WASHINGTON — I’ve written a bit before on this blog about the ineffectiveness of governments doing things like blocking Twitter or shutting down the Internet entirely during political crises. But in a new article for the journal Political Communication, Yale Ph.D. candidate Navid Hassanpour takes this further by arguing that information blackouts actually aid political protesters. “Disrupting media and mobile communications promotes local mobilization, helps empower the radicals and increase the dispersion of protests,” he writes.
Some historical examples seem to bear this out. The largest demonstrations of the Iranian revolution of 1979 took place during an information blackout caused by a journalists’ strike. Pamphlets and samizdat audio cassettes filled the vacuum. Newspapers in Petrograd also ceased publication for a week that corresponded with some of the earliest protests of the Russian Revolution in February 1917.
According to Hassanpour’s hypothesis, when normal methods of spreading information are cut off, it forces citizens to rely on each other for gaining information about the political and social atmosphere, while the state is deprived of its direct and indirect propaganda and supervision tools. In such a situation, citizens are in?uenced by their peers including their radical neighbors in their local networks.” It also disperses people geographically. Individuals have to leave their homes to figure out what is going on or find family members, which can cause large crowds to assemble.
The central example of Hassanpour’s paper was Hosni Mubarak’s move to shut down internet and mobile phone service entirely in Egypt on January 28, 2011.
Three days earlier, a social media campaign organized by the April 6 Youth Movement had been instrumental in organizing large protests in Tahrir Square.
But rather than stalling the movement, the government’s shut down of the means of communications seemed to accelerate it. Partly, this was the result of activists figuring out ways to circumvent the ban.