One way to understand the significance of social media in Tunisia is to examine the government's attempts to control and silence it. Tunisia has aggressively censored the Internet since 2005, blocking not just explicitly political sites, but social media sites like video-sharing service Dailymotion. Video-sharing sites were a special target of government censors because Tunisian activists are extremely tech-savvy and had released provocative videos online, including one that documented the first lady's frequent shopping trips to Europe using the presidential jet.
Not content just to filter content, last summer Tunisian authorities began "phishing" attacks on activists' Gmail and Facebook accounts. By injecting malicious computer code into the login page of those services through the government-controlled Internet service provider, Ben Ali's monitors were able to obtain passwords to these accounts, locking out the activists and harvesting email lists of presumed activists. When the riots intensified last week, the government began arresting prominent Internet activists, including my Global Voices colleague Slim Amamou, who had broken the story of the government's password phishing. (Amamou was released, apparently unharmed, Thursday night.)
But if the web was such a threat to the government's authority, why did the regime not block Facebook or shut down the Internet entirely? It's critical to understand that Ben Ali was, first and foremost, a pragmatist. As late as Friday morning, he was looking for a solution that would allow him to remain in power, offering concessions in the hope of placating protesters. Internet censorship was already one of the grievances protesters had aired -- when Ben Ali offered concessions to protesters Thursday, loosening the reins was one of the promises that were warmly, if skeptically received.
Pundits will likely start celebrating a "Twitter revolution" in Tunisia, even if they missed watching it unfold; the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan already revived the dreaded phrase Thursday. Others are seeking connections between unfolding events and a WikiLeaks cable that showed U.S. diplomats' frustration with Ben Ali, and with denial-of-service attacks by online activist group Anonymous, which has been targeting entities that have tried to stop the dissemination of WikiLeaks cables, like the Tunisian government. But any attempt to credit a massive political shift to a single factor -- technological, economic, or otherwise -- is simply untrue. Tunisians took to the streets due to decades of frustration, not in reaction to a WikiLeaks cable, a denial-of-service attack, or a Facebook update.
But as we learn more about the events of the past few weeks, we'll discover that online media did play a role in helping Tunisians learn about the actions their fellow citizens were taking and in making the decision to mobilize. How powerful and significant this influence was will be something that academics will study and argue over for years to come. Scholars aren't the only ones who want to know whether social media played a role in the end of Ben Ali's reign -- it's likely to be a hot topic of conversation in Amman, Algiers, and Cairo, as other autocratic leaders wonder whether the bubbling cauldron of unemployment, street protests, and digital media could burn them next.