Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Unpacking “The Twitter Revolution” in Moldova

On Sunday, April 5th, the governing Communist party won over 50% of the vote in Parliamentary elections. This was decidedly a surprise, as Communists had lost the last round of municipal elections, and as an organized anti-Communist movement had been warning that elections might be rigged. More than 10,000 young activists took to the streets of Chisinau on Tuesday, occupying Chisinau’s central square, the Piata Marii Adunari Nationale. The protests turned violent in the evening: government buildings burned and dozens of protesters were injured.

Now, two days later, another battle is raging, a far less serious one. Inquiring internet users want to know: Was this a twitter-driven revolution? My friend and colleague Evgeny Morozov appears to have started the Twitter meme, with a thoughtful post in his new blog on ForeignPolicy.com, net.effect. The post, titled “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution“, observes that the tag #pman (short for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the square where protests unfolded) had been one of the most active on Twitter on Tuesday. Evgeny’s post is more careful than the headline – he notes that Moldovan friends tell him there’s little mobile phone coverage in the square, and notes that many social networking tools were likely used to organize protests, not just Twitter. (Global Voices has excellent coverage of both the protests and the social tools used.)

But it’s the Twitter headline that stuck. Yesterday’s story on the protests in the New York Times was titled “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter“. The meme has legs, and stories with titles like “Twitter 1, communism 0” are appearing in English-language newsapers: “A victorious moment. Technology over tyranny. A youth united tapping Twitter in the name of democracy.”

It seems unlikely, though, that Twitter was the key tool in a victory of “technology over tyranny”, if that is, in fact, what happened. For one thing, the Communist party in Moldova doesn’t have much in common with the Communists of old – Moldovan communist favor foreign direct investment and promoting entreprenership, though they’d like closer involvement with Russia and less with Romania. But to the extent that this was a technological “triumph”, it may have more to do with other social network tools – including blogs, LiveJournal and Facebook – than with Twitter.

Mentioning Twitter is currently the best way to pick a fight in geek communities. My friend David Weinberger tells me that his recent essay, “4.5 lessons from Twitter” is one of the most controversial pieces he’s written recently, observing that positive and negative reactions have both been surprisingly strong. I find that reactions to Twitter are roughly as strong (and usually as ill-informed) as debates about Second Life 18 months ago – this may simply be the pattern for any new technology that becomes this month’s media darling.

But it’s certainly no surprise that there are now commentators arguing that Moldova’s protests aren’t and couldn’t be a Twitter revolution. One of the better arguments I’ve read comes from Daniel Bennett on the Frontline Club’s blog site. His essay, “The myth of the Moldova ‘Twitter revolution’” makes the case that there’s little evidence that Twitter was actually used to organize the Moldovan protests. He cites Morozov’s observation that there was little cellphone coverage in the square as evidence that Twitter wasn’t the main tool for coordination, and notes that Moldova’s twitter community appears to be very small, likely fewer than 200 users. Cezar Maroti, writing from Rotterdam, uses a clever Google search to suggest that there are fewer than 100 twitter users in Moldova, an observation that Morozov agrees with in a follow-up article to his original post.

Here’s my guess at what happened as regards the use of social networking tools and the recent Chisinau protests:

– The ThinkMoldova and HydePark used a variety of social media tools to organize and publicize their actions. Both groups maintain websites and use blogs and LiveJournal accounts to disseminate ideas and publicize events. An active and growing Facebook group, “Support Moldova“, points to organizers skill with that toolset. And Deutsche Welle reports that protests were organized in part via SMS.

There’s nothing unusual about this. Media-savvy organizers understand that different communication tools are useful for achieving different goals – when I run trainings for activists on new media tools, I try very hard to ensure that activists don’t get attached to any one particular tool – the right tool is one that the community you’re trying to mobilize is using, one that works at the same speed you do (if you’re writing political manifestos and essays, don’t do so on Twitter) and the one that helps you gain the most attention.

– Twitter is a genuinely great tool for offering short reports about breaking news. During the Malagasy coup, those of us following the situation from off the island clung to Twitter for current informationthough much of the information we got was from broadcasts on radio or television within the country, that information wasn’t available outside Madagascar, and Twitter made it possible to get updated information, rather than daily wire reports.

Moldova has a huge diaspora – an estimated quarter of the population lives abroad, and reports suggest that a similar number are applying for Romanian passports. It’s quite possible that Moldovans living abroad, hungry for news about the demonstrations, looked online and ended up flocking to Twitter.

– Twitter is a great way to get attention, if only because it’s the flavor of the month in social media. Morozov notes that Moldovan organizer Oleg Brega has a great deal of facility with social media, noting “a typical Brega stunt: provoking the Moldovan police to arrest him and have someone capture this on video and then republish to YouTube.” It’s fair to assume that Brega and colleagues either knew that the Twitter community would be fascinated by protest-related tweets (as they were with breaking news tweets from the Bombay bombings and, to a lesser extent, the Malagasy coup), or that organizers were able to embrace the tool when it became clear there was the potential for international attention via Twitter.

It’s also frustratingly predictable that mentioning cool new tech is a great way to get journalists to cover an event they might otherwise miss. Moldovan youth protests make for a good story if they succeed and lead towards an Orange Revolution-esque change in government. But the failure of the Demin revoluion in Belarus suggest that these comparisons be made carefully. Even if the protests don’t lead to a change in government, a story that confirms our sense that new technologies are inherently democratizing is likely to be amplified and argued about. Everyone likes evidence that they’re living in the future, where tyrants quake at the power of our mobile phones.

– It’s going to be very hard to figure out what actually happened on Twitter during the past few days. Twitter leaves fewer traces than many other online media – its transiency is one of its strengths, but it makes life very difficult for scholars. A search for #pman on Twitter reveals 1500 tweets in the past four hours… and no ability to search beyond those recent tweets, even through the API.

