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Wafa Ben Hassine on Social Media in Post-Ben Ali Tunisia

[Image of Wafa Ben Hassine.] [Image of Wafa Ben Hassine.]

[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia.]

Jadaliyya (J): What do you think are the most gratifying aspects of Tweeting and Twitter?

Wafa Ben Hassine (WBH): The intellectual exchange of information. The most unique aspect of Twitter is the ability to form little niches about very particularized topics. You want to talk classical Arabic literature? Got it. You want to talk unemployment in Sidi Bouzid? Governmental reshuffle in Tunisia? Check. In using Twitter, one is guaranteed to find (mostly) meaningful exchanges on any topic under the sun. I find comfort in this, especially whenever I find myself feeling so far away from home.

J: What are some of the political/social/cultural limits you have encountered using the platform?

WBH: Twitter is an unfiltered and uncensored channel. Naturally, this leads to the question of how reliable or credible the information disseminated can be. I have become much more cautious when reading news tweets, and this is a limit that I frankly use in reading all forms of media anyway. One more source of limitation is the sometimes inevitable trap of groupthink, which only frustrates the free flow of intellectual exchange that I mentioned above. Groupthink stifles the diversity of opinion that many expect to find on Twitter.  

J: How have you used Twitter as a writer/blogger?

WBH: As a writer, it is important to see how other people react to current events. It has been most helpful to me in assessing what a fragment of the Tunisian population thinks about the political unrest it is experiencing. A peek into the Tunisian psyche, so to speak. Of course, one cannot exclusively rely on Twitter for this: those who use the medium have a relatively higher socioeconomic status than most Tunisians, and I must always keep that in mind when I write. 

J: Has the role of social media in Tunisia changed since Ben Ali was overthrown?

WBH: Absolutely. People are more open in speaking their minds, especially on Facebook. For better or for worse, hundreds of Facebook pages were created following Ben Ali’s ouster. Some were Islamist, some secular, and others not political at all. Before, folks were not as honest in expressing controversial political contestations because of the obvious reason that they could have ended up in jail. Many Facebook users have exercised restraint in what they say up until the very last days before Ben Ali fled the country. Today, social media users in Tunisia exhibit an adamantly forthright and frank attitude in writing political commentaries. 

It is not all flowers and butterflies, though. Social media today are also sources of libel, rumors, and general misinformation — and word spreads like fire nowadays. Facebook is also used in excess. It is at times equated with the internet as a whole (which I find to be tragic), and politicians themselves use the channel to check out what’s happening around the country and post press releases and announcements. While social media are great for interaction, they do very little in changing the reality of the unemployed and disaffected youth, for example. 

J: Citizen media gave way for the rise of sources such as Nawaat. How did you begin your involvement with them? 

WBH: A good friend of mine, who is a well-known human rights advocate in Tunisia, introduced me to the team. “You have to have her,” she told one of the co-founders. I started to write on a part-time basis. Eventually, I began working there on a more or less full-time schedule. The best part about working in Nawaat is how open the platform really is. I would go to the National Assembly all day and come back with an article on the vote being discussed or other general assembly proceedings. The most exciting part is writing about how the assembly members go about their business and what I felt was “in the air.” 

J: How often do you resort to social media for information on Tunisia?

WBH: Often, and from various sources. But again, social media is only a preliminary step in finding information. Verifying information found on Twitter and the like is absolutely imperative, unless you know and trust the person sharing it.

[Wafa Ben Hassine tweets at @ousfourita and blogs at the Poetic Politico.]

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