When asked at the e-G8 in Paris about the role of Facebook in the revolutionary movement currently sweeping through the Arab world and which has led to the overthrow of three dictatorships so far in Maghreb and Mashrek, Mark Zuckerberg minimized its impact. "My own opinion is that it would be extremely arrogant for any specific tech company to claim any meaningful role in (the uprisings)," he said.
The truth of the matter, as has been widely chronicled, is that social networks have indeed played a crucial role in this liberation movement, if only because their role is far more important as actual vectors of democracy in the Arab world than it is in western countries. When access to uncensored content on television, the radio or in print is limited, Facebook and Twitter are no longer used just to socialize: they become an essential means of mobilizing people and sharing vital information about the local Leviathan.
Even if the street seller Mohamed Bouazizi's setting himself on fire was clearly at the root of the Jasmine revolution, as the movement that led to Ben Ali's ousting has come to be known, we must also look elsewhere to understand the genesis of his overthrow. Countless bloggers and dissidents active in the last days of the regime point to a psychological threshold having been reached after Wikileaks published a raft of diplomatic cables sent by the United States Embassy in Tunis to the State Department which were almost instantaneously disseminated across the country and well beyond its borders. It was as if the Tunisian people, having tolerated the systematic and repeated abuses from the long-despised Ben Ali/Trabelsi clan as long as they remained "private, among Tunisians," simply couldn't deal with the details of their ordeal resonating throughout the world via Internet. In other words, in the country of the Arab League with the largest number of Facebook accounts per capita, this worldwide disclosure awoke a sense of pride which quickly spread throughout the country thanks to this high level of connectivity and eventually led to the regime's downfall.
The statistics I obtained from bitly, the site which shortens links shared by users via social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, reveal that the traffic on these networks relating to the cables skyrocketed in Tunisia in early December 2010, right after they were made public by Wikileaks and disseminated locally by a Tunisian cousin, Tunileaks, a full month before Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire.
Behind the modest, humble words of Facebook's founder mentioned above, it is hard not to discern a desire to avoid getting involved in the 'internal affairs' of foreign states and annoying their leaders in the process. The Tunisians certainly don't buy the Zuck's rhetoric: Since the overthrow of Ben Ali, a banner reading "Thank you Facebook" still hangs in the center of Tunis.
Twitter for one acknowledges more openly on its website what it sees as its role as a humble facilitator of the Arab Spring. It would be hard and pointless to argue anything different. The hashtag '#sididbouzid' (the town of origin of Bouazizi) was tweeted and RTed, not just all around Tunisia, but also subsequently in Egypt and other countries throughout the Middle East and Twitter is now a platform for discussions simply unimaginable until recently such as the one regarding the fate of Syria that is currently taking place and involving people as different as Ashton Kutcher, Mia Farrow and protesters and bloggers from all around Syria and the broader Arab world. It is on statistics such as those provided by bitly that we should gauge the correlation between what was being shared on social networks and what was happening in the streets of Tunisia and Cairo. Will it turn out that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, currently under house arrest in the United Kingdom, is remembered as a prominent actor of the Jasmine Spring and, indirectly, of the Arab Spring in a wider sense? History will tell. The role of social media in this historic liberation movement, in the meantime, is already a scientific fact.
Felix Marquardt is the founder of the Atlantic Dinners. The first edition of #AtlanTech, a special series of the eponymous dinners devoted to innovation and new technologies, will take place in Paris tonight*