Social Media used by dissidents to organize opposition

Social Media used by dissidents to organize opposition

Social media is transforming the world! This is especially true in the Middle East where platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Google Plus and Facebook are used by dissidents to organize opposition to their, all too often, dictatorial rulers.

The rise of social media can be seen worldwide. For example, millions across Egypt employed social media to organize demonstrations that lasted for weeks. In the end, this led to the fall of their 30-year-old dictatorship and thus hopefully began the democratic renewal of Egypt. They have a long way to go before declaring success, but thanks to social media, the people of Egypt are now participating in their first ever democratic elections in many decades.

The same happened in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. Everywhere across the region, those who were once powerless have used social media to organize, to connect and to bring down dictators who had ruled their countries for dozens of years. Some of these dictators still hold on to power, but in most cases only barely so. Thanks to the democratizing effect of social media, their citizens are becoming increasingly vocal and their message is being heard.

Before the PC and ultimately, social media, the typewriter and the fax machine were leading edge communication technologies.

There was a time when a writer and her typewriter were best friends; a time when journalists would dictate their accounts from the scene of an event. Speaking all night over the phone to their editors at news headquarters, their spoken words were feverishly typed so that the stories would make the newsstands, driveways and offices by next day.

Did you know that the entire Watergate scandal was documented by journalists typing every word from tapped phone lines? That tumultuous decade of the 1970s was not too long ago. It was a time when some of the most intensive investigative journalism reached people on paper after a laborious process where the story was typed and corrected by teams of journalists.

Less than 80 years ago in Central Europe, some people were banned from using the typewriter altogether. An arbitrary rule blocked one of the most crucial lines of communication between ordinary people.  It was an oppressive act designed to deny these citizens the ability to connect with each other and people outside their country. Even in today’s age of pervasive mobile technology, oppressive regimes still attempt to block communication between people. There are internet firewalls which restrict the information people inside the country can view. Leaders who feel threatened by popular protests have shut down mobile telephone access during public gatherings. Technology options have to some degree thwarted these attempts. The voices of their people may have been muted before; but no longer are silenced.

It was September, 1930 when Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist Party won 107 seats in the German parliament, thereby becoming the ruling political group in that country. Just two and a half years later, Hitler had compelled Germany’s President to sign Article 48, suspending all citizens’ civil rights, allowing security forces to imprison or execute anyone deemed as suspicious. In these years leading up to the invasion of Poland, Adolph Hitler ordered AEG, a leading German manufacturer, to halt the production of the Mignon Modell 4, a very popular typewriter. By 1935, all Jews were banned from carrying a typewriter. Internal security forces also seized these machines and other printing tools in anti-Facist groups that threatened their rising power.

Let’s fast forward to the mid 1980s when the fax machine came to widespread use and global communication took another leap forward. It was no longer necessary to carry the bulky typewriter or have words dictated to someone on the other side of the phone. Transmission of information, including both text and pictures over phone lines became commonplace.

By the late 1980s faxes were the hottest means of information sharing after the typewriter (e-Mail had not yet taken hold).  However, that was not the case for millions of people behind the iron curtains of Eastern Europe and Mainland China.  While the rest of the world was enjoying an exponential expansion of communications and facilities, those ruled by totalitarian regimes were being starved of the use of these inventions.  The systemic purpose of this policy was to separate and then silence dissidents, hoping to eliminate the possibility of revolt or insurrection against the state.

The fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), changed that dynamic some 20 years ago.

The Premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, had begun a program of free speech (glastnost) and economic rebuilding (perestroika) in an effort to adapt to forces of change that could not be resisted. Economic repair was no easier than than our leaders are facing today. As a result, unrest grew. Meanwhile, “glasnost” took hold. Information that was viciously repressed by the government began to flow via a huge number of fax machines that were smuggled into Russia. Pages of notes and details that Pravda would not disclose began to spread throughout Moscow and Leningrad. It also became apparent to the common person that the U.S.S.R. was not as strong militarily nor economically as they had been led to believe. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent peaceful turnovers of power in Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, and the Ukraine were the result of fax machine’s liberation of communication.

The typewriter and the fax machine changed our modern world. That’s how it happened then, and that is what is making headlines today.  The explosion of communication is being facilitated by the social media we may take for granted. The ecosystem that surrounds Google Plus, Facebook and Twitter are enabling people to connect in increasing numbers and have meaningful discussion, raising awareness and promoting action against common social and political issues.

As for us, and people like us who have had a small part in these massive changes in our recent history, we are just glad to have been here to witness the world change like no other generation before us.

Where do we go from here? Keep communicating. We are all listening.

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