiences of democracy and help these people along a very stony path. Web 2.0 makes it possible to do so.”

  • 20110908_048.jpg
  • 20110908_056.jpg
  • 20110908_059.jpg
  • 20110908_062.jpg
  • 20110908_067.jpg
  • 20110908_094.jpg
  • 20110908_097.jpg
  • 20110908_108.jpg
  • 20110908_138.jpg
  • 20110908_144.jpg
  • 20110908_200.jpg
  • 20110908_227.jpg
  • 20110908_232.jpg
  • 20110908_235.jpg
  • 20110908_241.jpg