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A "Twitter Revolution"? A Second Look at the Uprising in Moldova

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 10 2009

Back in my high school days, I hosted a sophisticated little soiree amongst some close friends that happened to turn into a raging kegger requiring of police intervention. How'd it happen? One friend called another, who called another, who called another, who called another, who called another. So on and so forth. (This was the prehistoric days before cell phones, so news of the party was traveling via land lines, if you can believe it.) Eventually, my house was packed to the gills with a rowdy bunch of strangers. Things finally came to a head when someone decided that it would be a good idea to bring lit tiki torches inside the house.

Now, is it fair to call that an epic house party a product of telephone technology? It seems a bit silly to do so. At the time, it seemed to me much more a product of the degenerate class of people I went to high school with. It's a question on my mind as people start to take a second look at went went down in the Moldovan capital city of Chisinau, where a reported 10,000 people gathered in the central square of Piata Marii Adunari Nationale and stormed government buildings there. The New York Times ran a story of the protest by writer Ellen Barry that put a heavy focus on Twitter. That, it seems, kicked off a frenzy of similar stories telling the tale of how young Moldovans, angry about the certification of election results that put the ruling Communist Party at 50% of the vote, took to Twitter and Facebook to generate the Chisinau protest.

But Daniel Bennett, a PhD student embedded at the BBC to study the impact of new media on war coverage, isn't so sure. "As it stands, the Twitter revolution is a myth," he writes. Bennett traces the spark of the protests to a core group of young activists, with investigative journalist Natalia Morari, exiled back to her home country after exposing corruption and possibly murder in Vladamir Putin's Russia, at the center. Morari herself, reports Amnesty International, now says that she only intended to organize a few hundred people. The several thousand that turned out, she argues, where opposition groups who took the opportunity of the small protest to throw, in effect, a rager. Says the group, "Amnesty International considers that they were exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and if arrested for organizing a peaceful assembly for which they had notified the authorities, Amnesty International will consider them to be prisoners of conscience." And Wired's Nathan Hodge reports that Morari and other organizers will be charged with "calls for organizing and staging mass disturbances."

For his part, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin is convinced that it was actually Romanian nationalists behind the uprising, and has closed the border with the country that many young Moldovans see as a beacon of hope. Some in the opposition are arguing that Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin organized the uprising against his own party so that he might engineer a crackdown.

Bennett has a look at Morari's Live Journal blog and finds no mention of Twitter. (She does, though, talk in retrospect about the флэш-моба that went down on Monday, which of course is Russian for "flash mob.") Writes Bennett about the New York Times piece that started the "Twitter Revolution" meme, "the Twitter community in the whole of Moldova is around 100 to 200 strong and there is scant mention of the organisation of the protests at all apart from a rather vague quote the Times has put in at the end of the piece." To be sure, the Twitter stream of the #pman hashtag -- shorthand for the park in which the protests took place -- is still flowing rapidly. Understanding what's happening in there is, alas, hampered by my dreadful Romanian. But you have to wonder how many of the reporters repeating the "Twitter Revolution" theme speak it much better.