Social Media, Revolution and Historical Consciousness in Tunisia and Egypt
"Tremble all ye oppressors of the world!"
Be warned that the title of this blog hints at its ambitious scope: the relationship between the kinds of communication available and the range of actions achievable. What can history tell us about the spirit of revolution and its effective transmission between individuals and between nations?
Let me say at the outset that I value immensely the opportunities afforded by new media and social media. But I would not claim to be an unqualified cyber-evangelist, and I tend not to confuse virtual and real worlds. But the question of technological hype and social hyperactivity being mixed up with the evolving situation of hyper revolution and regime change is a most interesting one.
Against the geektech utopians we need to assert that social media is not innately liberal or liberating. Web 2.0 has helped to create and promote opportunities for paedophiles and depraved pornographers; to support an economy of cheap and unpaid labour; to exacerbate bullying and abuse; it has served to counter and unmask many of these shameful activities.
On balance, social media may have positive tendencies, but the wisdom of crowds is not always wisdom. A short time separates the heroic Robespierres from the heroic Napoleans, the idealistic socialist liberators from the totalitarian Stalinists.
History shows that free communication is the first casualty of movements for reform. Moreover, the proof of a revolutionary climate can be demonstrated by the counter-revolutionary measures need to control and contain it. The 1789 French Revolution resulted in strict measures in Britain against liberals and free-thinkers, with arrests, censorship, imprisonment, and the suspension of habeas corpus, all forming part of the ‘terror’ that was a response to the terrors of revolution. Liberalism breeds a counterweight of reactionary forces geared to the defence of privilege and tradition.
The cautionary words of discredited war-mongers such as Tony Blair, on the need to avoid change, and maintain peace at all costs, gloss over the regime of terror that has dominated Egypt for forty years. And how quick are the Western liberals, as Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, to retreat from democracy, for fear of the election, or popularity of candidates who support radical, fundamental, traditional, or fantasy Islam (depending on your political/religious perspective.)
In Egypt, the regime’s switching off the internet, and hijacking mobile communications solely for its own use, argues for the dangerous efficacy of new media and telecommunications. These are supported by the force of traditional new media (film and photography of events, eyewitness reports) which have dominated our screens and newspapers for the last month. Footage of bloody faces; youths hurling stones; chanting, or being shot dead; is still more newsworthy than pictures of someone clicking ‘Join’ on a Facebook Group.
Yet the networking of isolated youth into organised rebellion was clearly assisted by the virtual assemblies and meetings of like minded individuals that social media facilitates. But we must proceed cautiously and recall that we are dealing with a social media that serves corporate and commercial interests as it gathers data about us in myriad ways in order to channel our choices and desires. There is a sinister side to social media now, and in the future, as ‘monetization’ proceeds.
More disturbing still has been the ease with which authorities have been able to identify and round up rebels and dissenters and their fellow travellers based on texts, tweets and Facebook affiliations. Authoritarian regimes relish information abundance as much as their radical opponents. Virtual freedom gives way to violent real-world oppression.
For those debating the Jasmine and Twitter Revolutions there have been crossed lines as well as real differences. While net sceptic Evgeny Morozov appears to accept the organizational role of new media in planning actions and resistance to authoritarian and corrupt regimes, his main point about the effectiveness of Twitter hinges on the criterion that it must produce a change in American hearts and souls, and in US foreign policy, in order to be judged to be adequate to its revolutionary claims and credentials:
‘getting Americans to care is likely to push Washington to care as well. This in itself can create powerful incentives for dictators to play by the rules or exit peacefully’
‘As I deconstruct the original hype behind the "Twitter Revolutions" in Iran and especially Moldova, their real promise (aside, of course, from liberating the country from oppressive rulers) seemed to lie in using social media as some kind of a Trojan horse to get their countries onto the front pages of American newspapers - and then, hopefully, on the top of Washington's agenda’ (Evgeny Morozov’s Blog, 14th January 2011)
Setting aside the delusional sense that mass popular opinion in the US could ever be well informed, and the delusional implication that American foreign policy is necessarily or even potentially a force for good, it would be more helpful to understand the value and effectiveness of new media for the Tunisian and Egyptian people. A liberal intelligentsia demand constitutional reform and regime change; banned faith groups demand rights and the poor protest against poverty and inequality. Such, in different degrees, has been the revolutionary climate in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in the history of revolutions from Paris to St Petersburg.
The technology of communication has always been crucial for political, social and cultural transformation. The printing press replaced the medieval scriptorium and in time led to religious reformation and the notion of free conscience, the individual, and rights. Pamphlet wars and graphic satire were a battleground in British culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The popular press and meetings in the new coffee houses established a new political and economic urban middle class.
It was interesting to read The Guardian’s reports on the Tahrir Square protestors engaged in a Greek style direct democracy by cheering and shows of hands as they map out the precarious new model for a potential new regime based around constitutional rights.
As protests continue and talks are held in secret, the spirit of reform, flashing from screen to screen and tweet to tweet, stalks the global consciousness. Who can say whether that spirit and its virtual hopes will triumph?
But we know that true revolutions are viral and irrepressible, and the actors are more than faintly aware of their heroic roles in the making and march of history.
I conclude my thoughts on an unconcluded chapter of history by offering a selection of quotations from British writers who responded to the events in France; with the sense that their words as relevant today as they were two centuries ago:
I will proclaim my principles, because I am sure if mankind would but act candidly and fairly, and avow the genuine feelings of their hearts, that system of terror and tyranny which has so long subjugated the nations of Europe, must fade and shrink away without a struggle -- without an individual victim. --I glory in the principles of the French Revolution! I exult in the triumphs of reason! I am an advocate for the rights of man!
(John Thellwall 1795)
What an eventful period this is! I am thankful that I have lived to see it; and I could almost say, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation. I have lived to see a diffusion of knowledge, which has undermined superstition and error -- I have lived to see the rights of men better understood than ever; and nations panting for liberty, which seem to have lost the idea of it. I have lived to see 30 MILLIONS of people, indignant and resolute, spurning at slavery, and demanding liberty with an irresistible voice.
(Richard Price 1789)
After sharing in the benefits of one revolution, I have been spared to be witness to two other revolutions, both glorious. And now methinks I see the love for liberty catching and spreading, a general amendment beginning in human affairs; the dominion of kings changed for the dominion of laws, and the dominion of priests giving way to the dominion of reason and conscience.
(Richard Price 1789)
Be encouraged, all ye friends of freedom, and writers in its defense! The times are auspicious. Your labours have not been in vain. Behold kingdoms, admonished by you, starting from sleep, breaking their fetters, and claiming justice from their oppressors! Behold, the light you have struck out, after setting America free, reflected to France, and there kindled into a blaze that lays despotism in ashes, and warms and illuminates EUROPE!
(Richard Price 1789)
Tremble all ye oppressors of the world! Take warning all ye supporters of slavish governments . . . . Call no more reformation, innovation. You cannot hold the world in darkness. Struggle no longer against increasing light and liberality. Restore to mankind their rights; and consent to the correction of abuses, before they and you are destroyed together.
(Richard Price 1789)
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)