How to run a protest without Twitter

BOSTON — This year's web wunderkind, Twitter, has been credited as a force in organizing protesters in Thailand, Moldova and, now, Iran.

But in Iran, the government has clamped down on the mobile network and put up Internet firewalls, leaving us to wonder how opposition leaders are getting the word out — which they seem to be doing, as reports trickle out in spite of government restrictions on the media that demonstrations continue unabated.

So we talked to past protest leaders to find out how they toppled governments and grabbed the world's attention before there were mobile phones or an Internet. 

Hungary, 1956 — Flyers and word of mouth

Gyuri Lassan, then a 20-year-old construction worker, had seen flyers around university campuses in Budapest advertising meetings for the organization of a student revolution to fight the communists prior to Oct. 23, 1956. That evening, thousands of students met at the building of the Hungarian National Radio, linked arms and began a protest against the Communist regime.

During his morning commute the next day, Lassan heard on the radio that the students had broken into the building. Given the unusual morning traffic, rumors of an uprising spread quickly through the city.

“The whole of Pest knew what was going on,” Lassan said. “People were talking to each other on the street, the executives were coming down out of the office buildings.”

Before the march on the radio station that evening, students had organized secretly for weeks. Many at the universities had illegally used old printing presses to produce flyers and old radio equipment to send messages in Morse code to other groups meeting to organize and finalize their plans to march on the radio station.

Jozsef Erdelyi was only 8 years old at the time of the revolution, but his 17-year-old brother had heard broadcasts from the Communist leaders on the radio telling people to go home or risk arrest.

"The more the radio told people to go home, the more came out onto the streets,” Erdelyi said. The streets were full of yells and chants urging citizens to march on the radio station and resist the AVO, the Communist police force.

“I went alone to the radio station,” Lassan said. “I met people on the way and we couldn’t believe this ridiculous situation. There were police and AVO men everywhere, but we thought we were really doing something … that we could overcome them.”

United States, 1960s — Face-to-face and mimeograph machines

Students for a Democratic Society built its nationwide antiwar movement in the 1960s “primarily face to face,” said Michael Ansara, who served as New England coordinator for the group while studying at Harvard. "This is not only before Twitter, this is before computers," cell phones and fax machines, he said. “This was like the Dark Ages.”

“It was all printed word, and word of mouth and sometimes phone trees,” Ansara said. With the latter method, “You could reach a couple thousand people quickly.”

Ansara also described the group’s use of hand-operated mimeograph machines, provided by campus ministries or sympathetic professors, when information needed to be disseminated at night. After printing leaflets one by one, students would fan out across dormitories, dropping them under each door.

Intercampus SDS coordination depended on personal relationships, Ansara said. He maintained contact with coordinators for every New England campus, who in turn organized the efforts of activists at their respective schools. The group’s structure was not unlike that of an urban political machine, he said.

In Iran, Ansara believes that the Internet and cell phones allow for a faster, less centralized movement, but “if Twitter’s gone, they’ll find another way to communicate, even if it’s going up to the rooftop” and shouting. While the technology of dissent may evolve, he said, “fundamentally this is all the same process, which is self-organization plus inspired leadership.”

United States, 1960s — The latest technology: pay phones and TV

Once-pioneering technologies like pay phones and television were used by the Freedom Riders in much the same way contemporary protesters use Twitter and Facebook.

Paul Breines, a former Freedom Rider who rode buses through the south to combat racial inequality in America’s public transportation system, cited pay phones and television as key components of mobilization and coordination.

Pay phones, which are a rare sight now that mobile phones proliferate, helped keep the Freedom Riders informed and connected. Breines said, “pay phones were widely in use, especially because the home phones of leading activists and probably most 'movement' offices were eventually tapped, either by the FBI or by local security or police agencies.”

Television, which was the landmark technology of the1960s, spread word of the movement to the rest of American society. “Precisely in the early 1960s, television was starting to play a big role in everything. To get things out to the larger ‘outside world’ the movements were pretty much dependent on television coverage,” Breines said.

Breines said not having the internet did not put the Freedom Riders at a disadvantage. “Those of us in all of the protest movements had no idea that we didn’t have the internet, Twitter, cell phones, and so on; no idea that we were pre-modern,” he said.

East Timor, 1970s-1980s — The 100 lbs. tweet

Another challenge for popular uprisings before ubiquitous digital communications was getting the message to the outside world. Rebels in East Timor were masters at this in the years following the 1975 Indonesian invasion.