(There is a way, I suspect – currently banging on Twitter’s search engine and will report back if I have any success. If you know of a good tool that tracks the incidence of a tag on Twitter over time, or lets you do searches on Twitter that go deeper than 1500 results, please let me know. Hashtags.org is close to what I need, but I’d like something that gives me numbers and dates as well as the pretty graphs.)

Smart researchers would start recording Twitter behavior by subscribing to Twitter feeds as soon as it becomes clear which ones to follow. In the meantime, aggregators that follow the key tags may prove to be very useful for researchers. But I suspect the definitive answer about whether Twitter was or wasn’t core to the Moldovan protests will come from interviews with the demonstration organizers, not from technical forensics.


As the debate about Moldova and Twitter unfolded yesterday, I was watching another blame game unfold: the Moldovan government blaming the riots on Romania. I posted the following to Twitter: “NYTimes argues Twitter leads to Moldova riots. Moldovan gov’t blames Romania. Romania = Twitter? #pman”

I got two interesting responses almost immediately.

Dinu Popa noted: “@EthanZ #pman moldovan govenrment blames everybody: the West, Romania, Jesus, even Russia(!). The real cause is fraudulent elections.”

But my favorite was from Bigubax, who tweeted, “#pman @EthanZ NYTimes argues Twitter leads to Moldova riots. Moldovan gov’t blames Romania. Romania = Twitter? -> Twitter=Freedom. So: Yes!”

24 Responses to “Unpacking “The Twitter Revolution” in Moldova”

  1. sami says:

    Hi Ethan,

    twitter seems to be blocked in Moldavia since yesterday, see my tweet here:

    http://twitter.com/ifikra/status/1486925082

  2. Vadim says:

    Great post! One thing is not clear to me. Why do you mean by “failure of the Lemon/Pink/Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan?” As far as I know (and I am from that part of the world), the revolution was pretty much successful…
    Thank you.
    Vadim

  3. Ethan says:

    You’re absolutely right, Vadim. While the revolution didn’t capture international attention in the same way as Georgian, Belarussian and Ukranian movements, it was more successful than the Belarussian movement, and while the outcome is a complicated one, it’s absolutely wrong of me to characterize it as a failed revolution. I’ve removed the reference and thank you for the correction.

  4. Great round up.

    I was chatting back and forth with Daniel Bennett during the events in Moldova. One of the things we tried, and failed, to do was track mentions of the words revolution, demonstration and protest in English and Romanian, Cryllic within Twitter and elsewhere during the day(s).

    We wanted to see if it was possible to “map” mentions to geographic regions to see whether the revolution line was more prominent outside Moldova than in, proportionate to Internet penetration, Twitter usage and other factors.

    Something along those lines might prove useful in the future if you ever manage to mangle Twitter’s search capability.

  5. jon says:

    Ethan commented that Twitter Search doesn’t make it easy to dig into the data … one useful trick for Twitter Search is to play with the max_id in the URL. For example here’s the first batch of posts on #pman, including evisoft’s proposal for the hashtag.

    I’ve collected several of these as well as a bunch of interesting English-language tweets in my Twitter favorites. If anybody has any suggestions on how to turn this into a slideshow, please let me know!

    Twopular’s social network analysis is also interesting, highlighting who’s most active and retweeted. (I believe this only has data from the times when #pman was in the top 10 trends.)

    jon

  6. Ethan says:

    Thanks, Jon. The script I’m writing manipulates max_id to let me mine older data. The problem is that Twitter appears to expire data very quickly – perhaps more like 4 days than the 4 months they suggest on the API wiki. And when the site is under heavy load, they disable deep search and return a page that includes a selection of 100 tweets from recent days, ignoring the max_id variable. Worse, there’s no error code or other indication that they’re feeding bad data. So basically it’s a nightmare to scrape. Working on it today, figuring that Easter’s probably a light use day on the site and a good time to screenscrape.

  7. Daniel Haran says:

    Hi Ethan – I’ve had a gig recently scraping Twitter’s search results. Why scrape? Because you can use dates :)

    From the web, you can do a search for:
    #pman since:2009-04-01 until:2009-04-08

    Returning ~ 50 results per page, it’s pretty trivial to count results.

    Let me know if Ruby code would be helpful, and I’ll see if I can retrieve / remove any client info in those files.

  8. Ethan says:

    Thanks Daniel. The problem with that method is that Twitter tops out at 1500 results, and there were probably tens of thousands of results in that period. Wish I could do it that simply…

    If you’ve got a way to coax twitter into giving a complete set of results, rather than topping out at 15 results x 100 pages, or 100 results x 15 pages, would love to see the code.

  9. Daniel Haran says:

    Ethan: you can set the # of results to 50 instead of 15 (that’s cookie based; I used Ruby’s Mechanize which is based on Perl’s). Make sure you check advanced search.

    Maybe 5k/day is all you need?

  10. Ethan says:

    You can set it in the URL as well using the rpp variable, which can go as high as 100. But if you up the rpp, it reduces the number of pages you can retrieve, with a maximum of 1500.

    Hard to know whether I need 5k a day – my guess is I probably want lots more.

  11. Ethan, first of all, I’m very troubled by your attempt to whitewash the communists of Moldova by implying they have nothing in common with Soviet-style communists, just because they are for foreign investment (what communist *isn’t*? — sell them the rope, you know).

    Moldovan communism has been an unequivocal and oppressive nastiness, whatever it’s “modernization”; Voronin is a documenetd authoritarian. Young people don’t want to go along with his rule and that of his cronies and indeed his government has been backed by Russia, and Russia has been to blame for refusing to resolve the Transdniester conflict, for example. There is every reason to believe the vote was rigged, given the history of such polls in this region. Even if you can somehow legitimize this communist domination in the elections, it’s a victory that came from press manipulation and political backing elsewhere.

