April 23rd, 2009
Cross-posted on techPresident
Remember the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova? Even as it was unfolding, the Twitter angle was being downgraded in the face of evidence that the Moldvovan protesters seemed to be using just about EVERY online tool available — from Facebook to text messages to blogs and email newsletters — to organize and spread the word (of course, it didn’t help when it turned out that very few people in Moldova are even ON Twitter). Now, according to The Post and Slate’s Anne Applebaum, the very “revolution” itself is being called into question, and online social media may have been used by the state security apparatus to misinform both locals and outside observers about what was going on.
Applebaum contends that the explosion of apparent support for Moldovan students and other protesters (10,000+ people showed up when only around a thousand were expected) was at least in part due to the work of agents provocateurs, who also led or pushed the protesters to break into government offices and plant a Romanian flag on the parliament building (Romania is apparently the national bugbear for pro-Russian Moldovans). Even Twitter gave some hints that this was what was really going on — I’ve seen reprints of several tweets purportedly from Moldovans warning that not everyone posting online was whom they claimed to be.
So here’s the lesson, and it’s an old one: on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, or in this case that your “revolution” is one. Just as the ‘net can make a tiny organization look huge, it can also mask official or establishment voices — for instance, how many “grassroots” issue campaigns in U.S. politics are actually funded and organized by corporate interests? Quite a few, and such “astroturfing” (think fake grass) tactics don’t seem to be going away any time soon, even though they can backfire if such a campaign’s true nature becomes public knowledge.
Online, we HAVE to question everything we read or hear unless it comes from a trusted source, and even then it never hurts to cross-reference (note: Wikipedia can be wrong). When outsiders are attempting to follow an event like the protests in Moldova, all we have are the messages we see — we’re not on the ground where things are happening, we don’t know the individual voices and their motives, and we can’t check the “facts” directly or easily. In some ways, we’re PRIMED to receive disinformation, and Twitter might actually be a perfect way to spread it, since Twitter accounts are functionally anonymous, hashtags allow easy aggregation and 140-character messages seem almost designed to give bits of information without context.
Yes, online applications like Twitter and social networking sites have immense potential to raise high the low and bring down the mighty, but the tools ultimately don’t care who uses them: dictators and demagogues have access to the same technologies as democrats and and the dispossessed, and they probably have more resources to put behind them. As Applebaum suggests, this might not be the last time we see a “revolution” that’s actually being manipulated through the very social media channels outsiders are hoping to use to follow and support it.