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January 29, 2011

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I'd certainly agree that once unrest grows large enough to make the news here in the US, the internet is largely irrelevant. But early in the protest cycle, modern communications probably speeds/facilitates things. Cheap/easy communication is most valuable when people pissed off enough to protest are a small fraction of the population, and you need to communicate with many people to find enough willing to protest. If everyone and their brother is itching to protest, protests can organize around "walk towards the yelling". And your 1848 timeline presumably actually starts later in the protest cycle, because the French government presumably didn't ban protest meetings when they weren't already occurring. You're right that the internet isn't the magic freedom machine some people want it to be, but I'm not convinced it doesn't lower the barriers to entry for protests.

That is a testable hypothesis, which puts your thinking several orders of magnitude above most of the blather on the topic.

In Tunisia, reports are coming out that immolations and other protests had been going on for some time, before Bouazizi set off the big wave of demonstrations.

Similarly, in China in 1989, the big demonstrations did seem to come out of nowhere, with the death of one government official who was perceived to be a reformer.

Anecdotal evidence doesn’t disprove the hypothesis, obviously. It would be interesting to operationalize and test it systematically. Ideas?

See Kurt Weyland's piece in International Organization on the diffusion of 1848, and the APSA paper he presented last year comparing it to 1989, which he claims diffused more slowly.

China, 1989 timeline:
April 15: Hu Yaobang dies, small gatherings in Tiananmen Square, and universities
April 17: 500 students march on Tiananmen Square
April 18: Student crowd in Tienanmen Square approx 4000?
April 20: Crowds dispersed by police
April 21: 100,000 students march on Tienanmen Square
April 21-23: Strikes at universities
April 26: 50,000 students protest after protests denounced by government
May 4: 100,000 students and workers march in Beijing, hunger strikes start
May 18-19: Talks between student leaders and government
May 20: Government declares martial law, army's entry blocked by protesters
May 24: Army withdraws
June 3-5: Army clears square after fighting with protesters in streets of Bejing

Which, honestly seems about as fast, (or faster), except perhaps for the concentration of the early protests in the Universities. Universities probably are good breeding grounds for protest organization as they are communities rich in potential protesters (young, energetic, no kids to take care of), and tend to be fairly tight-knit (students mostly hang out with other students, so the circle of friends of two students from one university are going to overlap more than say, two professors from the same university, or worse, 2 people chosen at random from the city/town the university is in). The unrest in Tunisia was more geographically distributed, and didn't have (from what I can see) a tight-knit community like a university at it's core. So an internet-enabled movement will probably be more geographically decentralized, and each protester will probably know fewer of the other protesters personally. That's at least measurable :)

The interesting thing about China is that the protests mobilized quickly; unlike 1847-48 France (or, quite possibly, Tunisia in 2010) there doesn't seem to have been a long protest cycle before the big demonstrations got underway.

Of course, that might not also be fair --- China's revolution was almost certainly part-and-parcel of the Eastern European revolutions that year.

Weyland's argument is that an impressive example (say, France in 1848 or Tunisia today) can suddenly get large groups of people to (usually incorrectly) assume that the same thing can happen in their country. That makes "walk towards the yelling" mobilization strategies feasible.

A clean test of the "internet matters" hypothesis, would have to look at the first waves of mobilization in the first country. I don't yet know enough about what was happening in Tunisia to say, but it seems as though events moved faster than they had in France in 1848, or Brazil in 1985. Still, as you say, it's testable.

One thing that got me to chuckle was how some people have taken the fact that small town protests were becoming common in 2010 as evidence that the internet was key. The logic is that the news couldn't escape until that one tech-savvy town figured it out.

That's wrong, though. If protests were common, then the best you can argue is that the internet speeded things up, and even that's a weak reed. If the immolation was a one-off event, however, then better technology was key, because otherwise the opportunity would be lost.

China 1989 is a bad comparison; remember that at the time the same techno-evangelists were screaming about how none of this could have happened without -- wait for it!!! -- fax machines.

But 1848 is perfect. It shows that even with expensive paper and limited telegraphy, events can hustle right along.

And I would take your thesis a step further -- I think the Internet actually reduces citizen participation, as people can sit at home and get much of the same thrill of "being part of history" by watching in real time, blogging or chatting with friends, as they would otherwise get only by personally going out to the rallies. This is what I saw in Venezuela -- a lot of privileged people organize these constant tweet-ins where they do things like repost "radical" tweets or change the color of their Facebook icon. If I were a dictator, I would be thrilled to see people fiddling with Photoshop rather than out knocking on doors to overthrow the regime.

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