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Media and Revolution 2.0: Tiananmen to Tahrir

New media inspires new generation to protest? It’s an old trope, argues a China scholar taking a practiced eye at the turmoil in the Arab world.

Have the latest advances in communication technology radically altered the fundamental dynamics of struggles for change in authoritarian settings? Or have cell phones and social media merely brought about small shifts in the dynamics of revolution? Is the Web a godsend to those trapped in oppressive states, as Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo suggests in his essay “The Internet is God’s Gift to China”? Or does this thinking give in to a form of “cyber-utopianism” that glosses over the potential of new media to be used by autocrats, their propaganda ministries and security forces to massage public opinion, keep tabs on dissidents and ensure that populations stay docile and distracted, as Evgeny Morozov argues in The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom?

This is a fascinating moment to ponder such questions, due both to what is happening on the streets in the Middle East and in the offices of publishing, where Morozov’s book is one of many to stake out bold claims about the pros and cons of the newest new media.

When it comes to mass protests, it can seem that cyberspace changes everything. This is the implication of a strain of analysis that generated references to a “Twitter Revolution” when demonstrations broke out in Tehran in 2009, and that has more recently led some to present the 2011 struggle in Tahrir Square as fueled by Facebook. But it's also clear that many things that were part of the revolutionary mix long before the arrival of blogs and BlackBerrys still matter. Many of us kept up with developments in Cairo by looking at displays on decidedly 21st-century devices like iPads and smart phones, but what we saw in pixels often looked like scenes the French painter Jacques-Louis David presented in brush strokes in 1789. When disaffected Egyptians erected barricades, they were doing something already old hat when done by the Parisian Communards in the 1870s.

Turning from politics to publishing, Adam Gopnik provides a thoughtful and stylish tour d’horizon of the burgeoning literature on the Internet in a recent issue of the New Yorker. His essay is far from comprehensive and focuses more on social and cultural life than politics (one reason, perhaps, that he makes no mention of Morozov’s politically minded book), but Gopnik offers a tripartite categorization scheme I find useful for thinking about media and revolution. He says that analysts of the Internet often take an optimistic “Never Better” approach, a pessimistic “Better Never” one or make we've-been-here-before sorts of “Ever Was” claims.

Works in the first category highlight the liberating, solidarity-creating aspects of digital formats, while those in the second stress their alienating and fragmenting effects. The “Ever Was” types, by contrast, dismiss the notion that we are in a completely novel era. They draw attention to parallels between the current debates associated with and fantasies generated by cyberspace and those that were linked to and triggered by printing presses, telegraph lines and televisions when those now old media were new.

It is easy to imagine that a group of scholars is already at work somewhere making plans to hold a conference on the theme of “Media and Revolution” next year. They may, as I write, be busy compiling lists of specialists in varied fields who could be called together to place current events into historical perspective by comparing and contrasting, say, the role of petitions spelled out on paper in the American Revolution and tweets and text messages in Tunisia.

Comparing today’s political upheavals to …

the year 1789
the year 1848

As someone who has worked on dissent in China, from the May 4th Movement of 1919 (in which petitions circulating via telegraphs were the latest thing in high-tech protest) to the present day (when the Charter ’08 petition that landed Liu Xiaobo in jail circulated only via cyberspace), I could easily end up being invited to such a workshop. If this happened, I’d be tempted to accept the invitation. I’ve been fascinated by the reading I’ve been doing on digital media. After attending an excellent campus forum on the Egyptian rising last week here at the University of California, Irvine, in which graduate students and faculty members with different sorts of expertise offered insights about the complex role of different media in the struggle, I am convinced that learning more about recent events in the Middle East could be useful to me in refining my thinking about how novel technologies of communication alter and leave in place familiar elements of the revolutionary process, wherever uprisings occur.

If a conference like the one I’ve just conjured does come to pass next year and I’m able to attend, while I’m confident it would prove a valuable learning experience, I’m even more certain it would trigger a strong sense of déjà vu. I’ve already been to a conference titled “Media and Revolution,” convened in the wake of a surprising series of risings, some abortive and some successful, that found crowds gathering in central squares to call for an end to corruption. That conference was held in Lexington, Ky., exactly 20 years before the one I’ve been imagining, back when the most talked about public square beginning with the letter 'T' was Tiananmen and not Tahrir, and when it was footage of protests and repression on CNN, as opposed to YouTube, that seemed to take us into a radically new phase in the history of revolutions.

