PARIS -- When thousands took to the World Wide Web from Tehran to protest the result of the presidential elections the summer of 2009, traditional western media's first instinct was to turn a blind eye. It wasn't until days later when massive networks of activists and students were operating strictly through Twitter that outlets like CNN finally figured out covering this phenomenon was probably worth their while. Unfortunately after everything was said and done, many of my fellow journalists in newsrooms across the world concluded the Tehran Twitter protests were an isolated occurrence -- until now. After weeks of unrest in Tunisia seen only through videos uploaded on Facebook, it seems as our psychological apprehension to rely on social networks as a news source will finally come to an end.
"Approximately 3.6 million Tunisians are online. The majority of these manifestations, including the one in front of Ben Ali's presidential palace today were organized exclusively through Facebook," recounted Phillip Rochot live from Tunis on Radio Inter minutes after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi proclaimed he'd taken over the country's interim presidency.
Media censorship had long played a key role in Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23 year rule of the North African country. Video-sharing sites were banned in Tunisia until Thursday when Ben Ali himself announced "Al Jazeera, YouTube, Dailymotion, Takriz would now be accessible to all." The televised speech aimed to appease Tunisian youth. What he hadn't realized was that the other site, Facebook.com -- which he hadn't clamped down on -- was the primary culprit.
Weeks prior, a WikiLeaks cable had revealed the extensive power of Ben Ali's regime. However, Mukhtar Trifi, head of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights explains that although fear and repression was rampant, Facebook provided an outlet to many of Tunisia's unemployed youths. "It was something we all knew but simply could not talk about... still, one in every 10 Tunisians had a Facebook account."
While the toppling of Ben Ali's government would not have been possible without the army's backing, Tunisians deployed amateur videos of police repression, firing squads and riots on their personal profiles from their homes and cybercafes.
"What's key is that many Tunisians have family and friends living outside of the country, many of them in France and elsewhere in Europe. This means that as soon as a video was linked to their profile, it was on the news feeds of all of their friends and family members abroad making it impossible for Ben Ali to control," reiterated Rochot over the radio.
Creating accountable iJournalism
For journalists, the question is always how to ensure credibility and accountability especially in a story that only lived through videos posted on social networking sites. Firas Al-Atraqchi, journalism professor in Cairo's American University writes that for the first two weeks "Al Jazeera and France24's footage was exclusively provided by Tunisian social media users."
Imed Ben Said, multimedia journalist for France24's Arabic service online, watched it all unravel before his eyes. Born in Tunisia, he was six when Ben Ali took power and never foresaw he'd see this regime's end. When some of his friends and family members began posting videos and messages on Facebook, he assisted in passing down first-hand information and making sure the TV channel and web had live images from the people who were first witnessing the events unfold.
"First people would post in anonymous blogs, later they began to post directly to their profiles," recounts Ben Said. 'We'd download their pictures and videos. In order to verify the facts, we began to make sure the same information was being repeated from different sources, especially those who didn't know each other." he explained.
For Ben Said, Facebook was the first source of breaking news in the riots and what allowed him to consequently pass along the information for widespread coverage throughout France24. He knew however that just because it was on Facebook, he still had to go through quite an arduous process of fact-checking. "After the first wave of reports, we'd confirm the information with phone interviews and corroborations from various NGOs and official sources," he clarified.
Ben Said explains that Tunisia is only the first of many countries where youth are choosing to use Facebook and Twitter to organize protests after years of silence. "We have seen that Facebook has already been deployed in Algeria and Mauritania and with elections coming up next year in Egypt, authoritarian governments know more of these virtual protests may be replicated on their streets."
Ben Said reiterates that newsrooms have a responsibility to monitor such sites. He affirmed, "social networks online cannot be controlled. Once the information is out there, anyone can have access to it and we cannot afford to ignore it."