Twittering about a Revolution

Submitted by Jon on Wed, 04/15/2009 - 08:03

There's been a lot of noise about the role of Twitter in the recent Moldova protests. Ethan Zuckerman took it on himself to quantify the data. It's not as glamorous as blindly claiming that twitter did (or did not) ignite the protests based on some stories, but it does provide a good sanity-check:

My bitter, cynical hope had been to demonstrate that the conversation switched from a small Romanian-language conversation about the actual protest events to a self-congratulation festival in the English-language twittersphere. Good thing we’ve got data to prove me wrong. [...] I’d expected to see “twitter” emerge as one of the most popular terms by Wednesday or Thursday, and to see the conversation shift into English. [...] But by Thursday, Twitter’s out of the top 20 entirely and “comunistii” ranks behind Moldova and Chisinau. So yes, the conversation on Wednesday - the busiest day with over 1,000 authors - included lots of non-Moldovans. But the conversation quickly shifted back to the political standoff.

That being said, there are under 200 reported actual twitter users inside Moldova; so while the conversation avoided turning into the twitter version of back-patting, it also is not the twitter flash-mob we're looking for.

Worse, governments are getting more sophisticated in limiting the utility of mobile phones for this kind of disruption, as Evgeny Morozov at ForeignPolicy reminds us:

I've just spoken to a Moldovan friend who is himself a big technology fan; according to him, there is little to none cellphone coverage in the square itself (turning off cellphone coverage in protest areas is a trick that was also used by the Belarusian authorities to diffuse 2006 protests in Minsk's central square), so protesters have to leave it to post updates to Twitter via GPRS technology on their mobiles.

It seems likely that next time around, the government will also make sure GPRS is hobbled as well, and there were reports that the government was strong-arming local ISPs into restricting outside connections.

So while Twitter was involved, it seems too early to claim it's victory, as both Evgeny Morozov and Ethan Zuckerman seem to agree on. There was no sign-in form at the protest with a "Where did you hear about this? ( ) Twitter ( ) Facebook ( ) SMS (non-twitter) ( ) Friend ... " so we can't really be sure of the impact of any one social utility over another (though we could do some interesting things with Facebook photo tagging perhaps?), and this will continue to haunt any attempts to link online social media movements with offline action.

That's not the only story here, though. While I'm excited about turning online interaction into offline action, I strongly believe that the lower-hanging fruit in social media sites is real-time, mass reporting of events. You may get a thousand different viewpoints, but you're guaranteed to not just get one filtered and sanitized report. As Evgeny Morozov notes;

There are also a few moving English-language Twitter posts like this - "in #pman a grenade thrown by the police has torn apart one of the protester's leg"- that would surely be perused by foreign journalists.

We saw the role of SMS and Twitter in getting the news out about the Mumbai bombings in November 2008. As microblogging sites get increasingly sophisticated (or their users settle on hashtags and location update formats) I think we can expect to see fast local news coming not from traditional media but from our peers. Without editorial oversight or research/verification, we'll have to rely on mass numbers of twitterers reporting on each event to present an evenhanded view, but overall I see this move towards instant sharing of information as an amazing development that will only getbetter and more interesting, both in the case of free speech and media, and for mobile possibilities for development.