Can Flash Mob Technology Spark a Revolution?

posted at 8:33 am on January 29, 2011 by Jazz Shaw

Allahpundit has already been providing plenty of coverage of the unrest in Egypt, but one portion in particular caught my attention and has been sparking some discussion in the online community. It involves the latest rumor (coming from the Telegraph in the U.K. so take it for what it’s worth) that the U.S. was behind the Egyptian uprising. That’s a debate for another day, but some of the specifics mentioned are still interesting from a techno-geek perspective.

The American Embassy in Cairo helped a young dissident attend a US-sponsored summit for activists in New York, while working to keep his identity secret from Egyptian state police.

On his return to Cairo in December 2008, the activist told US diplomats that an alliance of opposition groups had drawn up a plan to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and install a democratic government in 2011.

Youthful activists and technology are always a great match, so some obvious questions followed. I participated in one discussion which tied the above tid-bit in with the immediate attempts by the Egyptian government to shut down all access, not just to television, but to the internet, cell phones, Twitter, instant messaging and all social media. Clearly it has always been in the interest of any repressive regime to limit the flow of news during a crisis, but could there be more going on here?

First be sure to recall the American and European craze for “flash mobs” over the last few years. One great example took place in Britain where an army of Santas suddenly appeared to sing, dance and march, which was later replicated in other cities. Using modern social media technology, (replacing the “phone trees” of bygone days) hundreds of people can quickly be formed up into a group, all bringing a Santa hat, to sing and dance. And if the surrounding crowd is in a festive mood, many of the mob participants bring some extra hats to hand around. Before you know it you can amass a substantial body of activity, and we’ve seen it happen repeatedly.

Now transplant that operation to a city like Cairo. In the old days you’d need to plot your revolt with secret meetings in dimly lit cafes, and you never knew when the waiter would turn out to have a brother in the secret police. But today, through the miracle of social media and with a little training and planning, you could have hundreds of people show up in the city square on short notice. But instead of Santa hats, they bring guns and bricks and flags and torches and Molotov cocktails.

And, as with the previous example, if you’re in a city where there is already widespread discontent with the government, it’s a fair bet that a large body of citizens might join in with hundreds of like minded fellows even if they would never have dared plot such a thing on their own. And if they didn’t happen to have any “Santa hats” with them?

What’s that brother? You forgot your Molotov cocktail? No problem! Have one of mine!

Before you know it your several hundred man mob has grown to more than a thousand and the capitol is in flames. Not so far fetched if you think of it in those terms.

So, exit question: Might we have just witnessed the first Flash Mob Revolution? And could it be the model of the future?


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… the activist told US diplomats that an alliance of opposition groups had drawn up a plan to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak and install a democratic government in 2011.

We all hope this is what happens … but I’d imgine the MB has other plans and are having secret meetings in dimly lit cafes …

Tony737 on January 29, 2011 at 8:40 AM

Mubarak should walk out to the crowd and say “You, you … you … you … you, you … annnnnd … you … come with me.” Sit them down and say “You are now my Cabinet … how do we fix everything that is wrong?” (deer in the headlights look in the eye) “Uh, um, well ah, we uh, err, um …” It’s a lot easier to be the protester than the protestee.

Tony737 on January 29, 2011 at 8:45 AM

Cell phones are up again and they were using dial-up for the internet.
Wow, remember dial-up days?

OmahaConservative on January 29, 2011 at 8:47 AM

Of course, if you could flash mob a revolution, then you can flash mob a 9/11…

NorthernCross on January 29, 2011 at 8:50 AM

Might we have just witnessed the first Flash Mob Revolution?

No, unemployed young Muslim men all loaded up on rage-ohol have a different “Twitter network.” It’s called Friday prayers.

stefanite on January 29, 2011 at 8:51 AM

Is Ed gone again today?

OmahaConservative on January 29, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Cell phones are up again and they were using dial-up for the internet.
Wow, remember dial-up days?

OmahaConservative on January 29, 2011 at 8:47 AM

Remember? I’ve still got it.

BTW, this article means one thing – it’s Bush’s fault!

OldEnglish on January 29, 2011 at 9:03 AM

Revolutions are preceded by protests. Use of the internet for protests/demonstrations preceded flash mobs. So maybe AP has it backwards.