East Timor’s cause was the longest of long shots. A small, poor and remote dot on the Indonesian archipelago, it was struggling for independence from Jakarta’s rule. It was surrounded on all sides by its foe, or by ocean. Cold War administrations in Washington opposed its cause and equipped Indonesia with fighter jets to keep the territory from turning communist.

But the Timorese knew how to use adversity to their advantage. Indonesian troops committed all manners of atrocities, strafing villages and starving the local population. In an interview several years ago, then-President Xanana Gusmao said the country owes its independence in no small part to its ability to get the news of these atrocities out.

But it was by no means as easy as sending a tweet.

Instead, the rebels lugged a 100-pound radio transmitter. For years, there was massive soldier who carried it on his back through the rugged trails, Gusmao recalled. When they reached a point high enough, they would transmit the latest developments, and then quickly flee before the Indonesians tracked them down. Their audience was a small group of Australian supporters, who set up a large antenna in the outback to receive the faint, crackly signal. (Theirs, too, was a dangerous game, as the Australian government regarded the group as communist supporters.) The message would then be encoded and sent by mail or phone to East Timor’s expat supporters in the West — gifted diplomats including Jose Ramos Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his "work towards a just and peaceful solution to the conflict in East Timor."

Iran, 1979 — Smuggled cassettes

During the Iranian revolution, there were several means of communication in Iran. According to the non-profit Iran Chamber Society, these were very important communication tools for Ayatollah Rouhollah Mousavi Khomeini:

  • International media (newspaper, radio, telephone, telegraph) after his arrival to Paris,
  • Distribution of his articles in Iran by his supporters at night,
  • Lectures by clerics throughout the country (every small village in Iran has a cleric).

In an attempt to weaken Khomeini's ability to communicate with his supporters, the Shah urged the government of Iraq, where Khomeini was living in exile, to deport him. The Iraqi government cooperated and on Oct. 3, 1978, Khomeini left Iraq for Kuwait, but was refused entry. Three days later he left for Paris and took up residence in the suburb of Neauphle-le-Chateau. Though farther from Iran, telephone connections with the home country and access to the international press were far better than in Iraq.

According to The Guardian, a lot of Khomeini’s messages to Iranian people came through smuggled cassettes: "[Khomeini’s] messages were distributed through music cassettes, which were smuggled into Iran in small numbers, and then duplicated, and spread all around the country.”

Another very important communication method at the time was pamphlets which were printed and distributed clandestinely at night time. These pamphlets asked people to join demonstrations and informed them of activities.

Foreign media also helped spread otherwise unavailable information, even though such sources were censored heavily by Shah. Media outlets such as the BBC and The Guardian reported extensively on events in Iran.

China, 1989 — Posters, poetry and the goddess

The student-led movement that swept Beijing in the spring of 1989 and ended in tragedy began amid a uniquely Chinese form of political communication and dissent: written protests and poetry posted in public gathering spots. The spontaneous posting on college campuses of dazibao, or “big character posters,” which criticized government officials and policies and called for reforms, became a common form of communication during the Tiananmen movement.

Dazibao had been used for centuries in China to express dissent, and cropped up again and again amid the roiling political turbulence of China’s 20th century.

But word of the Tiananmen protests got two other important boosts.

First, central authorities did not prevent local media from reporting on the story. So news spread rapidly throughout the country. It then spread wider, and faster, thanks to foreign media who happened to be in Beijing to cover a state visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Students quickly capitalized on this development, writing signs in English for broadcast on CNN and the BBC and constructing the “Goddess of Democracy” — a statue that came to symbolize the event for television viewers around the world.

East Germany, 1989 — Plotting in the churches

East Germany's proximity to the West limited the government's ability to control outside communications. "East Germany had the special situation that you could listen to all the West German radio stations and in most parts, you could also receive the TV stations," said David Gill, an opposition leader who helped lead the storming of the Stasi, or secret police, buildings in January 1990.

"And then people mostly met in churches — the demonstrations in the beginning always started from churches," he said. Every Monday night, many churches would hold peace prayers, which became increasingly political. Between word of mouth and West German broadcasting, word spread of the weekly ritual.

"People knew if they wanted to be part of the movement, they should look what's going on in the church in town," Gill said. "People went to church because they knew after this, they would go out for demonstrations."

