Social media and societal revolution

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Forbes recently published an article titled “Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution in the Age of Social Media”. Having spent time studying in the Czech Republic, and recalling that social media didn’t exist during the Velvet Revolution, I wondered what might have happened if such technology had been in the hands of the 500,000 citizens gathered in Wenceslas Square in 1989. Had Havel’s single-point communications and individual leadership been replaced by smartphones and social networks, we can assume there would have been vast differences.

The upheaval of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime is considered one of the most peaceful social uprisings of all time. The claim has been made that not even a single window was broken during the Velvet Revolution. With his natural rapport and unwavering composure, Havel is credited for leading the entire country through dramatic, but non-violent, social change in the face of long-established communist rule.

Without the influence of social media, Havel possessed the pivotal authority and ability to communicate on a scale that no one else was capable of. With this power he dictated the course of the movement. Also a well-known playwright, Havel essentially devised the script that the student and citizen protestors performed with great civility, despite an initial violent response from law enforcement. This top-down, structured style of leadership vastly differs from what we have come to see today.

When social media becomes the main source of authority, ultimate power is no longer contained in one entity, but is flattened out and distributed among the people. Had 500,000 individuals been tweeting each move of the revolution, it’s likely there would have been much less order and more chaos driven by splintered leadership. The probability for violence would have been much greater based on the sheer number of participants, each with different and often conflicting opinions, direction and visions.

During the Arab Spring, social media was used to organize and sustain the demonstrations. We were watching a revolution, and a revolutionary way in which technology could mobilize a great force. But the lack of direction and control, and the central authority’s ability as well to monitor and communicate with the protestors, turned out to be a great constraint against the people. As a result, government forces and counter-demonstrators recognized the disadvantages and responded with brutal force, resulting in some of the most violent social protests of all time. Upon reflection, the Arab Spring shows that technology hasn’t yet evolved as a practical, democratic substitute for social upheaval within centrally controlled, hierarchical societies.

From the Velvet Revolution in 1989 to the Arab Spring protests of 2011, the rate of technological change is staggering, and continues to progress as we attempt to make sense of it to apply it to our lives and those of others. From the roar of pop culture, to the din of our daily lives, to the overthrow of regimes, we clearly have a long way to go in grasping social media’s impact. We may never see how far social media will revolutionize the structure of governments, and the nature of democratic and autocratic leadership. But we do know it will continue to change our user experience in the world, and at least give us the chance to better our collective abilities to accomplish common goals.

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