Social Media and the "Arab Spring"

Delighted to have an essay included in Palaver, Fall 2013.

The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor* [without Facebook].   *Voltaire

We live in an era when for the first time in recorded history masses of people have unprecedented means to organize and control information. Enthralled with our glowing screens, it’s easy to forget how people were once forced to interact in person at markets, town squares, or public houses (pubs) to socialize and exchange news. The typewriter was a breakthrough two hundred years ago, followed by the telegraph, telephone, radio, and computer; but before these revolutionary technologies, we mostly relied on talking. Paper, ink, and quills required wealth, forcing the majority of people to rely on face-to-face interaction to spread information and preserve an oral record of history.

Communication today has evolved from primarily spoken to extensively written interaction with destabilizing effects.  Take the epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons. Originally published in 1784; the title foretells some fairly standard dramatic fare: two main characters scheme the exploitation and ruin of others. Only by examining the subtitle Or a Collection of Letters from One Social Class and Published for the Instruction of Others do we begin to understand its revolutionary purpose.  In the end, De Laclos’s novel exposed a nefarious aristocracy’s excesses, leading, in part, to the French Revolution. Turns out, our new media interfaces have helped sustain a few revolutions of their own.

In December 2010, a 26-year-old high school dropout named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire because a policewoman confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling on the streets of Tunisia. Twenty-eight days later, the Tunisian President Ben Ali was forced out of power after 23 years of “iron-fisted rule.” Eunice Crook, Director of the British Council in Tunisia who had just returned three days before the upheaval, said:

It was instantly clear that the country I had left three weeks previously had changed; from the most stable country in North Africa we were suddenly on the verge of revolution. This has been called the Jasmine revolution, a term rejected by Tunisians, but in fact it was and is a Facebook revolution.

To read on (and sources), click here and turn to page 40.

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