THE BLOG
01/28/2011 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Twittering the Revolution

On the web, stories that are repeated often enough can come to be seen as facts. There is a rumor implying that Facebook, Twitter, blogs and various other social media channels help to ensure a freer world. They help us to keep a close eye on the powerful and enable us put a stop on their game if they abuse their power. Opinion leaders, being committed to the greater good, devote all their efforts to shape tomorrow's society and politics with a good dose of technological help.

When the first pictures from the street fights in Tunis were published and President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali left the country that he and his clique had ransacked for over two decades, this rumor once more spread through the Internet until it had mutated into a fact. A clear case of a social-media-revolution, as some media channels claimed. Ben Ali tumbled from power because the tweets proved too much to fend off.

It is good to have Twitter, even if you are not trying to stage a revolution. But the platform remains the stomping ground for a rather smug information elite that tend to overestimate their actions. Which is deeply human, I suppose, as is all gossip among like-minded people.

In order to decipher this phenomenon, it might be helpful to employ a model that was established some 50 years ago: the theory of cognitive dissonance. The theory postulates that an individual tries to confirm his convictions and opinions rather than to seeking to overturn them.

We communicate to become more certain of our views, not less certain. We want to avoid dissonances between our own opinions and the information that might contradict them.
That central proposition can be adapted to the behavioral pattern observed in Tunisia: Twitter users are especially happy to find and spread information that confirm their respective opinions. And when they read in Wired Magazine that Ben Ali and his entourage were supposedly chased out of the country with tweets -- and that without the internet no one would have even come up with the idea that something was rotten in the state of Tunisia -- they will be even more happy.

This happiness, in turn, can be packaged and send on Twitter. The spreading and sharing continues until we have internalized the idea of a jasmine-colored Twitter revolution in Tunisia and should -- no, that will! -- inspire the whole Maghreb region.

But is it really that easy? The facts that can be unearthed with a little research tell a different story: The political tensions in Tunisia were triggered by the anger of large parts of the population, suffering under high unemployment and inflation rates. Mainly affected by this is the younger part of the population. More than half of the Tunisian population is under the age of 25, 30 percent of them are unemployed. This group did not participate in the macro-economic success of the country and began to reject the mafia-like clan that divided the country amongst themselves.

Maybe the WikiLeaks cables that shed light on the rapacity of the ruling class were yet another piece of evidence that excited the frustrated masses and pushed the country closer to the edge of revolution. Included in those documents was proof of the rotten nature of the country's leaders that everybody had suspected but nobody could confirm. And yes, that outrage and resistance was articulated in blogs and social media networks.

But this alone does not qualify as a revolution (it might more aptly be described as the contemporary use of media by a small information elite). The regime could only be overthrown when people were willing to risk or give their lives for the cause of change, as did the 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi who died following his self-immolation, as did the many other civilians who were clubbed or shot by the police. This is sad reality. To describe a courageous coup as a Twitter-and-Facebook revolution is akin to a whitewashing of history.

That is why we -- bloggers, Twitter user and other Internet apostles -- should resist the urge to turn out lifestyle into a model for the rest of the world. We should stop taking ourselves too seriously. The sound that I am hearing right now in the background is not the sound of the revolution. It is the clashing of the broken pieces of the greenhouse collapsing above me.

By Eberhard Lauth