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Communication Technologies and Liberation Movements

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From Les Miserables and the Telegraph, to Social Media and the Middle East

The events in 2011 in Egypt and the Middle East intensified the debate over whether information and communication technologies — often referred to as ‘liberation technologies’ — assist popular movements, or are used even more effectively as a means of surveillance, monitoring, and controlling of dissident movements. Of all the interfaces between society and technology, the communications interface is one of the most crucial. Many examples can be found to show that both uses — the liberating and restricting — are occurring. Yet — one argument goes— the very efforts used to control the communication technologies are the most persuasive proof that they are feared by the controllers as agents of freedom. Ever since the earliest European printing presses were searched for and broken up by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s soldiers, communications technologies have been under scrutiny by the authorities.

One of the earliest popular movements in which rapid communications played a role was the 1848 Paris uprising (the events depicted in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables), which in turn rapidly inspired similar uprisings in Berlin, Vienna, and Milan. The telegraph (which at this time was as likely to be Claude Chappe’s optical telegraph as an electric one) spread the news much more quickly than had been the case in previous popular uprisings.

This lesson was taken to heart by the Paris Communards of 1878, who made a point of seizing control of the Paris telegraph lines early in their uprising. The government in Versailles, recognizing the aid that the telegraph gave the revolutionaries, in turn did its best to disconnect the lines and reduce their contact with the outside world. An editorial in the New York World unsympathetically recognized the power of the electric telegraph as a liberation technology (U.S. newspapers were almost invariably hostile to the communards) referring to “a very striking illustration of the evils which the electric telegraph has brought us, comingled with its good.”

During the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the revolutionaries and Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government both recognized that communications were a vital tool of the revolutionaries. On 23 October 1917 (5 November, new style) Kerensky ordered the telephone lines to the Bolshevik party headquarters at the Smolny Institute disconnected. Two nights later, as the revolution began, sailors from the Baltic Fleet made the seizure of the Petrograd Telegraph Agency one of its priorities. Their commissar, Leonid Stark, publicized the revolution to the rest of the world in dispatches sent over PTA lines.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and other Turkish Army officers made extremely effective use of the telegraph in order to build consensus, depose Sultan Abdulhamid II (April, 1909), and to create the Turkish Republic (October 1923). In another of history’s ironies, the Erzurum telegraph line that Ataturk used to keep in touch with fellow officers in Anatolia and Thrace was the line which had been cut a few years previously by protesters to hamper the Sultan’s forces.

During World War II, radio was used to powerful effect for organizing the resistance movements in occupied territories. Many radio techniques were developed to evade detection — such as burst transmission, and highly-directional antennas (used for sending the signal straight up from the agent’s set to a circling plane).

In an interesting reversal of history, communications technologies — which had helped launch Lenin’s revolution — also helped to end it. In 1991, when Soviet hardliners opposed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, staged their coup, they overlooked the internet as a means of popular communication. Radio and television stations were shut down or controlled, fax machines were smashed, telephone exchanges in some cities were shut down, but the Internet — which used leased lines — remained an important tool in the hands of the resisters. Neil Corcoran in his article “Computer Networks and the Soviet Coup of 1991” wrote, “Individual reports were essential elements… as they contained accounts of the events and demonstrations in different cities allowing others to know that resistance was occurring in other parts of the Unions, and that they were not alone.”

That same sense of not being alone and of being able to get one’s message out to the rest of the world would grow more powerful as communication devices became more personal, portable, and began to include visual media. On 20 June 2009, the video of the shooting in Tehran of Neda Agha-Soltan by government troops shocked the world when it was posted to the video hosting service YouTube. In December 2010, graphic videos disseminated rapidly via personal mobile communications and via the web inspired a popular uprising in Tunisia which toppled the government the following January. The Tunisian Revolution led in turn to an uprising in Egypt, organized in part on a facebook page.

Nevertheless, “Reporters Sans Frontieres” lists countries where governments attempt to control the internet. Amazon.com presently lists more than one hundred books on the topic of surveillance on the internet, books which debate whether the new communications technologies liberate or repress. It is a debate which is sure to continue, but one which recent events have highlighted.