The success of the Jasmine Revolution, the fall from power of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and the contagion effect now spreading through the Middle East and North Africa has caught everyone by surprise. From all signs Qaddafi’s days in Libya appear to be numbered one way or another. Journalists, historians, and social scientists will be occupied for years to come with explaining why these events occurred.

Many political revolutions in modern history, including the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, and the East European Revolution of 1989, also took the world by surprise. Four months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a survey of East Germans found that only five per cent of the people had expected the revolution a year before it occurred, another 18% responded that “yes” they had expected it, “but not that fast.” Fully 76% admitted to being totally surprised. Yet in hindsight the East European Revolution and perhaps others as well, appear to have been inevitable.

The surprise element is all the more remarkable when one realizes that the participants themselves were often equally amazed. Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in 1856, pointed out that no-one foresaw the fall of the French monarchy. Just weeks before the Russian Revolution of February 1917, Lenin suggested that change lay in the distant future and that he himself would not live to see it. Similarly, Tsar Nicholas II was unperturbed by the events until the final day of his rule. Diplomats in St Petersburg were informing their governments that Russia was stable. Likewise, a few months before the Iranian Revolution, a US intelligence report claimed that Iran was also stable. Even the Iranian Communist Party was completely misguided in its assessment. The Ayatollah Khomeini was stunned by the events that propelled him to power, and had serious reservations about change even two weeks before his triumphant return to Teheran. The Shah himself was totally blindsided by the fall of his government. Václav Havel, now President of the Czech Republic, who had written that Communism would  one day collapse nevertheless failed to see the signs of change in late 1989, and had counselled his readers to stop dreaming.

Why might individuals with deep insight into a social system, or with privileged access to information about its undercurrents, fail to foresee its impending explosion? This is a question worth exploring further.

The failure of the intelligence community to predict the revolutionary change in Tunisia and Egypt may be a source of public embarrassment for the US government. Its failure is primarily one of information gathering and event monitoring in a timely and accurate manner. A deeper issue, however, is the apparent inability of many generations of social scientists to explain and predict revolutionary social changes.

To foresee such future events two approaches are needed. The first approach seeks to improve our understanding of revolutionary social change. Numerous arguments have been promulgated in the past; an exhaustive list includes theories based on crowd psychology, frustration-aggression analysis, severe system disequilibrium, interest group conflict, class conflict, and mass confrontations between multi-class coalitions and powerful regimes. So far these theories converge on one aspect and that is political repression in an autocratic society promotes unrest and revolution, the goal of which is to force a change in the political regime, or leadership.

Social and economic unrest on a very large scale may exist from time to time, even in less repressed democratic societies, but the goal is usually to demand a change in economic and social policies, rather than an entirely new political regime. The strength of a democracy is that it offers a regular process for change and in so doing provides the opportunity of replacing repressive social and economic policies. This diminishes the chances of public unrest escalating into a clamor for political change. In other words, as long as there is hope for a new social and economic regime demands for revolutionary political change are diminished.

But beyond these rather obvious implications the theories have not succeeded in predicting revolutionary changes before they occur. Take the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa as an example and it is not difficult to conclude that a number of important operating factors render the region highly unstable. Consider the following:

(1) It has a large proportion of youths and very high fertility rates (see Table 1 ). The states in the region have been unwilling, and unable, to promote market oriented policies that stimulate economic growth to generate job opportunities, or to extend social subsidies to those threatened by the immediate adverse effects from new reform policies. The state has failed to implement policies that remove barriers to entry for all, and eliminate protection for powerful monopolies and privileged sectors.

(2) The region has the world’s highest proportion of marginalized unemployed youths within their population. According to the International Labor Organization, only four out of 10 males and two out of 10 females among those aged 15-24 have work. The recent global financial crisis has exacerbated the problem, producing the highest level of youth unemployment in history.

(3) Oil-rich countries can afford to financially appease their people and thus diffuse domestic unrest. But the same is not true for countries lacking in oil.

(4) The state’s effectiveness in maintaining power can act to discourage unrest.

(5) Many states are able to maintain authority with the support of influential foreign powers. This can discourage some unrest and increase the resolve of those in power to resist the demands for change.

The factors identified above suggest that a revolutionary change was clearly on the cards, given the extensive public grievances in some nations in the region. But these factors fail to account for it happening in Tunisia and Egypt. For example, Tunisia has one of the region’s lowest fertility rates and the smallest proportion of youths within the population. Yet it was the first country to succumb to social unrest and trigger a people-powered revolution. Egypt fits the description better than Tunisia, but there are other more likely candidates, Sudan and Palestine for example. On the other hand, Bahrain which has grown increasingly unstable in recent weeks has proved another surprise.

This widespread failure to predict has to be accounted for by some ad hoc factor. With hindsight it is not difficult to identify ad hoc factors to account for the exceptions. But this is hardly sound science. Exceptions should be treated as “unaccounted” for and recognized as the surprise element. Perhaps revolutionary social change simply cannot be fully explained and accurately predicted, based on theories of revolutionary social change alone.

