Exploring the role of Twitter and social media in revolutions

I’m afraid I haven’t been able to follow events in Tunisia and Egypt as closely as I would have liked as I was determined to enjoy an overdue holiday and a break from computer screens. And my mission was largely accomplished.

As part of an attempt to catch up, I’ve just been reading Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen and C.W. Anderson on the renewed argument over "Twitter revolutions". The role of Twitter in revolutions was first debated in 2009 with reference to Moldova and Iran and has been inevitably resurrected in light of the events in Tunisia and Egypt.

The overarching point these authors make is that the debate has become rather futile with various people pointing out that Twitter does not cause revolutions – an argument that nobody has made.

In 2009, I was critical of the use of the term ‘Twitter revolution’ by the news media for the political protests in Moldova. I felt the use of this phrase and some of the specific roles that were attributed to Twitter in news articles did not aid our understanding of what was happening in Moldova.

It also hindered our understanding of what Twitter was actually being used for and lumped together a variety of Internet tools under the term ‘Twitter’ – which I didn’t think was helpful either.  

In that spirit, what follows are a few notes on what we might have learnt from events in Moldova, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt about the specific role of Twitter and other social media sites. Hopefully, it provides a starting point for understanding some of the implications of social media for politics.

The role of social media tools

1. Spreading ideas and initial organisation

Twitter, Facebook, etc play an important role prior to a revolution (or protest/uprising etc) in spreading ideas and information. They help connect organisers, activists and opposition groups and link these people to others who may be sympathetic to the cause or might even support direct action.

In Egypt, it appears that where previously Egyptians were fearful of rising up against Mubarak’s repressive regime, social media played a role in making people aware that there were others who would join them if they made a stand. Facebook, Twitter (Moldova  – Odnoklassniki too) are very useful organisational tools at this stage enabling initial action to take place in a coordinated fashion. 

2. Attracting the attention of the international news media

Tweeting about your revolution attracts attention from news media. There is something of a Twitter revolution in breaking news occurring. News organisations are increasingly aware of news and information mediated on Twitter, which they are using as a primary global news wire.

As a consequence, protests that might not have gained media attention or the same amount of media attention in the past now do so. (In Iran, Twitter users pressurised CNN to cover the story using the hashtag CNNfail).

Given the news media’s attention to Twitter, there do not need to be huge numbers of people tweeting. It is sufficient to have a relatively small number of people tweeting your revolution who will inevitably be picked up by the media.

The combination of satellite television and the Internet thus drastically reduces the time it takes for news and information of your revolution to spread to all parts of the world.  

3. Facilitating an international support network

Skype, Facebook, email, Twitter etc allows diaspora in other countries to communicate easily with those protesting in homeland. This also helps create more media coverage particularly in situations where the diaspora can mediate the message of the revolution to news organisations in English rather than the local language. It also provides an international support network for protesters.   

4. The importance of YouTube in providing imagery

Rather obviously, YouTube is useful for documenting video of demonstrations. It enables "ordinary citizens" to provide potentially iconic images from the revolution (E.g. Neda Soltan, in Iran). Journalists can use videos shot by protesters to refute state-media imagery and the government version of events.

The use of YouTube, and other video-sharing websites, encourages TV broadcasters to keep running the story because they have access to pictures. Government initiatives to stop the story being covered by blocking journalists’ access are significantly undermined and arguably counterproductive, as the news media rely increasingly on the protesters media content rather than producing their own.

5. A shift in power?

The ability of protesters to publish their own media content immediately to a potentially global audience is emerging as a powerful weapon to combat more traditional applications of power and control such as state violence and censorship.   

Limitations and problems

1. How useful is social media at the site of a protest?

In Moldova, at least, Twitter was not used as an organisational tool at the site of demonstrations where mobile phone access and Internet connections were blocked and organisation was generally choatic or nearly non-existent. But according to this BBC infographic it appears bloggers were updating from Tahrir square’s much more organised camp. Further comments on differences between Moldova and Egypt welcomed.   

2. The clampdown on Internet access

All social media tools are inevitably less useful when the Internet or individual websites are blocked by a government. This triggers a subsequent struggle over the control and distribution of information online. Opposition groups can attempt to circumvent lockdowns by using proxy servers or relaying information by other means to people who subsequently post their material online.

In Egypt, sustaining the protests and media coverage of them required other forms of communication – word of mouth, landlines, international broadcast media, etc. 

3. Representative of the situation ground?

Social media is not necessarily representative. In Moldova, there was more sympathy for the Communist party away from the capital among people who were not using social media. But in the case of Egypt, what was being said on social media sites appeared to reflect a much broader swathe of public opinion. 

4. A government can deploy the same tools against the protesters

A government can use the same Internet tools to target protesters, organise crackdowns, spread their own message, and disinformation (See Iran in particular). Perhaps there is currently a window of opportunity whereby governments are less tech-savvy and more heirarchical compared to opposition groups.

That might change as governments necessarily adapt their structures and practices to the new information environment, but for some its already too late. Censorship of Internet tools is more likely to be successful for governments if established over a longer period of time (e.g. China) rather than in a desperate response to a crisis (e.g Egypt).   

5. Can loose leadership structures consolidate gains?

It could be argued that the loose leadership structure of protests organised through social media (althou
gh I’m not convinced it will always hold true) leaves questions over whether initial gains can be followed up. Will a movement that was united behind Mubarak being forced from power be able to maintain that unity moving forward? It will certainly be interesting to see how the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt develop.