Deanna on January 29, 2011 at 9:06 AM

Sorry, I should have said JS not AP. Just read like an AP article.

Deanna on January 29, 2011 at 9:07 AM

Flash mob? Yet more verbiage I must add to the poli-wonk lexicon?

pugwriter on January 29, 2011 at 9:20 AM

I think that Flash Mobs suck. These people have ZERO talent and need to get a life.

shanimal on January 29, 2011 at 9:27 AM

It seems like it would certainly improve co-ordination of the initial mob, though depending on how violent it is and what the reaction of the authorities turns out to be, using the internet and smart phones to co-ordinate within the riot might be more problematic, especially if the officials start sending text messages of their own out with false information in the middle of the disturbance.

(As for the U.S. helping out, if this ends up with Mubarak toppled and, instead of a democracy, with the Muslim Brotherhood assuming control of Egypt, this could turn out to be a bigger public relations and strategic disaster for the Obama Administration than Carter’s disastrous effort to rescue the Iranian embassy hostages in April of 1979.)

jon1979 on January 29, 2011 at 9:30 AM

No wonder Obama wants an internet kill switch!

cartooner on January 29, 2011 at 9:34 AM

Meh. Back in the day – I mean way back – people actually sat out on their stoops or went to the local pub instead of secluding themselves with their home entertainment centers. So social networks didn’t have to be ginned up by technology, even despite the secret police. The French Revolution got along quite well without Twitter, merci bien. And even today, there’s often an enterprising imam around to deliver a robust barn burner at the neighborhood mosque, in a society where the clergy are still venerated and most officials are too corrupt to be reliably zealous. So there’s still plenty of old school stimulus to get the juices flowing.

Seth Halpern on January 29, 2011 at 9:47 AM

I think flash mobs are funny and entertaining when they show up and dance.

When they show up and attempt to overthrow a government, does anyone bring a boom box?

Fallon on January 29, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Didn’t we have a flash mob snow ball fight first?
I seem to remember video of an angry cop.

Disturb the Universe on January 29, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Hardly the first flash mob. The Russians were helping the Chinese do a very similar thing without all the technology in the 1920s. They just whispered into workers ears on the assembly line. The next day…mob uprising.

Problem with organizing a mob on the net is it can be traced.

Pattosensei on January 29, 2011 at 10:35 AM

There’s nothing more “democratic” that Islam.

Brainwash a captive majority for 1400 years unceasingly with Koranically-sanctified death threats for disobedience to Sharia Law, promises of a Paradise Whorehouse and Open Bar, while reducing women to half-citizen status and allowing men to take four wives and sex-enslave captive infidel women taken in “holy” warfare, and it’s pretty likely that a plurality of the dumbed-down guys (and their intimidated wives) will vote for it.

That’s not exactly the “democracy” that the delusional suckers in the West think of when viewing the “democracy” uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and Yemen, et al, since they really mean a “Constitutional representative Republic based on an unalienable Bill of Rights“.

They’ve made a fundamental mistake in peception that the West shall now pay for.

Irans everywhere… with Islamic Bombs.

profitsbeard on January 29, 2011 at 10:37 AM

I want to know why no reporter has asked Obama about stories like this. There is no justification in what the committee approved that would not be cited by Mubarak; and yet in Obama’s speech he made it clear that in the “basket of liberties” the internet, and the communication it allows, is essential and must not be muffled even in the face of massive and potentially violent protests.

Weight of Glory on January 29, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Can you have a rev-o-lu-tion if the police don’t try to stop it?

Who will the mob fight, if there are no riot police blocking the street?

What will the mobs do? Burn some buildings? Ok, then what?
Burn the city? Then what?

The King is still King, the President is still President, the army is still the army, the police are still the police, and your cities are in ruins. Now what?

Skandia Recluse on January 29, 2011 at 10:39 AM

just had a thought….the blm and the white house has been calling egypt Mubarak’s regime….never heard that before

cmsinaz on January 29, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Next thing you know they will be singing the Hallelujah chorus in the Cairo Mall.

flyoverland on January 29, 2011 at 10:39 AM

The ‘flash mob’ is a precursor form of the flash crowd foretold by Larry Niven. I remember reading that story in a collection in the late ’70s and it seemed like one of those social phenomena that would catch on due to the technology it used (teleportation). There are adaptations by people and culture to new technology… and this one is fascinating for what it tells us about ourselves and our society. And that an idea like this can get transplanted, easily, across societies is interesting to say the least.

