Caitlin’s project on how social media could have altered the Velvet Revolution inspired this post:
So you love Lord of the Rings? Sorry, that will be three years in prison. How about newspapers and comics? Oops, that will be one more year. Under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, distributing, possessing and even glancing at a banned book would get you sent straight to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
George Gruntorad, the director of the Libri Prohibiti (library of banned books) in Prague, was sent to jail three times during the years leading up to the Velvet Revolution, simply because he loved books and wanted to share them. Gruntorad began as an apolitical scholar, but as the government chipped away at his life, he decided to fight back. Samizdat (self-published book) was a central part of the Velvet Revolution. Gruntorad, Havel and many of the student leaders who would go on to start the Civic Forum, would go to extreme measures to get newspapers and fictional novels into the hands of Czechs. Monika, a student leader, would go to rock concerts and cafes with copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in her bag, risking imprisonment in the hopes of giving a book to one stranger. Why would they risk their freedom for something as irrelevant as a book about a tiny man’s quest and a Stoor Hobbit’s hoarding problem?
As Havel concludes in “The Power of the Powerless,” one of the greatest weapons a powerless population can acquire is knowledge. Any knowledge, whether from a manifesto or from a month-old newspaper, is powerful because it combats ignorance. Once people become aware of an outside world, and in the case of Czechoslovakia a non-communist one, they will realize that they want to make a change.
If the key to an uprising against a totalitarian regime was knowledge, then social media would have been the holy grail. People complain that social media activism is merely slacktivism, that all facebook and instagram are really used for is sharing pictures of kitties and parties. But in a time of censorship, when samizdat publications took days to create and weeks to disseminate, think about the power SNSs. In order to create one page of a book, you could put 10-15 pages in a typewriter stacked with carbon paper, hand type it (beware of typos), bind it, and try and sneak it into people’s lives through social events and large group gatherings. On the other hand with Twitter, you could have linked to a news article, a book summary, a disturbing fact or any number of things in seconds and shared it with millions.
Many people were caught and arrested when they were trying to pass books face to face, but if they had used public computers with anonymous usernames, they could have gone untouched. Like Anonymous today, Havel and other dissidents could have reached thousands per day without getting caught. Going back to Nazism, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Movement might not have ended in executions; if they could have spread their pamphlets online instead of in person at a university; they could have evaded the authorities and potentially ended Hitler’s reign early.
Physical protest might be necessary in other revolutions, but at the beginning of the Czech Republic’s, information was the most important factor. Havel and others needed to stir the placid minds of the masses, needed the sheep to look around and realize that they were in a pen and on the other side was free will and Bob Dylan. If George Gruntorad had had access to Facebook, instead of being tortured in interrogation and placed behind bars for half a decade, he could have linked to a YouTube video of a really, really cute cat…reading 1984.