The New Language of Revolution

The media must learn to interpret the evolving digital dialectic of global unrest.

The New Language of Revolution

The media must learn to interpret the evolving digital dialectic of global unrest.

Pro-democracy protesters march on a street as they take part in a demonstration on December 8, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
Pro-democracy protesters march on a street as they take part in a demonstration on December 8, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. © Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

We need to find new language to describe the current uprisings around the world against corrupt governments and vested interests. What is happening in Hong Kong, Algeria, Beirut, Baghdad, Iran and elsewhere reveal the depth of civic dissatisfaction with political leaders. More significantly, these uprisings defy historical patterns of revolutionary activity.

Post-war revolutions were generally led by charismatic leaders whose oratory or example attracted thousands of followers – enough to topple existing regimes. From Castro to Mandela, the emotions they stirred and the sense of injustice into which they tapped proved too much for well-armed and entrenched regimes to resist. In the face of the number of people who were prepared to risk supporting such revolutionaries, political change became inevitable.

When the Arab Spring erupted in 2011 on a digital wave that crested on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, it seemed that social media was going to make mass protest easy to organise and much harder to resist. Masses of people could come together, apparently spontaneously, to voice their discontent against dictatorship and military rule.

The enormous crowds which swept through Cairo and spawned similar uprisings elsewhere in the country appeared to be irresistible, but the military proved to be more resilient than the demonstrators anticipated. While opposition politicians attempted to take advantage of the opportunity to remove the military from power, it was only a matter of time before the generals reasserted their authority. The leaders of the uprising were identified. Bloggers and those who became spokespeople for the uprising were identified and arrested. The harassment continues to this day.

But the recent events in Beirut and Chile and Baghdad seem to be driven by a different phenomenon. Where are the leaders of these uprisings? Where are their spokespeople? Where are the people offering themselves as an alternative to the authoritarian rule they despise?

The new uprisings are apparently leaderless. You cannot arrest and disappear an individual you cannot identify. Indeed, they may not exist at all. You cannot arrest or kill everyone on the street, especially when they are all live on social media, filming, streaming, recording everything that happens around them.

Demonstrations are organised by different combinations of people, often on anonymous social media groups, behind encryption, beyond the reach of the authorities. The people on the streets do not need to know each other. They do not need to know their leaders. The force that drives them is not a person: it is an idea, a common view of what they want to change, articulated on social media. One IWPR staffer recently called this the Third Power. Before, we had the political status quo and the opposition to it. Now there is a third force, which is leaderless and not identifiable by traditional means.

And it’s a powerful force. People coalescing around an idea or set of principles; people who do not know each other but share an attitude and a perspective, which is proving more powerful than any traditional loyalty to family or status quo. If there is one common feature, it is they are mostly young and idealistic.

They also get their information from their own social media networks – and not from mainstream outlets, largely distrusted because they are often in the hands of the very political leadership they reject.

However, even free, international media outlets are finding that traditional methods of reporting are inadequate to describe what is really happening.

In Hong Kong for instance, western journalists report live on satellite TV, always in front of protestors on the street, often caught up in the adrenalin of the moment and appearing to endorse the exuberance and daring of the youngsters behind them. They risk inadvertently urging on these champions of change, somehow implying that “the west” supports them. In reality, western governments will do nothing to protect them.

More difficult still is that the leaderless nature of these uprisings means there is nobody with whom to negotiate a peaceful settlement. It becomes an all-or-nothing battle which will end badly for all, unless there a group emerges to represent the desires of the young.

Somehow, some form of digital mediation is needed, so that both sides can find a way forward that does not end in deadlock or bloodshed. A new language, a new way of engagement; a new digital dialogue may be about to arise.

However, our current political leadership shows little sign of embracing it. The extravagant, divisive language of many politicians sets a dangerous example for those on the street and hardly offers a lifeline in the current situation. Their discourse escalates tensions.

Sadly, traditional media fares little better. TV and much print journalism flounders behind the curve, using language that is not nuanced enough to provide an accurate picture of events. Only in the thick of social media can conversations begin to address the complexities of what is happening on the streets. Media needs to engage with the dialogue on social media in a much more dynamic way.

Out in the new world, IWPR is working with critical thinkers and social media champions who are immersed in the digital dialogue that swirls around current events. Here, a new language is evolving and new solutions are to be found. This is a world of aspiration, as well as a world where some dark forces lurk.

But there is no doubt that ideas on the web cross all geographical and cultural boundaries. They cut through nationality and sect. They appeal to young people who want a future where they can think and speak and explore, free from oppression and the chains that all too often bound their parents and grandparents.

To remain relevant and useful the media must become more effective at tapping into the evolving language of the digital revolution that is at the heart of the unrest in so many cities around the world. IWPR is there and learning every day.

Jerry Timmins is IWPR's deputy director and director of GMT Media Ltd. He was a senior executive on the board of BBC World Service, where he was regional head for Africa and the Middle East.

Frontline Updates
Support local journalists