From Short Waves to Flash Mobs

Watch out Big Brother. In the digital era, Arab dictators aren’t the only ones who will be thrown on their heels.

Protest in Cairo.
A youth films the aftermath of a tear gas volley fired by police on protesters near Tahrir Square on Nov. 23, 2011 in Cairo

Photograph by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Like many Egyptians, Ramy Nagy learned about the uprising against Hosni Mubarak and his regime on Facebook and Twitter. A Cairo-born Internet entrepreneur, Nagy runs an Arabic-language video-sharing startup, Medeo, whose website suddenly flooded with videos of anti-government protests posted by cellphone-toting Egyptians. Nagy does not claim that social networks like his own mobilized or sparked the revolution that ultimately toppled Mubarak’s oppressive rule. “People needed to make real, dangerous decisions for any of this to happen,” he said.

But social media did offer a crucial way around the censored state media, which downplayed and even ridiculed the early crowds gathering in Tahrir Square. “Social media—Facebook, Twitter, and sharing sites—played a significant role in spreading news about the protests, violence, and violations in a real-time fashion that was not available through traditional media within the 18 days of the uprising,” he said. “This fast, widespread reporting influenced people’s perceptions of how to gauge the success and influence of the protests. The traditional outlets reported things like ‘a few people protested at Tahrir Square today,’ but you got a very different story from the thousands of people on Facebook and Twitter who were posting real-time images and information. This invited people in to participate.”

Nagy’s perspective, so recently dismissed as cyber-naiveté, suddenly look like the tip of an iceberg. Since Mubarak’s ouster, hand-held devices armed with Internet access, video cameras, and social media software have challenged the status quo from Beijing to Yangoon, from the pre-election streets of Moscow to the battered Syrian city of Homs.

In instance after instance, technologies designed for daily communication or research have adapted to a new task—exposing the malfeasance and incompetence of governments and the increasing irrelevance of traditional media to the average person.

In the past decade, this trend has built slowly, proving true in natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and the 2010 quakes in Chile and Haiti), at war (the hanging of Saddam, the brutalities of Abu Ghraib, the WikiLeaks video of a U.S. army helicopter killing a Reuters cameraman), and in moments of revolution (Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and its follow-up in 2009, Iran’s suppressed Green Revolution of 2009, and the so-called Twitter Revolution in Moldova in the same year).

But the technological challenge to modern government—repressive or otherwise—became clear during the Arab Spring, when in December 2010, the release by WikiLeaks of secret U.S. diplomatic cables confirmed the depths of corruption in Tunisia’s regime. It took only a few well-placed tweets to fill the streets thereafter.

These events occurred in vastly different countries with a variety of political and economic systems. Yet all these governments found suddenly that the old rules that had allowed them to leverage journalistic access to power or remote disaster zones had suddenly changed. The indomitable power of information flowing straight from an eyewitness source to a mass audience has undone centuries of government news management (or, in some cases, censorship) capabilities, not to mention the traditional media outlets. Meanwhile, the added power of networks of opinionated dissidents and self-appointed watchdogs has added bite to social media’s bark, throwing Big Brother back on his heels.

As recently as the late 1990s, back when “revolutions were televised,” mobilizing thousands of people to oppose an autocratic  government involved months of furtive meetings, any one of which might be penetrated by the regime’s security services and lead to sweeping arrests; the loss of jobs; or in the most brutal cases, jail, torture, and death. Even if you successfully brought demonstrators into the street, there was considerable risk that the protests would be crushed without the outside world ever knowing. Even today, large uprisings and demonstrations that occur in China’s vast interior can take weeks or months to make the news. One must assume that some—in countries like China, Cuba, North Korea, and elsewhere—are simply crushed before they ever cause a ripple.

