As China prepared to quell the Tienanmen Square protests in 1989, the government of Deng Xiaoping made a crucial tactical decision: It ordered western networks to shut down their satellite trucks, making sure the violent end to the revolution would not be televised.
As Egypt tried to contain nationwide protests this past weekend, the government of President Hosni Mubarak at first did nothing to stanch the endless real-time flow of street-level video showing angry, violent confrontations.
Instead, they turned off the Internet.
China’s ruthless approach handed the regime an enduring propaganda victory, of course. Even though hundreds of peaceful protesters were mercilessly mowed down when the military swept through Tienanmen Square, the most iconic image of the crackdown is downright peaceful: A tank commander refusing to challenge a single, unarmed civilian who would not yield.
On the other hand, for all the democratizing power the internet provides, Egypt’s decision to shut the internet door shortly after midnight Friday (along with much wireless service), while technically effective, was entirely ineffectual. And as for TV: It was only on Sunday that Cairo moved to silence Al Jazeera, which had been broadcasting non-stop, in what one hopes is not prelude to a Tienanmen Solution.
It all gets down to critical mass. Twitter and Facebook are peerless accelerants, but when you can look out of your window to see where the protesting is going on (to paraphrase veteran NBC correspondent Richard Engle) the power of the internet is dwarfed by pure people power.