Facebook, Twitter, and the Arab Revolutions
by Gary North
The dictator of Tunisia was overthrown in less than one month after being in power for 23 years. There is no question about how opponents of his regime were able to topple it. Two words describe it: Facebook, Twitter. These two social networking sites enabled protesters to take to the streets, organize the opposition, recruit new protesters, and overcome the police force and the military.
There is no question that if the government had chosen to use machine guns to cut down the protesters, it probably would have succeeded in suppressing the revolt. If it had combined machine guns with switching off the Internet, it would have been able to cut the protest down, both literally and digitally. But to do that, the regime would have had to act extremely fast, and it would have risked coming under international condemnation. It would also have created a permanent opposition, ready to revolt again.
The opposition forces are now connected, yet not organized. This has never happened before in recorded history. The masses can communicate with like-minded people for the price of a computer and an Internet connection.
In the good old days of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, the leaders would have applied that degree of force without a moment’s hesitation. But this is not the era of the Soviet Union. We are living in a digital age, and almost nothing can be concealed from the public for very long. If a tyrant is weak, this will become common knowledge. There are few Goliaths and a lot of Davids online.
It is the power of the communications networks, when coupled with a willingness on the part of protesters to gather in the streets, that spells a period of crisis for every autocratic regime on earth. The autocrats have seen in January 2011 that it is difficult to put a lid on any unorganized protests. The organizing did not come from some little group that can be infiltrated or arrested. This was as close to a spontaneous protest as anything we have seen in modern times.
The ability of the social networks to organize a protest almost overnight, because people of similar beliefs and commitments are in close communication with others, has completely changed the nature of political resistance and revolution. This system of revolution toppled a middle eastern dictatorship in less than a month. It threatens to topple two more before the end of February: Yemen and Egypt. We have entered into a new period political resistance.
From an economic standpoint, this is easy to explain. When the cost of political mobilization falls, more is demanded. When people can mobilize thousands of protesters without any centrally directed agency and without any organization that can be infiltrated and subverted, they are in a position to impose enormous political damage on any existing regime, as long as the regime really is corrupt, tyrannical, and hated. When a dictator can control the society for 23 years, and get 89% of the vote when he runs for office, you can be confident that he is hated. It is corrupt. Nothing survives that long in a democratic society with 89% support.
The revolt that is taking place in Egypt is a direct result of the success of the revolt in Tunisia. The social networking organizations are again at the center of the revolt. There is a similar revolt going on in Yemen. Across the Arab world, it is becoming obvious that protesters have a tool available that will enable them to cause enormous discomfort for the tyrannical regimes of the region.
Regimes have established systems of control, including thought control, based on the price of communications in the era of print media. They can control paper, ink, and distribution. They cannot control telecommunications through the Internet without shutting down the Internet entirely. This is what Egypt did on Friday, January 28.
Because Egypt had fewer than a dozen major Internet service providers, the government was able to shut down the Internet at one time. The government also shut down landline telephone communications in some regions of the country. This was not simply an attack on the Internet. The government had to shut down other forms of telecommunications.
The difficulty that the government faces is obvious: it cannot continue to keep the Internet and landline telephone service from the general public. The modern economy is becoming increasingly dependent upon the Internet. It has already become highly dependent upon the telephone system. It is not possible for any government to intervene into the delivery of telecommunications services without creating enormous problems for the economy. Any government that attempts to do so on a long-term basis is going to find its tax revenues falling, more people becoming alienated from the government’s policies, and more opportunities for troublemakers to increase the amount of trouble. At some point, the government will have to reestablish Internet services and landline telephone service. At that point, it will probably face an even more alienated population than when the protests began.
The governments of the world are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If they allow the Internet to stay up, and if the social networking systems continue to recruit people to go into the streets, a corrupt government will face a rapidly escalating crisis. Its legitimacy is being called into question, and the only way to restore order under these conditions is to begin to shoot people. Tear gas is no longer working.
Here is a video of the riots in Cairo. The government had an armored vehicle rolling through the streets, and it was firing canisters of tear gas. People were not only paying no attention, they were kicking the canisters across the street into areas in which there were no protesters.
I have been subjected to a very mild administration of tear gas, when I was a high school student, and a local police chief was showing a few of us what it was like. He had an aerosol container of it, and he held his finger on the button for only a few seconds. We were perhaps 10 feet away, and it was unpleasant. I cannot imagine anybody staying in the streets when the police are firing canisters. But that is what I saw in the video.
Governments have become fearful of bringing out the machine guns, for fear of international condemnation. Dozens of people will be videotaping the event and will immediately upload the videos to a satellite, which will spread around the world in a matter of seconds. The low cost of telecommunications is making it possible for protesters to expose the policies of their governments so that all the world can see.
