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What Tunisia's Protests Have Done for social media

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The Tunisian protests didn't get the same breathless exposure that the mainstream media granted the Iran protests in 2009 -- but Tunisia's vocal youth did force a regime change and reopened the debate about the power of social media and its role in, and influence on, the mainstream media.

Online activism in Tunisia has a longer history that the flash in the pan attention it is now receiving would have you believe. In 2004, a Tunisian political activist who goes by the name of Astrubal remixed Apple's 1984 ad with President Ben Ali featured as Big Brother. The video went viral across the country.

Astrubal went on to break a story about Tunisia's first lady's use of the presidential jet for weekend shopping sprees to the world's fashion capitals. Using various 'planespotting' sites that allow plane enthusiasts to post and share their photos, Astrubal discovered that the presidential jet travelled a lot more than the president, not known for enthusiastic participation on the international stage. Astrubal mapped his discovery on Google Earth, making a video of the plane's movements. The video was initially posted on Astrubal's blog -- which was quickly blocked by the government -- and then on Daily Motion, a video sharing site poplar in the French-speaking world, which was also blocked from within Tunisia- and remains so.

It is the strength of this heritage of online activism that catapulted Tunisia's disillusioned and undervalued youth onto the streets, and into the global consciousness. Few were expecting Tunisia -- of all the unpopular authoritarian governments in the Arab world -- to be the one to experience a popular uprising, let alone an uprising that actually overthrew Ben Ali's 23-year stronghold on the country.

Tunisia's online activists operated without much scrutiny from the outside world- Ben Ali's suppression of radical Islam brought him relative immunity from the international community and allowed him to continue repressing his people and suppressing free speech in private. And it is probably that lack of global attention that fostered such a strong cyber network and the momentum it needed to realize the change the Tunisian youth craved.

The Tunisian protesters are the current poster child for free speech and internet rights. Their cause has been taken up by Anonymous, the internet freedom advocacy group which has operated under the radar for years challenging the likes of the Church of Scientology but is rapidly becoming a household name after their widely reported on 'distributed denial of service', or DDoS, attacks on PayPal, MasterCard and Visa in support of Wikileaks.

The Tunisian authorities carried out targeted 'phishing' operations, hitting known activists and blocking their access to Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail. That's when Anonymous stepped in and launched one of their now-infamous DDoS attacks. They succeeded paralyzing at least eight websites, including that of the president, prime minister, the ministry of industry, the ministry of foreign affairs, and the stock exchange.

And, as the mainstream media picked up on the story, Anonymous announced that 'OpTunisia' was done -- "We, as Anonymous, feel we have accomplished our mission with the major media now involved in Tunisia," an Anonymous member told Al Jazeera.

What's interesting about this story is that it was social media, not traditional media, which connected the Anonymous with the plight of Tunisia's youth. And it was through the internet that the movement gained the momentum to see a regime change. The situation did take that very important step and spill over from an online movement onto the streets -- but its origins remain in the cyber world.

Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices and an influential figure in the social media arena, described, in a Ted talk, the difficulty of breaking out of our socio-economic and racially defined bubbles -- even on the internet. Zuckerman describes how social media, like the mainstream media, give us a very warped perception of the world as they both keep us very connected within fairly rigid parameters.

But in the case of the recent events in Tunisia it appears that the bubble was broken. Anonymous stepped in they succeeded in not only helping the Tunisian overthrow their leader -- but they also burst a bubble of social media norms.

Not only will the events in Tunisia have repercussions in other Arab nations -- Twitter continues to buzz with calls for a Tunisia-style uprising in other Arab nations, but Nicholas Negroponte's vision of a cyber utopia may also be slowly connecting.