Visibility of protests gives them power

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve heard about the recent protests in the Arab world, from Iran in 2009-2010 to those in Tunisia that toppled an authoritarian government, to the current protests in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco and more. The protestors are largely non-violent, but are having very large political effects.

Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Can you imagine this sort of thing happening 100 or 200 years ago? I can’t. I imagine a lot more violence from the state. And pitiful attempts at retaliation by the poorly armed protesters.

I think the success of these movements is due to two big changes: visibility and human rights.

Things like torture and slavery used to be commonplace and, while no one wanted it to happen to them, hangings and burnings were entertainment. The idea that some people were worth more than others because of the circumstances of birth/religion/color was essentially unquestioned for a pretty big chunk of human history. While we clearly aren’t completely past such things, there are few people today who think torture and slavery are good or normal. Most people think that humans have certain rights and freedoms, even if they don’t completely agree on what those rights and freedoms should be. So, the slow acceptance of human rights means that people around the world would care if the Egyptian government started indiscriminately slaughtering large numbers of protesters, they care that the state’s response has been violent, they are bothered that the Egyptian government is trying to control information about the protests. But the change in international attitudes about human rights in the last couple hundred years, and especially the last 50 or so years, is only part of why these protests are possible and are having any political impact.

In the past, the flow of information was much slower and much easier to control. Not so long ago, the Egyptian government could have just killed a few hundred or a few thousand protestors and returned to business as usual. Even if the rest of the world found out about abuses and cared, it would have been far too late to interfere.  But now people around the world see what is happening in Egypt right now because of technological advances. Sure you could do the same thing with radio 50 years ago, but you didn’t hear the multitude of voices you can with something like twitter. You could see what’s happening in Egypt on TV, but you didn’t have thousands of people taking pictures and videos of their own experiences and putting them on facebook and youtube. And while it’s relatively simple to take over a couple radio or TV stations as a government, it’s awfully hard to shut down access to the internet – and it’s nearly impossible to track down and eliminate offending information. Even if you can shut down information flow in your own country, you can’t do it to the rest of the world. The international community can see, identify with, and feel like they are participating in these protest movements because of the flood of real-time information normal citizens are giving us. And between protestors and the resulting international pressure, things can change.

Visibility, the free flow of information, protects us all. The US is a pretty good place to live, but one day it might not be. One day, we might need the pressure of the international community to get us back on track or we might be cut off from information the government doesn’t want us to know (like how the US supported the Egyptian government and its human rights abuses).

Worryingly, the US is slowly but surely moving us towards an internet that is a lot more controlled than today’s. If we don’t work hard to protect our electronic freedom, we might find ourselves unable to communicate our government’s abuses with the rest of the world or to support people fighting for their rights and lives elsewhere.

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