This week’s blog question asks, “What aspects of international communication in history are still relevant today?” A constant feature of each new development in communication technology is control and censorship. Those in power (typically the state, but the Catholic Church is another good example) always have and always will step in and try to control the conversation.
In The Information Revolution and World Politics, Elizabeth Hanson tells us about the control measures imposed by Catholic Church in reaction to the printing press. The Vatican was afraid that products produced by the printing press would encourage dissent. They weren’t wrong – the printing press facilitated the dissemination of nonconformist views like those of Martin Luther. In an effort to control the spread of information and ideas, the Catholic Church released an “Index of Forbidden Books.” Anyone found printing an illegal book could be arrested or even burned at the stake. For a time in France, printing any book was forbidden and could result in death by hanging.
And so the pattern goes: New communication technology is introduced. Ideas spread like wildfire. Citizens become increasingly empowered politically and intellectually. State monopoly on information challenged. State attempts to censor and control information. Measures to limit fail.
Both the printing press and social media have followed in this pattern. Look at the Arab Spring and social media. Facebook became wildly popular in the Middle East in 2006 when the site switched open registration. People across the region used the site to share their stories (example: We Are All Khaled Said page) and eventually to organize. While Social Media didn’t start the protests, it certainly sped up the process by helping to shape the narrative. In time, governments caught on and attempted to quell protests by censoring Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter. People in Egypt, Libya, and Syria experienced full Internet shutdowns during the Arab Spring. The Tunisian government hacked into and stole passwords from citizens’ Facebook accounts.
In addition to censorship being a common thread, so is the failure of censorship measures. Just as the Church failed to stop the spread of dissenting ideas during the time of the printing press, Mubarak, Gaddafi, and Ben Ali tried and failed to stop social media from playing a role in their own demise. Even Assad, who still sits on his throne in Syria, cannot keep Facebook from facilitating the exchange of anti-Assad sentiments (and memes).
Ultimately, human beings refuse to accept restrictions on what they’re allowed to know. Communication technologies continue to increase the information available to us and shape the way we look at the world. Those in power will always insert themselves and attempt to control developments in communication. And they’ll continue to fail.