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Assessing the Twitter Revolution

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 13 2009

Writing on his Foreign Policy net.effect blog last week, Evegeny Morozov may well have been the first writer to suggest that Moldova's anti-communist protests could be seen as a "Twitter revolution." That theme was picked up in a number of other press reports. It was, notably, the inspiration for the headline under which the New York Times' first front-page story on the post-election protest ran. As I blogged about here, there has been some questioning about whether Twitter played as instrumental a role in the violent two-day uprising as the press attention indicates. Now Morozov is back to explain and shore up his framing.

Morozov's central argument, if I'm reading him correctly, is that those of us questioning the "Twitter revolution" concept are guilty of a failure of imagination. "It's kind of surprising," he wrote, "to see so many people misunderstand the power of networks in such profound ways." Some of the criticism had been that given the small number of Moldovans who are on Twitter and reports that cell phone coverage was shut down in Piata Marii Adunari Nationale during the time of the protests, there was a leap of faith involved in believing that so few people working with so little could spur so large a social protest. We've certainly seen in cases like Colombia's No Mas FARC street protests or the creative opposition to China's Tibet policy in the context of last summers Olympics that a few committed people with access to a few simple social tools can generate social action out of proportion to their relative size and objective strength. I doubt you'll get much argument in these parts over the idea that networks can be immensely powerful.

Remember that episode from Seinfeld where Jerry objects when his dentist, a brand-new convert to the Jewish faith, starts making Jewish jokes? Someone asks Jerry if he's offended as a Jewish person. No, he protests, I'm offended as a comedian. For the tech-minded political writer, there are few things more tempting than the chance to combine "Twitter" and "Revolution" in the same sentence. Throw in the exotic nation of Moldova, and forget it. That's a delicious tale to tell.

Twitter, writes Morozov, might not have played much of a role in organizing the protests in Chisinau, but it has played quite a significant role in promoting what happened there -- and, more importantly, the concerns of Moldova's youth about the direction of the country and the validity of the recent parliamentary election. (The Moldovan Constitutional Court has announced a vote recount.) It's a useful distinction. And indeed, the Twitter stream of the #pman hashtag has piled up thousands upon thousands of tweets. There hasn't, though, been much in the way of studied evidence about how Twitter (and Facebook and YouTube) actually contributed to the recent events in Moldova. What role social media can play in the overthrow of oppressive governments by organized minorities is arguably one of the most compelling questions of our time. But in this case, that's very much an open question. There's really no less reason to be skeptical or rigorous about the role of Twitter in a political episode as we are about the role of, say, ideological conflicts or foreign governments or any other political factor.

More: As in all things in life, Ethan Zuckerman here is instructive.