This Failed Revolution, Powered by Twitter: Revisiting the Recurring Themes of the Moldova Twitter Revolution, and Raising Some New Doubts

Will we remember the events that are now unfolding in Chisinau not by the color of the flags but by the social-networking technology used? — Evgeny Morozov, “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution,” April 7, 2009

Reviewing a sample of ten articles on the role of Twitter and the Moldovan electoral protests of April 2009, reveals a great deal of enthusiasm among some analysts and journalists, for both the technology involved and possibly for the political stance of the protesters. What seems to have been largely eclipsed in the discussions is more analysis of the actual politics of the protest movement, ascertaining whether or not their demands were legitimate and their complaints validated by strong evidence, balanced with interviews with members of the government, a historical outline of the social situation that gave rise to this political conflict, and then tying in observations of the politics of the protest movement (and that movement’s external links) to see how those factors may have shaped how and why it used particular technologies. The opposite approach would be a technological determinist one: that Twitter somehow generated the protest movement.

Let us start by looking at some of the dominant, recurring themes in the ten articles under discussion (see week #2 here):

Twitter as Hero

I CAN HAZ REVOLUTION, AND CHEEZBURGER

In a number of the articles under examination, the very use of Twitter was the leading point, before anything else. This is clearest in “Students use Twitter to storm presidency in Moldova” (The Telegraph — which names itself after a communication technology), as it is the starting point of “Student Protests Are Turning Into A Twitter Revolution In Moldova” (TechCrunch), and “Inside Moldova’s Twitter Revolution” (Wired’s Danger Room, which usually blogs about new armaments and warfare, which is not to suggest a contradictory or exceptional aim here). It is conceivable that some North American readers would know more about the fact that Twitter was used, than what the protests were about, or even where Moldova is. That is essentially a restatement of Morozov’s opening quote for this post. This theme expands into another one:

Youth + Twitter = Progress + Power

First, it does not seem too far-fetched to posit that those who use the expressive technology of Twitter, and other social media, may have become infatuated with their own practice and might have had some experiences that suggest to them that, finally, they have some power, they can make a difference, they have made themselves heard, and their words are mightier than bombs. Just in passing, I also recall a colleague at a Canadian anthropology conference who, based on his own survey, found that two-thirds of all “New Age shamans” in North America work in the computer industry (I have not been able to confirm that independently).

The New York Times wrote of Moldova that, “The sea of young people reflected the deep generation gap that has developed in Moldova, and the protesters used their generation’s tools, gathering the crowd by enlisting text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network.” Later in the same piece: “Young people have increasingly used the Internet to mobilize politically; cellphones and text messages helped swell protests in Ukraine in 2004, and in Belarus in 2006.” The two movements behind the protests, HydePark and ThinkMoldova, are described as “youth movements.” The NYT repeats the youth motif again: “Moldova is like a sealed jar, and youth want more access to Europe….youth are talking about how they want freedom, Europe and a different life.” Morozov wrote of a Twitter hash tag that (itself?) mobilizes “young people” speaking of the “youth riots” in Greece. Morozov repeats the youth motif several more times in case you missed it, but couples it with being “progressive” and tech-savvy:

Moldova’s progressive youth took to the streets in angry protests. As behooves any political protest by young people today, they also turned to Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness about the planned protests and flashmobs. Led by youth NGOs like HydePark and ThinkMoldova, the protests began very peacefully – as a flashmob, where young people were simply supposed to hold lit candles in the vicinity of the square. (“Moldova’s Twitter Revolution“)

Later “Moldova’s progressive youth” become “Moldova’s angry youth.” In “Rioters of the world unite,” we are also told, “The youths that trashed Budapest in 2006 relied on blogs to enlist supporters.”

Twitter is harnessed to international youth culture, personal power, “progress,” capitalism (which produced the gadgets), and an embrace of “Europe” and thus the West. They want to be like us — except that in the Greek case they already are some of us, and theirs was a rejection of this order, nor entirely an expression of “youth.” Otherwise, there is a youth-tech nexus that is repeated often enough: the “twenty-somethings” that generated new dot coms, or that created Facebook, wacky, zany, yet clever, innovative, and now rich. More broadly, in a culture such as ours which markets youth massively, one has to be wary of the messages’ intended  purpose. At least one of these purposes has to do with the “e-way”:

It’s the E-Way or it’s No Way?

