From Apathy to Activism
Political apathy in pre-revolutionary Tunisia had many origins. First, and foremost, many Tunisians felt little return on their investments in social advocacy. Rather than producing results, such activities were more likely to garner negative treatment from government authorities. With such a response, it was a rational choice for the average citizen to avoid political activism.
Another inhibitor of social activism that existed for many years was the inability to identify and connect with others who may have shared a dissenting political opinion. The robust state control of official media and the security ramifications of organizing openly in physical spaces made the search cost of ally identification very high.
Both of these factors have been reduced, although not eradicated, in the post-revolutionary era of free expression and largely uncensored online media.
Roots of Online Advocacy
Over the last several years, listservs, instant messenger, and online forums provided rich, less-controllable forums where Tunisians organized around existing online content, original new ideas, and personal relationships. This trend continued to expand, as Facebook began to penetrate the normal social lives of many Tunisians. Facebook surfaced relationships and connections that had long been hidden behind geographic distance or cultural differences.
These developments made it far easier for Tunisians to seek out and interact with those who shared their opinions. Of course, in many contexts, online connections were first inspired by mutual interest in everyday topics such as sports teams, music, or computer games. But over time, the bonds that were created in these spaces led to deeper relationships; people began sharing their ideas around philosophy, society, and what it meant to be Tunisian.
These relationships grew in number and strength, despite the fact that many individuals had never met in person. Some of these groups began developing into overtly political entities, as their shared frustrations at the Ben Ali government bubbled to the surface of their online discourse. For other communities, their focus remained apolitical. Yet in the early days of the revolutionary uprising, these groups felt unshackled by their previous constraints, and increasingly began discussing political topics. Word of disruptive events and demonstrations spread rapidly through the forums and email listservs that bound these groups together.
In this organic manner, online networks truly served as a digital grapevine through which much news of the revolution spread. These channels and conduits have only expanded in the post-revolutionary period.
E-Activism in the Post-Revolutionary Period
Since the revolution, individuals have taken advantage of newfound freedoms to connect and debate online. Many bloggers kept their identities anonymous before the revolution; today, they use their real names. In the early days after the revolution, many of these bloggers came out publicly because they felt a need to have their voices heard by wider audiences than what they could reach anonymously.
Across Tunisia’s web ecosystem, from overtly political blogs to online forums dedicated to the sharing of films, political debates are still raging. The Constituent Assembly elections dominated these discussions for much of 2011. Since the Assembly has been seated, debates have moved on to more timely issues: the role of political Islam, economic development, and ongoing political corruption are all issues that draw high interest from members of online communities.
There is perhaps no forum with more robust debate than Facebook. Within the portion of the Tunisian population that is digitally well-connected, Facebook usage is rampant; some estimates place active Facebook use at 90 percent of the connected population.
The Role of Facebook
Facebook’s role in Tunisia is as diverse as the population itself. Some people, from almost all demographics and income levels, spend hours a day on Facebook, connecting with friends, families, and associates abroad. For many newer Internet users, Facebook is leapfrogging traditional communication tools, such as email and instant messaging. It is not uncommon for younger Tunisians to manage the majority of their social coordination through Facebook.
Despite viewing Facebook as a largely social arena, these users are also accessing news articles, advocacy videos, and other politically oriented content being shared by their contacts on the site.
A cacophonous public square, Facebook inevitably brings users into contact with political debate and discussion. Inarguably, Facebook is at the heart of a new brand of political advocacy. With its massive built-in audience, those with an upstart political message know that they can use Facebook as an effective forum to project their position.
Many political parties took active advantage of Facebook in their campaigns for the Constituent Assembly election. Traditional political campaigning is expensive. Unable to purchase paid media or pay for endless print runs of campaign posters, many smaller parties turned to Facebook for the majority of their campaign promotions. Using the dense social networks of a small group of supporters, these parties could take advantage of Tunisia’s close-knit social structure to reach a high number of voters with their message.
One political party was observed to have no more than 15 to 20 active campaign members. Yet these individuals had, on average, more than 1,500 friends apiece. Assuming some overlap, and based on a conservative estimate, this group was able to reach an active audience of more than 15,000 people. If one assumes that even a small fraction of these people shared the original political content to their own networks, widespread or “viral” distributions of political messages were easily within the reach of relatively marginal political factions.
The overt political actions of Tunisian online communities leaves little doubt as to the seriousness of their purpose. The participants in these groups intend to change the political status quo and to influence the opinions of influential figures. These goals are the hallmark of a robust civil society.
The fate of these communities of bloggers, hackers, and engineers is uncertain. Their path from organic online networks to a position of substantial influence in real-world politics is uncharted. Yet there might be no better barometer of Tunisia’s political development than whether these communities can meaningfully gain access to the political process.