Readers of my blog know that I believe that the protests that are arising around the world with increasing frequency, more participants and wider support from the population as a whole, could explode into something more than protests. I’ve suggested that maybe it makes more sense to ask how this crisis compares to the period preceding the French Revolution rather than how it compares to the Depression. That gives rise to the question: How would you launch a revolution in the age of the Internet.
The people of Moldova (a country that aspires to join the European Union) just gave us a preview. We better look closely because this crisis is going to be tough enough to get through without global political turmoil and upheaval; it is hard to envision what the world would be like if people-versus-government protests morphed into organized violence. Take a look at the NY Times story of today headlined “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter.”
Some 10,000 protestors, mostly young and angry at the nation’s Communist leadership for denying them the freedom enjoyed by Western Europeans, seemed to materialize out of nowhere to ransack government buildings, clash with police, and basically wreck havoc in Chisinau, the nation’s seat of government. How did that happen?
They used Twitter. They used Facebook. They used the new tools of social networking. Natalia Morar, a leader of one of the two groups that organized and gave rise to the protest explained how it happened to The Times: “Six people, 10 minutes for brainstorming and decision-making, several hours of disseminating information through networks, Facebook, blogs, SMSs and e-mails.” [There is an interesting sidebar story about Morar here].
A 25-year old, Mihai Moscovici, used Twitter to keep the world informed of the protests on an ongoing basis in English. You can see his Twitter messages here. The Times reports that: “Evgeny Morozov, a specialist in technology and politics at the Open Society Institute in New York, a group that works with democratic movements worldwide and has been active in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, said Facebook and Twitter had apparently played a major role in the protests. ‘Nobody expected such a massive scale,’ he said. ‘I don’t know of any other factor which could account for it.’”
What can we learn from this? Although there is a serious generation gap issue in Moldova, the protest is linked to the global economic crisis. The Times article explains that Moldova is extremely poor, even compared to other Eastern European nations that are far from prosperous. As a result, young Moldovans (that is, the people now taking to the streets) looked for and found work outside of their nation. But the economic crisis has eliminated those jobs, and “foreigners” are always the first to be laid-off, and so these people came back to Chisinau. So, this protest, like so many others around the world, can be directly tied to the global economic situation.
The situation in Moldova was spontaneous. It erupted into violence but not with the usual tools of a revolution. No Molotov cocktails. No banners waving. But rocks and chunks of concrete were found by the protestors to throw at windows and ransack government buildings. What if it was better organized by people who really understand how to conduct a protest to erode and eventually topple support for any government? How quickly can a community be created, coalesced, and moved to action? The world has just seen it done basically instantaneously. This is a lesson that will not be ignored by the extremists of the world, who can use the new tools of communication with little cost of entry, and no language or geographical barriers. They also can adopt their own standards for truth and falsity. They can hide their agendas from those they rally into action.
How would a revolution be launched and managed in the era of the Internet? And what would the consequences be? How should you – as an investor, parent, entrepreneur, or someone just beginning to build a career – prepare or be defensive about that prospect? How should our own government react to organizations that pose threats to global security but exist primarily in cyberspace? I fear that those questions are going to become increasingly real.