Centre Daam

Social media websites and its effects on democracy: Facebook as an example

مُتاح أيضًا بـ: العربية (Arabic)

Daam Fourm

By

the Former Tunisian Journalists Syndicate, Mr. Naji Bghouri

When the clandestine merchant Mohamed Bouazizi decided to set fire to himself on the 17th of December, 2010, in the city of Sidi Bouzid, that act surely did not mark the 1st protest over economic and social rights, in that volume, against Ben Ali’s regime. Beforehand, specifically on the 10th of March of the same year, the young Abdessalem Trimech, also a clandestine worker, sat fire to himself in the city of Monastir. His funeral witnessed protests and emblems against Ben Ali’s regime. Anterior to these incidents, a 3rd young person committed suicide by setting fire to himself pushed by desperation and protestation against unemployment in the city of Sidi Hssine on the western side of the Capital Tunis. What makes the difference in these cases is the shocking image of acts emanating from desperation. This image spread across social media and primarily on Facebook, this upgraded an isolated and desperate protest to an act of societal resistance against oppression and injustice.

Like most countries from which protests, that were later on named ‘Arab Spring’ started, Tunisia was ruled by an authoritarian regime fully controlling the media scene and requisites it for publicity and misleading. 

The failure of reforming orthodox media

Tunisian media lived over half a decade under the regime and its authority, except for short lapses of time during which some freedom existed such as the end of the 80’s, these periods were like brackets that were rapidly closed. Tunisian media remained, especially under Ben Ali, completely controlled by the executive and security power of the state, its fundamental role was restricted to publicity and misleading. The 2011 revolution opened freedom doors through unchaining publishing, broadcasting and breaking the state’s monopolisation of media. The country experienced an unprecedented boom in launching different media. This openness was accompanied by a political atmosphere that is adequate with exercising the freedom of press as well as a novel legal framework that put an end to old chains. However, the rough economic situation, the lack of a media public policy that guarantees the continuity of the variety and richness of the media scene led a lot of institutions to disappear. Media succeeded, under Ben Ali, in maintaining continuity as most of it relied on supporting the old economic system, while state-owned media faced heavy challenged regarding its transition from a governmental media to a public one which would lead the rest into quality journalism and committing to serving the general public. Since, the revolution, the consecutive governments tried to control public media and adapt it to its agendas. In addition to trying to control public media and the absence of structural and reform policies for the sector, leaving it alone in facing its problems. Reform operations faced internal resistance from the workers in the public media sector themselves. For example, public television has witnessed a major floundering since the early days of the revolution, and this sudden coup prompted employees, especially in news management, to grope their way through the chaos that prevailed in the corridors of the National Television Corporation, especially to come up with a new media without a clear vision or references, but these attempts were neither successful nor legalized or well-studied. Accordingly, the doors were opened to all kinds of interventions until they turned into conflicts between all the influential parties from inside and outside the institution to control the public audio-visual media.

The regulatory body for the audio-visual media sector, created by Decree N° 116, has sought to establish fundamental reforms for an independent media that adheres to the principles of public service.

ماهر عبد الرحمان، " أزمة السمعي والبصري في تونس"، الدار التونسية للكتاب، الطبعة الأولى 2021
Maher Abdel Rahman, “The Audiovisual Crisis in Tunisia”, Tunisian Book House, First Edition 2021

It also set conditions to oblige broadcasters of radio and television channels to stick to a good media service based on the vision that the media is a public service in relation to democracy, public debate, the citizen’s right to information and the guarantee of freedom of expression. It has also presented a map for reforming the public media, but the barons of corruption and the owners of the media and those associated with the old regime, as well as the ruling political parties that were able to find a foothold in the sector, they fiercely resisted any reforms and faced the idea of ​​amendment ex officio. As for the printed media, it faced an unprecedented economic crisis, as many newspapers were closed due to a lack of funds, and others resorted to working with the least possible means, especially human resources, and reliance became more focused upon amateur writers, casual and occasional “writers” instead of relying upon professional journalists.

