In January 2011, after hearing about the unrest unfolding in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni (who passed away in January of this year from a chronic illness) began traveling around the country to document the nascent protests and the government’s response to them.
“There are no journalists doing this,” she told Newsweek at the time. “And moreover, the official media started to tell lies about what was happening.”
Despite widespread censorship and surveillance both online and off, and the fact that her own blog, Facebook, and Twitter accounts were blocked by the Ben Ali government, Ben Mhenni chose to continue blogging under her real name, saying “Even if you use a nickname, they can reach you.”
Ben Mhenni’s reports from Tunisia’s interior were invaluable at a time when foreign press had limited access to the country, and domestic media had its hands tied either by fear, cooptation, or censorship. Her bravery and ingenuity helped both Tunisians and the rest of the world understand what was happening in the country—information that for better or worse helped spark protests elsewhere in the region.
Her story speaks to the importance of a free press, but it also speaks to the dire need for citizen documentation and a free and open internet. At this very moment in the United States, citizens across the country are sharing images, videos, opinions, and analysis, often on social media platforms that many see as trivial. And while the U.S. still has an ostensibly free press—and indeed, many courageous journalists both freelance and otherwise willing to put themselves on the front lines to capture the zeitgeist—over the course of the last few days, members of the mainstream press have been assaulted and detained by police while reporting. Furthermore, even in the best of times, the press cannot be everywhere at once, nor can we rely upon them to get every story...or report without ingrained bias.
Like many of today’s citizen journalists and documentarians, Ben Mhenni was not neutral. She was a revolutionary, and her online activities consisted of activism as well as documentation—just like many of the brave individuals raising their voices online right now.
As with the protests that rocked Tunisia in 2011, social media has been vital to those calling for justice and accountability in the face of police violence against Black people in the United States both in terms of raising awareness and support, and in terms of providing a space for alternative reporting. As Ashley Yates, a prominent leader and organizer during the uprising in Ferguson, MO, told a reporter in 2016, “We started to use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram as a way to just get the word out, to contrast the stark mainstream media blackout that was occurring”, or as activist Deray McKesson succinctly put it: “...In Ferguson we became unerased, and that was solely because of social media. We didn’t invent resistance, we didn’t discover injustice. The only thing that is different about this movement is our ability to story tell it and use the power of storytelling as actual power.”
But just as Ben Mhenni faced censorship, so too have many of the observers and participants in the demonstrations. In the years since the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, we (and many others) have documented numerous instances where tech platforms have wrongly removed posts by activists supportive of the movement for Black lives.
While the current media cycle focuses on Twitter’s decision to fact-check President Trump, it can be easy to forget that those most impacted by corporate speech controls are not politicians, celebrities, or right-wing provocateurs, but some of the world’s most vulnerable people who lack the access to corporate policymakers to which states and Hollywood have become accustomed.
The slippery slope of platform censorship began not with the fact-checking of the U.S. president or the banning of Alex Jones, but with the silencing of Moroccan atheists, Egyptian activists, indigenous women, Syrian citizen journalists, the LGBTQ community, and countless others.
And as we continue to debate what to do about platforms, it is vital that we do not lose sight of that.