April 8th, 2009
SOMETHING’S being organizing in the small Eastern European country of Moldova, but there seems to be some disagreement over the “how” part. Some press coverage (particularly this Evgeny Morozov piece on ForeignPolicy.com, which the author later reconsidered) seized on the appearance of protest-tagged messages on Twitter to make a bold claim: that Moldovan youth relied on the micro-blogging tool as the main way to organize public actions that began as sit-ins but that morphed into street protests and the temporary takeover of the country’s president’s office and parliament building.
Ah sweet skepticism, will you never leave me be?
Not that I don’t doubt that a crowd or crowds dominated by young people took to the streets in Moldova, but when someone watching from afar attributes their success to a particular online tool that happens to be widely-discussed but still only the province of a relative few, we should ask for some actual evidence. First off, Twitter’s naturally subject to selection bias, since someone around the globe can SEE Twitter posts and follow the ones aggregated via a hashtag. What the outsider can’t see is everything else that’s going on around those Twitter posts, both in the real world and online.
Individual SMS messages, emails, blog posts, Facebook messages, voice calls and YouTube videos are a lot harder to track — which is also why they’re a lot more likely to be useful in a protest than, say, public Twitter posts that can be read by the police as well as the crowd. Not to mention the fact that cell phone networks can be shut down, either deliberately or by being overwhelmed by traffic, crippling any Twitterers around and something that seems to have happened in the Moldovan capital. It becomes the classic problem of correlation vs. causation: we can see Y happening after X, but unless we screen out other possible explanations, we can’t actually say that X CAUSED Y to happen
Now, a social media revolution? That’s something we can talk about, assuming we have the evidence, and someone does: in this piece on FrontlineClub.com, Daniel Bennet does a great job of finding the words of the actual protest organizers themselves, showing that they used just about every online tool in the arsenal to turn out the crowds, from blogs to Facebook to Twitter, email newsletters, YouTube videos and one-on-one SMS text messages. Despite its Twitter-hyping title, this Wired Danger Room piece clearly shows the same thing, that organizers used a wide variety of tools, and even the local Twitterers have some cold water to pour on the Twitter Revolution idea, for instance this post that Jon Pincus noticed: “We DON’T have a Twitter Revolution in Moldova. It’s a Social Network Rev. Other SNs are also used: Y!mess Youtube Flickr Facebook #pman”.
Exactly what we’d expect — to organize politically, people turn to the tools that they employ in their everyday lives. Journalists and bloggers, alas, have a tendency to look for the most-hyped trend whether its presence is actually significant or not — it fills out a headline and attracts plenty of attention, while also drowning out more nuanced truth along the way. Haven’t we been through enough hype-driven booms-and-busts lately?