< The Twitter Revolution


Friday, April 17, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. A spontaneous uprising in Moldova that began on April 6th had all the makings of the popular revolutions that have swept through former Russian republics like Georgia and Ukraine in the last few years, pictures of thousands of young Moldovans taking to the streets seemingly out of nowhere in protest of a dubious election victory for the last Communist regime in Europe. In the previous protests, much of the sophisticated organization was attributed to the Internet and cell phones. This time it was that latest democratic tech tool, Twitter, that supposedly organized the masses, and so it was quickly dubbed the “Twitter Revolution.” Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. He’s been looking at what actually happened, and he joins us. Ethan, welcome back to the show.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Hey, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you start by laying out for us what were the first indications that this mass of protestors in Moldova had been organized?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, what we saw in Moldova was a lot of discussion in blogs, on Facebook, lots of different social media, with youth, particularly youth on the left, very upset, believing that the elections were rigged. And then we saw street protests with more than 10,000 people out on the streets of Chisinau a week ago Tuesday. And people very, very quickly made a link between social media and the actual manifestations in the streets. Near as we can tell, the first to the scene was The Telegraph in the U.K. with a story linking Twitter as a causal factor in all of this. And then there was a thoughtful, although perhaps a little breathless, post from my friend Evgeny Morozov on a very influential blog called Net Effect, which declared this the "Twitter Revolution.” And then from the press standpoint of this, we were off to the races. It showed up in The New York Times the next day as the "Twitter Revolution,” and that meme propagated in a lot of different directions.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, one thing you discovered as you looked at the data is that most of the tweets emanated not from the scene of the protest but elsewhere, because there aren't many Twitter subscribers in Moldova. But, of course, that doesn't mean that Twitter wasn't a catalyst in one what happened. How big a part did it play?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn't all that important in organizing the demonstrations. Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time. One thing to keep in mind is that Moldova has a huge population living abroad - it’s more than 25 percent of the country - and they were really attached to Twitter as a source of information. Roughly a quarter of all of the messages posted on Tuesday, the day of the actual demonstrations, were what we call re-tweets. It’s basically saying, hey, I'm quoting this speaker who said the following. And mostly those re-tweets were reports from people who either were in the square or had news from the square. What you saw on that Tuesday was really people trying to find ways to sort of spontaneously organize a newsroom. By Wednesday, a lot of what seems to be going on in the Twittering is a sort of self-congratulatory, hey, we just held a revolution over Twitter – isn't this exciting? Twitter will change the world. Then, by Thursday, Twitter’s now being used by a small group of people discussing the events, discussing who’s gotten arrested, discussing what to do next, and, fascinatingly, it looks like it is being used as a disinformation channel by forces who might have been aligned with the government, essentially trying to scare people away from demonstrating again.

BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside how much Twitter was involved, was it, in fact, a revolution of any kind? The Communist regime remains intact. After four or five days the protests petered out.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: The protests do seem to have forced a vote recount. The government was responding to quite a bit of protestor pressure. I think the other thing that’s going on is that the revolution, if it was a revolution, has gotten people in the Diaspora very involved. As I sit down and analyze the Twitter feeds, I've found one Moldovan in the U.S. who posted more than a thousand messages over the course of five days. So there are some incredibly passionate people who are now paying extremely close attention to politics, but in terms of actually changing the government, so far not a revolution on that score.

BOB GARFIELD: Twitter has captured the imagination [LAUGHS] of the press, perhaps most especially because it doesn't seem that anybody quite understands why it exists. And here was an opportunity to attribute to it a rare sort of power.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: There’s no better way to get a story out there than to pick the technological flavor of the month and to attach to it. What better way to get people to pay attention to Moldova than to link it to the technological story of the month?

BOB GARFIELD: All right then, finally, to what new media application will the next Eastern European revolution be attributed?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I assume at that point we will have perfected telepathy through electronic devices.

[BOB LAUGHS] I would look for whatever’s getting Silicon Valley funding and roughly six months after that you'll probably see it being used effectively by activist movements. Activists are great alpha users for tech.

BOB GARFIELD: As always, thank you very much.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: My pleasure, thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard University and cofounder of the blog Globalvoicesonline.org.