Mind you with Bluetooth enabled phones you can set up a mesh of phone-to-phone connections for sharing media and contacts… so long as you are within BT range you can keep in contact without having to use the cell network.

The day of each person being their own hotspot and data repository has already showed up. We just take it for granted, but it will change societies like nothing else we have ever seen.

Next up: teleportation.

ajacksonian on January 29, 2011 at 10:40 AM

stop the presses, I heard it right on CNN, one of the anchors indicating that Bush was right about democracy in the ME and Obama is finally realizing it and that he’s been trying to be the anti-Bush

heh

cmsinaz on January 29, 2011 at 10:41 AM

Don’t forget the influence of Friday afternoon prayers at the mosque- John Bolton reported that this crowd is playing a significant role in the protests too.

Jay Mac on January 29, 2011 at 11:06 AM

I think people are trying to inflate the power of trivial nonsense like twitter into something bigger.

I think Obowma started the rumor about the US being behind the revolution because he has no clue what he is doing or he is dumb enough to admit it, even though there is an excellent chance that Egypt will quickly turn into another Islamo-fundamentalist state.

These are some pretty crappy times. No leadership left in the West, anywhere.

An entire generation of nitwits who think that their mindless, brainless, cowardly, anti-social “social” networks are truly important.

reaganaut on January 29, 2011 at 11:25 AM

I think that this is less a new phenomenon and more a new expression of an old phenomenon.

I will say, though, as a researcher into social networks and their… geopolitical significance, shall we say… this is possibly one of the most frightening possibilities I have yet heard.

Scott H on January 29, 2011 at 11:41 AM

Oh look !
A flash mob.

… Here come the suicide bombers.

BowHuntingTexas on January 29, 2011 at 11:50 AM

RE: the U.S. is behind this revolt, why would we want this? How would we benefit? This idea sounds like a typical ‘CIA is plotting to overthrow’ some government conspiracy theory. The problem with this idea is, we want the strong man in charge, not the crazies like The Muslim Brotherhood or the communists etc. I don’t see Egypt necessarily becoming a democracy after a revolution. What theories do others have on why we would be behind this? Maybe I’m missing something.

JimP on January 29, 2011 at 12:07 PM

We should be more careful with the “US played a part in organizing this” meme. First it appears to have come from Wikileaks which means there’s no way of confirming reliably. Second, even if some unnamed embassy official provided a visa to an Egyptian dissident, so what? Unfortunately getting a US visa is pitifully easy as we saw with the 9/11 terrorists. We don’t know that this was anything driven by the White House, vs standard State Department policy or just a fluke.

It looks too much to me like the idea is floating out there, and both parties will claim it if the r-word succeeds for the better, or blame it on the other if it all goes to h.

slickwillie2001 on January 29, 2011 at 12:38 PM

I’m glad that you receive certain info from the UK with a certain amount of skepticism. The Telegraph and some others are rich gardens full of plants which often often bloom at odd times.

lexhamfox on January 29, 2011 at 12:54 PM

The Russians were helping the Chinese do a very similar thing without all the technology in the 1920s. They just whispered into workers ears on the assembly line. The next day…mob uprising.

Problem with organizing a mob on the net is it can be traced.

Pattosensei on January 29, 2011 at 10:35 AM

THat mneans that the unions or schools (another assemlby) line were the way that revolutions were controlled. Now it is the internet.

And there will always be a cat and mouse game between the state and the people when it comes to traceability of the critical messages.

pedestrian on January 29, 2011 at 1:30 PM

What struck me about this story was that it came on the heels of Obama’s statement about his conversation with Mubarak yesterday. How much do you think Mubarak is going to listen to us when we’ve been secretly training and supporting the very people try to overthrow him. The whole thing was a charade.

This is smart diplomacy?

flataffect on January 29, 2011 at 10:03 PM

The Russians were helping the Chinese do a very similar thing without all the technology in the 1920s. They just whispered into workers ears on the assembly line. The next day…mob uprising.

Problem with organizing a mob on the net is it can be traced.

Pattosensei on January 29, 2011 at 10:35 AM

That is why, when you are not using your WiFi, leave it unencrypted.

Slowburn on January 30, 2011 at 6:34 PM