The Twitter Revolution

Wade L. Robison


Abstract: Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers against adding a Bill of Rights to our Constitution. Besides sending the misleading signal that we need protection from a government to which we have granted only limited powers, some features of a Bill of Rights would be useless, he argued. In particular, regarding freedom of the press, he said in Paper No. 84 that “its security, whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting it, must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.”

We can find no better example of Hamilton’s general point than the way Iranians used twitter to communicate and organize protests regarding the presidential election there and few better examples of how important new modes of communication have become in ensuring that citizens are heard. But there are several different issues to disentangle here.

First, with the technological revolution of the last several decades we have moved far beyond concern about what we now can see is of very limited value. It is not freedom of the press that should be our concern, but freedom of communication, in all its forms, the press being the most prominent when our constitution was created and far less prominent, in its printed format at least, in this era. Technology has produced new ways of communicating that would beggar Hamilton’s imagination. The printed press is such a very small part of our technologically enhanced forms of communication that the phrase “freedom of the press” seems almost quaint if taken to refer to how citizens are now to obtain information relevant to their role as citizens and to communicate with one another about matters of common concern.

Second, as the old saw has it, “An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.” These new forms of communication give us the potential for far more informed citizens and, as the Iranian protests illustrate, the potential as well for new ways to mobilize and organize citizens — and get a sense of public opinion. The Iranian Constitution provides for freedom of the press except “when it is detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” The security of this restriction, as Hamilton might put it, clearly depends upon Iranian public opinion. But a large number of Iranians disagreed with the government’s judgment about what is detrimental and voted by twittering.

Third, these new modes of communication are somewhat dependent on a government’s not interfering with them. The Iranian government tried to control twitter communications when it realized that those protesting were using it to coordinate their protests. As long as the “general spirit…of the government” runs counter to the aims of those using these new modes of communication to organize or critique the government, communication by these modes among citizens of a country is at risk.

So, fourth, we have a challenge. Can we develop a mode of communication completely independent of the potential for governmental interference? As Petroski and others have argued at length, engineering proceeds through dissatisfaction with our available artifacts. What the Iranian experience shows is that modes of communication such as twitter can be very effective in allowing citizens to critique and protest their government and its policies, but if a government can control such modes of communication, they are no better than a government-run press. The design problem needs to be expanded, of course. For one thing, among many, there is no vetting of twitter communications. So rumors are as likely to result as useful information, and acting on rumors will not help those protesting a government or its policies.