Social Media in Northern African Politics

Unlike Western democracies that allow the existence of a free and open media space, most or all the different regimes in the MENA region, before the Arab Spring, has kept a heavy hand on traditional media. Equally, state-owned and private TVs, newspapers, radios or magazines used the information process to shape a submissive public opinion. The long-standing regimes in the MENA region failed to foresee the danger that the innovations in information technology could affect the effectiveness of their various systems. Their politics did not consider social media as a catalyst for political regeneration. That’s why the link between the use of social media and politics has become more visible since the collapse of the regime of Ben Ali. In other words, social media is affecting the information process and the users; equally shaping institutions and politicians’ behaviour. In this respect, the role of Facebook, as a case in point, in Tunisia should be analysed in the context of the technological innovation theory. This case study supports an understanding of the political upheavals in the MENA region from both a political and sociological perspective.

An Outdated Political Regime

Certainly, the regime of Ben Ali collapsed for economic and social or political reasons, but one of the main factors could also be associated to the information technology innovations that allowed the different social classes of the country to have access to smartphones and Facebook. The regime “minimized” the ability and capacity of mobilization of Facebook users as it considered smartphones as a gadget and it considered the role of social platforms to be “useless”. In addition, Ben Ali’s statesmen thought watching over the internet users would be sufficient to guarantee a political stability. They invested in sophisticated equipment to watch over the internet. They blocked access to YouTube and other websites. Meanwhile, they continued to harass political opponents and enforced their heavy hand on classical media outlets. The regime believed that blocking access to specific websites and controlling the public space would be enough to prevent the new generations from participating in political actions or having a political consciousness. In other words, the regime failed to forecast the expectancy and the capacity of the new interconnected generation. While the gap between this regime and its new ambitious generations was increasing, the regime maintained old-fashioned propaganda based on discrediting opponents and alarming the public opinion about a “plot” being prepared and implemented by the unpatriotic opponents in cooperation with the enemies of Tunisia. The double talk was the main strategy for the regime which thought that the access to smartphones was its own success and an achievement. In a sense, the regime did not expect that the new technology could lead to the emergence of a new public space.

Political Battlefield: making a confusing space

The collapse of the regime was the beginning of a new virtual public space that has been shaped by “smartphoners, YouTubers or Facebookers.” This new sphere is political par excellence, since the users have used it to debate politics, shape public opinion, sensitize people and mobilize them, influence decision-makers and participate in the decision-making process. In addition, the users of social media have acquired the role of “checks-and-balances.” They have turned into a watchdog to fight corruption, terrorism, and even regionalism and racism as social problems. They have strengthened the progressive aspects of the Republic and defend fundamental human rights. Thanks to Facebook, the civil society has succeeded specifically in defending women and “countering the power”, resisting political deviation/totalitarianism. Moreover, they held anti-poverty campaigns to help inhabitants of rural areas that have been marginalized by the system.

The digital public space has been shaping the national political atmosphere, which depends hugely on the international politics specifically in the region of the Middle East. “Facebookers” are divided along their political affiliation which determines their position in dealing with the geopolitics of the country. The conflicted mixture of religious and political backgrounds of Facebook users has determined their way of shaping a divided public opinion. While some Tunisian users have supported the war against the regime of Bashar Al Assad, the war against Gadhafi and the departure of Boutaflika, others have chosen to oppose those wars. It is important to note that the users’ attitudes towards the war in Yemen continues to be confusing, though a lot have announced their opposition because the Saudi Arabia and UAE are leading the Arab coalition against Houthis who are backed by Iran. Therefore, social media appears to deepen both the clash and the confusion not only for the followers, but also for the opinion leaders and the political decision-makers. The confusion has affected the national scene and turned to be a real source of social instability as it led to strikes and roadblocks, aggression against artists and companies as well as industries. It has led also to personal disputes between users and friends, with personal insults giving to judicial condemnation.

The populist and non-populist styles displayed on Facebook means that the communication between users often turns to be violent, as it is a direct outlet for intense emotions. Tension has overwhelmed the platform, as the tendency to expressiveness is exploited. Therefore, the platform has turned into “an open access platform of political campaigns” or “unfinished” process of information and misinformation. In a sense, the democratic transition has been engaged a personal and emotional discourse since the users have formed opposite emotional communities on Facebook. They are “emotionally offensive” since they were excluded from politics or had been “inboxed” in the traditional political structure. This “digital emotional activism” or “emotional intelligence”, according to George Marcus, has played a major role in polarizing the democratic transition in Tunisia. They have turned to be harmful to ensure a political stability, an open-governance and the function of the state’s institutions.