    Second, I have to wonder why you are crossing the street to debunk *this* “twitter myth” — because you don’t apparently don’t find the cause “progressive” enough to your taste — but never examining *other* twitter myths — like the twitter myth that says twittering got James Buck out of prison (and not his American passport and healthy amounts of U.S. aid to Egypt for decades). Twittering sure didn’t work for his translator who is still in jail as far as I understand it.

    BTW, why does nobody ever characterize the glorious James Buck as engaging in a stunt to get arrested and publicizing himself on Twitter, but Oleg here comes in for a bashing as putting on a “stunt” in this revolution? Come on, Ethan, are you saying that it was OK for young Buck to breathlessly and self-consciously report himself on Twitter and become the darling of Silicon Valley and the hero of Shel Israel’s forthcoming book on Twitter and *that* was ok (like many other Twitter stunts, including electioneering for Obama), but suddenly, if an East European activist consciously uses the old and new media in this way, there’s something “suspect” about this? Why? Using media is using media, Ethan. You of all people should know that it’s almost ALWAYS self-conscious and very often precious!

    As for Twitter — like Second Life, which you were also terribly grumpy and dismissive about — being the “darling of the media” — just because something is hyped by PR agencies looking to salvage their dying industry (the motivation for the hype of both SL and Twitter) doesn’t mean those media forms themselves are discredited. SL is still going strong and has a lot to offer, and all sorts of progressive causes and non-profit workers have shown up there despite your disapproval.

    I never saw you protest the first zillion times the press covered something merely because it was Twittered. Why all of a sudden now, over this? New and old media always have these symbiotic relationships. Isn’t that a given?

    Third, I have to say that it seems that Twitter, like Second Life, just culturally seems to get your goat as somehow not being politically-correct enough. You seem to want to credit Facebook or LiveJournal as the tools of choice for this (or other) revolutions — yet when you’re in a demonstration with only a cell phone in hand, chances are you will send a tweet rather than open up the web to get your facebook or LJ pages and type something longer on them. And of course, they are all intertwined — people use Twitter to drive to blog pages and visa versa.

    As for the claim that there wasn’t cell phone coverage in the square — I’d like a second and third opinion on this. Oh, I know how these governments can turn off the cell phone service in a heartbeat, having witnessed how huge demonstrations in Minsk and Baku were instantly derailed in this manner, but the fact is, cell phones outside the square play a role too, getting to Western radio stations like DW and getting Western press coverage, getting the diaspora to be part of the telephone tree spreading the news. It’s not as simple as you portray it, and lack of cell coverage in a particular spot wouldn’t be enough to prove Twitter’s non-role. Twittering diaspora, even if that’s all there was, was tremendously important in keeping attention of the mainstream media.

    Fourth, what REALLY seems to undermine the legitimacy of this revolution for you is the involvement of emgires and a diaspora, as if somehow their greater technical access, or relative affluence, makes them less “fit” revolutionaries than, oh, people in Nigeria or Madagascar. But…why did they have to flee this country in the first place to work abroad?! Because it has a communist government! In fact, one of the reason there are so many roiling youth hanging around the square is that migrant labour opportunities that used to abound have shrunk with the global economic criss, forcing people back home.

    I fear that like many other boosters of new media on the left, you seem to want to enable these tools to be used for only causes you find politically correct. Your strenuous to scour the net and zealously debunk *this* particular Twitter operation don’t seem warranted otherwise. It’s my operating thesis that leftist ideologies are even welded into these tools, something I find fresh evidence of daily whenever I read things like Personal Democracy posts about Drupal being intrinsically “progressive”).

    If that is *not* the case, and it’s not about you feeling no cultural affinity for this East European anti-communist cause, why don’t you concede that new media tools might have played a role — as it surely did here — instead of trying to undermine the very use of technology itself. That’s whack. Here you go to great lengths to say that it wasn’t used, or it was used only to posture, or it was used only by emigres who somehow aren’t authentic — and what does this add up to? Discrediting this independent movement, and accepting the version of history that the communists purvey.

    Your claim that you can’t search for tweets is curious, given that Google has them all, if you search on names. So you can find some of the names posting frequently on these issues and track them and their followers’ and respondents’ names.

    There’s another, wider problematic issue going on here which I think you are feeding into — it’s why you could say originally that the Kyrgyzstan Tulip revolution “failed” (it most certainly did not; it just faces a hugely entrenched resistance and will go on struggling for some time to come — I guess journalists can’t twitter when they’re murdered). There’s enormous efforts these days in the liberal and leftist media to “debunk” these revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia — and yes, Kyrgyzstan — and claim they are all concoctions and fakes — er, ostensibly by U.S. and EU aid to democracy movements, that they are all shallow and superficial — er, bourgeois, perhaps?

    But you know full well that these movements are not “creations of Western special services,” the propagandistic explanations for them that come from the very oppressive governments challenged by them. At most, Western aid helps, only a little (Western aid tends to be spent first and foremost on Western consultants and trainers). At most, some new media tool like Twitter helps — but it’s not a substitute for organic relationships in meatworld. People fight communism, and always will, and they fight the corrupt nationalist governments that come in the place of communism as well. Their movements are demonstratively authentic and documented as you well know.

    As for Romania and Russia, you can’t say Romania is somehow uninvolved in this neighbour where people speak their language, and Russia has political and Soviet-era ties in Moldova too — of course they are involved, it’s a question of trying to get the facts about what kind of meddling they do, given that it’s a closed society with suppression of the media.

