I originally wrote this for my Reuters AlertNet blog on 28 April 2010.
In the Boston Globe today, columnist Jeff Jacoby asks an interesting question: "Why aren't democratic dissidents as well-known in the free world today as the dissidents who challenged the Soviet empire were in the 1970s and 1980s?" But the answers offered only go part of the way to explaining the phenomenon.
Inevitably, the issue arises of competition for space online: in a 72-zillion-Tweets-per-minute world, today's dissidents "struggle to be heard". It sounds a reasonable argument at first, but it quickly breaks down under analysis.
First, the idea of "information overload" somehow being a modern phenomenon is simply not credible. There has always been too much data around us for our primate brains to take it all in, so we thankfully ignore and forget 99.99% of it. Finding credible and reliable information, and sorting it from the background noise has been our key mental challenge ever since we went from four legs to two.
The advent of the internet didn't change this fundamentally even in the realm of media information. Running an online magazine ten years ago and facing similar arguments, I wrote that no one had previously been reading all the top printed newspapers every day, let alone all the newspapers and magazines around the globe. The internet doesn't really represent as fundamental a revolution in some senses as is often portrayed.
The real answer to Jacoby's question has, in part, more to do with a general dearth of information rather than an overload. Everyone likes to talk about today's "flood of information", but there is actually less foreign news coverage in the most widely accessed US media today than there was 20 years ago, before the web. This is due to conscious decisions by major commercial media companies to make savings by cutting the bureaus and correspondents that provide news gathering abroad, and the choice to reduce the number of pages and amount of air-time dedicated to international news.
Yes, people who want to know the names of dissidents in far-off lands can find them online with a bit of searching, but the mass media won't be much help, which explains why today's dissidents are not as widely known.
Unfortunately, Jacoby worthwhile question also misses a very important point about dissidents in the Soviet bloc: in the end, their samizdat had very little to do with the overthrow of the Communist regimes. Their network of brave brains and the thoughts they developed were important for keeping alive certain ideals and establishing leaders who would at least have some national recognition -- though much less than is typically imagined, because in most of the countries, samizdat was not widespread.
But ultimately, the dissidents did not make the revolutions of 89 possible; the new geo-political reality brought about by Gorbachev's reforms did that. It might be argued that the existence of dissident networks made the political changes more peaceful than they would have otherwise been in most countries, but there is precious little linking Soviet-bloc-era samizdat with the revolutions and governments that followed.
This needs to be kept in mind if you are going to compare today's cyber-dissidents with those of Iron Curtain yesteryear.
One person who has really been getting to the heart of all these issues in recent years is Evgeny Morozov. His new "Think Again" piece in Foreign Policy, for example, once more offers his excellent and realistic assessment of the role of the Internet under repressive regimes. Back in 2002, I wrote an article for Online Journalism Review called "Censorsihp Wins Out" , arguing against the cyber-idealists who thought the internet would empower dissidents and ultimately lead to weakened authoritarian regimes, even democratic transitions. Morozov summarises the point for today's audience perfectly: "Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do."