Timothy Garton Ash: Tunisia's revolution isn't a product of Twitter or WikiLeaks. But they do help

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.]

'The Kleenex Revolution"? Somehow I think not. Unless, that is, you follow Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. In a televised denunciation of the popular uprising that has deposed his friendly neighbouring dictator, he ranted: "Even you, my Tunisian brothers, you may be reading this Kleenex and empty talk on the internet." (Kleenex is how Gaddafi refers to WikiLeaks.) "Any useless person, any liar, any drunkard, anyone under the influence, anyone high on drugs can talk on the internet, and you read what he writes and you believe it. This is talk which is for free. Shall we become the victims of Facebook and Kleenex and YouTube?" To which, since the speaker is another dictator, I devoutly hope that the answer is "Yes". Let Kleenex wipe them away, one after another, like blobs of phlegm.

But will it? What contribution do websites, social networks and mobile phones make to popular protest movements? Is there any justification for labelling the Tunisian events, as some have done, a "Twitter Revolution" or a "WikiLeaks Revolution"?

A remarkable young Belarussian activist-analyst, Evgeny Morozov, has just challenged the lazy assumptions behind such politico-journalistic tags in a book called The Net Delusion, which went to press before the Tunisian rising. The subtitle of the British edition is "How Not to Liberate the World". Morozov has fun deriding and demolishing the naively optimistic visions which, particularly in the United States, seem to accompany the emergence of every new communications technology. (I remember an article a quarter-century ago entitled "The fax will set you free".)

He shows that claims for the contribution of Twitter and Facebook to Iran's green movement were exaggerated. These new technologies can also be used by dictators to watch, entrap and persecute their opponents. Above all, he insists that the internet does not suspend the usual workings of power politics. It is politics that decides whether the dictator will be toppled, as in Tunisia, or the bloggers beaten and locked up, as in Morozov's native Belarus...

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