Communication and Revolution

February 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm 4 comments

Social media has received considerable attention amid the overthrow of Middle East autocrats. CBS News says it has tipped the regional balance and reports the State Department’s multimillion-dollar program to support dissident bloggers. Mashable examines YouTube dispatches from Morocco and Libya. A Facebook page memorializing Khaled Said, who died at the hands of Egyptian police after collecting evidence of police corruption, became an early rallying point in Mubarak’s usurption. And on the lighter side, an Egyptian named his baby daughter “Facebook” to celebrate the social media site’s role in his country’s transformation.

Social media may be a new catalyst in global affairs, but communication itself is a traditional component of revolution and conflict. In my article “Adams, Paine and Jefferson: a PR Firm,” I analyze the use of modern public relations during the American Revolution. Among the tactics discussed, Samuel Adams’ Committees of Correspondence were the most similar to today’s social media.

Fast forward to the 20th century. President Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information (the Creel Committee) during World War I to build support for the war; many notable communicators worked with the committee including Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann and Arthur W. Page.  Twenty years later, the Allies and Axis intensified mass communication and propaganda in World War II, exemplified by Britain’s “V for Victory” campaign, a pre-Internet example of viral marketing. During the Cold War, the West directed anti-communist communications into the Soviet Bloc. The documentary “How The Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” places the Fab Four alongside Lech Walesa and Ronald Reagan as architects of the USSR’s demise for their defiant yet optimistic message that spurred change in young Soviets.

There are differences between these past communication models and the current one in the Middle East. Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, the BBC’s broadcasts, Ronald Reagan’s speeches, The Beatles’ bootlegs: these were unidirectional, created by a few main influencers and usually emanating some distance from the lines of intellectual and physical confrontation. The mass communication driving the Middle East revolts claims mass authorship and onsite origin. Anyone with a social media account and a smartphone becomes a mashup of Alexis de Tocqueville and Robert Capa. There are no core strategists, gatekeepers or figureheads.

Last summer, Egyptian-born columnist Mona Eltahawy gave a prophetic interview to the Voice of America about social media’s role in bringing democracy to the Middle East. Historic change is now underway, but democracy has yet to prevail in the region’s governments and society. The democratization of its communication, however, is firmly in place.


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. James Strock  |  February 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Terrific thoughts, Jason, thanks for sharing on social media! 🙂 Every kind of organization is going to have to respond to these changes–including business. With the mass of information being generated, and the potential for manipulation as well as authentic communication of actual events in context, will new sources of authority arise? What do you see coming next?

    • 2. jasonkarpf  |  February 23, 2011 at 7:58 pm

      You mention an important word: authority. Social media’s power comes from its lack of central control. The community confers authority by following and interacting with certain people and sources. Bottom line: nobody gets to rule simply because they have more money, more people under arms, or a flashier logo. If any person or institution becomes an authority, they will have re-earn that status daily. That’s where your other important term comes in: authenticity.

  • 3. Liberte, Eqalite, Technologie: Web 2.0 and Freedom |  |  June 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    […] media has taken a prominent role in this year’s uprisings in the Middle East. In a post on my previous blog, I summarize social media use by opponents of Mubarak and Gadhafi and compare the communication […]

  • 4. ISIS and the Media War |  |  March 22, 2015 at 12:06 am

    […] Social media propelled the 2011 Arab Spring which led to regime change in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It is now an accelerant in ISIS’ quest to recruit supporters, seize territory, and cow opponents. Terrorists foment asymmetrical warfare, taking on much larger and more capable foes. Ironically, the asymmetry in today’s media war shows the terrorists as the superior combatant. […]


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