The Tunisian revolution was followed by a flurry of articles commenting on the role the Internet —and more precisely the social media— played in the uprising. There were plenty of technology-enthusiasts claiming the Internet played a key role, going as far as calling what happened the “Twitter/Wikileaks/Internet Jasmine revolution”. Such premature conclusions had already been made about Iran in 2009. On the other hand, and as a reaction to this viewpoint, various sceptics tried to minimize the role played by the Internet and social media in the events. Recent news from Egypt about the January 25th demonstration, which was massively planned on social networks under the #Jan25 hashtag, are showing an interesting situation: if in Tunisia the suicide of Bouazizi sparked the uprising, in Egypt it was not started by any recognizable local event but has been organized from the start on social media, emulating the success of the Tunisian uprising in throwing Ben Ali out of the presidency. There is a simmering and accumulated anger in Egypt fuelled by previous protests which were more important and sustained than what was happening in Tunisia before Sidi Bouzid set everything free.
Before commenting on Google’s statistics, allow me to put a personal point of view: I have extensively followed the live coverage of Tunisian events on social media and I find it insulting to the Tunisian Revolution when journalists depict what happened as an Internet revolution, especially since the majority of mainstream media only discovered and started covering the events extremely late in the day.
It is obvious the people who faced police repression on the streets and the threat of being killed by Ben Ali’s snipers are the ones who made the Tunisian revolution possible. Tunisian activist Rafik Damnak made an excellent remark when he says that the protests started and were sustained and widespread in the poor regions of the country where anger is unlikely to be fuelled by Facebook or Twitter. This remark should be taken in tandem with the fact that the demonstrations organized on Facebook were most effective for Tunisians living in the diaspora. Even though plenty of pertinent remarks on the role played by the Internet can be found on Tunisian digital activists’ blogs and tweets, they are unfortunately diluted in a veritable ocean of inflated comment. It will probably take years to strip away the hype and excessive criticism and start to understand the actual role played by the social media. This will probably be a part of future historians’ work.
Let us now just make a review of some objective data that apparently no one has considered so far: Google Trends!
First we shall analyse the Global searches for Tunisian events on Google, then give an overview of how the chronology of events in Tunisia is correlated to Google’s statistics. Finally Google trends for all regions in the world will show how Internet users across the world looked for news about Tunisian events by searching on Google.
SidiBouzid – Sidi Bouzid – سيدي بوزيد (Sidi Bouzid in Arabic):
Sidi Bouzid is the locality where the uprising started. Digital activists on Twitter used the hashtag #SidiBouzid. Tunisian People searched more for Sidi Bouzid (written as two separate words, because the single word Sidibouzid is not correct.)
Figure 1 – the upper curves are statistics for سيدي برزيد while the lower are for the French transciption of SidiBouzid.
Note that Libya comes close to Tunisia in the Arabic term search while Morocco is closest in the French search. This gives an interesting comparison in terms of the use of national language for the Internet in these two countries: Morocco and Tunisia remain very francophone in their use of the Internet while Arabic use of the Internet is more developed in Libya.
The regional search for Tunisian events is important because it gives us a first idea of the relevance of the Internet in the uprising. We should remember here that some Internet users in Tunisia use proxies on a regular basis to circumvent censorship, so these results may not reflect the real search volume in Tunisia. But as there are no statistics to show just how common the use of proxies is in Tunisia, we consider the Google trends results as having considerable value in evaluating the search volume.
This trend is quite categoric: Tunisians did NOT need to search for Wikileaks cables and read them to start their uprising. They may have heard about Wikileaks from Aljazeera or other mainstream media, but they started looking for them on Google after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali gave his last speech the day before he left the country.
Figure 2 – Wikileaks search volume in Tunisia for the last 30 days. Peaksearch volume occurred after January 12th
The Kasserine Massacre: The Turning Point
The Kasserine massacre was the most dramatic chapter of the Tunisian revolution. The multimedia content posted after this sad event occurred, may well be considered the “online tipping point” after which urban areas joined the protests. The search index for this term is five times higher than the search for “Sidi Bouzid” and more than twice the maximum search volume reached by Wikileaks after the end of Internet censorship.
