Information, events, and Cleopatra’s nose

Mohamed Bouazizi

That an event can galvanize behavior is a common and natural belief.   A young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire after humiliations at the hands of the police; his agony and death ignited a firestorm of protests, and within days the old regime in Tunisia had crumbled.  Dramatic event, changed behavior:  cause and effect.

The problem with this interpretation – which is taken for granted in many quarters – is that it overlooks the air gaps between an event and the public, and between the public’s perceptions and mass behavior.

Between Bouazizi’s desperate gesture and the Tunisian public stood a government determined to retain control over the sources of information, including the internet.  By all accounts, the Ben Ali regime was good at that game.  A study by Jonathan Zittrain and others, for example, found it engaging in “pervasive filtering of online content and restrictions on online activity.”

The question to ponder, then, is:  how did the Tunisian public know – and what did it know?

Bouazizi’s death could not have caused the demonstrations, for the simple reason that most Tunisians never laid eyes on him, never witnessed his suicide.  It was information about the event that helped spark the uprising – a truism made more interesting by the fact that the public wasn’t supposed to obtain this information.

Confusing an event with the information swirling around it is habitual with the news media, which likes to present itself as a window on the world.  But scholars often make the same mistake.  I have heard a famous professor blame Muslim radicalization on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories – even though, quite obviously, the vast majority of Muslims have never been near Israel or the occupied land, or personally witnessed any abuse of fellow Muslims there.  If some are becoming radicalized, it’s from experiencing TV, not Ramallah.

Why does the difference matter?  Because information comes to us under a certain aspect, and a fierce struggle, occasionally to the death, always erupts between political and social forces over who decides the aspect of difficult events.  For the geopolitical analyst, this struggle to control the flow and shape of information can be more significant than the events themselves.

In Tunisia, the first protests took place in Mohamed Bouazizi’s hometown, and were probably organized by word of mouth.  A savage informational battle erupted at that point.  Protesters hid behind the walls of Facebook – not included in the country’s web filters – to break out of the media blackout imposed by the government.  Videos of the initial demonstrations were thus conveyed to the world, then back to the Tunisian public.  The regime struck back with a remarkably sophisticated phishing campaign, which deleted the Facebook pages and online accounts of leading dissidents.  Of course, this didn’t preclude brute force:  police arrested bloggers and web activists, and used live bullets against protesters.

It was too late.  With Al Jazeera arriving on the scene, the protesters had won the information battle.  They represented the fifth wave sweeping over Tunisia – the age of the public – and, like their Egyptian counterparts three weeks later, they possessed too many avenues of communication for the government to track down and neutralize.

Interestingly, Ben Ali used a sharpshooter’s approach against his online opponents, while in Egypt Mubarak tried the equivalent of carpet bombing, shutting down the web – yet both men lost control of their own stories.  When it comes to information, the “correlation of forces” appears to have swung dramatically away from political power, in favor of the public.

Also interesting, a young Tunisian protesting the regime burned himself to death in March of last year.  He anticipated Bouazizi in every respect except one:  nothing happened.

I won’t wade into the tar pit of causation for complex events.  My point here is that a cause, like the event itself, depends largely on the aspect of the information presented about it.  In the public sphere if not in science, causes are ascribed rather than discovered, and are anchored to persuasive narratives more than to fine logic.

To believe otherwise is to commit the fallacy of Cleopatra’s nose, which if an inch shorter, Pascal mused, would have changed the course of history.  But the problem with a world historical proboscis is that it must compete with an infinite number of equally valid causes, all the way back to the Big Bang.  Why pick on Cleopatra?

The question answers itself.

In fact, Cleopatra’s nose (not to mention her remaining attributes) became part of a fable about the depraved Orient corrupting austere Romans, wielded by the enemies of Caesar and Antony.  Like Mohamed Bouazizi, Cleopatra became a world-altering force only after articulate and agenda-driven people captured her, as with a pin on a collector’s board, under that aspect.

Cleo's nose

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