Ideas 2012 July/August 2012

The Cost of Modern Revolution

From Cairo to Lower Manhattan to Moscow, we have learned that the revolution most definitely will be tweeted, blogged, and pinned. Social media now make it easier to organize protest movements, even—or perhaps especially—in authoritarian regimes. And that is no longer merely a hopeful assertion made by digital evangelists. Some dictators, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently, “are more afraid of tweets than they are of opposing armies.”

He’s right. But we’re also learning something sobering about the Twitter revolutions. The speed with which these movements develop comes at a price—one that gets paid after the activists win. Revolutions generally take time to build—they need leaders, and structure, and a core of devoted members. The virtue of drawn-out opposition is that the best old-school protest movements can become governments-in-waiting. Nearly a decade underground meant Solidarność was poised in the late 1980s not just to seize power in Poland, but to wield it. The same was true of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and even of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Twitter-lutionaries are good at toppling regimes, but in the Mideast and North Africa, they’re losing out to the Islamists, who’ve built protest movements the old-fashioned way. And in Moscow, the Mink revolutionaries, who are united by Live-Journal but not much else, were easy for Putin to outmaneuver. The next step for would-be revolutionaries: combine traditional community-organizing techniques with social media. Those will be the movements that dictators really need to fear.

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Chrystia Freeland is the editor of Thomson Reuters Digital.

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