When protests began in East Germany, the crowds numbered in the hundreds, but they grew to hundreds of thousands. And as the revolution progressed, state controls grew looser. When theater workers organized a large demonstration in Berlin in November 1989, the protest was advertised even in the newspapers — "it was no longer really undercover," Gill said. Then the Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989.

But back in the beginning, worry of a crackdown loomed: "There was a big fear that the East German authorities could turn violent, like in Tiananmen a couple of months before," he said.

Poland and Czechoslovakia, 1989 — Carbon paper?

Students and dissidents in former Soviet-bloc countries like Poland and then-Czechoslovakia didn't have the advanced communication of 20 years later — email, Internet and cell phones.

Heck, they were lucky if they even had a computer and a printer. Those allowed them to write up their underground newspaper — Samizdat — and easily print hundreds, or thousands, of copies in short order. Otherwise they were left to bang it out on typewriters, using carbon paper (if you are under 30 you probably don't even know what that is). If they were lucky, they could make six carbon copies at a time, typing it out letter by letter.

The Samizdat newspapers — like every other kind of information students and dissidents sought to distribute — required good-old-fashioned shoe leather. Nobody dared use a telephone to arrange a meeting — or anything else — for fear the secret police were listening in. So information was distributed by word of mouth, person-to-person.

In Poland the underground media reports — mostly print but also radio — were picked up by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, which then broadcast the news back into Poland, according to Konstanty Gebert, a commentator for Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland's leading newspapers.

“This of course gave the authorities the time to prepare, but it was the only way to get large numbers of people out on the street,” he wrote in an email.

Monika Pajerova was a student leader of the Velvet Revolution that brought down the communist government in 1989.

“Czechoslovakia was completely cut off from the outside world,” she said. “We only had Radio Free Europe, which was difficult to receive.”

But after the huge demonstration on Nov. 17, 1989, when hundreds of thousands joined the students' protest, many of them spontaneously, organizers knew their time had come.

“It was the first time since '68 that so many people were in the streets,” Pajerova said, referring to the Prague Spring, a reform movement in 1968 that sought "Socialism with a human face." The Spring was crushed by Soviet tanks that summer, and the country labored under one of the most retrograde communist regimes in the Eastern bloc for the next 21 years.

“We knew we had to get the message out,” she said. “Our biggest fear was that the protests would start and end in Prague.”

So hundreds of students, dissidents and celebrities were dispatched by car to spread the message to the countryside.

Less than a month later, Havel – who had been jailed several times by the Communist government — was elected president by the communist parliament. And the communist government was soon out of power.

For the protesters in Iran to succeed, will require both determination and luck, according to Pajerova.

“The crucial thing is to have a group of people absolutely devoted to the cause,” she said. “But you also need historical context.”

The collapse of communist governments in East Germany and Poland that year, as well as the Soviet Union's refusal to offer military support was a boon for the dissidents. That and the fact that the Prague Spring, a generation before, as well as the country's brief experiment with democracy between the world wars, made the time ripe for the Czechoslovak revolution.

By contrast, the pro-democracy protests in China that same year were brutally crushed by the Beijing government.

“In Tiananmen,” she said, “the historical context wasn't there.”

In retrospect

Historically, new technologies have consistently shaped collective action, said Paul Buhle, former professor of American Civilization at Brown University and scholar of social movements.

In the 1920s, the radio stations WEVD and WCFL sought to exploit their new medium to bring the Socialist and Labor movements to wider audiences, he said. While these first stations, whose call letters referred respectively to Eugene V. Debs and the Chicago Federation of Labor, failed to significantly bolster their causes, pirate radio would later become invaluable to dissident movements throughout the world.

But technology can be a double-edged sword for social movements. “The way strikes used to succeed was by stopping people from going across the picket line, and often that meant getting into fistfights with them. Then came video cameras and it became impossible to throw a punch” for fear of prosecution, Buhle said.

More recently, technology has served movements by furthering accountability. “It’s much harder now for police to act horribly because of the threat that somebody will have a cell phone and record it,” Buhle said. Citing past abuses against protesters at political conventions, he said “if these had been recorded and made instantly available on YouTube it might have made a difference”

And “what’s true for Chicago or Minneapolis or New York is true for Iran too,” Buhle said. “It doesn’t mean authorities can be stopped, but it makes it much more difficult for them to deny who is doing the violence.”

David Case, Stephanie S. Garlow, Ashley Herendeen, Bruce I. Konviser, Barbara E. Martinez, Kathleen E. McLaughlin, Thomas Mucha, Alex Pearlman and Ben Schreckinger contributed to this report.