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Is Malcolm Gladwell wrong on Egypt and social media?

Malcolm Gladwell argues that Facebook and Twitter were irrelevant to Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern uprisings.

To borrow one of Gladwell’s own ideas, the many-to-many approach of Facebook — in which anyone can broadcast information on protests or images of atrocities — is catalyzing a tipping point for outrage.

That an observer of Gladwell’s exceptional talents could miss the revolutionary power of social media is, it seems, a sign of just how quickly communications (and modern life) are changing. Consider an example of how revolution was waged a generation ago.

In 1975, in one of the Cold War era’s most improbable quests, rebels in East Timor — a poor island territory where wealth was measured in water buffalo — declared independence. Resource-rich Indonesia, which surrounded East Timor and claimed sovereignty over it, invaded. Fearing that East Timorese independence would aid the Soviets, Henry Kissinger gave the nod for Indonesia to unleash American bombers to crush the (left-leaning) rebellion.

The atrocities were legion. Indonesia’s troops executed hundreds of civilians, forcing onlookers to count as they dumped the bodies one by one into the harbor. Soldiers pried terrified children from their mothers' arms before shooting the women. As the war raged on, entire villages were massacred and razed.

Rebel leader Xanana Gusmao was desperate to alert the outside world to these crimes. But how? Surrounded by ocean and enemy territory, in the darkest years of the struggle, they relied on a Wagner 50-watt single sideband transceiver, which they hauled to mountain tops to transmit a staticky signal in hopes that supporters in Australia would be listening. The rebels rushed their broadcasts so that the enemy couldn’t track the signal and kill them. Complicating matters, only one man among them — “his nom de guerre was Hadomi,” Xanana told me — was strong enough to carry the massive transceiver battery. Eventually the Indonesians killed Hadomi, and the rebels were silenced.

It took East Timor until 2002 to win its independence, some 27 years. By then, a quarter of the population had lost their lives.

Imagine what Xanana could have done with an iPhone and a Facebook page.

Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport