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Social media becoming a double-edged sword

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At the Golden Globes on Sunday, Tina Fey quipped how social networking has “ruined our ability to interact one on one.” Although Fey’s assessment on the naturally arising drawback of Facebook holds truth, the possible revelatory benefits of Facebook have been proven through recent events in Tunisia.

On Dec. 17, an unemployed college graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi’s last-resort career as a street vendor was shattered when police confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart. Consequently, he posted a Facebook note to his mother, asking her to “blame our times and not me” and in an act of desperation set himself ablaze near a government building. This suicide galvanized the youth of Tunisia into protesting on the street, starting in Sidi Bouzid, the hometown of Bouazizi, and spreading throughout the country.

These protests, now termed the Jasmine Revolution, were aided by Facebook posts of the protests, politically charged tweets and the rapid succession of video posts. The target for the demonstrations was President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the oppressive president whose 23-year reign had ended in high food prices and a 14 percent unemployment rate.

The college graduate population was especially hard-hit. Also, WikiLeaked U.S. embassy cables had highlighted the “dangerous cancer” of corruption of President Ben Ali and his coterie while emphasizing the Tunisian Internet Agency’s “omnipotent” restriction of the media. These were the times Bouazizi spoke of.

Several dominant Internet activist groups have roused citizens to action. SBZ news, whose profile picture is a blood-splattered emblem of the Tunisian flag, posted a video of protesters entering into the building of RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally), the party of ex-president Ben Ali. Nawaat, another Facebook activist group, claims its mission statement to be “an independent collective blog enlivened by Tunisians.”

A hacktivist group on YouTube, called Anonymous, although sporting Guy Fawkes masks, broadcasts updates on the Tunisian situation and depicts the ongoing rebellion, although introducing its videos with a message stating its reliance “on the citizens on the streets.”

In response to this vehement opposition, government leaders of similarly autocratic countries are becoming increasingly worried as their own citizens, inspired by the events in Tunisia, have shown signs of protest.

The New York Times reported three attempted cases of self-immolation in Egypt mirroring that of Bouazizi in the last two days, while Algeria has had eight cases of self-immolation in recent weeks. Although Tunisia’s uprising possibly indicates things to come for other Arab states in the region, the political, economic and social factors that led to the seemingly abrupt revolts might be unique to Tunisia.

Ultimately, the success of the protests should not be disproportionately attributed to social media. The prime movers were the Tunisian people, whose deep-rooted anger was only more effectively communicated through Facebook and other Internet venues.

Yet, in the capacity of facilitator, Facebook’s value for mobilization cannot also be discounted. A Tunisian CNN ireporter, Akallel, aptly summarized Facebook’s role as “helping a nation reinvent its freedom.”

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