Universally, governments do not want exposure of what they are doing. They want to control the flow of information, and they want to be able to spin it rapidly. They can do neither when the Internet is operating, because the images are out there so rapidly, and picked up by the news media so rapidly. The governments cannot spin away the visual information. They are caught in the situation attributed to Groucho Marx, when he declared to someone who had interrupted his meeting with an attractive young woman: “What are you going to believe? Me or your own eyes?”
The fact that this is taking place in the Arab countries indicates that the whole region is vulnerable to more revolutionary resistance. The telecommunications network is well developed in all of these nations, and the people who use them are educated. They have enough money to plug into the Internet. A lot of them are college graduates. Worse, they are unemployed college grads. They understand the media, and they are in social network arrangements, connection by connection, with thousands of similarly unemployed, equally educated people. Unemployed intellectuals who are young have always been a threat to established tyrants. These are the people who have relatively little to lose, and they think they have great deal to gain, by taking to the streets. When they are not shut down fast, they are emboldened. They assume that nothing can stop them, because tear gas and rubber bullets are not so great a threat.
When people around the world can see street protesters, this encourages thousands of other protesters, who had attempted to sit the fence, to get off the fence and go into the streets. There is safety in numbers. When they can see on television or on the web that there are thousands of people in the streets protesting, they assume that they will gain a degree of invisibility and anonymity if they join the protests. So, they leave the safety of their homes and join the protest movement. Because of social networking, this can take place so rapidly that government officials are unable to respond fast enough to put a stop to it before it is obvious that there are thousands of people in the streets.
The social networks can become a liability if the revolt fails to dislodge the existing regime. The government can use the Internet to track down those people who were activists in the early stage of the revolt. There is no way to hide your communications retroactively on Twitter and Facebook. The government is going to find out who sent out messages, and it will be able to trace the spread of these messages by means of the very technology that enabled the original protesters to recruit thousands of volunteers. But how many can the police arrest? There were too many protesters to put all of them in jail.
The people the government will have to investigate are highly educated, and have enough money to own a computer and be plugged into the Internet. These are exactly the kinds of people the government does not want to alienate. These people have connections, they have money, and they have time on their hands.
When you are talking about thousands of protesters going into the streets, you are talking about a protest without any organization. You cannot stop the organization when you cannot control a handful of the organization’s leaders. The social network system enables rapid response protesting without any clear-cut chain of command. There really is no chain of command. That is the whole point of social networking. It is horizontal; it is not vertical. To stop something from spreading, the government has got to shut the entire system down.
A SPONTANEOUS REVOLT
This is changing the nature of social protest. This has finally produced a situation in which the old rhetoric of the revolutionaries is true: the revolution is a spontaneous work of the People. There is no clandestine group of conspirators who are organizing a conspiracy in such a way that it looks like a spontaneous insurrection. Governments can deal with that kind of revolutionary organization by infiltrating the organizations at the very top. They have done this for centuries. But when revolt really is the result of the spread of rhetorically effective communications in a decentralized system of telecommunications, the government cannot cut this off in advance. It cannot arrest the organizers in the days before the great plan was about to be executed. There is no great plan, and the government has no time to react.
By speeding up the mobilization process, and by flattening it out, the protesters have been able to topple one regime and threaten two more in a matter of a month. They were able to challenge the existing political structure of approval for autocrats who have held power for decades. The ruler in Yemen has been in power for 32 years. The ruler of Egypt has been in office for almost 30 years. Yet the social networks have brought these two regimes to the edge of disintegration in a matter of days. How can governments mobilize resources to head this off at the pass, when there is no pass?
We are therefore seeing a shift in the balance of power away from centralized government, which has control over most of the print media in the country, to broad masses of people with money and computers – people who are in no way dependent upon paper, ink, and paste to put up posters. The government can react rapidly to the older media, but it cannot react as rapidly as the social networks call out the anti-government troops. The government had the edge in speed back in the days of printed manifestos and posters. That world is gone.
So, as we watch the digits undermine the foundations of Middle Eastern autocracies, we get a picture of what is likely to come in the next generation. Every government in the world is now threatened by the visual power of street demonstrators. The protests will be posted on YouTube within minutes.
None of this existed six years ago. Governments have used money, recruiting techniques, propaganda techniques, and all the rest of it for the last hundred years in terms of a particular technology. That technology is the printing press. Martin Luther created a social and religious revolution in northern Europe by means of pamphlets, broadsides, and posters with cartoons almost 500 years ago. For almost five centuries, the technology of communication did not change radically. And then, without warning, the rise of the Internet began to shift the balance of power in the direction of citizens. With the advent of the social networks, there has been a quantum leap in the ability of protesters to register their protests publicly, with no comparable increase in response time by the authorities. Telecommunications are instantaneous, and they are delivered at no marginal cost to the participants. When the price of protesting falls, more of it will be demanded. This is what is taking place today.
