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Free the Web – The Tunisian Revolution Reflected in Social Media Images

Julius Erdmann. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Julius Erdmann. Photo: Karla Fritze.

At the beginning of 2011, Julius Erdmann saw that many of his Tunisian friends were using the country flag as their profile picture on Facebook. Why do people express their criticism of a totalitarian state with a sign that stands for this dictatorship? Why do they suddenly take selfies in front of tanks? “For me as a German, such viral moments were rather odd,” says the cultural scientist and Romanist, who has been dealing intensively with internet cultures for years. His astonishment at these pictures on social networks provided the impetus for Erdmann's dissertation “Digital images on the Internet. A semiotic media-cultural analysis of the use of pictorial signs before and during the Tunisian revolution”.

His research project is based on pictures as well as interviews. The media researcher put out a call on Facebook for people to participate in his ethnographical survey. Erdmann subsequently conducted extensive interviews with 35 Facebook users, which required several trips to Tunis. His interviewees were male and female bloggers, internet activists, and artists of all ages. The questions focused on the connection between the political upheaval and the use of images on social networks: How do the respondents rate the revolution? What influence did the people think Facebook had? How significant are digital images to them personally? His analysis explicitly combined the ethnographical interviews with semiotics – the study of signs; he also works with the interviewees’ statements and the pictures they uploaded to Facebook – about 300 in all. “As a semiotician, I look at the meaning of pictorial images. The ethnographic method helps me not to read these signs as a German but rather to understand the cultural context of those who use them,” Erdmann explains. This was a tiring job not only because of the sheer quantity, he admits. He would have sometimes preferred investigating archival inventories to scrolling through Facebook timelines: “Because of its poor interface and lack of searchability, Facebook is incredibly tiring as a scientific source.”

The Tunisian revolution is considered the starting point of the Arab Spring. It was crucial for the revolutions in Egypt and Libya and the attempted one in Syria. In Tunisia, the upheavals were triggered by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in front of the administrative building in his hometown Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010. The 26 year old had supported himself and his siblings by selling vegetables from a cart. The police paid him frequent visits, because his cart had not been approved, and they eventually confiscated his goods. When the grocer ignited himself, news spread on social networks in no time at all. “The first demonstrations in the city took place two days later,” says Erdmann. “The government had underestimated the power of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.” Weeks later, on January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi died from complications of self-immolation.

The cultural scientist identifies three phases of political upheaval in Tunisia

The problems of the North African state had grown over decades under dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (*1936). The gap between rich and poor was enormous and although the youth was well educated, they had hardly any future prospects. “This was also due to the fact that the Tunisian administrative system kept its civil servants in their posts for a very long time, and job vacancies were filled only through nepotism,” Erdmann explains. There had been protests against the government even before Bouazizi's self-immolation. Impoverished miners had fought for better working conditions in 2008, but because the state media – censored by Ben Ali – did not report on it, it hardly made headlines. Another gesture of rebellion was the Internet movement “Ammar 404”. It was a reaction to news channels websites like Al Jazeera and CNN being unavailable due to the blocking of numerous websites by the country’s so-called internet agency.  While the Tunisian first name “Ammar” refers to a simple-minded person, “404” stands for the error message of unavailable pages on the Internet. “Ammar 404 even had its own Facebook page,” says Erdmann. “It quickly became a well-known phrase.”

Erdmann identified the eventful period from Bouazizi’s self-immolation until Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011 as the first of three phases in the political upheaval: the revolutionary phase. Demonstrations in Tunis, Sfax, and Hammamet were brutally repressed by the government; 23 people died. Ben Ali then tried to mend the situation with a speech to the people explicitly promising a free Internet and new jobs. “This speech of an obsolete regime was the height of absurdity,” says Erdmann. “The number of Facebook users, however, suddenly rose, because of the national media’s lack of reporting on the protests. People had begun informing themselves through the social networks. Facebook became rapidly politicized.”

