“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." -- Mahatma Gandhi
Decades of dictatorial rule didn’t crumble overnight. Before the world’s mainstream media woke up to the story; tweets, photos and vedios started popping up from Tunisia warning of what was to come. A fruit seller had set himself on fire on December 18th and suddenly reactions on twitter exploded, following the #tag SIDIBOUZID, photos and vedios followed showing students protesting and police abuses. As the messages went viro, protests broke out on the streets and it saw solidarity from world over. Beginning of the revolution was unfolding and the mainstream media was unprepared, with hardly any reporters in Tunisia. Tunisia government started hacking into facebook accounts, protestors called for help from the community. Another #tag appeared; ANONYMOUS. Within matter of hours Anonymous launched operation Tunisia. Paralyzing the President’s site, several key ministries and crashing the stock exchange. The group also shared ‘Cyber war survival guide’. Government quickly countered with a fishing operation, stealing facebook and email passwords to spy on activists and obliterate online dissent. But tweets went on to spread documenting society’s breakdown. Blood spilled on road and protest grew. On January 12th with the regime succumbing to the revolt, time magazine finally found the news.
End of December online voices of dissent were heard in Egypt.Hosni Mubarak in his wildest of dreams would have never imagined the rise of a new Pharoah, who living outside Egypt and without any direct organization or help could single handedly ignite the passions of 8 million oppressed Egyptians triggering what today we call ‘revolution in Egypt’.
In June 2010, Khaled Mohammed Sayed a computer engineer died under suspicious circumstances, allegedly brutally killed by the Egyptian police. Photos of his disfigured corpse flooded the net and a facebook account ‘We are all Khaled Saeed’ saw hundred and thousands of Egyptians pouring their emotions. Behind FB account was this savvy internet activist and head of Google Marketing Head of Middle East, Wael Said Abbas Ghonim. A new hero of revolution was born out of its mother; new age social media.
A question that bewilder us, could have internet and social media helped the uprisings at Tiananmen square in China or could it have helped India gain independence earlier than it really got, if it existed then. Will social media play a relevant catalyst in the domino which started in Tunisia followed by Egypt and now spiraling to Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, back to China and Libya? Perhaps we can only hypothesize and look at retrospect’s and wait for the future to unfold.
The cold war triggered a race for supremacy which led to the invention of internet, and now riding on this wave is social media. It’s a genie to the Egyptian revolutionaries and Frankenstein to the US authorities cracking down on the ideology of Al-Qaida. Unknowingly though social media has become a weapon of mass mobilization (WMB). Geeks are taking on dictatorial regimes, bloggers are voices of dissent and social networks are rallying forces for social justice.
On a afternoon in 1960 four college students in North Carolina sat down for lunch at downtown Greenboro. They were freshers at a black college. They asked for coffee and the reply was ‘We don’t serve Negroes here’, overseeing things was a photographer from Greensboro Record. It took a month’s time for the protest to spill over to nearby cities finally roping in the agitating thousands. It didn’t happen with sms, blogging or tweeting. It wasn’t the age of internet. Speed at which the resentment spread in North Carolina and the speed at which it happened in a span of just 15 days in Egypt is a real case for introspection, especially focusing on the speed of mobilization and the spread.
Social media provides a form of peer to peer communication, it’s cheap and ubiquitous and acts as a change agent, its fast but heavily dependent on centralized infrastructure. Till a century ago writing and print media were the change communication infrastructure. It provided the power to new socializing eventually leading to new social systems but working on a different premise. Once print medium came to existence the monopoly of truth belonging to religious infrastructures and feudal system was challenged leading to balance of power.
It is important to realize that transitions take time and the effects of social media accelerates the historical process but it is just a tool of struggle and will be used by opposing social forces, each seeking to use its advantages. China at the moment employs over 40,000 net-cops who monitor and censure any activity against the government.
A point which is undeniable is the new age media has democratization effects which were missing in the traditional print medium. If the privileged want to remain dominant they will have to seek new ways and form a new social contract in the world order of 21st century. Blackout of internet (internet and telephones in Egypt was blacked out by the regime for 5 days, how it was done by the Egyptian government is still being studied) was used as tactic, but in itself it crippled the regimes own communication systems which paralyzed its repressive actions.
Back again in China we hear about a resurrection of the uprising of Tiananmen square of 1989, with latest reports coming in for Jasmine revolution. As ChinaWorker site reports ‘the call on Chinese language micro-blogging sites for gatherings on February 20, to support a “Jasmine Revolution” brought forth an overwhelming pre-emptive show of force by security forces. Police were mobilised in more than 20 cities. Dozens of lawyers, activists and dissidents were arrested, and internet censorship was stepped up. The mysterious online initiative, which first surfaced on US-based Boxun.com, sought to emulate the revolutionary movements in the Arab world and put forward the slogans, we want food, we want work, we want housing, we want fairness” – all of which are common grievances in China. Relieved by Sunday’s no show by protesters in most cities, official media mocked the small turnouts in Beijing and Shanghai as no more than street theatre. But the real attitude of the ruling Communist Party was spelt out by Li Datong, a retired editor with the party-run China Youth Daily: The party is very, very nervous, way beyond their normal level of anxiety and is frantically stocking its state technical armories”
In general, to oppress an uprising the first physical target is its leader. Networking mediums offer people to find common value and goals and form a new horizontal socialization structure with no leader in the forefront of tirade, or should we say every participant is a leader. So it becomes difficult to physically target the leader as the leader here is an idealog. So the medium becomes the target. China is very efficient in managing media censorship; the degree and sophistication of internet and telecommunications controls exceeds anything seen elsewhere. Mobile SMS messages and not just the internet can be filtered by authorities to block keywords and to monitor and intercept those calling for mobilisation.
Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, social networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority which otherwise makes it weak and somewhat slow. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. But there is an advantage; the structure makes social networks enormously resilient and adaptable in low-risk situations. Wikipedia is a perfect example. It doesn’t have an editor who directs and corrects each entry. The effort of putting together each entry is self-organized. If every entry in Wikipedia were to be erased tomorrow, the content would swiftly be restored, because that’s what happens when a network of thousands spontaneously devote their time to a task.
In the root of Egyptian revolution was a strong and universally accepted cause of deprivation, humiliation and urge for emancipation which made people from every section of the society step on to the streets for peaceful protest, breaking from the bondage of fear and demanding what is legitimate. The protestors outnumbered police, army was called in but no shot was fired as it couldn’t fire on its own people, much respected Al Bardia landed in Egypt but could not hijack the cause and claim to be its leader, communication networks including internet was crippled but by then the movement was irrepressible.
Niomi Klein says that the catalyst of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were not against the economic reforms but of the nature of it. The protest was led only by students and intellectuals and was largely undemocratic without one focal cause, the labour class was not involved and the largely uninformed. Though the protestors numbered over 1,00,000, they could not sustain the force of the junta which also controlled the media. Things are different now in China, communism today is based on the premise of capitalism, and Chinese is the second most requested language on internet with a share of 23% and users growing at a rate of 10%. A living student leader of Tiananmen square uprising Wang Dan says ‘ I think the student movements in future should be firmly based on something solid, such as democratization of campus life or realization of civil rights according to constitution,…otherwise the result is a chaos.’
Wiki leaks coined a new form of scientific journalism which allows you to read the news story and corroborate facts with the original document available online. Allowing you to judge if the story is true? did the journalist report it correctly?. As Julian Assange says, democracies need a strong media and media helps government honest. In 1958 Rupert Murdoch said ‘ In the race between secrecy and truth, it seems inevitable that truth will always win’.
In Egypt first the internet was blocked, then the mobiles and then landlines but the press was allowed to function. This show how the establishments have captured and monopolized traditional media while social media and internet is still beyond their absolute control. Few days back Obama called for people’s freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom to access to internet should be guaranteed. It was nothing short of an international rhetoric wherein in the US, News channel Al Jazeera English is banned.
Malcom Gladwell says the platforms of social media are built around weak ties, unlike the four students of Greenboro who were real friends all talked about the discrimination for over a month before starting the protest. The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend .Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter observes, our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.
Gladwell further says for activism to succeed it needs a centralized network, discipline and hierarchy if it is going to challenge organized establishments. Social media is not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character, of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
Adam Gopnik in his article How internet gets inside us’ writes, the idea, for instance, that the printing press rapidly gave birth to a new order of information, democratic and bottom-up, is a cruel cartoon of the truth. If the printing press did propel the Reformation, one of the biggest ideas it propelled was Luther’s newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism. And what followed the Reformation wasn’t the Enlightenment, a new era of openness and freely disseminated knowledge. What followed the Reformation was, actually, the Counter-Reformation, which used the same means—i.e., printed books—to spread ideas about what jerks the reformers were, and unleashed a hundred years of religious warfare. In the seventeen-fifties, more than two centuries later, Voltaire was still writing in a book about the horrors of those other books that urged burning men alive in auto-da-fé. Buried in Tooby’s little parenthetical—“where they exist”—are millions of human bodies. If ideas of democracy and freedom emerged at the end of the printing-press era, it wasn’t by some technological logic but because of parallel inventions, like the ideas of limited government and religious tolerance, very hard won from history.
A net skeptic Evgeny Morozo, author of ‘The Net Delusion’, says revolution takes any tool which is available. In the Baltic revolution post and telegraph was used, in the uprising in Iran in 1979 tape recorder was used to smuggle sermons. Internet as a force as such does not mean it serves the oppressed; it serves the oppressor as well. The protest in Egypt in 2008 didn’t work out because the army wasn’t with it, and neither the Syrians. So it majorly depends on the political situation.
Democracy is not just about changing Presidents, Democracy is power for the people who want to change the system and debate the constitution on facebook. As one Egyptian says ‘one general has left leaving behind five more’. Did the Egyptian revolution bear the fruit it really intended, well it is yet to be seen.
Professor Emily Bell, Director digital communication at the Columbia University believes, the role of mainstream media is to hold power accountable, to be able to concentrate efforts against these kinds of inflextion and pressure points in governance and in corporations. Mainstream media is still respected and accessible to the governments which the internet social media might not have.
Common cause, overcoming fear, strong bonding, organization and its hierarchies are these the only factor to trigger a compulsive revolution?
India’s independence struggle started with first uprising 1857, yet it took close to another century to get independence. Indian independence movement was fought by wide spectrum of organizations, individuals, princely states, political organizations, philosophies, and movements, various national and regional campaigns, agitations and efforts of both non violent and militant philosophy.
India before the British rule was not a single state but a host of princely states with its populace having diverse religious, social and, cultural diversity, thus giving the British rule the potent weapon to ‘ Divide and rule’. Most of the initial uprisings were organized at regional levels and lacked national cause or appeal, until the Mahatma Gandhi supported by the Indian National Congress a national political party with non violent movements.
It took the Mahatma years to unite people under one banner of protest. We wonder what could have happened if the Mahatma tweeted? Would have India got independence earlier?