    Evgeny Morozov has done nothing wrong here, and his headline isn’t misleading. Twitter *did* help. It can’t account for everything. By itself, it can’t free people, regardless of the correctness of the cause.

    But your strenuous efforts to try to show that Twitter *didn’t* matter are not scholarship, but ideological work, and you gave away your intentions by your efforts at the outset to sanitize the description of communism and dump on the Kyrgyz as failed (your apology strikes me as not a change of deep-seated belief about these anti-communist movements, just a change of tactics).

    Most of all, what I find troubling about your post is your assessment of your own role as “trainer” and “advisor” to these democratic movements in poor countries, telling them what they can and can’t do ”
    “when I run trainings for activists on new media tools, I try very hard to ensure that activists don’t get attached to any one particular tool” — why can’t they write a manifesto on Twitter? Why can’t they be free? Perhaps the moral of this story is that with new media, they don’t need advisers as much as they used to, nor help from outside in publicizing their cause?

    Ultimately, the Moldovan story *is* — whether you find it politically comfortable or not — about youth tapping into new media to fight for freedom. People don’t always fight for freedom perfectly in the way you wish. Having “only 200 Twitter users” doesn’t discredit a cause. Let them fight — “for our freedom and yours”.

  12. Ethan says:

    Always nice to hear from you, Catherine. I’d point out that your comment exceeds my post in length by almost 200 words – I’m not sure quite how I managed to raise your ire so much with this brief bit of speculation, but let me attempt to respond, filtering between the things I’ve actually said and those you attribute to me, with or without justification.

    I don’t know enough about the situation in Moldova to offer an educated opinion about the level of repression citizens are facing. As such, I quoted an explanation that suggests that the Moldovan Communist party differs somewhat from what many of my readers might understand from their memories of 1980s Soviet communism. Clearly, your interpretation is a different one – I’d invite you to argue with the author of that piece, not with me, as that’s not the thrust of my argument.

    Your remarks on James Buck appears to imply a responsibility on my part that I was unaware of. I hadn’t realized that I was responsible for responding to and debunking every over-enthusiastic technology story on the web. You’ve seen me write about the media’s gullibility for Second Life – and strenuously disagreed with most of my interpretations. You’ve surely noticed that I don’t react to every SL story, largely to the ones that a) involved me personally or b) caught my eye. I agree that the coverage of James Buck focused too much on Twitter and not on other factors. On the other hand, I think there are situations where Twitter is genuinely useful, as it has been in drawing attention to the ongoing struggle in Madagascar. I wrote about that topic, again not because I feel a responsibility to remark on all media stories about Twitter, but because I am personally close to some people in Madagascar and following their interest in the story closely.

    The heart of my piece was an attempt to resolve claims made by Evgeny Morozov and Daniel Bennett. Your objections seem more pointed towards Bennett than towards me, but I’ll rise to the bait and continue to argue that terming this movement “The Twitter Revolution” is an overstatement. I was sufficiently interested in the situation to start researching the use of Twitter in Moldova during the protests and released a large data set yesterday, inviting others to analyze with me and see what we can conclude.

    The sense I got from the headlines – Morozov’s and those in mainstream newspapers – was that the revolution was literally managed via Twitter, with protesters in the square coordinating via that service. Morozov is far more careful in his articles, and explains a more believable model – Twitter was used to publicize the events to the Moldovan diaspora and the wider world.

    The data I collected is consistent with that more careful explanation, but not with the somewhat sensational headline. On Tuesday, the first day of the protests, less than 700 people used the #pman tag. From reading many of those posts, they appear to be news updates, and posts driving interested readers to media and blog coverage. There’s not much evidence that Twitter was somehow used to plan or organize the events, at least on the tag dedicated to report on the events early on Tuesday morning. That said, I’ve done only a cursory, quantitative analysis. Because I don’t speak Romanian, and because I’m not that knowledgeable about Eastern Europe – and because I’m committed to open research – I’ve released the data set and am hoping that others will join me in analyzing the data. Several Twitterers involved with the #pman group have already offered assistance.

    The thrust of your article appears to be an accusation that I choose to cover situations and causes which I somehow deem to be insufficiently “progressive”. Perhaps this is an unconcious bias on my part – I thought I was reporting on stories that caught my eye, stories where I have personal connections which can help me retrieve data, or stories where tools I have access to or can build can help with the analysis.

    Thanks for engaging. Hope you’ll take a look at the later post and at the data set.

  13. Daniel Haran says:

    The recent explosion of twitter activity on #amazonfail had me thinking about this; 5k certainly won’t be enough.

    Potential solutions:
    -Archive everything as it’s happening, using the firehose once that’s ready
    -Search + Social Graph: assume tags such as #pman are used within a social network. Find user_ids for anyone having mentioned the tag (search), grab their personal feeds and that of their social networks.
    -Use geographic constraints in search to get around limits
    -Try sampling instead of grabbing it all

    None of these seem easy :(

  14. Ethan says:

    The good news is that the technique I’ve been using can get an arbitrary number of tweets – there’s a post a couple days later on this blog describing what I’m doing. I ended up grabbing 32k posts on #pman, and am now spidering #amazonfail… I think it’s a better approach than grabbing all tweets and then filtering… but I also think I’m likely to need to spider a tag, then respider related tags – i.e., spidering #pman leads me to want to spider “comunistii”, “voronin” and “chisinau”.

