'The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.'
'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' by Gil Scott-Heron
No, Gil, you're wrong. The revolution will not only be televised but it will also be brought to you live by the twittering classes, with later re-runs on youtube, showing it wearing its dirty underwear on its head and giving two fingers to the status quo. The revolution will then go off to update its profile on facebook.
The revolution, Gil, will be hard to control.
Will? Did I just write 'will'? No, make that 'has been hard to control'.
The advent of the internet narrowed traditionally geographical boundaries whilst widening the margins of democratic discourse. The appearance on the horizon of social networking sites in the last five or six years has made this conversation even more fluid and immediate (even if that urgency sometimes does more harm than good). The benefits this online revolution has brought are manifold. If not, ask The Guardian, a British newspaper which saw its journalistic integrity under threat last October by the oil trading company Transfigura. The corporation had banned the media outlet from reporting a question asked by the Labour MP Paul Ferrelly about Transfigura's injunction on the publication of a report that alleged the company had commissioned the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Within minutes of the news filtering through, Twitter was flooded with messages condemning Transfigura and demanding that the gagging order against The Guardian be lifted. The newspaper won. Revolution 1, Status Quo 0, Gil.
When Jan Moir, a columnist at that rabid tabloid they still call newspaper and which normally goes under the name of Daily Mail, poured scorn and bile on the still warm body of Stephen Gately for his lifestyle (ex-member of boyband Boyzone and who happened to be gay), the Twitterati rose as one and inundated the Daily Mail with complaints forcing Jan to write a half-hearted apology. Online Revolution 2, Status Quo 0.
But away from the - sometimes - comfortable world of western politics, and into the realm of totalitarian regimes, we see that the digital revolution I've so much eulogised above, is a murkier issue. This is a world full of ups and downs where writing a post disagreeing with the government can cost someone his or her freedom or even their life. We saw it with the Burmese monks challenging the junta with digi-cams a couple of years ago. We witnessed it again with the fracas between the Mukhabarat government in Egypt and activists. And who can forget the most famous photograph in the last twelve months? That of Neda Agha Soltan, the Iranian woman whose bloodied face became the biggest indictment of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's regime. Within minutes of her murder, the image had gone viral and various media outlets around the world reproduced it, thus making the public aware of what was happening on the streets of Tehran.
This cyber-dissent is welcome news. It shows that from Russia to Cuba a new community has been active in the last lustrum. Flash mobs, which started life as juvenile pranks (I saw one at Liverpool Street station many years ago and it was hilarious, it was a gigantic dance wave), have evolved into peaceful insurgency acts. Gandhi would have been proud. Social networking sites have become cheap tools of communication. And since video gadgets are ubiquitous (on mobiles, mp3s, iPods), bloody crackdowns by government forces are not as frequent as before. Also, new technology enthuses people who would often not want to get involved in politics. Call it peer pressure, but of the facebook variety.
Yet, these advantages must be equally measured against the disadvantages. Totalitarian regimes have become quite adept at second-guessing its opponents. Last year Yoani Sánchez, the highest-profile Cuban blogger, still living in Cuba, was beaten by state security agents. The 'great firewall of China' became a reality earlier this year when that country's authorities clashed with Google over censorship issues. Cyber-attacks are launched, not only by dreadlocked anti-capitalists, but also by Russian nationalists. Even western democracies don't escape Big Brother's omnipresent eye. If not, ask Paul Chambers, who posted a joke on Twitter in January and got slapped with a one-thousand-pound fine this week.
My position on this online revolution is pragmatic. By all means, if you care about digital democracy, make sure that you check and double-check (and even triple-check!) that the tools you use against despotic governments are not used against you in return. Social neworking sites were not primarily created to fight against Putin, however privacy should be at the core of its ethos. Let's make the task of finding activists a bit harder for authoritarian regimes. Moreover, many grassroots dissidents don't have access to computers. One of my long-standing disagreements with the Cuban community abroad is the whole rigmarole about access to internet in Cuba. I'm all for it, let's be clear about that, but it is not a priority.To me, more attention should be paid to reaching those right-thinking people who want to bring the radical democratic reforms we so badly need. Let's create a platform for them and give them a voice outside Cuba no matter if it's through Twitter or any other tool. The revolution is here, Gil, and whether we call it cyber or not, it will be Tweetlevised.
Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum...', to be published on Tuesday 18th May at 11:59pm (GMT)