It’s important to remember how recent the entire information revolution is. Fifteen years ago in Tunisia or Egypt all you could read, hear and see was government propaganda. State television – the main source of information for the vast majority – was a daily catalogue of the great deeds of Hosni Mubarak or President Ben Ali or whomever.
The first great revolution was the satellite TV revolution, which brought images and information and real reporting to the Arab people for the first time.
The regime might not have wanted people to know of the 2005 protests for democracy in Egypt, for example, but people quickly learned of it anyway. Then came the internet revolution, which provided even more information and gave people the opportunity to post information and opinions anonymously.
There was a superb and hilarious website, for example, that would make daily fun of the turgid propaganda put out by Egypt’s state newspaper, Al-Ahram.
Finally came the social networking revolution, which allowed people to share information, opinions and organizing ideas. It helped them rally. They could do this not just using a computer, which is still a luxury product for the wealthy in the Arab world, but with a cell phone, which is a basic necessity that everyone owns.
So the combination of these three revolutions was to move information from what I call a “one-to-many” system to a “many-to-many” system.
It used to be that revolutions began by seizing the radio station or the TV station because that allowed the new regime to broadcast its message to the masses – control information from one to many.
But today’s technology is many to many, epitomized by the internet where everyone is connected but no one is in control. This system helps the individual; it breaks the regime’s monopoly on information; it allows people to organize; and it allows people to refute the lies put out by a regime.
It’s not a silver bullet, but clearly today’s information technology has the effect of disintermediating – it breaks down hierarchies and monopolies.
That’s got to be good for the individual, and it must be bad for dictatorships.