Figure 3 – The search volume for “Kasserine” peakedthe day after the massacre happened and in the run-up to the major urban protests
SidiBouzid: سيدي بوزيد
The maximum search volume occurred around December 26th, corresponding to the date of Bouazizi’s protest suicide and the beginning of the uprising in Sidi Bouzid. Tunisians, however, were aware that “something was going wrong in Sidi Bouzid” and went Googling for it. A few days later, we can say that they were more occupied with their revolution on the streets than with reading about SidiBouzid on the Internet.
Figure 4 – Search volume for “Sidi Bouzid” in Arbic in the last 30 days in Tunisia.
Trabelsi/Ben Ali (بن علي) /Youtube/Twitter:
Ground Revolution first. Twitter, Youtube, Ben Ali, Trabelsi…. all come after. In his last speech Ben Ali promised Tunisians that the Internet will not be censured anymore. There was a mass movement of Tunisians online to see if this was true and we get the following terms with important increases occurring from January 13th onwards. After this speech, Tunisians went online to discover aspects of the Internet previously reserved for those few savvy net-users with proxies or applications like Tor. The general trend is the same for all these key words: from nearly zero to 4 to 10 in Google Trends’ Volume index. Read this satiric piece for a comment on Google statistics in Tunisia in the wake of the Ben Ali speech.
Figure 5 – The search volume for Ben Ali in Tunisia reached a significant level after his speech following the Kasserine massacre.
The Islamic Threat…
Without any need for further comment, I give the self-explanatory Figure 6:
Figure 6 – The search volume for “Islam” is insignificant
Time for Politics
The last interesting trend has to do with the keyword “Politique”. The significant search volume after January 16th implies a satisfying and hopeful development of the situation in Tunisia, as more and more people feel concerned by politics.
Figure 7 – The search volume for “Politique” (politics in French) in Tunisia after the Tunisian revolution overthrew Ben Ali.
January 25th was a major day of protests in Egypt. In contrast to the Tunisian uprising, protests in Egypt were widely covered through the Internet and social networks. Many people were sceptical and argued that the protests could not have any impact if planned only “virtually”. However in saying this, they forgot that the Egyptian uprising is a perfect combination of a ground swell of anger and political awareness, as many opposition groups called for protests and a virtual uprising. The Egyptian government started taking the Internet threat seriously when it started blocking sites and phone applications that enabled people to report on social networks. The next few days in Egypt will bring major change to the region—with or without the success of the movement of #Jan25. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is making just the same mistake France did when it supported Ben Ali during the four weeks that led up to his overthrow and departure from the country.
Figure 8 – Search volume for “demonstration” in Egypt in last 30 days; people massively looked for this word from January the 21st.
Beyond Google trends
I’m sticking to my guns, Social Media should make more connexions offline. Far from sterile debates on wether the Tunisian revolution was doped or not by Social Media, I complete what I have already written in my essay for the Bertlesmann Stiftung’s FC project, “Tunisian Revolution, Google’s Verdict and Egyptian Lesson” by stressing the following comments on ground reporting in Tunisia. This is a confirmation of my previous idea (see my June essay: “Social Media, activists’ Opium: Digital activism should make more connexions offline”.
State-of-the-art Tunisian blogosphere lead by the Nawaat.org team did an outstanding job in compiling, aggregating and structuring the presentation of ground-produced multimedia content. They made it suitable for for mainstream media and as seen in the graph, they were the most followed on the net referring to the hashtag #SidiBouzid and more likely to influence mainstream media, with the more likely impact in the uprising. At this point, one has to recognize the excellent coverage of two TV Channels: Aljazeera and France 24.
Meanwhile, key elements in this chain were citizen reporters. Young people “snap-shooting” events in conditions were mainstream media could not –or would not- operate efficiently. This citizen reporting was archaic, non traceable. Many videos did not have dates or identifiable places of shooting on them. Many of them can be found in « وكالة أنبء الشارع التونسي ». In normal circumstances, these multimedia contents would not have been considered, but ground activists have better to do than worrying abiout the quality of the material they produce. They risk their lives and they would not have time and confort to report it in a professional way.
On-going events in Egypt should bring more lessons for connecting digital activism to ground uprising as they have this originality of matching digital activism, political awarness and street anger.