Conflict is an inevitable component of human existence. Some conflicts are resolved quickly, while others persist until they eventually result in a revolution. In 1989, after forty-one years of suppressive communist rule in Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovak students and dissidents joined together to speak out against the totalitarian regime through the Velvet Revolution. This revolution began on November 17, 1989, when Czechoslovak students gathered for a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students Day. This peaceful demonstration quickly took a turn for the worst when students were stopped by riot police and beaten. Outraged by the police brutality and encouraged by the anti-communist ideas of banned playwright Vaclav Havel, numerous Czechoslovak citizens, students, and dissidents who had negative beliefs about the communist government joined together and began a series of popular demonstrations. Within three days, the number of protestors in Prague grew from 200,000 to about 500,000. After months of peaceful protests and demonstrations against the government, top leaders in the communist party began to resign. On December 29 1989, after the fall of communism, Havel was elected President of the new democracy.
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Why did it take forty-one years of suppressive communist rule before a successful revolution, such as this, occurred? One of the main elements that inhibited the formation of a revolution earlier was the high risk associated with expressing negative views towards the communist government. Although many courageous dissidents spoke out against the government, many citizens feared that if they supported the dissidents they would be dismissed from school or work. In addition, there were “collective action problems” which made it very difficult for citizens who shared similar views to coordinate and communicate those ideas. In New Media and the People-Powered Uprisings, Zeynep Tufekci describes, “’Collective action problems’ arise when a problem can be solved only through cooperation by many, but when there are strong disincentives for any one individual to participate, especially if victory is not guaranteed.” Today, the existence of social media solves the collective action problem – Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform makes it easy for individuals to congregate in a shared space, share thoughts and ideas, and coordinate a course of action. So, if these social media outlets were as widespread in 1989 as they are today, would the Velvet Revolution occurred decades earlier? If citizens could express their political views by simply liking a Facebook page, or retweeting a tweet, would the Velvet Revolution have occurred in, say, 1969, instead? This seems like a logical conclusion, but in Why the revolution will not be tweeted, Malcom Gladwell argues the contrary.
According to Gladwell, although social media is a tool that makes it much easier for the powerless to collaborate, it lacks many essential qualities that are critical for a successful revolution. First, Gladwell underlines the need for a strong relationship among activists. He argues that social media platforms are built around weak ties, which rarely lead to high-risk activism. If the Velvet Revolution could have succeeded simply by having a large number of citizens like a Facebook page, it’s possible that it would have occurred much sooner and much more quickly. However, this revolution would not have been successful in overthrowing a totalitarian regime without having hundreds of thousands of citizens relentlessly marching the streets of Prague. And what are the chances you would risk persecution by the secret police or even your life to go out and fight with people you only know because you follow them on twitter? Slim.
Gladwell also argues that social media activism is often not successful because of its lack of hierarchal organization. In social network sites, every participant has an equal say. While this quality can be positive, in order to take on a powerful establishment and bring about a systematic change, a hierarchal institution is needed. In the Velvet Revolution, Vaclav Havel became the head of the hierarchy as he sparked the movement, and provided encouragement as it progressed. In Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution in the Age of Social Media, Erik Kain writes, “The Velvet Revolution may have succeeded just fine had its members only been equipped with smart phones and Twitter accounts, but what would Czechoslovakia look like now had Václav Havel never been at the helm? Not as free or as prosperous I suspect.” Although Kain’s conclusion seems to be a bit of a leap, he is stressing the same idea as Gladwell: the importance of a hierarchal structure in a revolution.
While social network sites are powerful and have enhanced many aspects of society, when it comes to activism, they are “effective at increasing participation – by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” (Gladwell). Had these social networks existed during the communist rule in Czechoslovakia, citizens would have been able to communicate and share their resentment about the government much more easily. But would a few online forums, Facebook pages, or a trending hashtag on Twitter be enough to pull strangers together and motivate them to risk their lives for the cause? Probably not.
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