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Tunisian politicians and candidates for elections have stuck to the formula: engaging in politics means first and foremost exposing yourself. Politics requires an expression of emotions because candidates are expected to produce emotional “content” matching the users or the receivers’ (voters) expectancy. Consequently, the striking feature of all campaigns is “making the buzz” to keep themselves “visible on Facebook.” The obsession of visibility dictates the information delivery process. To target multipolar followers, there is a media overexposure of politicians. Remarkably, the quality of information has been affected. Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer et al refer to a phenomenon of “cascading information” as users roll-out pre-scheduled information posts without checking their authenticity. The more information is shared, the more it will tend to be trusted and the less it will be criticized. The political discourse is constructed to seduce voters and match their expectations. Consequently, a mismatch between the shared content and the realpolitik prevails.

Populism wins over

Exposing oneself on Facebook reveals the tension between the social media logic and that of the institution. Some political parties or pages and communities choose to construct their own narrative of events. Their populist style has violated the “institutional exemplarity”, according to Armand Colin. The dependence of politicians on Facebook synchronizes the mass and the elite, on one hand, and it has turned Facebookers from observers or passive actors into political leaders. This synchronisation has not only helped prevailing the “culture of emotion” under different forms such as fake news and intox, but also “radicalization of the political offer.” They have become the norms organizing the interaction on social media. Therefore, Facebook users appear to be a total emotional entity which operates in uncontrolled virtual public space. They can no longer manage their emotions because they are governed by the feeling of distrust.

Every political user orchestrates emotion in an attempt to reinforce his/her legitimacy or to discredit the coalition in power. Consequently, the shared narrative of construction targeting the state’s institutions is devoted to impress the public emotionally and win their hearts and minds. In other words, legitimacy is determined by emotions. As a matter of fact, the political representation started to depend on the digital visibility of candidates who are in a continuous “fabrique du charisme.”[1] Overwhelming self-promotion and populist promises during the recent election campaigns have boosted candidates claiming their fight is against poverty and obscurantism or those claiming their involvement is to protect Islam and liberate Jerusalem. In Tunisia, social media, especiall Facebook, has built the aftermath of Ben Ali into an ‘emotional democracy’ characterized by “a decisionlessness” that affects the state. Smugglers have their say on Facebook since they sponsor different pages and news magazines to protect their interests and make profits. The campaigners on Facebook could be financed by smugglers or businessmen who are potentially “a bad influence”. They have even launched attacks against the government whenever it tried to eradicate “the shadow/black economy”. They compete by producing mass content rapidly on Facebook in order to attract attention and corral favourable public opinion. Thus, the information process has turned into an open battle of populist style and manipulation.

According to Armond Colin, resorting to the populist narrative construction of politics in its different forms “rocks institutional routines, attracts media attention, provides visibility capital and helps build political stance”. An abundance of visibility on Facebook upsets the logic of the state’s institutions and has become a “political resource which allows them to claim a leadership position. So, consensus has been built on interpersonal and face-to-face relation between the leader and his followers.”[2] For Armond, there is an efficient “disintermediation” which helps politicians adopting a populist style to make a place for them in a period of crisis.

In the aftermath of Ben Ali’s regime, the democratic transition has been structured by the principles of virality and immediacy provided by the social media. They play a central role in the political process of Tunisia since they have formed the foundation of the vertical relationship between politicians and ordinary citizens. Beyond that, Facebook has made the task of governing more complicated because having a majority in the National Assembly can no longer be enough to exercise power and make some rigorous reforms against corruption or informal economy. While some Facebookers or administrators of communities’ pages’ used to produce an anti-establishment discourse, some others claim their involvement to protect the Republic and reinforce fundamental rights. In the words of Lorenzo Castellani, the traditional forms of politics have been overwhelmed by an accelerated process, and the theatricality of the virtual public space, with an emotional legitimacy leading to “an instantaneous or fast democracy”.[3]

[1] Groupe d’études géoppolitiques, Le style populist, Paris: Amesterdam, 2019, 132.
[2] Ibid, 131.
[3] Ibid, 130.

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