January 19, 2011

Media Disruption in Tunisia

by Joel Topcik

Was the ouster of Tunisia's president last week another instance of a "Twitter Revolution"? Or perhaps a "WikiLeaks Revolution"?

In the wake of the recent dramatic events in the North African country, media and policy players have been debating to what extent social media or access to information on the Web precipitated or otherwise enabled the street protests that forced authoritarian President Ben Ali to flee?

According to reports by CNN and the Financial Times, the protests were not only fueled by social-networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook, they were sparked, in part, by Ben Ali's attempt to restrict Internet access. Meanwhile, observers linked the uprising to diplomatic cables released in December 2010 by WikiLeaks, which detailed American assessments of the Tunisian regime's corruption.

But while social media proponents like author and NYU professor Clay Shirky and Jared Cohen, a former new-media evangelist in the State Department, touted the events in Tunisia as an example of the Web's mobilizing power, others are throwing cold water on the idea that social media played a critical role.

"This is not to deny that many of us were watching the Tunisian events unfold via Twitter," wrote the Belarusian scholar Evgeny Morozov on his blog at ForeignPolicy.com. "But let's not kid ourselves: This is still a very small audience of overeducated tech-savvy people interested in foreign policy." Morozov's book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom expands on that contrary view, arguing that Western enthusiasm for the liberating possibilities of the Web too often glosses over the extent to which it "entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder--not easier--to promote democracy."

Whether or not social media and the Web have played a causal role in Tunisia (or in Moldova or Iran before it) is a matter for historians. What's clear is that these new modes of communicating, organizing, and disseminating information have disrupted and recast the way the public, the press, and the state relate to one another.

How we deal with these new dynamics in media, communications, and policy is the topic of a conversation the Paley Center has explored in its international and domestic forums. Don Baer, vice chair of communications firm Burson-Marsteller, touched on it back in November at the Paley Center's International Council meeting. During a panel discussion moderated by Paley Center President and CEO Pat Mitchell, Baer, a former communications director for the Clinton White House, noted that "the days of one-to-many, in terms of media transmission, are gone. They are dead." His covice chair at Burson, Karen Hughes, a former communications chief for George W. Bush, likewise pointed out the sea change in media that allowed candidates in the 2010 midterms to use Twitter to circumvent mainstream news outlets and speak directly to voters.

These paradigm shifts are not merely novel. As Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) made clear when he proposed new legislation on the publication of state secrets in response to WikiLeaks, these disruptions are provoking a critical legal debate about free speech and freedom of the press. The Media Council will explore this debate in the second half of our 2010-2011 programming season.

Joel Topcik is director of industry programs for the Paley Center.

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