The conventional wisdom that electronic media destabilizes authoritarian regimes is dead wrong, according to two papers recently published by political scientists at Yale and MIT.
Through their 2009 study of the effects of West German television on East Germans able to see it, the authors of “Opium for the Masses: How Foreign Media can Stabilize Authoritarian Regimes” came to the conclusion that “exposure to West German television increased support for the East German regime…it offered them a vicarious escape from the scarcities, the queues and the ideological indoctrination, making life under communism more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable.” This of course flies in the face of what we are often told to be the case: that the electronic media revolution undermines totalitarian political authority through its radical empowerment of the individual citizen.
In the more recent “Media Disruption Exacerbates Revolutionary Unrest: Evidence from Mubarak’s Natural Experiment,” Navid Hassanpour, a political science graduate student at Yale, examines the effects of the internet blackout which the Mubarak regime turned to in a desperate attempt to maintain control. What he found was that:
The disruption of cellphone coverage and Internet on the 28th exacerbated the unrest in at least three major ways…it implicated many apolitical citizens unaware of or uninterested in the unrest; it forced more face-to-face communication, i.e., more physical presence in streets; and finally it effectively decentralized the rebellion on the 28th through new hybrid communication tactics, producing a quagmire much harder to control and repress than one massive gathering in Tahrir.
In a New York Times article discussing these papers, Hassanpour “described ‘the strange darkness’ that takes place in a society deprived of media outlets. ‘We become more normal when we actually know what is going on — we are more unpredictable when we don’t — on a mass scale that has interesting implications.’”
The final word in the article is given to philosopher-revolutionary Frantz Fanon:
who discussed the role of radio in the Algerian revolt against the French in the 1950s. When the French tried to block their transmissions, Fanon wrote in his 1959 book, “A Dying Colonialism,” the rebels had even more power, because the listeners were no longer passive. Fanon’s description recalls “the strange darkness” Mr. Hassanpour mentioned:
“For an hour the room would be filled with the piercing, excruciating din of the jamming. Behind each modulation, each active crackling, the Algerian would imagine not only words, but concrete battles.”
Its “phantom-like character,” Fanon concluded paradoxically, “gave to the combat its maximum of reality.”