The 1970’s counter-cultural poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” may have seemed reasonable back then, but that was before media and even social media took over the world as it has done toward the end of the Century and well into the 21st. Today, Gil Scott-Heron would be sorely disappointed to learn how far from the truth he is, as we see governments today shutting down social media when they need to silence a rebellion.
“The Great Lie” is harder to maintain than ever before, as self-created content via social media has spread to the Middle East and worldwide. While President Mubarak and many throughout the Arab world have ruled with iron fists, they never conceived that with all the guns and ammunition they posses, the biggest threat to despotic rule-would come through a simple technology that people use for entertainment; a mere 140-character message has more power than an army of loyal fighters. Jan 25, 2011 is likely to be remembered as the day commemorating the start of the modern Egyptian revolt, fed greatly, if not led by the Internet. It is no surprise that Egyptian leaders decided to disable both the internet and the wireless telephone services as early measures against the current unrest. The implication that is that this is this era’s form of silencing the opposition is altering basic freedoms of expression in Egypt. Social media was also found in Tunisia to be the main media for anti-government forces to mobilize, inform, and communicate with one another.
State run media in countries similar to Egypt could previously use its resources to spew propaganda; today social media is a mass communications tool whereby each citizen is a journalist, giving true rise to the title and concept of citizen journalism, and taking the power back from the despots. This of course comes on the heels of the Wikileaks’ revelations that put entire countries in states of sheer anxiety prior to the releases. The unprecedented phenomenon causing undisclosed records to reach the public amass raised diplomatic chaos worldwide.
Political philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Locke addressed the issue of a government’s responsibility towards its people, and social media allows people to force government to face and defend their versions of truth and morality, whether they like it or not. New media today is causing the world to open faster than some “leaders” would expect. We see images today of protestors with hand held cameras surely for Youtube, and we remember the images a few months ago of the protests in Iran. How much would have changed sooner if instant pictures and cries for help were heard around the world during China’s Tiananmen Square massacre more than twenty years ago.
The ‘truth’ is now in the open; exposed and accessible to people instantly and vertically across most of the world. The impact – is something we are witnessing right now. Lies and manipulations must be handled differently by dictators with this degree of transparency. It takes one person with a mobile phone to start a revolution, one network of friends on Facebook to mobilize thousands and then millions around a cause; only 140 characters to begin the once insufferable idea of expelling a dictator, as we saw in Tunisia.
Social media has shown its potential with the simplicity of online and wireless access by individuals with passion, energy, a just cause, and now an unbridled newfound power. While it is still uncertain whether Egyptian youngsters will achieve their end goals, the young have not disappointed as they have moved quickly and unhesitatingly to form nothing less than a ‘New World Order’. Egypt’s coerced president has installed a new cabinet and a vice president – something he had resisted until now. Perhaps state run media in many countries will also follow the lead of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez who joined Twitter a few months ago, and invited Cuban head Fidel Castro to join him in Tweeting their messages. He had previously called Twitter a potential “tool of terror” – and now has realized that it can be used as his tool of terror. China, Syria, Iran and other South American countries are wasting effort in limiting the access people have to social media. I’d strongly suggest that if they really want to protect their power base and maintain their form of order, that they keep and learn to harness its power before their subjects begin to use it. Perhaps they should take classes in social media themselves.
Ronn Torossian is president and CEO of 5WPR, one of the 20 largest independent PR agencies in the U.S. Named to the “40 under 40” list of PR Week & Advertising Age, Ronn Torossian was a semi-finalist for the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and may be reached at Rtorossian@5wpr.com and followed on twitter @rtorossian5wpr