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How to run a protest without Twitter

Iranians can learn from leaders of protests — from Berlin to Beijing — before modern telecommunications.

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