Why does the advent of a major new media technology so often coincide with political upheaval or even revolution?
To name a few examples: the broadcast radio and the rise of Adolf Hitler; the cassette tape and the Iranian Revolution; the fax machine and the fall of the Soviet Union; the text-message-capable mobile phone and the “color revolutions” that swept aside governments in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
These are not mere coincidences. New technologies often play important enabling roles in political action. Consider the case of the fax machine. The Soviet state had an elaborate system for tapping telephone calls, but was unable to monitor fax messages. Hence when the fax was developed, Soviet dissidents suddenly found themselves with an open channel of communication – an invaluable weapon when confronting a totalitarian state. Arguably, the arrival of fax technology helped hasten the USSR’s demise.
The global political impacts of the mobile phone have been even more dramatic. The ability to send text messages – especially broadcast texts – has made it possible for protestors to adopt “flash mob” tactics. To control a crowd of demonstrators, authorities need to have police and barriers in the right places. Broadcast text messages enable huge groups of people to change tactics on the fly, making it all but impossible for police to keep tech-savvy groups of protestors under control.
The first government I know of to be toppled by flash mob was that of Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in 2001. But many others followed: the government of Georgia in 2003; of Ukraine in 2004-5; of Kyrgyzstan in 2005; of Thailand in 2006; and of Egypt and Tunisia during the 2011 Arab Spring.
New media technologies can also provide new channels of communication for anti-establishment leaders to spread dangerous ideas. I mentioned Adolf Hitler above. In the US during that same era, broadcast radio aided the rise of charismatic populists including the Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long and the anti-Semitic “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin.
In a similar vein, the Iranian revolution was fomented in part via the new technology of the audio cassette player, which allowed the Ayatollah Khomeini to disseminate his rabble-rousing sermons. The Iranian regime’s censors kept a tight lock on the nation’s newspapers. But cassettes took so long to listen to it was extremely difficult to police their content. During the winter Khomeini spent in Paris, his supporters duplicated thousands of cassette tapes each day.
These days, of course, the most famous new media revolutionary is US President Donald Trump. Not one US daily newspaper endorsed his presidential campaign. As recently as ten years ago, the hostility of all of America’s major newspapers would have sealed a candidate’s fate. But Trump tweeted his way past this obstacle (aided by Fox News and websites such as Breitbart). Around the world, social-media-savvy populists have won power, from the Five Star Movement in Italy to Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro (reportedly a heavy user of WhatsApp).
Of course, mainstream politicians are rapidly becoming more social-media-savvy themselves. History suggests that this process will eventually erode many of the advantages of insurgent early adopters. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, for instance, as counter to the techniques of populists like Coughlin and Long.
But that process won’t end the political changes enabled by social media. New media technologies don’t just open new channels for controversial politicians. These technologies can produce more profound and fundamental political shifts, by allowing social groups to organize, communicate political ideas, and develop the collective identities that make mass political action possible.
Consider the impacts of a very old innovation in mass media: the printing press. The printing press helped make possible the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther himself described printing technology as “God’s highest and ultimate gift of grace by which He would have His Gospel carried forward.”
Luther had a point. One recent study found that cities with at least one printing press by the year 1500 AD were roughly 50 per cent more likely to have officially adopted Protestantism thirty years later.
The degree to which the Reformation and printing press transformed European politics would be difficult to exaggerate. The printing press helped foster the political and economic rise of literate Protestants over traditional Catholic elites. With the Reformation came peasant rebellions, the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire, and the Thirty Years’ War.
Today, I suspect, we have only had our first taste of the political changes that social media will bring. The populations of rural and post-industrial areas have tended to be politically weak in many countries over the past few decades. The ability of people in rural areas to organize politically has been hindered by low population density and the fact that urban newspapers have dominated the national discourse.
Social media has altered this balance of power, enabling people who are physically far apart to act together. Movements relying on support from “flyover states” have begun to reshape national politics (the Tea Party in the US, for instance). The concerns of rural and post-industrial areas are now impacting policy choices in many countries, from Trump’s trade war against China to France’s gilets jaunes protests against fuel taxes.
I don’t think disgruntled citizens of rural areas will be the only beneficiaries of social media. In the past, new communications technologies have tended to empower the savvy. I have mentioned that Protestants, who were more likely to be literate, saw greater gains than Catholics from the spread of the printing press (a development that provided support for certain well-known observations about Protestantism and capitalism).
These days, the extra hour a day (on average) that women spend on social media relative to men seems to be paying dividends in political power. In the US in particular, female politicians have seized the limelight. The #metoo campaign has brought down leading figures in business and entertainment with all the drama of aristocrats bound for the guillotine.
Young people, of course, are frequently identified as “digital natives,” running rings around their elders in the technology sphere. High schoolers have been busy fomenting their own revolution – a revolution that, like many, began in a hail of bullets – bullets intended to maim and kill students in Parkland, Florida. Students drew heavily on social media to disseminate their #neveragain message and press for action on gun control.
Representing both of these trends is the extraordinary rise of the young, female Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (colloquially known as “AOC”), who at the age of 29 is already being called a “kingmaker” in US Democratic Party politics.
Neither Trump nor AOC would have been likely to achieve their current positions in an era before social media. Social media is now fostering the rise of similarly unlikely political leaders in countries worldwide, along with more profound shifts in the balance of political power.
While many people have focused on Cambridge Analytica’s misdeeds or Russian electoral interference as the main sources of recent turmoil, history suggests that the political impacts of social media will be more fundamental. We are still in the early days of this revolution that comes by hashtag.