A second complementary approach, developed by Professor Timur Kuran, addresses explicitly the surprise element. He observes that individuals frequently misrepresent their preferences, often speaking or acting in an apparently socially acceptable manner.  This means that their private views are never publicized. By falsifying their preferences people withhold private truths from the public domain. Under a repressive regime many individuals are silenced by a fear of ostracization or victimization.

Public knowledge is therefore distorted, corrupted and impoverished as a result of ‘preference falsification’. This reduces the circulation of information about the regime’s deficiencies and the merits of alternatives. ‘Preference falsification’ therefore lends a repressive regime greater support and legitimacy than it actually has.  It is an unfortunate situation driven by the human craving for social approval and self-preservation.

Another consequence of ‘preference falsification’ is a widespread ignorance about the advantages of change. ‘Preference falsification’ is also costly to the falsifier, as it entails a loss of personal autonomy, forcing the individual to act out his hypocrisy, resulting in a loss of personal integrity. People learn to live a life of perpetual hypocrisy. Over time they adapt to this existence and many cease to think and feel, reduced to performing and pretending instead. The condition is driven by people’s reliance on each other for information. If the information they receive is false then their intellectual capacity progressively narrows and their mindset ossifies.

Therefore, one socially significant consequence of ‘preference falsification’ is widespread support for social choices that, given a secret ballot, would be rejected. Privately unpopular policies may be kept on indefinitely as people reproduce public lies in order to gain public acceptance.  A person who hides his discontent about a political regime makes it harder for others to express discontent. Society therefore settles down to an equilibrium characterized by public lies. ‘Preference falsification’ means that observers of events in such a society, and even participants in those events, can often mistake public lies for private truths.

A revolutionary change may occur when the equilibrium, characterized by public lies, is accidentally disturbed. This might occur as a consequence of a relatively minor intrinsically insignificant, incident that activates a revolutionary bandwagon often resulting from a series of coincidental factors. If the bandwagon starts rolling, it catches everyone by surprise, including the very individuals who instigated it.

Naturally, when this occurs, it succeeds in igniting long-repressed grievances that suddenly burst into flame. All those individuals who have been falsifying their preferences have suddenly found the motivation and courage to air their grievances. In switching sides they encourage other hidden opponents to join them. All at once the information in the public domain shifts dramatically. Through the resulting bandwagon process fear begins to change sides. The opponents of the regime stop fearing punishment for their beliefs, while the genuine regime supporters begin to falsify their preferences and start pretending to oppose the leadership. Public opinion swings overwhelmingly to the other extreme.  Now, out of the blue, everyone is in favor of overthrowing the regime, with public opposition to the incumbents feeding on itself. And the resulting revolution takes everyone by surprise.

The dramatic shifts of information in the public domain during a revolutionary bandwagon happen when public lies reverse to become private truths, and the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. ‘Preference falsification’, as a mechanism for triggering revolutionary bandwagons, can account for the surprise element in a successful revolution. But it is important to recognize that the initial need to falsify preferences on a large scale is triggered by repression.  The nature of and the need for political repression must be independently accounted for, and that in itself requires a separate theory of revolutionary social change. Hence, the two approaches are complementary and both are necessary for understanding revolutionary change. In identifying their respective contributions we will be in a better position to explain the explicable, predict the predictable, and separate the knowable from the unknowable.

‘Preference falsification’ and revolutionary bandwagons are useful in explaining why revolutions occur in densely populated urban centers, in places where the shifting display of public domain information is most visible to the maximum number of persons. But the arrival of modern telecommunications, the internet, and media technology have also altered the communications networks and channels through which individuals and the state can receive, input, and shift information in the public domain. The relative ease of sparking an incident with the intention that it could set the prairie on fire in the digital age has probably tilted the balance of power against repressive regimes.

The digital age has also provided a mechanism for the anonymous expression of public discontent. This means that repressive regimes that are responsive to public discontent can make use of digital intelligence to reduce the level of public grievance. A positive use of open-source data could indeed curtail the demand for revolutionary social change. This will also generate the decline of ‘preference falsification’ in society.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairperson of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed doubts as to whether the intelligence community has lived up to its obligations in the area of intelligence gathering. She noted gaps in the collection of information from social networking sites, including Facebook, in the build-up to the Egypt crisis. Open-source data, she said, “can be very, very important….so we need to uncover more of this and we certainly will.”

Given what we know about ‘preference falsification’, and its propensity for triggering revolutionary bandwagons, one wonders if the surprise element might fade away in the modern telecommunications-media era and revolutions will become less common in the future. Perhaps this is possible; but only if governments feel they have to respond to public discontent, encourage the development of an open digital media, leverage on the expressed public opinions to push forward necessary reforms, and address revealed grievances in a positive way. If governments, however, seek to collect open-source digital intelligence only for the purpose of extending their repressive rule then they may be preparing for a big surprise.


Timur Kuran, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsifications, Harvard University Press, 1995.

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