Tunisia protesters use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help organize and report
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Tunisia is in a state of unrest and protesters are using blogs, Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks documents, YouTube and other methods to mobilize themselves and report what is going on.
The catalyst for the demonstrations, which have ranged from peaceful protests to violent clashes, was the suicide attempt made by Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate in Tunisia who couldn’t find work. The North African nation’s unemployment rate is about 14%, and about 30% of those without work are between age 15 and 29.
On Dec. 17, Bouazizi poured fuel on his body and lit himself on fire in the city of Sidi Bouzid in protest of the economic conditions.
Bouazizi died from his injuries Friday morning. He reportedly was his family’s only source of income and was unable to provide for his family after police confiscated an unlicensed produce stand he ran.
President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who had been in power for more than two decades and was a major focus of about four weeks worth of massive demonstrations against widespread unemployment and corruption in the African country, has reportedly fled Tunisia.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi is taking over the president’s power on an interim basis.
Reports on how many people have died vary from at least three to as many as 20, and the weeks of demonstrations have been largely ignored by the majority of media outlets until recent days.
As such, the Internet has been the largest source of documentation of the protests, much of it provided by the demonstrators themselves, despite Tunisia’s strict censorship of the Web.
Of course, given the nature of the Internet, information about the protests can range from propaganda to earnest documentation of the reality on the streets, and a critical, skeptical eye is needed to intelligently take in the flood and diversity of reports online.
The blog NDItech DemocracyWorks remarked on the situation, writing that despite remarkable levels of censorship the protesters ‘have been assisted by external online activists, notably the collective known as Anonymous. Allies of the regime have reportedly engaged equally enthusiastically, utilizing phishing, censoring, and hacking against activists.’
NDItech said that social media in particular has been a major battleground between the government and those demonstrating against it.
The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a letter to President Ben Ali last week calling on Tunisia to end its censorship of those covering the unrest.
‘Local journalists told CPJ that additional news websites, as well as numerous Facebook pages carrying critical content, blogs, and journalists’ e-mail accounts have been blocked by the state-run Tunisian Internet Agency since protests erupted on Dec. 17,’ the letter said.
‘Regional and international media have reported that numerous local and international news websites covering the street protests were blocked in Tunisia. One report placed your country, along with Saudi Arabia, as the worst in the region regarding Internet censorship. A 2009 CPJ study found Tunisia to be one of the 10 worst countries worldwide to be a blogger, in part for the same reasons.’
There are also those who have warned about giving the Web and various tech companies too much credit in the situation in Tunisia.
Laila Lalami, a Los Angeles-based writer from Morocco, wrote on Twitter, ‘Please stop trying to give credit to WikiLeaks, or Twitter, or YouTube for the toppling of Ben Ali. The Tunisian people did it.’ Later, she tweeted, ‘The Internet facilitates communication, but it alone doesn’t keep people in the streets for four weeks.’
The ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous has sided with protesters in Tunisia and posted multiple videos on YouTube about the situation. Some videos contain graphic images of violence in the country that Anonymous says were shared with them by Tunisian demonstrators.
More than 3,000 videos on YouTube have been tagged with the words ‘Sidi Bouzid,’ the city where many of the protests have taken place and where Mohamed Bouazizi engulfed himself in flames.
Thousands of tweets have been sent about the protests, so many that ‘Tunisia’ was a trending topic in San Francisco earlier on Friday.
‘We might be able to provide thoughtful analysis after all the events of Tunisia unfold. But, right now, along with the rest of the world, we sit back and watch in awe at how people are using Twitter and other platforms to provide on-the-ground perspective during this highly developing and potentially historical moment,’ said Carolyn Penner, a Twitter spokeswoman.
According to NDItech, some have estimated that tweets with the hashtag #sidibouzid have been sent out at a rate of about 28,000 per hour since Dec. 27. ‘It requires careful reading to find informative sources of information and updates,’ the website wrote about the estimate.
Officials at Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) were unavailable for comment on Friday.
Another example of demonstrators in Tunisia using the Web to get their messages out is the creation of a website called TuniLeaks, which collects U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks that have to do with Tunisia.
Discussions over the cables and what they mean for the nation have taken place at TuniLeaks since it launched in November. The documents include those about human rights violations in Tunisia and censorship of free speech. The site also led to a Twitter hashtag of #tunileaks to identify when tweets referred to the website.
-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles
Top photo: A Tunisian woman waves the national flag in front of the interior ministry during clashes between demonstrators and security forces in Tunis on Friday. Credit: Fethi Belaidi / AFP/Getty Images.
Christophe Ena / Associated Press.
outside the International Court in The Hague take part in a rally Friday to pay tribute to the ‘blood of the martyrs’ and celebrate the departure of Tunisia’s President Zine el Abidine ben Ali. Credit: Robet Vosi / AFP/Getty Images.