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 information – though 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!”