Were the revolutions in the Arabic world started by social networks? Tunisian publicist Amel Grami is skeptical, and warns against the extremist potential of the new media.
What is collectively known as "new media" promises individuals empowerment and the opportunity to share messages, ideas and approaches on the world wide web. It doesn't only receive, but can spread and communicate. In essence, it can do what people do.
Which is why many are talking about the "democratization of communication." They say unimaginable new perspectives are emerging, allowing citizens to contribute to the shaping of a new world - all thanks to a political revolution triggered by new media.
Some research concludes that the Arabian youth could not have spearheaded the political uprising without access to these new and highly efficient instruments. But that with them, the argument continues, they were able to shape change. Lebanese publicist Nadim Mansouri got it right when he said: "Facebook has achieved cult status in the Arab world and spread at a break-neck speed. Thanks to the possibilities it offers, users were able to reach their goals and mobilize the masses to bring down their repressive regimes."
But opinions are divided on the role of this "new media" in the creation of democratic, revolutionary awareness. Besides the Facebook enthusiasts are those who highlight the importance of the collective experience of generations of political activists - which they don't want to see swept under the carpet. Between the two poles is a broad spectrum of opinion, which after two years of Arab rebellion leads us to ask what role this new media really played in the revolutions, and to what extent it brought about lasting democratic awareness?
As it would be hard to analyze the process of each recent revolution individually, I am going to restrict myself to the situation in Tunisia and the role of modern media within it.
New media in the Tunisian revolution
One thing is certain: Over the past years we have experienced a remarkable proliferation of political blogs, websites, internet forums, satellite programs and Facebook pages. Uploading videos to YouTube and sharing messages, images and information on Twitter was already gaining popularity before the revolution, and doubtless such platforms contributed to the notion that modern media was the driver behind the country's new-found political awareness. An awareness of the need to exchange exploitation and isolation for freedom, dignity and justice.
Young people benefited from digital media, building solidarity and support networks where they could publish critical articles, comment on the latest events and co-ordinate their activities on the streets. This helped them to regain their self-confidence and see that they could influence, and even change reality.
But there are many who disagree with the claims that social media networks were behind the success of the revolution. Political awareness, they would say, is not something that develops overnight, and moreover, to put the likes of Facebook and Twitter on a pedestal, is to ignore the hard work of generations of activists, and other forms of civil engagement.
Fact is, on closer inspection the causes for the revolution are far more heterogeneous and complex, and it would be wrong to walk around with the idea that public opinion is formed solely by means of social networks. If we look at the development of the opposition movement in Tunisia, it is clear that civil rights activists have contributed to the growth of political awareness in many different ways.
Although regimes of old tried to stop their activities, their tenacity made them role models, and gave hope to everyone holding out for a brighter tomorrow. The riots in which several workers were killed in a mining region of southern Tunisia five years ago are one such example. Despite the regime inevitably crushing the protests in a region largely isolated from the rest of the country, the incident left its mark on the nation as a whole.
Poverty and marginalization meant very few in the region had no access to modern means of communication, and that the number of young people who recorded and shared the events online was very low. Nonetheless word about what was happening got around, and the will to stand up to the repressive regime was so strong that men and women braved the security forces to take to the streets.
It is therefore only possible to understand the revolution from the perspective of an historical development which reflects the lifelong achievements of many Tunisians. They broke through the wall of fear and paid a high price for their resistance.
And that is why we should reevaluate the status of new media. We shouldn't give it the leading role, but just one of many, because that is what it is. That said, it is doubtless a powerful tool, because it enabled those involved to clearly communicate their suffering and to expose Ben Ali's regime in front of the watching world.
The other side of the coin
To conclude, it is important to note that new media does not always represent democracy and freedom. Saudi Wahhabism, an ultra conservative branch of Sunni Islam, used satellite channels, websites, Facebook pages and video clips to make an appealing visual case for religious dogma. Such strategies are an assault. They cement ignorance and abuse religion.
Rather than being used to promote a culture of scrutiny, criticism and the rule of law, many modern forms of media have become tools in efforts toward societal regression. And instead of contributing to a culture of human rights education, the establishment of peace and a fundamental change in the system of society and economic structures, such forms of media are accomplices in the manipulation of awareness and the stirring up of a marginalized youth for Jihadist activities.
Amel Grami is Professor for Equality and Intercultural Studies at the Tunisian University in Manouba. She has written numerous books about women's rights and reforms in the Arab-speaking world.
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