The twitter and text message explosion has changed the face of revolution. Thousands of messages can be sent out in seconds to tell protestors where to gather or what spots to avoid because of heavy police presence. The internet enables the disaffected and politically marginalized to organize and plan. The authorities are clearly worried. One of the first things that the Chinese and Iranian governments did when confronted recently by popular unrest was to limit access to the internet and shut down cell phone transmitters.
Iran had earlier centralized its internet servers to enable it to control almost all traffic going into and out of the country. China has long censored internet traffic using software that searches for specific words and content, somewhat similar to the keyword searches that the United States National Security Agency carries out using its batteries of computers. In both cases, the authorities were fairly effective at shutting down communications from the protesters to the outside world though they were less successful at controlling communications within the country, among the demonstrators themselves. Many images, some of which may have been deliberately staged, of what was taking place eventually leaked out into the west. For some of the organizers that was clearly the intention, i.e., to develop an international audience. Many observers of the unrest in Iran commented on how many of the signs on the streets of Tehran were in English.
Five years ago President Vladimir Putin of Russia complained that outsiders, particularly acting under the auspices of Non Government Organizations, or NGOs, were interfering in his politics. He noted that some of them appeared to be funded by actual governments and in 2006 passed laws that attempted to control what types of activities NGOs would be allowed to get involved in and also from whom they were obtaining their money. He was denounced as anti-democratic and his comments were ignored, particularly in Europe and the United States, but they were followed by similar observations from leaders of many of the Eastern European states of the former Soviet Union. Iran likewise has been complaining to no avail about the more overt efforts directed against itself including the $400 million budgeted from a presidential finding to fund covert operations.
Direct attempts to change governments by funding NGOs included the US Congress’s Iran Democracy Act and the Syria Accountability Act, the latter directed against Iran’s neighbor. The money and effort that is being channeled through NGOs is being used to change the way many countries are governed, to make them become more democratic or at least more cooperative with Europe and the United States. The countries on the receiving end are more often than not completely aware of what is going on. Frequently, the western media jumps on the band wagon to complete the job, hailing the arrival of democracy in yet another poor benighted land while carefully ignoring the corruption of the newly minted democratic leaders.
It is sad to say that the United States has had and continues to have an actual hand in much of the unrest, part and parcel of the democracy creation mania that seems to obsess Democrat and Republican alike. Where regime change coming out of Washington might once have been done covertly by the CIA, it is now done openly by a number of organizations that are ostensibly "private" but are in reality funded by the government, the NGOs and others that Vladimir Putin and others have been complaining about. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), with its bipartisan International Republican Institute and its National Democratic Institute wings, is the chief culprit, but the US Agency for International Development also is involved, funded under the Freedom Support Act. The National Endowment for Democracy, which funds changing governments overseas and has virtually no oversight, would in any other guise be proscribed as a dangerous underground group.
What do these organizations do when they set out to overturn a government? They would not be so unwise as to appear adversarial or cast themselves as revolutionaries, so they instead describe themselves in the most benign terms while becoming enablers for others who wish to "create democracy." They understand above all that the ability to protest and force the change of governments is not new but that the new technologies have changed the entire game.
Witness the wave of pastel revolutions that have swept across Eastern Europe. They were local expressions of rage at corrupt and overbearing government to be sure but they almost invariably were manipulated by outsiders to produce a certain result. For Washington, it was enough that communists were being removed. In the Ukraine the communists were forced out in 2005 only to be replaced by "reformer" Viktor Yushchenko and his equally corrupt business interests. In Georgia the hard liners were likewise replaced by someone equally corrupt and even more unstable in the person of Mikhail Saakashvili whose sole virtue appears to be that he speaks English. He proved to be so out of touch with reality that he pushed his country into a disastrous war with Russia.
Note especially that the crowds that appeared on the streets of Kiev and Tbilisi were not there spontaneously. They were summoned using the new technologies of cell phones and internet. The participants in the rallies might have been sincere in their desire for change, but they were all ultimately being manipulated by someone for some political objective. Witness for example the recent post-election riots in Iran. No one can doubt the sincerity or integrity of most of the demonstrators, but the men behind the demonstrators and seeking to benefit from their action were Ali Akhbar Rafsanjani and Mir Houssein Mousavi, two men whose histories and motives can easily be questioned. Who provided the signs and cell phones? Rafsanjani.
The most recent pastel event, which took place in Moldova in April, has been neatly dissected by Daniel McAdams. The elections, which observers judged to have been conducted without notable fraud, were won, as expected, by the communist candidate Vladimir Voronin. Then came the reaction. Crowds of young people clutching their expensive iPhones appeared in the street claiming fraud, a cry that was quickly picked up by the international media. How did it happen? One of the twitterers claimed that she had been able to get 15,000 people into the streets using a staff of six who spent several hours disseminating information through various networks. One of the Moldovan NGOs behind the twittering is supported by the United States through the Freedom Support Act, and admits so on its website, which includes a US government seal. A major program operating in Moldova and elsewhere is the US-funded Internet Access Training Program, which provides free internet access, training, and equipment. Mystery solved. Programs supported by Washington are where many of the expensive phones come from. USAID claims that its program in Moldova is "cultivating new political activists who can formulate and pursue concrete political objectives."
Is it any wonder that foreign governments get nervous when NED and USAID rear their heads? The sound of the twitter will quickly follow and a crowd in the street will demand that the elected government be overthrown. And the technology and rent a crowd technique is politically neutral. It can be used against right wing regimes as well as left wing regimes. One wonders if the student demonstrations plaguing Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez might have a common source with the demonstrations against Burma’s rulers. The United States, ironically, appears to be engaging in the concept of permanent revolution, a Marxist idea, but it is now doing so twitter style.