One thing shows how much the world has changed since that 1992 conference: At least as far as I remember, no one attending had much of anything to say about computers. You will not find the term computer even listed in the index of Media and Revolution: Comparative Perspectives, the wide-ranging book edited by French historian Jeremy D. Popkin that emerged from the gathering. In my chapter there is, buried in a footnote, one passing allusion to e-mail. It refers to an article that now seems prescient in describing how Chinese intellectuals in the West turned to that then-novel form of communication to share information about the protests rocking their homeland. In general, though, the “new media” that intrigued us most back then were faxes and satellite television.

It is striking when picking up Popkin’s volume today how long the index entries are for “newspapers” and “television,” which seemed to many of us at the time the quintessential “old” and “new” media of revolution. This is hardly surprising, given that both Popkin and Jack Censer (who co-authored the book’s introduction) are prominent scholars of the 18th-century French press, and that many commentators had been arguing during the years immediately preceding the conference that televised coverage of events in the former Soviet bloc and at Tiananmen Square had played game-changing roles in those struggles. And like Twitter and Facebook now, television then had even given rise to new terms for uprising. In The Magic Lantern, his instant classic eyewitness account of the protests of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, Timothy Garton Ash suggested that the word “telerevolutions” be used to describe the chain of events that turned the Berlin Wall to rubble and transformed Vaclav Havel from a dissident to a president.

With recent debates on the Internet and news reports from the Middle East on my mind, I’ve begun dipping back into Popkin’s 1995 book. There is no question that, in terms of specifics, many of the things that contributors to the book had to say, myself included, now seem hopelessly dated. For example, the references to satellite broadcasts on television screens making it possible for people in different parts of the world to follow events in other parts of the world in real time seem quaint. Today, anyone with a cell phone camera and an Internet connection can upload images to the Web that can be seen in scores of countries on scores of different kinds of devices.

There are also features of the book, however, that have an eerily contemporary feel.

My own chapter is a case in point. So much about both Chinese media systems and Chinese politics have changed since the 1990s that it would take much more than a mere epilogue to bring it up to date. Still, I would not abandon the argument I made about being wary of overstating the importance of technological shifts. One of my main points of departure in that essay was a critique of a 1993 book by Michael J. O’Neill, The Roar of the Crowd: How Television and People Power Are Changing the World, which, borrowing from Gopnik’s discussion of analyses of the Internet, took a “Never Better” approach to the latest media breakthroughs. I felt that, as important as televised reporting had been on dictator-toppling events in the Philippines and elsewhere in the 1980s, commentators like O’Neill (a fan of Marshal McLuhan) went too far in claiming that this kind of coverage tipped the balance decisively away from autocrats and toward those who challenged their rule.

One thing I emphasized was that, in the wake of the Tiananmen protests, it was crucial to bring into the picture the Chinese government’s ability to limit or block access within China to foreign broadcasts, and also its skill at using the medium of television to try to persuade the populace to accept its “Big Lie” about the events of 1989, including the notion that there had been no massacre in Beijing that year.

While I was not persuaded by the “Never Better” arguments of O'Neill and company, I did not side with the “Better Never” camp on television, either. And I would not go in that direction now that it is websites the Chinese government blocks and attention focuses on the Internet as the tool authorities in China use to steer public opinion and shape their citizens’ understanding of events.

My approach in the 1990s was more in line with those taken by what Gopnik dubs the “Ever Was” types, a group whose adherents do not say that media breakthroughs change nothing, but merely caution against going too far in viewing the latest devices as completely novel forces (for good or evil).

I argued that the arrival of each new technology of communication made some difference in the history of Chinese protest, as had changes in technologies of travel. And yet, I insisted, “the basic dynamics” of struggles between protesters and the rulers they challenged had “remained fairly constant” from the early 1900s to the present. “Mobilizing large groups of people to take to the streets, gather in central squares and participate in symbolically charged performances,” for example, had been important in Chinese struggles of the first decades of the 20th century (when telegraphs and trains were among the main novelties of the age) and had remained significant in the era of Tiananmen (with its satellite television broadcasts and jet planes).

Shifts in ways of spreading news and moving people from place to place had helped first to nationalize and then later to internationalize Chinese protest movements, but the push and pull between the political theater of the crowd and the use of political rituals and brute force by the state to retain its position of hegemony had remained much what it had always been.

The dizzying changes that have come in the wake of the rapid technological developments of the last two decades have changed many things. It would be foolish to claim otherwise, or to ignore the novel ways that the Web can be used by those seeking to further or stifle struggles for freedom in China. And yet, it still seems crucial for insurgents — in China and many other places — to be able to convince “large groups of people to take to the streets, gather in central squares and participate in symbolically charged performances.”

As a result, on the subject of media and revolution, if I have to choose one of Gopnik's three camps, I'm as much of an Ever Was adherent as I've ever been.

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