A counter-public emerges on social networks

The reconstruction phase from January 14 to the establishment of the Constitutional Assembly at the end of September 2011 was marked by a politicized Internet community. “While images on Facebook had previously been of a private nature, such as kittens, flowers, landscapes, and religious motifs, political images became omnipresent.” Women and men, the young and the old began using the platform to express criticism. “During the transitional regime, users made jokes about loyal Ben-Ali followers or difficult Islamic politicians.” Erdmann identified several exemplary pictorial motifs for this phase. There were pictures of the revolutionary victims staged as martyrs and heroes. The users showed pictures of police violence still not visible in the public media. Secondly, there were various pictures of the Tunisian flag: with a machine gun in the foreground as a sign of struggle, with a crying girl as an expression of grief, or with hands as a symbol of solidarity. Thirdly, users posted photos of graffiti with political statements such as “Free Tunisia” or “Down with Ennahda”, the moderate Islamists. And fourthly, so-called memes were used, i.e. media images with satirical text, for example of politicians or demonstrations.

"A counter-public emerged on the social networks,” explained Erdmann. “Facebook played the role of catalyst.” The cultural scientist doesn’t see the Tunisian revolution as a "Facebook revolution” though. Such a thing couldn’t exist because a revolution would require the physical presence of demonstrators in public. According to Erdmann, there are several reasons for the fact that the platform was nevertheless able to exert so much pressure on the Ben Ali regime and on the various transitional governments. “The revolution came at a time when more people had smartphones than a few years earlier. Many users also knew how to edit images, and Facebook enabled them to embed photos and videos. In terms of media usage, it was an opportune moment.”

Digital images had different functions over the course of the revolution

Erdmann has identified the stabilization phase as the third phase of the revolution. It includes the formation of a constitutional assembly and a government of moderate Islamists, leftists, and social liberals between October 2011 and January 2014, when the country adopted a constitution and formed a technocratic transitional government. This cleared the way for the country’s first free elections. The Internet also played an important role during this phase, because the parties were bitterly divided on many questions. Should Islam be part of the constitution, or do we want a secular state? What rights should women have? The polarization of positions was also reflected among users on social networks. “Ideological camps were developing that violently criticized each other,” explains Erdmann. The atrocious pictures of two politicians murdered at this time appeared again and again. Users added texts to the bloody faces and put them online in many ways. They wrote, “Remember the dead!” or “Do not forget the revolution!” “In Tunisia there is a very extreme, bloody pictorial culture,” he says. At the same time, the Arab country has a great cartoon tradition. Erdmann interviewed some cartoonists for his research project. Cartoons show, for example, the face of the Islamic politician Rachid al-Ghannouchi on a dog’s body – a flagrant insult in the Arab world – or Tunisia represented as a woman being raped by Ghannouchi and the police: a criticism of the police (insufficiently reformed since Ben Ali) and of the prospective Islamist government.

According to Erdmann’s thesis, digital images functioned differently in all three revolutionary phases. “In the first, revolutionary phase, images were primarily sources of information, because photos seem more credible than text. In the second phase, they served as a reminder of the events during the political upheaval. In the third phase, they came to assume ideological, manipulative, and defamatory functions.”

Many users have since returned to a pre-revolutionary use of images: they share memes of American TV series, religious sayings, and aestheticized landscapes. “A huge online collective had emerged for a while that communicated through images. But this joint virtual action eventually disintegrated back into isolated actions.”

The media researcher is now able to answer the questions that got it all started, for example on the selfies in front of Tunisian army tanks. One of his Tunisian interviewees told him that the army, unlike the police, did not turn against its own people during the revolution – an attitude that many users wanted to emphasize and support with a tank selfie. And why did Facebook users choose the national flag as a profile picture? “The Tunisians told me that they did not want to leave their flag to the dictator.”

The Project

Since 2012, Julius Erdmann has been working on his PhD thesis “Digital images on the Internet. A semiotic media-cultural analysis of the use of pictorial signs before and during the Tunisian revolution”. In the German-French PhD project at the universities in Potsdam (supervisor Prof. Eva Kimminich) and Paris 8 Vincennes – Saint-Denis (supervisor Prof. Patrick Vauday), Erdmann is analysing digital images on social networks during the revolutionary upheavals in Tunisia. 

The Researcher

Julius Erdmann studied Romance languages and literature, psychology, media studies, and philosophy. Since 2011, he has been a research assistant at the Chair for Cultures of Romance countries at the University of Potsdam. 

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Romanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: julius.erdmann@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Jana Scholz
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Agnetha Lang
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

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