  15. I think actually the emphasis on twitter was mostly due to the journalists. I am in Moldova now, and most of my friends here actually received messages asking people to come to the square through a multitude of communications – SMS, facebook, email lists, twitter, and skype. What is interesting is that the organizers utilized the gambit of social media and digital communications to organize. As you mention, they have also followed up using a variety of media including blogs and youtube. Journalists jumped on twitter mostly because it is the flavor of the month as you note. Actually, it was more web 2.0 organizing. Interestingly, the two websites that the Moldovan authorities blocked for an extended amount of time were social networks – Facebook and odnaklassniki.ru. They mostly allowed twitter to continue working since they could also invade it with their own viewpoints. If you read #pman over the last several days, you will see a continual battle between the pro-communists and the pro-oppositionists. Probably the most interesting aspect of the web 2.0 organizing was that it demonstrated incredible civil activism in a country where standard media is substantially controlled and the population is usually viewed as docile. Young people in such societies are increasingly using social media and the internet to shape their informational landscape rather than merely consume the products of the state. Usually, this has little to do with politics, but when many young people desiring change were suddenly faced with a continuation of the status quo, there was a groundswell of civic activism propelled through the internet.

  16. Yes, Ethan, responding to your blog takes longer than your blog itself, because of all the assumptions wrapped up in your take on the Moldovan events that fueled your partial scholarly exercise, and the need to unpack them. And I’m absolutely right to call you on things that you feel are only “attributed” and to parse them in this detail, because in fact these assumptions of yours do underlie what you are doing here, and I think it’s worth your contemplating, given the enormous amount of meme-training you’ve unleashed now, using your credentials, in debunking Twitter Revolutions.

    You felt called upon to add to your list of debunking arguments as to why this wasn’t a “Twitter Revolution” a white-washing of the CP in Moldova. That’s why you had to be challenged on that bit of footwork. You have only your gut intuition for this concept, yet when challenged, you duck and say “oh, go and argue with the author of the piece, not with my gut”. Sorry, your gut gets an argument, too. And it’s not about “having memories of 1980s communism” — if that is intended as some swipe at me for having such memories. It’s about pointing to the realities of what happens in Moldova today under communism, which Freedom House rates as “partly free” (http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=22&country=7449&year=2008) I’m certainly not claiming that Moldova today is “like” what it was in the Soviet era in the 1980s, but the same problems of communism and its restrictions and corruption surely remain even if the level of repression is less. It’s enough to spark a revolution, Twitter or no Twitter. The journalist in the comments here confirms the blanket media control in Moldova. Communists ready to accept foreign investment don’t undo that sort of control.

    Yes, you do get charged with a responsibility with James Buck precisely because you let that one go by without feeling any of the zeal to debunk it that you instinctively went with when Moldova was served up in your stream. You can roll your eyes and exaggerate all you like about this charge of imbalance implying (falsely) that I’m saying that you are “responsible for debunking every over-enthusiastic technology story on the web” (I never said anything silly like that) but I’m here to press you on precisely why you rush to debunk *this* technology story and not any others — James Buck, the Obama campaign and his fake 13 million networked fans, or any hype out there.

    You are selective in your indignation; that disturbs me. You shouldn’t be. Your remarks about Madagascar sort of sum up this problem of selectivity — you only like new technology (and don’t feel it’s been hyped) when it helps a cause you like with people you know; if it helps a cause you don’t like with you don’t feel any cultural affinity for (Second Life) or political solidarity for (the anti-communism movement in Moldova) then you not only don’t write about it; you write about it with indignation that tech hype is overtaking the story! That makes me concerned that you only “like” the tools when they are used for things you want them to be used for. So again, that bias needs to be called — it’s simply not fitting for a journalist and analyst and *scholar* of new media as you style yourself to be. Again, it isn’t about your decision to blog about this or that thing that catches your eye. Hey, blog about whatever catches your eye. It’s about your decision to *dump on* this particular revo and disqualify it from officially-approved Web 2.0 status as a “Twitter Revo” because you don’t like it for other reasons. That needs to be called.

    Your motivation to research Moldova is therefore fueled. And it’s there my curiosity was triggered to try to figure out what fueled it, when it was absent for other Twitter hype stories like that of James Buck. Was it fueled by not believing people should have much to be protesting against about in the first place under Communism 2.0 Lite? Was it fueled by your implication that it’s not a very supportable cause because it’s all diaspora based? Because otherwise, what drives your fervour to prove this wasn’t a Twitter Revo? Just because? But why? Because you don’t *like the way the movement worked this* and it doesn’t fit what you think should happen with Twitter tools, which is more comfortably about Madagascar and your friends. See what I mean?

    What is a Twitter Revolution, Ethan? Only a revolution in which the makers exclusively text on Twitter with their mobiles in a designated square where mobile coverage is proven? Who says so? What you seem unwilling to concede is that a social movement that used Twitter to publicize the events to the Moldovan diaspora and the wider world *is* a Twitter Revo — and in fact Twitter was used by activists inside Moldova, too. What, you can’t have a revolution unless you follow a certain script?! What is a public square? A public square is no longer a physical stone place in Chisineau, now, is it? Not when Twitter comes along for the ride.

    Your notion that we can only get to use the term “Twitter Revolution” if it means your committee’s approval for “use to coordinate protesters via that service” is far too restrictive. I personally think it’s too limited, both in definition and in scope of the tool itself. Twitter is, by its nature, not something you use “just to coordinate in the square” — if you do, and use tags especially, you are inviting in an audience of thousands of followers or millions of searchers, potentially. What will qualify for you a “Twitter Revolution,” Ethan? One Twitterer in the square who reaches someone outside? Two, Twitterering to each other? Surely you can appreciate the power of one individual, even, like the photo of the man jumping back and forth in front of the tank in China. Everyone is saying that multiple forms of media were used, but it seems blogs and Twitter were most important.

    I don’t think the headlines are so much “sensational” as they are trying to be “current”. They’re trying to capture something different about events in this day and age where they acquire so many ways of being broadcast now, not dependent on mainstream TV and newspapers.

