Last Night's TV - How Facebook Changed the World: the Arab Spring, BBC2; Reel History of Britain, BBC2

Rebels make all the right connections

Click to follow

There was a time when any self-respecting subversive or coup-plotter had to have one item very high on the revolution to-do list: seize the television station. Once you had control of the media you had a degree of control over how reality would unfold. But, as How Facebook Changed the World: the Arab Spring revealed, that ancient truism of insurgency may now be obsolete. And that's because in one sense the television station has already been taken before the first brick has even been thrown, distributed into the mobile phones in everyone's pocket. This is a television station you can't cordon off with a circle of tanks, and one that activists in the Arab world exploited to astounding effect this year. And Mishal Husain's fast-reaction account of the origins of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings detailed their operation in fascinating and moving detail.

Given that the people of the Arab world haven't yet finished making history you could argue that it's a bit premature to start writing it, but there's a lot to be said for catching a revolution at a moment when its ideals haven't yet had time to sour. Again and again that's what you got here – the faintly incredulous exhilaration at having achieved something that for years was simply a dream. Husain began her account with the first spark – the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller (a moment itself captured on a camera-phone) in a small rural town. In different times, that minor conflagration would have stayed local and been easy to contain. But Facebook and the internet established a connection between the rural poor and the city intellectuals who knew how to spread the information further. Slim Amamou and Aziz Amami, Tunisian bloggers and activists, posted videos of the protest on their Facebook pages and they went viral, eventually ending up on Al Jazeera, a news channel the Tunisian government couldn't control.

Social media had strategic uses too. With the government determined to prevent a critical mass of people forming for a demonstration in Tunis, the protesters had to play cat and mouse: "Every time I saw a policeman I posted it on Twitter," Amami recalled of his journey to the square where the demo was planned to take place. With others doing the same the crowd re-routed itself around the blockades, just as the internet finds its way around obstructions. Footage of people chanting for the overthrow of Ben Ali, Tunisia's kleptocrat leader, added more fuel to a fire that shone beyond the country's borders.

"It was as if a light had been switched on," an Egyptian activist told Husain, though Tunisia's example proved impossible to import without adjustments. Only six per cent of Egyptians had access to the internet, so Facebook campaigns had to be combined with a more ancient form of social networking. Activists deliberately had conversations about upcoming demonstrations in the back of cabs, confident that eavesdropping drivers would spread the word. Here, too, the courage of individuals transformed the moment: an impassioned video by a young woman called Asmaa Mahfouz went viral, encouraging others to come out in the streets. Knowing that their Facebook pages were monitored the activists posted multiple venues for a big demonstration. And then Mubarak made a serious miscalculation, closing down the internet and mobile phone networks. Without any other source of information people headed into the streets to find out what was going on, and individuals found themselves turning into a crowd. Given the courage they then displayed it seemed decidedly unfair that the title of this series should implicitly give the credit to a billion-dollar California corporation. It wasn't Facebook that changed their world. They did.

Reel History of Britain also put documentary footage and eyewitness reminiscence together to good effect, though the history has been well aged in this case. Melvyn Bragg, touring Britain with a mobile cinema, introduces people to old newsreels and archive footage that capture their experience and – occasionally – their faces too. I don't suppose every episode will be quite as emotional as this one, which concentrated on the experience of war-time evacuees, but to get through it without dropping a tear you would have to have had a heart like the Gobi desert. Even Melvyn nearly lost it when listening to Kitty's story – instructed to read out an official letter by her distracted mother and opening it to find that it was the notification of her father's death at the front. The films, being official, don't tell anything like the truth. But 60 years, on the people put that right.