Generally, orthodox media failed to be one that fosters, within the public sphere, general discussion, the democracy culture and human rights’ principles. Instead, most of it fell in the trap of neglect, mediocrity and chasing advertisement and supporters/ funders at any cost, even to the detriment of independency and quality. All these reasons, pushed orthodox media to lose the most prominent battle; the confidence of the public and credibility within a country that is taking its democracy-baby steps. The latter needs an unbiased ambiance especially from the diverse media part as it has to play its role as a component of the public sector which pushes general societal discussion to consecrate the culture of democracy and human rights and practice its role as a control authority vis à vis other public authority; it monitors and holds it accountable, imposes novel culture and behaviours of accountability in a transparent and democratic society.

Facebook a means to emancipating from tyranny 

Social media, especially Facebook, participated in breaking the collier of the monopoly of information and presented a genuine opportunity for activists and citizens equally to exchange information that is being hidden, notably as concerns social protests and the reactions surrounding it. It also represented an opportunity to discuss the violations done by the regime. Young groups seeking the breaking of the collier of blackout gathered through social media and they organized campaigns to support exposing violations. It could be said that social media, notably Facebook, played a prominent role in Arab revolutions specially in Tunisia and Egypt as far as publicity, gathering people and supporting.

Despite the unprecedented percentage of liberty for Tunisians and social media posterior to the revolution, the idea that solely social media is capable to send a message to public opinion. Orthodox media failed to sending such a message and that concept remained in the Tunisian mind. It looked that only these platforms are capable to provide opportunities to more citizens, and to help them be heard by decision makers and collaborate as regards the public interest.

0
billion people

use social sites

0
billion people

Facebook users

In Tunisia, Facebook users’ number in 2020 reached 6.9 million persons which means 75% of the population which are over 13 years old.

Contrary to orthodox media that relies on professional journalists, who stick to professional rules in investigating the information from its trust-worthy and multiple sources, to circulate its info. The latter journalists would conduct the necessary investigation concerning the info before publishing it. However, social media relies fundamentally on the publications of the users which are generally non-verified info regarding its credibility.

Facebook as means to induce the failure of the democratic experience 

A lot of people thought, in conjunction with the breaking of the collier of control and interdiction of websites, that social media will be the best consecrator for the concept of freedom of speech and access to information, consecrating the culture of transparency and openness. Additionally, in the context of a weak traditional media and the faltering reform and restructuring to be a public service facility, social media sites will be the real public space that will sponsor public debate about how to build an open and democratic society.

Yet, what happened was the opposite, as social sites, led by Facebook, turned into a pickaxe to destroy the democratic experience, and into a mechanism for waging symbolic and moral wars, as false and misleading news spread, and pages were used to discredit opposers, spreading the culture of violent extremism, bullying, and harm to the dignity of individuals. Tunisian parties and candidates for decision-making positions in democratic elections have used all non-democratic and immoral means to liquidate opponents and create climates of incitement, violence and hatred, and these abusive and violent campaigns against opponents continue even after the end of the electoral campaigns.

The truth is that freedom of expression, just as it needs constitutional and legal guarantees, needs before that an audience of ethically abiding citizens who are not subject to the authority of parties, free from traditional and coercive organizations, and able to participate in the public debate about the standards of the public good.

The political communication of political parties and groups in Tunisia has become a negative communication in an essential part, it took the form of campaigns launched by these parties and groups against each other in a manner that does not respect the most basic rules of public debate, and the space of social sites has turned into spaces for insulting and violent speeches and incitement to hatred, In the context of an all-out war, the war of all against all.

 The systematic campaigns to hit opponents by the paid pages and behind them electronic armies have turned into a model of interaction between many users and citizens, which raised the level of violence and began to bomb and destroy the space of calm and sober discussion based on difference in the framework of democratic ethics, destroying as a result the experience of democracy itself.

On the other hand, these sites, especially Facebook, have contributed because of the algorithmic technical rules that it uses to display content to imprisoning people in ideologically and politically consistent closed spaces where there is no place for diversity called “echo chambers”. Thus, Facebook has contributed to intellectual isolationism and ideological and political polarization, as people are closed in to harmonious political, intellectual and ideological groups that do not accept difference or debate and exchange of views. Instead of transforming us into a unified, interconnected society thanks to discussion, communication and controversy, the opposite happened. In fact, it separated people instead of being a space for exploring different opinions. It is a danger that could transform the nascent democracy into a cosmetic democracy manipulated by hidden forces.

مُتاح أيضًا بـ: العربية (Arabic)

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