    Once again, yes, you pick up and decide to debunk a Twitter Revo that doesn’t pass your PC test for other reasons. Yes, it is unconscious and that’s why you don’t like me making it explicit. And I find it troubling that you use this Connectivist kind of concept of “my personal learning network” for how to frame the news, like a Facebook page — “what catches my eye” or “where I have personal connections” or “where there are tools that I can access”. This wouldn’t matter if you only aspired to blogging. But since you aspire to scholarship where you sit, it surely *does* matter. Your zealous debunking of the Moldovan Revo, with the branded back-up of the Berkman Center, now indelibly stands in the Internet for many, many people to cut and paste and declare as “done” even though you yourself admit you only did a data dump, not a scholarly paper, and only made a cursory, quantitative analysis. Now many are linking to you, nevertheless, as “proof” that this Moldovan Twitter thing is fake — and more, that all Twitter things are fake — except when they’re not, and the cause is progressive (like #amazonfail).

    The problem is that even when Twitter things *are* fake (I view #amazonfail to be a collective hypnosis of the first order (http://secondthoughts.typepad.com/second_thoughts/2009/04/amazonfail-or-crowdfail.html) certain causes, if they are “progressive” in these tools designed by “progressives” get a “blessing” as being a “Twitter Revo” and others don’t. And that needs to be challenged thoroughly if we are to be credible debaters of the impact of new media.

    As for the “emphasis on twitter mainly being due to the journalists” — I don’t see that this constitutes a “hype” problem. *The journalists were informed by, and kept informed by, an incessant Twitter stream and that in itself is a Twitter Revo*. Twitter was *essential* to their covering of this story in ways that a phone of a dissident, readily turned off in the 1980s, would never have been.

  17. BTW, you can see my Twitter debunking credentials here and more on the subject in general:
    http://www.informationweek.com/blog/main/archives/2009/04/neither_demi_mo.html

  18. Ethan says:

    You’re certainly right that the post you’re commenting on was only a partial scholarly exercise, Catherine. My hope was for this post to be a first statement of interest, not the definitive word on the situation. I followed up on this post with an early, cursory look at the data I was able to collect over the weekend. That subsequent post had conclusions different from this post. And since publishing that post and the accompanying data set, I’ve gotten feedback that challenges assertions I’ve made in both posts, and will change the next post I write on the topic.

    I’ve been using the blog to examine academic topics in realtime because the feedback I get is incredibly valuable in shaping future research. Since posting this article and the subsequent one, I’ve gotten suggestions to compare #pman with #amazonfail, and lots of information on ways in which Twitter may have been used by pro-Communist groups to challenge protesters and to spread disinformation. I’m looking forward to researching that topic in detail. My guess is that, some months to come, someone – probably not me – will publish a definitive piece on social media and the Moldovan protests. Maybe the work I’m trying to do will be helpful, maybe it will be succesfully debunked. The fact that I’m posting on a blog, soliciting comments, and posting subsequent pieces on the topic is meant to signal that I’m actively working on these ideas. I’m sorry you feel that this blogpost is going to be cut and pasted as the last word on the subject – that’s not my intention. (And again, wouldn’t it make more sense to engage those doing the cutting and pasting rather than blaming me for their failure to triangulate between my interpretation and yours?)

    I’m still somewhat baffled by your invocation of James Buck. As it happens, I largely agree with your interpretation – the story focused far too much on Twitter and not on the other factors. I’m sorry I missed it. But I’m not willing to accept the responsibility you appear to be trying to put on me, to track all uses of social media for political change and emphasize them equally across the political spectrum. Sorry – I’m a researcher, not a lab full of researchers. If I were publishing overviews of social media and political change, I’d be more open to the critique you’re offering – this blog is where I work through what I’m researching day to day, week to week, and that topic distribution is basically guaranteed not to be a fair, comprehensive representation of the space.

    As for the actual disagreement – was the Moldova protest a “Twitter revolution”? What drove me to write this piece in the first place was the sense that it wasn’t a particularly helpful frame for the events. Activists in Moldova used a wide range of social media tools, including Twitter, to organize, execute and promote the protests. Twitter was especially useful in capturing international media attention because a few people in the square and lots more in the Moldovan diaspora used it to amplify news stories… and because Twitter is the current flavor of the month. I suspect that Facebook and SMS were at least as powerful in organizing and mobilizing protesters, and I hope researchers will look closely at those tools and at odnaklassniki.ru, which the previous commentator reported was blocked in Moldova. (I’m trying to confirm that via Herdict.) If newspapers want to call it a social media revolution in Moldova, I’ll happily agree with that characterization. Calling it a Twitter revolution oversimplifies the situation… in my opinion, which will probably be revised as I continue to research the topic.

    Again, thank you for engaging.

  19. ecaterina says:

    greetings from Moldova! it’s always interesting to read about own country at the international media. it’s a pity that the topic is so painful, at least it is painful for the majority of Moldovan citizens because of awful vandalism happened in our capital.

    I’ll begin from small but important remarks to some previous comments (I apologize, but they will regard the guests’ comments, not the author’s one). In any democratic society the all opinions and values should be tolerated. So that, according to the preliminary datas of the votes recalculation, the results of the election remains to be the same. It means, for the Party of Communists voted around 50% of the population which participated. The whole international institutions (whatever OSCE, EU Parliament, CIS etc) have recognized the elections as democratic ones. So that, everybody should respect the democratic will of the majority of our country. It is the right of each person to like or to dislike the communist ideas, but the fact is the Communists Party won in Moldova. And if somebody is confusing why the Moldovan communists are pretending to be a modernized party, just analyze its new program (http://www.pcrm.md/en/program.php ).

