Well, it’s been a busy January. It’s hard to think back to any other month in history which has been a witness to two revolutions – Tunisia, and, now, Egypt. Revolutions are hard and therefore rare – two a year would be exceptional. Two in one month is… disturbing.

Photo of protests crowds in cairo.

Quick! It’s almost February!

It’s easy to assume that revolutions just happen. The people revolt, pushed too far by tyrants and dictators. They assemble and bring down the institutions of the government, forcing change. A new country is born, often amid bloodshed, and historians have one more revolution to talk about. That’s all true, at some level. When the crowds number in the millions and the army is in retreat and the dictator is on a plane flying for exile, things do seem relatively that simple, and it seems obvious that revolution was inescapable, ineluctable. But the interesting time is before all that happens – when the first stirrings happen, before the crowds storm the buildings, when the police and the secret service still hold sway and going into the street means a chance for a beating, jail, or worse. How do the revolutionaries gather the support they need to swell the crowds?

It turns out that much of this is done through manipulation. For example, early on in our own revolution, the fathers of revolution had a significant problem – how to convince the colonists to unite and declare independence from Britain, the then-superpower. It was a tough order, as the colonists knew that defeating Britain in war was all but impossible. So how did the early revolutionaries gather people to their cause?

One way was through propaganda. Samuel Adams, for example, was one of the early leaders of the movement to break away from Britain. He was part of the Sons of Liberty, which were loose groups of businessmen that still saw themselves as loyal British citizens but who wanted to pressure Britain to repeal tax laws they saw as unfair. Many of the members of the Sons of Liberty were publishers, and decided to rally support by publishing sensational accounts of British soldiers abusing colonists.

Paul Revere Boston Massacre Engraving

This is a typical pamphlet produced by Paul Revere, for example, that showed their take on the Boston Massacre. You may have heard of the Boston Massacre as one of the sparks that grew into the US revolution. What you may not have heard is that a) it was not a massacre (only 5 people died), and b) it was largely started by drunk colonists harassing a British soldier over an unpaid bill (which actually had been paid). The brawl escalated until five British soldiers opened fire (it seems by mistake – colonists were taunting them with cries of “Fire!”) and 3 of the colonists fell to the ground. Adams himself, later defending the soldiers, called the mob “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” What matters, though, is less what happened and more what folks like Paul Revere did about it. He wrote incendiary accounts of the incidents, hired an artist to paint an even more incendiary scene, and, days after the incident, woodcuts and pamphlets like the one above were everywhere in the colony, portraying the British, in line, shooting orderly into a crowd of innocent colonists. Even the name, Boston Massacre, was coined by the revolutionaries to depict Britain in as bad a light as possible. Remember the Distribution Rule? What matters is how many people read your news, not how accurate it is. The revolutionaries swamped the colonies with their pamphlets, inflaming public opinion, which the mainstream press in Britain was not able to respond to (what with the ocean voyage back and forth and all. No internet back then).

After the revolution started, it became important for the leaders to make sure that loyalists to the crown, Tories, were kept at bay. Many colonists, for example, were not keen on breaking ties with Britain, and could, if not identified, stall the revolutionary fervor of the crowds. So the new States passed “Test Acts“, laws that basically demanded an oath of loyalty to the State, not to the British Crown, and provided for various penalties for failing to swear the oath, including the loss of all private property of those who did not swear loyalty to the States. It was these Acts that forced many loyalists to flee North, to Canada. The Acts were massively manipulative – they were aimed at both polarizing the crowd – forcing the ‘lukewarm’ colonists to choose a side, and to fund the war effort by taking the wealth of the Tories (the name the loyalists became known as). Some revolutionary leaders, such as Charles Lynch, began to hunt out loyalists and mistreated them enough that they essentially became roving gangs that pressed folks into service (one possible source of the word ‘lynching’, meaning mob punishment). Things got so bad with these gangs that the States, after the war, had to pass special laws to provide amnesty to Lynch and his colleagues.

