It is popularly believed that the most important implement to bring to a revolution is arms; better to fight the dictator with a weapon than a slogan. But as we have learned once again in the successful uprising in Egypt, the most powerful weapon of all is information; better to fight a dictatorship with an informed citizenry that is connected by ideals and ideas.
The weapons of choice today were unimaginable when the Russian citizenry fomented their own uprising against the Soviet bloc. Facing a ban against the use of copiers (called mimeograph machines) in Russia, submerged revolutionaries would pass by hand forbidden documents and political criticisms through an elaborate underground system known as ”samizdat” (or self-publishing). As each recipient received the outlawed document, they would in turn type out multiple copies and then pass along those copies. It was a geometric, if tedious, form of communication that successfully subverted the Soviet’s efforts to stamp out revolutionary talk and organization before it exploded into a popular revolt.
As former CNN CEO Walter Isaacson observed in a recent blog on this subject, our media tools have changed radically since the days of the Cold War when our weapon of choice to circumnavigate the Iron Curtain blocking off Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were weather balloons with leaflets that we floated behind the Curtain to a citizenry that had no access to information other than what the Soviet bloc wanted them to know.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now stepping fully into the next revolutionary theater in Iran where she called on Iran to “open up” its political system. “History has shown us that repression often sows the seeds for revolution down the road,” Mrs. Clinton said in an advanced copy of her expected remarks. “Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever.”
What is different about the communications driving these revolutions is that they are not street to street or house to house as were the samizdats of a generation ago or the propaganda balloons so easily intercepted. The anger that powered Egypt’s uprising is igniting revolts throughout the Middle East and other regions of the world. The Internet is technology without ideology or borders and is fueling an unrelenting message that change is not only inevitable but can happen anywhere if the citizenry is willing to stand their ground and submit to the inevitable political backlash. Egypt’s uprising took less than three
weeks to accomplish. The NFL playoff schedule takes longer.
What remains to be seen is how these suddenly upended societies put themselves back together again and what role social media will play in building a new democratic society. The ideal of a free and democratic society is a powerful notion, but putting that society together in the aftermath of the revolution will prove much more difficult.