    another point is the Romanian implication. shortly. at 7th april during the demonstration and attacks there were Romanian flags, maps of so named Greater Romania which include Moldova and a part of Ukraine. and there were present the Romanian fascist groups (http://omg.md/Content.aspx?id=2469&lang=2 ). mr Basescu being the president of one EU states proclaimed he would defend further the 4 mln citizens of Moldova (it means, from his point of view, all citizens and from Transnistria as well are Romanians). I’m Moldovan citizen as well and I’m not Romanian and I don’t like when smb tries to influence my ethnic identity.

    and the last but the most important thing from my opinion. The point is that the above discussions seem to have the major question was it a Twitter revolution or not. In fact, it seems to rise another – bigger – question: were the 7th april spontaneous either well prepared and organized long before. If we suppose to have the Twitter revolution, so the events would have the spontaneous line, when the unsatisfied youth went out to protest against the communists, organizing the issues through the social links (by the way, twitter is not the most popular in Moldova from my p of view). So that nowdays we can see through the western media a great debate about the Twitter role, its implications etc. While debating, such media – consciously or unconsciously- leads away the public opinion from the real facts happened in Moldova to some abstract discussions. I don’t want to bother u with my point of view of these real facts. Just be informed about which political forces in Moldova a month before (!!) the 7th April declared about their demonstrations in PMAN against the elections falsifications; which political forces obtained the legal authorization to held the demonstrations at PMAN at 6-7 th April. u can see a small video with the English written comments translation http://omg.md/Content.aspx?id=2656&lang=2 . it will help u to understand the things and from other side too.

    and the last-last. I’m wondering of Mr Morozov’s foresight. At 2nd April he welcomed everybody at the Net Effect, telling further he will have more profound analyzes about internet technologies in less developed countries. And writing the examples of countries, from the all existed states in the world he mentioned “from Tajikistan to Moldova and from Syria to Thailand”!!!. It was 2nd April. In some days it happened what happened in Moldova and Thailand. Besides, as I understand, namely Mr. Morozov was the 1st one who called the Moldovan events as the Twitter revolution, at 7th April at 5.15 pm at Moldovan time when the events still continued at PMAN. Nice coincidence either Mr. Morozov is a real prophet. Anyway, I’m waiting the Twitter explosion in Syria and Tajikistan soon)).
    The truth is out there.

  20. Ethan,

    I can only repeat myself here: you didn’t cross the street to write about James Buck, although you happened to agree with me — something I could only discover by challening you. And with James Buck, what I would say isn’t that it was not Twitter-related; the Twitter storm and the MSM coverage made it indeed a Twitter *phenom* such that Shel Israel can then capitalize on it with a populist and sentimental book. But what I don’t then claim for it is that it freed him; like it or not, American foreign policy and foreign aid freed him, and that power and Twitter’s new soft power couldn’t free his translator.

    It would be one thing if you said that the Twitter revolution of Moldova was shallow, or not enduring, or not representative, or some other commentary about it as a social movement. But you’re not content to critique it as a phenomenon; you have to debunk it from even being a phenom at all, and that is biased. Furthermore, you have to reach and stretch to prove that it was really about other social media using Herdict or something — just because you bristle at the MSM using the catch-phrase. A Twitter revo *is* a revo the MSM calls that — that’s the phenomenon, itself, how it reverberates.

    I’m here to contest your “partial scholarly exercise” precisely to fulfill the purported mission of your purported crowd-sourced blog efforts here — to make sure that you pause a little more the next time you reach for all the facile memes that your worldview and station condition you to reach for.

    If pro-Communist groups had to use Twitter to spread disinformation, that testifies to the power of the Twitter revo and should clinch it for you that it is indeed a Twitter revo, like it or not. That does it: if it were NOT a Twitter revo, the communists could have stayed on odnoklassiki.ru which is where you claimed they were “rightfully” belonging because that was the real source of the revo.

    Social movements are seldom what they seem in their early days of coverage. I remember exhaustively studying the anti-coup efforts in Moscow in 1991 and finding out that it was newly-empowered small businesses with access to copying machines for flyers and draft-resisters with already existing fax networks that played a role as much as the middleaged famous political party figures and old dissident intelligentsia visible on the square. And finding out that the socialist party in Ukraine was more important in the Orange Revolution than the Western press gave them credit for. Or finding out that women AIDS patients are a factor in resistance in Zimbabwe although you’d never know it from the persistent regional and global coverage of only male opposition leaders. Etc. etc. Social movements are full of surprises and you have to remain curious and open-minded to see what makes them work.

    Your blog was already repeatedly cut and paste as the last word on the subject, and that’s not what I “feel,” that’s the reality of the blogosphere, go read it. And the meme sticks: “Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says the Twitter Revolution is illegitimate”. Except in Madagascar, where his friends ran it. Do we need to get you some friends in Chisineau?

    One again, you lurch to horrible extremes and self-discrediting exaggerations when you claim that my critique here is about somehow compelling you to take up the post of “social media watch” and comment on every and all uses of Twitter. That’s ridiculous. How about just *one* to balance your saddlebags, Ethan?! I’m in fact challenging your record as being hugely selective — favouriting at least one Twitter revo that you happened to be inside of with friends, using your Twitter yourself (Madagascar) and “not liking” Twitter revos where you have no friends and didn’t Twitter yourself — and furthermore, think there isn’t much to protest (Moldova). And that’s a perfect legitimate thing for me to do: calling someone who has claims to scholarship on his obvious bias.

    It’s not about “every” Twitter phenom. It’s about your obvious track record of not even having one obvious case of misreading, like Buck, on your record, *if your real agenda here is to debunk over-hyping of media tools, and isn’t about debunking over-hyping of anti-communist movements you don’t like*. THAT is the issue: your claim to legitimacy about following social movements where you think Twitter was overstated — manifested by your sudden lurching interest in Moldova, even making up little scripts to capture data, and your missing on other debates — even one!