* * *

Let’s look at another Revolution, a peaceful one this time, and let’s look at failed manipulations for a change. The Orange Revolution, in Ukraine, is probably one that could feed manipulation buffs (you’re out there, right??) for months. It was an unusual revolution, in that it was completely bloodless.

Ukranine Orange Revolution Crowd

But not colorless.

The Orange Revolution is more interesting because of failed manipulation. In 2004, in the Ukraine, two Viktors (Yanukovych and Yushenko, but let’s call them Viktor Grey and Victor Orange) ran for president. Viktor Grey was the incumbent, and used a number of interesting tricks to try to win the election. Mr. Grey had grown up close to Soviet masters, who annulled some court convictions for him, and seemed to have learned much from them. So, prior to the election, his side rigged ballots. Since they controlled the media, they used the airwaves to attack Viktor Orange, calling him, amongst other things, “a Nazi” (ironically, his father was imprisoned at Auschwitz, which brings to mind again the Distribution Rule). There were several attempts at intimidation at all levels, from the population as a whole to the senior member of Orange’s organization. Viktor Orange was also mysteriously poisoned via Dioxin:

Viktor Yushchenko Before & After Dioxin Poisonin

Before and After Dioxin. Not a good thing for you.

When the results came out, Viktor Grey had, predictably, won the vote, by 3%. Buried in the results certified by the Electoral Commission were some true gems, like a 98% turnout in pro-Grey areas (which puts even North Korea to shame), some districts having an effective turnout of 127% (vote early, vote often?), allegations of computer hacking into the Commission’s own tabulation computers, groups such as the elderly and others receiving government pensions being told to vote Grey, and Russian and Belarusian congratulations to Viktor Grey as the winner before the election results were announced.

All of these are fairly standard Soviet-era manipulations, by the way. They worked very well in most of the Soviet Republic elections from the 50s to the 90s. You stuff ballots, you use the media to diminish your opponent, you intimidate them and poison them if need be.  But they were out of synch with the times in 2004.

What happened, instead of the population and Viktor Orange accepting the rigged results, is that they fought back. The Orange side, buoyed with exit polls that showed their side should have won by 11% or more, summoned the people to the street (who adopted the Orange moniker). The EU and the US refused to ratify the election result, mostly because of the reports of international observers that had seen and reported ridiculous amount of voter fraud. Eventually, after many tribulations, the elections were cancelled and re-run, and this time Viktor Orange won, by 11% of the vote. This became known as the Bloodless revolution, the Orange Revolution, marking the split of the Ukraine from Soviet-era communism to democracy, and one of those times where gumption, popular will and international pressure overcame manipulation. (Ed. note – it’s an uncertain process at best, by the way. If we roll the clock forward, Viktor Orange chose a prime minister that crumbled under allegations of corruption, and in 2010 Viktor Grey won the election as new president of the Ukraine. Which goes to show you… something).

That’s the problem with revolutions. In hindsight, it’s easy to see the macro forces at work that push and convince men to take up arms and revolt. On the ground, though, it is all about tactics – getting support, getting people in the street, and not letting the manipulations come to light. Right now, in Egypt, there are thousands of manipulations being played out  – most by the government, trying to hold onto power. For example, last week, the government decided to shut down the Internet. Not just censor sites like Twitter – just shut down the whole thing. The entire Internet went down in Egypt – no site was accessible within Egypt from the outside, and no site at all could be accessed by Egyptians. From Tech World:

Egypt Internet Cutoff Censorhip - Blocking

A 404 Page not found error of truly Epic proportions.

This is the first time this was ever done, and no one even knew how easy or impossible that was to accomplish (the answer is – relatively easy!). After shutting down the Internet, the government proceeded to shut down cell phones, and now television stations. So far, this is not working, but the Egyptian government can take some solace in the fact that it is adding new chapters to the Complete Book of Manipulations. Whether or not these succeed will largely determine what the next stage of history will look like for the Egyptians.