Even as turmoil continues in Tunisia in the wake of the flight of long-term dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, western pundits are emerging across the media to “explain” an event they have been busily ignoring for weeks. Given the role played by Twitter and Facebook in the rolling series of protests that have overturned a regime that counted tight internet censorship amongst its weapons of control, and the import of a leaked Wikileaks cable “revealing” an extensive web of corruption with Ben Ali’s family at the centre of it, much of the focus has been on whether this amounted to a “Wikileaks Revolution” or a “Twitter Revolution”.

Those sorts of claims are, it seems to me, deeply insulting to the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians who have placed their lives at risk in taking to the streets in recent weeks, and particularly to the scores who have died at the hands of Tunisian police, and their families.

I don’t have any background in Tunisian politics. I’m just another white western tweeter watching events unfold via the #Sidibouzid hashtag. But I’d suggest social media played 3 distinct roles in recent events in Tunisia:

1. an information role – Facebook, Twitter and blogs were used as organisational tools for protests, and exchanging information in the aftermath of protests as Tunisians tried to determine what exactly was going on in different cities across the country, what had happened to high-profile figures, and how many had been killed and injured.

2. a motivational role. Posting often graphic and deeply upsettingĀ videos and photos on Facebook, or linking to them on Twitter, of what Tunisian authorities were doing to protestors (and the response of protestors to continue to take to the streets), surely played a key role in maintaining the determination of protestors to keep going. Rather than any chilling effect, evidence of violence toward protestors seems to have had an enraging effect that made protestors more determined to win.

3. a media role – in the virtual absence of western media coverage (some honourable exceptions like the Guardian’s Brian Whitaker aside) social media and outlets like al-Jazeera – not widely available in the US -became the only way for those outside Tunisia without contacts there to monitor what was happening. And while there was the occasional wild rumour – including that of a coup earlier this week – Twitter played a reasonably successful, if by no means perfect, role in this regard. What was interesting about the coup rumour was the insistent and immediate chorus of demands on Twitter for verification and confirmation, until it was established that no coup had taken place.

As for the role of the Wikileaks cable, plenty of observers have already noted that the cable only told Tunisians what they already knew. What set off the protests – born of deep frustration and anger about economic and political conditions in Tunisia – was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young man whose name will surely live in Tunisian and Arab history.

Social media played a facilitative role in these remarkable, and still-unfolding events, but facilitation shouldn’t be mistaken for causation. It took hundreds of thousands of brave Tunisians and, tragically, scores of lives to bring down Ben Ali. Both critics of and enthusiasts for social media will try and claim otherwise, but this revolution is too big for pat attempts to explain everything through pre-fabricated narratives or topical links with Western media obsessions.

Matthew Ingram has a great discussion of these issues here (HT @evgenymorozov).

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