Beginning in the late 1980s, the widespread adoption of satellite broadcasts by news networks changed this a bit, but only if the network had sophisticated equipment based in the country and access to the event in question. When CNN beamed back live images of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the first Gulf War in 1991, it profoundly changed the way the public, governments, the military, and the media approached global crises. Satellite broadcasting changed the relationship between media, government, and protester and made CNN the envy of its competitors. CNN’s unique ability to show what was happening in real time transformed its journalists into the arbiters of international opinion in times of crisis. Washington says Saddam has fled Baghdad? What does CNN say? Saddam claims last night’s raid killed civilians and destroyed a “baby milk factory?” What does CNN say? They didn’t always get it right, but CNN—and later the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and others—changed the dynamics of international events. For those attempting to challenge a tyranny, it was essential that the images be seen via satellite.

Still, television broadcasters represented a single, unidirectional node: their cameras showed live images in real time, but the audience was a passive spectator. Also, the networks still had to kowtow to authorities, lest they lose satellite uplinks or have their visas revoked. Ultimately, the world’s governments and military commanders learned to manage the problem—throwing CNN and Al Jazeera out as soon as trouble started in some cases, jamming their signals, or, more subtly, insisting on “embedding journalists,” as in the case of the US military in Iraq, a practice meant to provide some access while preventing them from roaming all over the battlefield.

Compare this approach to the avalanche of information that now quickly accompanies any major international event. Since roughly the start of the 21st century, major events—the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2004 South Asian tsunami, the railway bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005—were all captured instantaneously in eyewitness video and text accounts that were rushed to the world via cellphone, Internet, and social networks. Every person with a phone becomes the world’s witness, if not a journalist. From one node in the Gulf War, the number now hits the millions. And unlike television, radio, and print reports, which still flow mostly toward the mass audience, filtered through editors and producers, the new template elevates the “conversation” above the level of information. Viewers and readers now see the raw data as it streams in and can engage in conversation with those sending it, cheering them on or arguing against them.

Even before would-be revolutionaries applied these new capabilities, the cellphone made its mark thanks to people victimized by disasters, both man-made and natural. Cellphones raised the first unheeded warnings of the Sept. 11 hijackings, as terrified airline passengers reported flying below the tops of skyscrapers moments before meeting their fate. Once the attacks began, even though many cellphone networks went down due to the volume of calls, tens of thousands of images, videos, and text reports of the unfolding nightmare became instantly available, even if the means of harvesting all this information had yet to be invented. The 2004 tsunami—perhaps the ultimate international demonstration of the cellphone effect before social networking sites joined in—indicated the extent to which the traditional vetting and production of both journalism and government intelligence had been overtaken by technology. Hundreds of thousands of people proved adept at providing rich detail very quickly about events that overwhelmed the information-processing ability of even the biggest and best traditional outlets—the BBC, CNN, and the New York Times, for instance. All three quickly ran up the white flag, bowing to the new reality, and put their “citizen media” output front and center in their coverage.

Media hype about Twitter or Facebook “revolutions” may overstate the role of technology, as Google’s Jared Cohen and others, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have suggested. Yet the extent to which technology has undermined a government’s ability to control its citizens cannot be overstated. As a historical milestone, the digital revolution is profound. Even World War I, which spelled doom for absolute monarchies from Germany to Russia to the Ottoman Empire, did less to empower average citizens than Nokia, Motorola, Blackberry, and Apple did—not to mention Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the legions of young activists determined to put all that power to use. After all, those early 20th-century monarchies simply gave way to new elites—industrialists, military men, and left-wing ideologues, most of whom employed the same levers to control their populations as their royal predecessors: police forces, censorship, assassinations of troublemakers, bans on political gatherings, and when useful, beatings, torture, and death.

