Connect to share and comment

How to run a protest without Twitter

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

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.