Twitter Revolution: Social Networking and the Future of Protest

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Following allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections held last Sunday, citizens of the former Soviet republic of Moldova – and in particular younger citizens – took to the streets in large numbers. Calling to mind the “colored revolutions” that swept through the region earlier this decade, protesters criticized the government’s aggressive response and called for new elections.

The Moldovan Constitutional Court ordered a recount of the vote, apparently to pacify protesters, but the opposition movement denounced the move as a trick.

International interest in these protests has been motivated by more than an interest in Moldovan politics. The real story is the “Web 2.0” revolution, driven by social networking applications such as Twitter and Facebook. The use of these technologies to organize protests in Moldova has earned a high-tech moniker: the “Twitter Revolution.”

In theory, the technology was used to coordinate protest actions and raise awareness of upcoming events. However, in recent days, a mini-controversy has emerged in the blogosphere over whether protesters were or were not actually relying on Twitter to coordinate their actions. What remains beyond debate, is the fact that this “revolution” was truly broadcast live to anyone who cared to watch, with “Tweets” coming in fast and furious detailing events as they unfolded under the hashtag #pman (for the Moldovan square, Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, where the protests took place).

In a larger sense, the debate is beside the point. Regardless of whether Twitter was widely used in these particular protests, it is clear that it will be in the future. Indeed, social networking tools have already been used to help coordinate protests in countries as distinct as Egypt, Columbia and England.

How might this change the nature of protests? For social scientists, the decision to participate in protest represents a classic collective action problem. Simply put, these types of problems emerge when groups would benefit from coordinated action, but individuals would prefer not to participate because there are costs to doing so. If enough individuals choose to “free ride” – in other words, not participate in the collective action and hope that enough other people do so – then the group goal is not met, and everyone ends up worse off. While there are a number of important insights that we can gain from this theoretical perspective, one is that protest is more likely to take place when the costs of participating are lower.

Here’s where Twitter, Facebook and company have an important role to play. One of the most potentially worrisome costs of participating in a protest – especially against less than fully democratic regimes – is that you risk being personally punished by the regime. The more people there are in the streets, however, the less likely this is to happen. To the extent that Twitter gives potential protestors greater confidence that they will not be out on the streets alone, we should see more people joining in protests.

Moreover, if Twitter can be harnessed to tell protestors where potential security forces are and what they are doing, this can further serve to reduce the fear of punishment, and again bring more people out on the streets. The more a given regime is able to control traditional media outlets (e.g., television, newspapers), the more important a role social networking applications – which can provide information despite the efforts of the authorities to shut down traditional media – can potentially play. The ability of these “Web 2.0” applications to provide this information in real time is likely to be a bit of a game changer in fairly open societies as well.

Can governments respond to this development? In theory, the answer is yes. Technological advancements can always be thwarted by new technological advancements, and there were plenty of Tweets coming out of Moldova about the internet and Facebook being shut down. But my suspicion is that, in practice, this is going to prove very difficult for even serious authoritarian regimes. Mobile technology is getting faster, cheaper and more reliable. Only time will tell how far the “Web 2.0” revolution will take us, but either way, we’ll likely hear about it in real time on Twitter.

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