Even shutting down the Internet, which the security services in Syria, Libya, and Egypt all tried at various stages of those uprisings, cannot prevent determined cyber-dissidents from organizing. In Libya, rebels used satellite telephones to upload videos of violence by Qaddafi’s government against protesters. In Egypt, software developers managed to cobble together an alternative Internet—a peer-to-peer network that bypassed the state-controlled one—when the regime began blocking access. And from China to Belarus to Cuba, dissidents have used updated versions of time-tested samizdat methods developed to smuggle prodemocracy writings out from behind the Iron Curtain, downloading videos, images, and text onto tiny USB flash drives and mailing them or smuggling them abroad. Syrians smuggle USB drives across the northern border to Turkey and, thanks to robust connections with relatively free Lebanon, kept a steady flow of images and information streaming into cyberspace even through the darkest moments of the Assad regime’s crackdown. With the U.S. government and other public and private entities funding research into ways of keeping such dissidents just ahead of the censors, the information “arms race” between regimes and their subjects so far appears to give a lopsided advantage to the people.

Similarly, China’s meticulously censored websites keep a tight lid on topics like Tibetan independence, challenges to the Communist Party, and environmental disasters. In the past year, the state has lost several recent battles, most notably when the state reacted to the derailing of a high-speed train in the summer of 2011 by censoring coverage and actually burying entire train cars to cover up the evidence of shoddy construction. Within hours, the social network Sina Weibo, set up by China’s government as a controllable alternative to micro-blogging sites like Twitter and Facebook, exploded with outrage. The government quaked as citizens engaged in a full-throated denunciation of mind-control techniques, along with accusations of lies and corruption in the high-speed rail network, one of China’s showcase technology projects. This flexing of micro-blog muscles forced China’s Ministry of Railways into a rare apology, and Premier Wen Jiabao was dispatched to quell the rising anger directed at the regime. Conservatives in the ruling party demanded censorship of the micro-blogs, and voices within Sina Weibo and its main rival, Qzone, suddenly began agitating for an end to anonymous posting—the main thing allowing frank conversation about politics on the platforms. These “voices” were shouted down, branded state agents. Said one response on Sina Weibo: “Let’s crowd around the rapist who issues appeals against sex before marriage.” Today, the micro-blogs continue to grow in size and influence, as do China’s Facebook equivalents, Kaixen and Renren.

For America, on one level, this represents an enormous victory. About half the world’s population—some 5 billion people—possess either a cellphone or a computer with some form of social networking capability or access to the Internet, according to the OpenNet Initiative, a nonprofit project devoted to helping users in repressive countries circumvent government efforts to control Internet usage. Facebook, along with Twitter and blogging, texts and cellphones, satellite news broadcasts and the Internet itself, began in America. The democratization of politics that each of these technologies and software innovations has unleashed is truly a Jeffersonian moment—a world free to seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet the United States, by virtue of the fact that it has more interest than most in maintaining the current status quo, will struggle with the aspirations its creative side has unleashed this time around. The Arab world’s Jasmine Revolutions will be a good deal harder for the United States to co-opt than the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In spite of the “Made in America” labels on Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies, or the fact that many Egyptians and Tunisians looked to the U.S. civil rights movement and its constitutional guarantees as a model, a generation of cynical, self-interested U.S. policy in the Middle East ensures that the United States itself gets little credit. The technology revolution has, indeed, empowered the weak, and one of the powers they first chose to snub was the hegemon. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first high-level American official to visit Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster, got the cold shoulder from many Egyptian youth movement leaders, who posted on their Facebook page that their refusal was “based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the U.S. administration in the Middle East.”

In the digital era, the days when a venal state-controlled media could shape mass opinion with outright lies and omissions are surely numbered. But just as surely, the days when western governments could ignore popular sentiment and cut deals with detached, autocratic elite are also coming to an end. In this new, networked age, the views of common people matter nearly as much as those of their government. Contrary to the confident proclamations of many western commentators, the bell does not toll only for despots—it tolls for any power that thinks it can speak on behalf of humanity while that very humanity has the power to tweet its own opinions right back.

From The Reckoning by Michael Moran. © 2012 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.