Modern history can be told as a story of new communications technologies which both undermine authority and reinforce the power of the state. The last week has shown that the Internet and social media are playing these two roles well.
Start with the contrasting historical narratives. In the 15th century, printing undermined the autocratic Catholic Church. A few centuries later, cheaper printing made possible the newspapers and pamphlets which helped destroy monarchies and then spread democracy, nationalism and revolution around the world. Telephones and now the Internet have sped up the process.
But there is also the expanding state. Printing allowed central governments to set up and monitor extensive bureaucracies. Cheaper printing gave governments the means to take control of the education and indoctrination of children. Add in telephones, communicating computers and now the Internet, and liberal governments feel free to set up an extensive bureaucracy which monitors and guides almost any aspect of life.
Until Tuesday, it looked like Turkey might be demonstrating the disruptive power of new technology. It took only a few days for a protest over a building project in Istanbul to spark a national movement and become a global cause. A small group of people without anything like a clear agenda was able to jump ahead of the unpopular traditional opposition parties and the cowed old media. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the popular prime minister of Turkey, rightly held social media responsible. He called it “the worst menace to society”.
Tear gas and rubber bullets have scattered the demonstrators, but it’s too early to say that Erdogan has won. I think of the rebels who eventually unified Italy in the 1860s. Inspired by one of the first media-aided anti-authoritarian successes, the American Revolution, they spent decades using the popular press to win hearts and minds, both inside Italy and in several European powers. The new popular opinion eventually prevailed.