The only defense against this is extreme poverty. We are not seeing anything like this in Zimbabwe. Hardly anybody has a computer in Zimbabwe. Only the very rich have access to the Internet. But as soon as price competition drives down the cost of getting connected, a government faces the kind of events that have taken place over the last three weeks. When there is widespread ownership of computers and widespread participation on the Internet, the social-networking capabilities of the Internet become a major threat to the government.
THE ISSUE OF LEGITIMACY
What is at stake is government legitimacy. When it becomes obvious to a growing minority of intellectuals that the government is corrupt, it is only a matter of time before these people begin to spread the word: the government is illegitimate. The only way that a government can keep control is to elicit voluntary compliance with its laws, rules, and official pronouncements. This can cease to work very fast.
A corrupt government is perceived as legitimate only because it is so expensive to get the word out to large numbers of people, especially people with educations and money, that the government is both corrupt and vulnerable. So, the only way for a despot to survive the kinds of things that have taken place in the North African autocracies is to extend political power, educational opportunity, and employment opportunities to the broad majority of the population. Western capitalist governments have been able to do this over the past century, but the autocracies have not been able to. They are the ones that are most at risk by the spread of the Internet and social networking. In other words, the best way to avoid revolution today is to have already created a system of political power in which large numbers of people believe that they have a stake in the system and a voice in the system.
The Arab world has never done this. The leaders seemingly are incapable of doing this. They will have to rethink the entire political order in order to avoid a series of protests comparable to what is taking place over the last month. They are going to have to reform their systems of government, or else those systems will be reformed for them. Yet an autocracy that grants greater democratic participation risks the very revolutionary violence that these three governments have experienced in January. The government never reforms fast enough and on a wide enough basis to satisfy those people in society who have called for government reform. Once it is clear that the government is capitulating to the demands of reformers, the more radical reformers are encouraged to believe that the system is toppling, and therefore they renew their efforts to topple the system. This has been going on since at least the time of the French Revolution. It will escalate.
Governments understand this process of escalating resistance in the face of limited domestic reforms. This is why they resist granting any kind of significant rights to large numbers of people. They see this as lighting a fuse that is going to lead to an explosion.
There is no way that any society can grow economically without adopting the Internet. This is the wave of the future, and educated people understand this. Arab governments want to participate in economic growth that is spreading across the Third World as a result of telecommunications. They are going to have to allow their citizens to buy computers and sign up for the Internet.
As the price of doing this gets less expensive, more and more people are going to take advantage of the opportunity. This brings money, entertainment, and many of the blessings of life that millions of people across the face of the earth have wanted to experience over the past 50 years or 100 years, and were unable to do so. So, we see the rapid escalation of the spread of this new technology. It brings benefits to large numbers of people, especially educated people. Yet, as we have seen, the spread of this technology leads to resistance against policies of these autocratic and formerly poverty-stricken nations. The richer these nations get, the more dangerous the intellectuals are.
I see no way out for the world’s autocrats. One by one, these men are going to be challenged by large numbers of people who now have the means of extending the resistance. The means of economic growth now constitute a threat to the survival of every autocratic regime. Only if the autocrats become media-savvy demagogues can they hope to mobilize the people who now have access to computers and the Internet. They are going to have to appeal directly to those people if they want to avoid some sort of domestic political conflagration. Yet they have no skills in mobilizing these people, because it was not necessary in the past. Governments could buy off intellectuals, and they could also control the spread of ideas, because they had control over radio, television, and printing presses. They are losing control in all three areas. They are on the defensive in the social media.
So, the techniques of political control that have been developed over the last 200 years are being superseded rapidly by new technologies that are so inexpensive that there is no way governments can keep them from spreading. North Korea can keep them from spreading, of course, but North Korea is one of the most poverty-stricken nations in the world. Any nation that pulls the plug on the Internet and landline telephones is in effect putting a sign that says, “Welcome to the next North Korea.” No government leader wants to do this.
From the point of traditional conservatism along the lines outlined over two centuries ago by Edmund Burke, and also from the point of view of traditional libertarianism as it was outlined by Leonard Read, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray Rothbard, the development of the social networks is consistent with theory, and beneficial to the extension of liberty. The decentralized worldview of Burke, the decentralized worldview of Hayek and Mises, and the anti-government worldview of Rothbard all come together with social networking, YouTube, and e-mail.
Digital technology, because it is price competitive, penetrates the broad masses of individuals in the West. It is price competitive, and therefore is inherently decentralized. Everyone can have his own printing press in the new system. The ability of governments to control the spread of ideas is not keeping pace with the ability of the Internet to enable people to communicate ideas. The competitive system is asymmetric. This time, it is not asymmetric in favor of the government; it is asymmetric in favor of the citizens. They hold the hammer.
Yes, it is true that governments can temporarily take away the hammer. They can shut down the Internet. Anyway, small governments in the Middle East can do this. It is highly unlikely that the government could in the United States. The tendency of the system of telecommunications is to decentralize. The government that would dare to stop the spread of telecommunications is asking to lose the next election.
January 31, 2011
Copyright © 2011 Gary North