New Media and the American Revolution

The argument that various new social media did not contribute much to the popular uprising in Egypt had a pretty good run during the first weeks of that uprising. Frank Rich quoted, approvingly, Malcolm Gladwell on the subject: “’surely the least interesting fact’ about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them ‘may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.’”

My colleague Jay Rosen has been particularly alert to the dishonesties inherent in such attempts to dismiss the power of news media. Here’s an additional, historical perspective: Would Rich and Gladwell have found equally uninteresting the contributions to the American Revolution of the continent’s fledgling newspapers? Historians at the time found those contributions of great significance. In his 1789 history of events just a decade or two earlier, David Ramsay writes, “In establishing American independence, the pen and the press had a merit equal to that of the sword.” The pen was an old form of communication by the second half of the eighteenth century. But the newspapers and pamphlets that published the output of various engaged pens were still relatively new in the colonies. Calling them “new media” seems appropriate.

We all understand that newspapers or Facebook pages and Twitter alerts by themselves are not enough to overthrow a government.  You need grievances, outrages, ideology, organization, courage and — in American in the eighteenth century but thankfully not in Egypt in the twenty-first — guns. In Cairo there were hundreds of thousands of people, flesh and blood people, in the streets. In the American colonies there were armies in the field. Tweets did not occupy Tahrir Square. Newspapers did not fire back at the Redcoats. But Tweets as well as newspapers can help change, in John Adams’ famous phrase, “minds and hearts.”

Rich, Gladwell and the other debunkers neglect the importance of that which clarifies, amplifies and spreads grievances and outrages, and inspires people to take to the streets or take up arms.. One of Britain’s men in the colonies, New York’s lieutenant governor, Cadwallader Colden, did not neglect that factor. “Every suggestion that could tend to lessen the attachment to the mother Country, and to raise an Odium against her,” he fumes in a letter to England, “have been repeatedly published.” And, in case the word “published” in Colden’s letter seems ambiguous, here’s John Holt, the leading anti-British editor in New York: “It was by means of News papers that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and kindled a Spirit that has been sufficient to repel them.”

As relatively new forms of communication, American newspapers from 1765 to 1776 had significant advantages as engines of revolution: they were small, lithe, light-footed and close to their audiences. American newspapers were mostly free of the routines and cautiousness of established institutions: they were prepared to take risks and unafraid of experiment.  They were, often enough, intemperate: “British officials and their supporters were variously ‘serpents,’ ‘guileful betrayers,’ ‘diabolical Tools of Tyrants’, or ‘Men totally abandoned to Wickedness.'” (Here, as elsewhere, I am quoting from my book A History of News.) Twitter feeds and Facebook pages share, often enough, all these qualities.

And in America in the eighteenth century, the powers that were had not yet divined how to manipulate or control newspapers. British efforts at repression and control were intermittent and mostly late —  as were the Mubarak regime’s efforts to shut down the Internet.

Twitter and Facebook in Egypt “spread…Notice” — before and after the government shut the Internet down. Social media in Egypt also “kindled a spirit” and helped change “minds and hearts.” Wael Ghonim “published” a Facebook page accusing police in Alexandria of beating to death a young man who had come upon evidence of corruption. It accumulted 70,000 supporters and has been widely credited with helping inspire the anti-Mubarak protests. As newspaper printers, editors and writers — Ben Franklin, Sam Adams — were among the leaders of the American revolution, Wael Ghonim, a Google executive as well as a Facebook enthusiast, has been a leader in Egypt.

New media, in other words, can certainly help spread revolution. (While editing this post, I see Jeff Jarvis has made a somewhat similar analogy to the introduction of the printing press in Europe. I’ll be taking on themes more similar to his in my next post.) In France in the eighteenth century, the Old Regime tightly controlled the press: Paris had only four newspapers in 1788. But the job of kindling spirit was well handled by underground books, libelles and nouvelles à la main — new media at the time. Once the revolution commenced, new kinds of newspapers were able to take over. In Paris, in 1790 335 newspapers appeared.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of a revolution that did not benefit from some new media — from the printing press during the Reformation (Jarvis’ example) to FM radio and underground newspapers in the 1960s. You need a form of communication that is, for the moment, yours — a form with which the Old Regime is not, for the moment, comfortable. Facebook and Twitter are, from this perspective, important. But Facebook and Twitter are not, from this perspective, original. And Facebook and Twitter, while like the European letter press a democratizing force, probably do not, from this perspective, usher in some new age of permanent revolution or people power.

About Mitchell Stephens

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism in the Carter Institute at New York University, is the author most recently of "Imagine There’s No Heaven: How Atheism Helped Create the Modern World" (Palgrave Macmillan), "Beyond News: The Future of Journalism" (Columbia University Press) and "Journalism Unbound: New Approaches to Writing and Reporting" (Oxford University Press). He also wrote "A History of News" (Viking, Penguin, Oxford) and "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford), along with two widely used journalism textbooks.
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