Missing the Political Power of the Internet

Television was probably the new form of communication that lent itself most to control by the powers that were. In the early decades of the medium’s history, a television transmitter was sufficiently expensive so that it was well beyond the reach of anyone outside of a large corporation or a government. And television transmitters were large enough, permanent enough and visible enough for governments to easily regulate or control. There were, consequently, few if any insurgent television broadcasts, few if any calls for insurrection were broadcast on TV.

Nonetheless, the case can be made no new invention shook up the world so fast and so much.

Why? Because the world is shaken not just by revolutionary rhetoric and calls to the streets. The world is shaken — probably shaken most powerfully — by new information. And in its early decades TV was filled with information many had never seen before in a form that was particularly easy to access: moving images.

“In the mid- and late-1950s, millions of deep-South blacks received direct and unfiltered racial news for the first time,” Ben Bagdikian has noted. Bagdikian’s argument is that television in the United States played a role (not the only role, of course) in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and later the race riots of the late 1960s. In, famously, bringing war “into living rooms,” TV also played a role in the anti-war protests of the late 1960s.

“It is perhaps not generally realized that a refrigerator can be a revolutionary symbol – to a people who have no refrigerators,” Marshall McLuhan has noted. Television, even if watched through a store window or on a community set, showed consumer goods to people in countries where they were not widely available. The medium has been credited with a role in the anti-colonial movement and various third- and second-world upheavals.

So when trying to figure out what role the Internet, social media, smart phones, etc., have played in the ongoing protests and revolts in the Middle East, it is not enough to look for angry websites or tweets announcing rallies. The question is what these new forms of communication have helped people know that they did not before know — what these new forms of communication have helped people know that has made them more difficult to rule.

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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