Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Media and Revolution 2.0: Tiananmen to Tahrir

For Miller-McCune, China Beat’s Jeffrey Wasserstrom writes that online calls to protest, such as those we saw recently in Egypt (and China), are similar to those issued since the American Revolution, just using a different delivery method:

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?

[...] 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.