What Motorola, Blackberry, and Apple Have Done for Freedom

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 10 2012 7:42 AM

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.

Michael Moran Michael Moran

Michael Moran is an author and geopolitical analyst.

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.

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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.