Tweeting through the Blackout

The power of civilians, then and now


Juliet Gardiner, Social Historian & Author of Wartime:Britain 1939-45

The Second World War put everyone on the front line. The Home Front was the battlefront too and civilians played a vital part in winning the war. Men not eligible for the forces, worked in war industries, joined the Home Guard or Civil Defence services as ARP wardens, ambulance drivers, First Aid Officers, demolition workers, they helped defuse unexploded bombs, fire watched on rooftops and did a myriad other tasks.

Women did many of these jobs too as well as providing mobile canteens, organising war savings, assisting with evacuees, helping those bombed out, injured or bereaved. And children played their part too — collecting salvage, raising money to buy a Spitfire and doing all they could to keep up morale — that essential attribute in war when conditions were hard with food and clothes rationing, shortages, blackout, exhaustion as well as danger and fear.

Communication could be difficult: the plug was pulled on television and regional wireless stations were closed down, but listening to news bulletins became an essential part of most people’s days. Newspapers shrank in size as did magazines and war news was strictly censored, telephone lines were often put out of action in an air raid and boys on bikes took their lives in their hands to convey vital messages.


Dr Neville Bolt, Department of War Studies, King’s College London

Ours are the most unpredictable yet exciting times in communications history since Gutenberg introduced the printing press some 600 years ago. We are living through a revolutionary cross-over between old and new technologies. Today young people are at the forefront driving change. Familiar ways of informing populations — press, radio, television — are now joined by mobile telephones, social media, and the internet. The effect is a media ecology where power has shifted significantly to ordinary citizens from those who historically monopolised media ownership, namely governments, corporations, entrepreneurs.

With access to a mobile phone or web connection they can link instantly to global networks of individuals and communities, bringing the turbulence of civil unrest and horrors of the battlefield into the home or classroom. By circulating messages and pictures virally, users may engage millions of like–minded thinkers. Their ideas ricochet at lightning speed between old and digital media, all of which feed off each other, inter-connected in global feedback loops. Led by the young, populations are using these technologies to change their societies, circumventing while challenging their own and foreign governments. Events in the Arab Spring 2011 bear testament to the revolutionary influence now held in the palm of a single person.