Friday, February 4, 2011


Philip J Cunningham

Every uprising is different. But given shared human strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of crowd behavior, crowd control, and crowd chaos play out in ways that strike a common chord. Having written about popular protest, cultural clashes and street marches in East Asia for two decades now, there are certain commonalities that come to fore as the events in Cairo, as reported by Al Jazeera and other Internet sources, unfold in real time on my computer screen.

-Truth is an early casualty of any conflict, and the media comes under pressure almost immediately. Competing media narratives diverge wildly, usually the storytelling of the government pitted against the storytelling of the protesters. Distortions to the truth range from outright lies and censorship, to mudslinging, misdirection and deliberate prevarications. There is obfuscation and startling clarity. There are also moments of heartfelt expression, courageous calls for change and sometimes shocking clandestine reports from the frontlines of the conflict.

-Television stations are a coveted resource for those seeking political control. State television, even when it is reduced to producing propaganda, is such an effective transmitter of information, (including mis-information, mis-direction, taboos and telling silences) in regards to an escalating crisis that it can inadvertently help fan the flames of nationwide protest. Even when the details of a mass incident in progress are garbled or distorted by heavy-handed censorship, the fingerprints of the heavy-handedness are visible for all to see. The odd, Orwellian quality of manipulated news, what with its revved up nationalistic fervor, glaring contradictions, threatening reassurances and a rather too loud pleading of innocence, is politically charged enough to betray meta-truths about the abject nature of the regime.

-Reporters and citizen Journalists are at risk. Be it for their truth-telling capacity or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, journalists often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold. Journalists are detained and denied access to key locations, often in the name of safety. Western journalists are especially easy to find as they tend to hole up in luxury hotels where they are subject to surveillance, harassment, and confiscation of film, memory chips, cameras, etc.

-Al Jazeera TV. The upstart TV station based in Qatar has come of age, although it observes, like every news service on the earth, certain ground rules and avoids certain sensitive topics. Its unique take on world news is largely ignored by US cable TV providers, but luckily Al Jazeera Internet streaming can reach a truly global audience, providing a service to viewers whose television and cable service is tilted in favor of the national agendas of the traditional media giants such as CNN, BBC, Fox and ABC. In what might be understood as a backhanded compliment, Al Jazeera has been accused of meddling by the Egyptian government.

-The Internet. Online news services, specialist blogs, Twitter and social networking tools have helped get the story out as well. Advanced information technologies, and the costly, complex devices required to view the news on, are convenient when they work well, and they work especially well across borders at global distances, but remain largely out of the reach of the poor and can be rendered momentarily worthless when the plug gets pulled, as was the case in Egypt when the Internet was turned off. The technology itself is neutral, and there are various ingenious ways to get around blocking, but despite the freedom of expression hype, modern tools are no different from the printing press or radio in the sense that they can be used to further things good and bad and can be used to promote the cause of either side through skillful public relations and information control.

-Word of mouth. Fortunately, the information ecosystem is full of diverse platforms and incidental redundancies; if one technology fails, or is blocked, other ways of transmitting information remain. This includes everything from hardy, traditional technologies such as landline telephones and fax machines to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Rumors. Rightly or wrongly, rumors take the place of reliable information when reliable information is hard to come by. Rumors serve to excite people to action. The more severe information control at home, the more likely agitated citizens are to turn to the latest gossip on the street.

-Crowd dynamics. When a large crowd manages to gather and assemble, especially in an environment where political gatherings are generally banned and ruthlessly suppressed, success breeds success. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, it inspires others to follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in public space and coalesces on symbolic ground, a window is opened to possible political change, an opportunity not normally evident. An indefinable “something in the air,” combined with concrete opportunities for assembly, adequate channels for expression and a broad consensus that change is desirable if not necessary, helps kick-start a major public uprising. When this takes the form of staking out contested ground in the heart of the capital its significance is magnified in a way that enables a crowd to grow exponentially. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-Safety in numbers. When the numbers soar to the hundred of thousands, not only do individual members of the crowd begin to feel uncannily safe –however illusory that protective aura might be – but it gives rise to a sense that a historic turning point is at hand. Suddenly, due to a confluence of rising frustration, mutual reinforcement, strength in numbers and chance developments, there’s a perception that an unprecedented and largely unexpected overhaul to the status quo just might be possible. It’s a bid to hit society’s reset button.