Social Media’s Role in Tunisia’s Revolution And the PR Firm That Dumped the Government

Massive news out of Tunisia today as the country’s president of 23 years, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has apparently fled the country after weeks of protest around the country.

The protests began after a young man died by self-immolation after being ordered to shut down his fruit stand. Since then, larger issues like unemployment, censorship, and President Ben Ali’s long hold on power have become protest issues. And those protests have been organized and broadcast largely through social media sites. includes a rundown of the various bloggers, Facebook and Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos that have fueled the organizational efforts of the protests. These social networks have not only shared information among Tunisians, but with the outside world. The government also recognized the threat, with the story quoting a U.S. State Department concern that the government had asked ISP providers to hack various online accounts.

The New York Times blog The Lede also includes Web video footage that has been beamed around the world. We have some of that incredible footage embedded here.

“Tunisian bloggers have helped spread news of the protests around the country and the world using mobile phones, social networking sites and blogs,” the post says.

Firas Al-Atraqchi, an associate professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, wrote about the impact of Twitter on the Huffington Post, a topic also covered on TechCrunch.

“[Bechir Blagui, who runs the Free Tunisia website] says that in the absence of traditional media – government bans on reporting and the jailing of independent journalists like Fahem Boukaddous – Tunisians resorted to their cell phones and going online to document the history of their nation in the past four weeks,” Al-Atraqchi wrote.

“Other media analysts say social media filled the gap left empty by most mainstream media in the West, which they say were too slow to report on the situation,” he continues.

Of course, we have seen the impact of social media in the recent past, during the “Green Revolution” in Iran. Foreign Policy magazine cautions against placing too much weight on the role of social media in the events in Tunisia.

Separately, but in an interesting PR twist, the D.C-based PR firm that had been working with the Tunisian government, Washington Media Group, ended its contract. They had been working with the Tunisian government since last May, according to Mother Jones. In a letter filed with the Justice Department, Greg Vistica, the firm’s president, wrote:

…It has been and remains our view that improving your nation’s image in the United States or elsewhere can only be accomplished if the reputation sought is consistent with the facts on the ground.

Recent events make it clear the Tunisian government is not inclined to heed our counsel regarding meaningful reforms. Indeed, the government’s current actions and activities have undermined, or in some cases completely undone, whatever progress we made in improving Tunisia’s reputation.