Thursday, July 04, 2013

Claude Fischer reminds us that revolutionary waves and mass-mobilizing protests were around before Twitter

For the past three years Claude Fischer has been doing a blog dealing (concisely) with topics in social history and historical sociology titled Made In America. As the name suggests, it focuses mostly on American society, past and present—but not exclusively. Whatever the subject, Fischer's discussions are consistently enlightening and intellectually stimulating. So if you don't follow his blog at least occasionally, why not?

Last week Fischer had a useful post (see below) bringing some cautionary historical perspective to the widespread claims "that smartphones and social media have ushered in a new era of protest and revolution, enabling people to mobilize crowds locally and to arouse the discontented in other cities and even other countries." Well, yes and no. Technological changes, including changes in technologies of communication, certainly do matter, and they can make a difference. But one should resist the (perennial) temptations of simplistic technological reductionism.  Other factors matter, too, and claims to radical novelty like these are sometimes exaggerated.  Somehow, people managed to do some of these things before Twitter.

Among other things, Fischer highlights one historical comparison that has struck me for some time as especially relevant. As I've noted before, the closest historical parallel to the so-called "Arab Spring" that began in early 2011 was the European revolutionary wave of 1848, which some enthusiasts called the "Springtime of Peoples". (Another possible candidate is 1989, and at the beginnings of the "Arab Spring" some people hoped it would resemble the revolutions of 1989 in east/central Europe, but for various reasons 1848 has proved to be a much closer analogy.)  Although it may seem hard to believe, the revolutionary upheavals starting in 1848 spread across Europe more quickly than the upheavals starting in 2011 spread across the Arab world.  (Kurt Weyland, quoted by Claude, says that “the 1848 revolutions spread just as fast" as the so-called Arab Spring, but I think the point can be made even more strongly.) And they did it, not just without Facebook or Twittter or e-mail, but without TV, radio, or even telephones. Ponder that ...

(By the way, this post is titled "New Media and Old Manifestations". I presume the word "manifestations" involves a pun or a double-entendre, since manifestation is the French word for "demonstration".)

Yours for historically informed political sociology,
Jeff Weintraub

Claude Fischer (Made in America)
June 24, 2014
New Media and Old Manifestations

It appears that Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the protesters clogging up the downtowns of Turkish cities who are agitating against him agree on something. Erdogan recently decried “a menace that is called Twitter . . . . The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” Meanwhile, many of the protesters also see the social media as having unlocked the forces of popular uprising. (Notice the women on each side of the flag-carrier in the picture.)


Everywhere we read and hear the claim that smartphones and social media have ushered in a new era of protest and revolution, enabling people to mobilize crowds locally and to arouse the discontented in other cities and even other countries. This theme was common during the Occupy chatter, too. History, just about everyone says, has turned a (virtual) corner.

People, let’s get a grip – and I don’t mean on your smartphone; I mean on history.

Twentieth-Century “Flash Mobs”

Let’s go back to 1968, decades before the World Wide Web. As anyone who lived through it (I raise my hand) or read about it knows, it was a year of widespread youth protest in much of the western world and some Soviet bloc countries, too: Prague Spring; May 1968 in Paris (still a touchstone for the French); Grant Park riots at the Democratic Convention; and much more. And protesters in each place knew about one another and were inspired by one another. Todd Gitlin’s book book The Whole World is Watching reminds us that the world was — and people copied.

The 1960s was also an era of black urban “riots” or “rebellions” (pick your term by your politics). The violence came in waves, rapidly diffusing from one place to another. It was often a matter of hours between reports of an outbreak and then reports of one in another city. One study shows that people in smaller cities who saw on television outbreaks in larger cities were prompted to act themselves.

Just before this period of urban disorder was the era of nonviolent civil rights protests. These demonstrations also came in waves of imitation. Although the Civil Rights Movement was highly organized through colleges and churches, where and when specific sit-ins occurred reflected in great part the news media. One study concludes, “Blacks, predominantly college students, initiated sit-ins because they were inspired by previous sit-ins in other cities. Information about events elsewhere came primarily from news[paper] reports. . . . Potential protesters became more optimistic about the prospect of success simply because so many others were initiating sit-ins.”

Nineteenth-Century “Flash Mobs”

And then there is 1848. Wikipedia tells the story straightforwardly: “The European Revolutions of 1848, known in some countries as the Spring of Nations, Springtime of the Peoples or the Year of Revolution, were a series of political upheavals throughout Europe in 1848. It remains the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. . . . ” In a recent comparison of the Arab Spring protests to the 1848 “Springtime of the Peoples” uprisings, Kurt Weyland talks about the “tsunami” 165 years ago:
revolution spread immediately, right after the principal spark: the overthrow of France’s “Citizen King” Louis Philippe on February 24. Within three days, contention erupted on the Rhine in Mannheim, quickly reached Cologne, Leipzig, and Stuttgart (March 3), then Munich (March 6), Vienna and Berlin (March 13), and Copenhagen (March 20). . . . In April, the impulse arrived in the Americas and ended up fanning the flames of a smoldering rebellion in Northeastern Brazil, stimulating liberal reformism in Colombia, prompting the formation of a secretive Society of Equality in Chile, and helping to inspire the US women’s movement for the Seneca Falls Convention.
Weyland points out the obvious: “the 1848 revolutions spread just as fast as the [Arab Spring] protests, long before 24/7 TV news, Twitter, and Facebook.”

And for good measure, let’s not forget that the American Revolution was mobilized across the colonies in relatively rapid order by mail, by ship-born news, and by the talk in taverns (see earlier post.)


Have the internet and smartphone changed nothing about popular uprisings? Of course, they must have. But as yet we do not know how they have made mobilization and diffusion different than in the television era, or in the telegraph era for that matter. As we await the research, let’s hold off on the millennial declarations. Oh, and PM Erdogan might seek another explanation for his woes.

(Re-posted at the Boston Review on June 24, 2013 and on The Berkeley Blog on June 27, 2013.)