Skip to content

Framing Bouazizi (Lim 2013)

March 3, 2014

Lim, M. (2013). Framing Bouazizi: ‘White lies’, hybrid network, and collective/connective action in the 2010–11 Tunisian uprising. Journalism, 14(7), 921-941.


By delving into the detailed account of the Tunisian uprising, this article offers an explanation that sets the 2010 uprising apart from its precursors. The 2010 uprising was successful because activists successfully managed to bridge geographical and class divides as well as to converge offline and online activisms. Such connection and convergence were made possible, first, through the availability of dramatic visual evidence that turned a local incident into a spectacle. Second, by successful frame alignment with a master narrative that culturally and politically resonated with the entire population. Third, by activating a hybrid network made of the connective structures to facilitate collective action – among Tunisians who shared collective identities and collective frames – and connective action – among individuals who sought more personalized paths to contribute to the movement through digital media.


922 Bouazizi was by no means the first Tunisian ‘martyr’. Why did his self-immolation in December 2010 succeed in garnering so much attention and trigger the Tunisian uprising and Arab Spring? ‘How was media used to propel Bouazizi’s death into a large-scale and successful movement?’.

923-926 Section ‘A great disconnect: online activism vs. working-class struggles’. The 2010-2011 uprising in Tunisia rooted in history of online activism and working-class/labour activists.

923 At least a decade of struggle against online censorship. In 1991 Tunisia connected to internet, first Arab country. Publicly available from 1996 but that same year Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) established. Created ‘the most severe internet censorship in the world’. Activists still used the net for politics, incl. cyber think-tank Takriz created in 1998, or websites like Perspective Tunisiennes in 2000 or TuneZine in 2001. In 2004 political blogs were born, gathered around which became ‘a platform for Tunisian dissident voices and debates’. Many blogs censored, with cyber dissidents and bloggers arrested.

923-924. Despite this vibrancy, online activism didn’t connect with majority of population, with issues of concern to the working class. First attempt at online-offline connection was 22 May 2010 street rally against net censorship. Only hundreds participated.

924 Online activists are mostly well-off, highly educated, urban. Closer to global struggles and platforms like WikiLeaks or Reporters Without Borders than local issues. [see Wolfson 2014 on similar problem in the USA, but contrast this with Postill 2014 on Malaysia]. Thus on 28 November 2010, TuniLeaks launched by, to republish WikiLeaks revelations about Tunisia, ‘only one hour after WikiLeaks’ release of 17 cables that contained information that undermined the Tunisian authorities’.

924-926 For instance Gafsa protests January to June 2008, videos posted on YouTube or DailyMotion never went viral, not even popular with net activists. Al Jazeera didn’t cover Gafsa either because banned from Tunisia, and hadn’t yet started integrating citizen contents into their broadcasts. Activists framed Gafsa as struggles of the poor, unconnected to lives of urban middle classes or to ideas of freedom of expression or anti-censorship. This was to change with the framing of Bouazizi.

926 Bouazizi’s self-immolation often presented as trigger of Tunisian revolution. However, important not the death itself but ‘the framing of the narratives around it’. To mobilise death it must be framed ‘as part of something bigger, beyond the death itself’.

926-927 Unlike previous immolations, this one was video recorded. A distant cousin of the deceased, Ali Bouazizi, ‘a long-time opposition activist’, recorded the death and subsequent protest on his Samsung mobile. With help from a friend, edited content and posted in on Facebook, not blocked in the country (unlike other sites). Images went viral.

However, ‘images alone do not propel a movement’, so Ali fabricated some of the facts, what he calls ‘white lies’, incl. the lie that he was a jobless university graduate having to make do selling produce (in fact, he never completed high school), or the ‘slap in the face’ by a woman in a position of authority (it never happened).

927. By adding these two ingredients – a university graduate and a slap – to the story, Ali rendered Mohamed’s burning body political, affixing to it the political body of a citizen whose rights were denied. Mohamed Bouazizi no longer represented the uneducated poor who struggle to provide food on the table, but represented all young people of Tunisia whose rights and freedom were denied.

928 This was a classic example of ‘frame bridging’ (Snow et al 1986: 467): linking a movement to people with comparable grievances yet ‘structurally disconnected or disengaged’. Leila Ben Debba, a lawyer-turned-activist-leader: “It was a revolution where the young people did not rally for food but for a dignified life”.

928-929 Framing not enough. Protests must be diffused nationally and overseas. Networks must be galvanised, contention turned into a social movement. Social media not sufficient. What achieved this was ‘a hybrid network’ made of social media, big media (eg Al Jazeera) and small media (laptops, sneakers, mobiles, memory cards).

929 Al Jazeera particularly important in that fostered practices of ‘networked journalism’; all sorts of media practitioners interacting. 933 Thus the self-immolation broadcast across Arab world only a few hours after it happened (Al Jazeera reporters had trawled the net in search of materials, finding Ali Bouazizi’s video). After this Al Jazeera kept in touch with ‘citizen journalists on the ground’ incl Ali and a collaborator, both becoming regular contributors. Very few smartphones, but mobiles allowed ordinary people to share news and keep informed.

934 This hybrid media network follows logic of media convergence (Deuze 2006, Jenkins 2004). A govt can shut down a given channel, but not a hybrid media network, for information would still find another route in this ‘redundant and resilient’ network.

936 As citizen journalism was main source of information, Ali Bouazizi’s ‘white lies’ ‘became the master frame’, winning in a ‘frame contest’ among competing frames (Ryan 1991). The result was a united sense of identity and shared injustice between the population and the Ben Ali regime.

937 There was also at work a potent combination of collective action and connective action (more personalised, ‘an act of personal expression [via] trusted relationships [, e.g. via Facebook], Bennett and Segerberg 2012).

937 In conclusion, Tunisian activists managed to bridge the class and geographical divides through three main mechanisms:

1) an archetypal image (the self-immolation) turned from a ‘non-event of the poor’ to a ‘public spectacle’

2) frame alignment via a master frame that appealed to whole society, fostering a sense of injustice and unity

3) activated hybrid media network to attain both collective and connective action.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: