From “For Authoritarian Regimes, Turning Off the Internet is a Fatal Mistake, Study Says” (Discover 80 beats, August 30, 2011), we learn:
What’s the News: Social networking has been a star of the Arab Spring revolutions. People can’t stop talking about how Twitter and Facebook helped protestors organize, and when Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak suddenly cut access to the Internet and cell phone service on January 28th, many wondered how the protestors would share information and keep momentum. But as it turned out, depriving people of information had an explosive effect—far from the epicenter at Tahrir Square in Cairo, so many grassroots protests sprung up that the military was brought in. Two weeks later, Mubarak resigned.
Using the Egyptian revolution as a case study, a new paper makes the case that theories of group dynamics explain why access to information can actually have a quenching effect on revolutions, and argues that regimes that shut information sources down are signing their own death warrants.
Hassanpour’s findings sound intuitively right. When people hear a loud noise out on the street, what do they do? Run and hide? Not usually. They run out to see what has happened.
Suppose police come along and tell them to get back in their houses, not look out, and not speak to anyone about what they might have seen: Will they become less anxious, or more?
Authoritarians obsess that social media spread rumours. True, but they also spread correct information. Information tends to lessen anxiety even if it is bad news. As news gatherers know, before too long, more credible sources prevail over less credible ones. But that’s just what the authoritarian is afraid of, isn’t it?
Of course, there is another side to it. Cutting off a guy’s mike if he is inciting a riot can prevent the riot. But what that guy is providing is not information anyway, so it’s not the same thing.
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