When Parisians stormed the Bastille in 1789, political communications centered primarily on newspapers and face-to-face conversations. News-gathering was localized, and it took weeks for political developments to spread around the world.
Now, political protest has shifted to the Internet. The role of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter in recent Iranian street demonstrations shows the power of digital technologies. Because of their decentralized nature, these tools empower grass-roots activists and help them bypass government authorities.
Protesters employ cell phones, text messages, mobile cameras, blogs, and social websites to get news out to the rest of the world. One person used his mobile to film the death of Neda, a young woman shot to death by police during a Tehran street rally. That graphic video was posted to YouTube and, within days, had been seen by millions of viewers.
Even while authorities censor news, arrest journalists, shut down satellite transmissions, and prohibit television coverage of rallies, new communications tools allow dissidents to conduct interviews, distribute pictures, and send contemporaneous videos instantly around the world.
In an era of citizen journalism and democratized news flows, it is impossible for governments to control information flows from the top. They can pull down Internet sites and slow the flow of news. But as pointed out recently by Secretary of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, government officials “can’t draw the net tight enough to stop everything.”
Americans generally feel digital technologies have benefitted the Iranian struggle for political and human rights. When asked in a national poll about the role of Twitter in Iran protests, 51 percent felt it has been a positive force.
At the same time that Twitter and Facebook facilitate grass-roots communications, though, these technologies sow the seeds for future political repression. Due to Internet “cookies” and other tracking devices, visitors to social media sites leave digital footprints that are easy for authorities to compile.
The Iranian police already have collected laptops and cell phone memory cards that document past transmissions. Through this and other evidence, they determine who transferred unfavorable videos, conducted hostile interviews, and signed up to become Facebook friends of opposition presidential candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi.
What authoritarian governments need more than anything else in a crackdown is lists of people sympathetic to opposition leaders. Through digital technologies, it is easy to come up with names and Internet addresses of grass-roots sympathizers.
New technologies create the option for governments to engage in digital propaganda of their own. There have been news reports of government officials hijacking Moussavi’s Facebook page and sending inaccurate information to his followers in an attempt to confuse the opposition.
In the digital era, technology cuts many different ways. New tools help protesters communicate with the world. But they also enable authorities to identify dissidents and track them down.
On their own, digital technologies cannot produce revolutions. To generate fundamental change, it still takes strong leadership, powerful ideas, and people willing to risk arrest and imprisonment.