    The reason Twitter *is* a frame for these events, whether your committee and you as the commissar approve or not, is that people themselves frame it. I just passed a demonstration at the UN where Moldovans were carrying a big sign, “Help the Twitter Revolution”. You can’t undo that even if you fail to find it politically correct or overstated. One might posit these days that all social media revolutions as you yourself call them (oh, you’re willing to say tools *do* cause revolutions, and not just people using tools?!) are Twitter revolutions, because Twitter is massively used if not by the direct participants, then by everybody else watching.

    Please stop patting me on the head for “engaging”. You should be debated more often.

  21. Ethan says:

    Catherine, sorry you interpreted my attempt to be polite as being condescending. I often thank people, on the blog or off, for engaging with me.

    I’m happy to debate, but I’m not sure precisely what we’re debating at this point. This post was an early one – I’ve now made a second, more detailed post and offered a different interpretation, one which is much less dismissive of the role of Twitter. Continuing to critique the failings of the this post is fair, I suppose, but I think it would be a more interesting debate if you could acknowledge what I’ve acknowledged – that opinions can change as more information comes into play.

    As for the accusations about my bias – what is it that you’d like me to do? I’ve written only two extended pieces on the use of Twitter in social movements – on Moldova and on Madagascar. You dislike my interpretation on Moldova, and you dismiss my Malagasy comments based on the fact that I’ve got a relationship with people in that country. The truth is, I’m likely to continue commenting on these movements when friends let me know to pay attention to them, as my friend Evgeny Morozov did in the case of Moldova. If you’d like me to take a close look at uses of Twitter that are more closely aligned with your politics and ideology, you certainly have demonstrated that you know how to find me.

  22. If you don’t want to hear it from me, Ethan, perhaps you can accept hearing it from a leader of the Twitter revolution in Moldova now under house arrest:

    http://www.rferl.org/content/Moldovas_Twitter_Activist_Under_House_Arrest/1610122.html

    Once again, you are creating a false premise that my request is that you always watch all Twitter abuses everywhere. I’ve suggested you even come up with one or two more than your zealous grab at this particular one because you didn’t like it. Your not liking it is something I’ve unpacked here.

    I’m doing the right thing by questioning what I see as a constant over-leftist tilt from those purporting to represent some kind of liberal consensus, as you do. And I’m here to remind you of this. An open society is not about one claim to the truth. It’s not about my ideology or politics, it’s about the need to constantly question yours, given your high visiblity, credentialed positions, and authority. They only are as strong as they are truthful and convincing.

    I could acknowledge your opinions changing if in fact they changed. They didn’t. All that happened is that you defensively changed your tone a bit on Kyrgyzstan when an authentic person from the region called you rightly on your dismissiveness, and all you’ve done here with my most strenuous, lengthy and repeated confrontations is mildly conceded that yes, Twitter had something to do with Moldova.

  23. Vladimir Nabokov says:

    Almost no-one uses Twitter in Moldova. Out of all the people I know in Moldova, only 1 other has heard of Twitter, and he doesn’t use it (yet he is a big internet addict). SMS or telephone was what caused the revolution to be well known to their friends, (plus just meeting up with friends and telling them), and social networking sites like Hi5 or Livejournal, but not Twitter. You go on the streets of Chisinau and ask young people about their thoughts of Twitter, and be prepared to receive blank clueless stares. The western media concerns more about a buzz word than people.

  24. I agree, I don’t think Twitter usage in Moldova is particularly high.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Green Design » Blog Archive » Unpacking “The Twitter Revolution” In Moldova - [...] This piece originally appeared in Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My Hearts in Accra. [...]
  2. Liminal states - [...] Zuckerman’s Unpacking the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova fits somewhere in between.  He describes Daniel’s analysis as “one of the …
  3. Unpacking “The Twitter Revolution” In Moldova | EcoSilly - [...] This piece originally appeared in Ethan Zuckerman’s blog, My Hearts in Accra. [...]
  4. Disinformation, trolls, and #pman: more serious than Skittles (DRAFT) « Liminal states - [...] Moldova’s Twitter revolution is NOT a myth on Foreign Policy and Ethan Zuckerman’s Unpacking the “Twitter Revolution” in …
  5. …My heart’s in Accra » Studying Twitter and the Moldovan protests - [...] I weighed in on the argument a few days back, I realized that the argument over the role of …
  6. *Updated* Protestors Twitter in Moldova? - [...] Ethan Zuckerman observes, Twitter being the “flavor of the month in social media” makes it is a convenient [...]
  7. ICTlogy » The end of paper, open gates to on-time democracy (not about journalism) - [...] against a possible election rigged by the Communist party. Despite the lack of consensus (see Unpacking “The Twitter Revolution” …
  8. Internet & Democracy Blog » Cracking Down on Digital Communication and Political Organizing in Iran - [...] political organizing tools, from the Obama presidential campaign in the US to Ukraine, Colombia and Moldova. As powerful as …
  9. El Oso » Archive » April Showers (of too much information) - [...] Twitter Revolution” with Ethan playing the part of skeptic and Catherine playing the part of … hmm, I’m not …
  10. No, the Internet does not help build democracies | cyrusfarivar.com - [...] It’s been fairly well documented that this “Twitter Revolution” was a myth. [...]
  11. April Showers (of too much information) | We Blog The World - [...] year it was Evgeny defending his claim of “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution” with Ethan playing the part of skeptic and …
  12. April Showers (of too much information) | We Blog The World - [...] Twitter Revolution” with Ethan playing the part of skeptic and Catherine playing the part of … hmm, I’m not …
  13. April Showers (of too much information) | We Blog The World - [...] is that last year it was Evgeny defending his claim of Moldovas Twitter Revolution with Ethan playing the part …

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