In an article in The Economist (“Rioters of the world unite“), Evgeny Morozov wrote, “E-communications are now a familiar feature in pro-democracy protests against dictators.” Interestingly, his article is about democratically elected governments rather than stereotypical autocrats encrusted with medals and ringed by troops with shiny helmets — and this is more than an accidental observation: most of these e-protests have in fact been launched by those who lost electoral struggles, and though doubts persisted in Moldova and Iran about the validity of the electoral process, in the absence of any serious evidence it seems that the protesters’ side lost fair and square. In the Greek case, the government was also an elected one, but the protesters figured out that authoritarianism and violence can thrive best under the veneer of “liberal democracy,” something that those who write for the The Economist will be unlikely to point out. In the case of Afghanistan, where there was massive and overwhelming evidence of widely observed electoral fraud…there were no e-protests, and #afghanelection on Twitter never attracted anywhere near the attention of #iranelection, nor was it a trending topic. (One can view the contrasting results of both of the latter in Twitter, in the Web Ecology Project’s reports: The Iranian Election on Twitter: The First Eighteen Days and Afghanistan and its Election on Twitter: The Macro Picture, where I noted that as “1D4TW” I was the 32nd most active twitterer on the topic, a rather easy rise to prominence on Twitter in that case which was purely the result of quantitative volume.)

It is also a fact that e-communications are a familiar feature of government surveillance of opponents — but theirs are kept private.

Whether it’s text messages during the French riots in 2005, or Hungarians using blogs in 2006, or Twitter and the protests in Greece and then Moldova, Morozov argues that what we are witnessing is a new era of “networked protest.” In that same article, Morozov criticizes a vaguely referenced “anti-globalization movement” noting that “movement” has “ignored the idea of spontaneous but networked protest, and instead focused on taking large crowds to set-piece events like summits.” There is another valuable lesson there, though perhaps not the intended one:

Vanguardism

While the values of democracy, spontaneity, anti-centralization, and anti-authoritarianism are central to most of the published reports and commentaries in the media, either explicitly or between the lines, the serious irony is how they overlook the elitist vanguardism that they themselves describe. In The New York Times’Protests in Moldova explode with the help of Twitter,” we are told that,

Natalia Morar, one of the leaders of ThinkMoldova, described the effort on her blog as “six people, 10 minutes for brainstorming and decision-making, several hours of disseminating information through networks, Facebook, blogs, SMSs and e-mails.”

“And 15,000 youths came out into the streets!” she wrote.

Likewise, in The Guardian’s‘Twitter revolution’ Moldovan activist goes into hiding,” Natalia Morar is featured as “the woman behind the mass protests,” and that the protests “began after a conversation between Morar and six friends in a cafe in Chisinau, Moldova’s tiny capital, on Monday 6 April.” If this isn’t a description of classical vanguardism, I don’t know what is. Ironically again, in Morar’s case, her vanguardism has definite Leninist shades to it.

Slow Politics and Fast Politics

This then is not the mass discussion and consensus building characteristic of the slow and lumbering “anti-globalizationists” criticized by Morozov above. What we may have then is a contrast between slow politics for which Twitter spontaneity is incidental, and the fast politics of a handful of bloggers and Twitter users that appoint themselves to the role of encouraging or coordinating flash mobbing. There is also a definite ideological divide here as well: the anti-globalizationists are not in the same camp as those middle-class, technologically-empowered youths in Moldova and Iran who wish to embrace the capitalist, consumerist West.

One should wonder then about whether or not behind the praise for certain novel and spontaneous technological approaches to politics, if there lurks a set of unspoken political preferences and assumptions.

The Numbers Question

Just how many Twitter users are there in Moldova (or Iran) any way? A number of the pieces we discussed either raise this question, or seem to anticipate it. Daniel Bennett in “The myth of the Moldova ‘Twitter Revolution’” refers us to information by one Moldovan twitterer who suggests that “the Twitter community in the whole of Moldova is around 100 to 200 strong.” Is that strong or weak? The number itself is almost lazily produced, “around 100 to 200,” suggesting that the people who offer these numbers do not themselves have a clear idea. In “More analysis of Twitter’s role in Moldova,” Morozov makes the numbers issue his first point, and finds only about 70 Moldovan Twitter users. Leena Rao in TechCrunch’sStudent Protests Are Turning Into A Twitter Revolution In Moldova,” concludes that “it is not clear how may of the actual protesters in Moldova are on Twitter.” These are the experts talking, mind you.

Elsewhere, and this ties in somewhat with the 80-20 principle, Clay Shirky has played down the small numbers issue, or rather played it up in a very different way. His argument is that it does not even take huge masses of twitterers to make a difference, just a small committed group that spreads its messages to the influential “nodes” of a larger network, who then repeat and substantially magnify the effects of a small few. Hence, Moldova’s protests achieving “trending topic” status on Twitter.

Ethnographers also deal with small numbers in their own research, and most would be loathe to say that therefore the results of their research are utterly invalid.

The fact that “we” regularly raise and discuss the numbers issue is, I believe, the result of three separate factors: (a) implicitly “we” think of “democracy” as a numbers game, we require mass quantities, majorities, etc.; (b) we worry about “scams” and the lone operator with big claims invites such suspicion; and, (c) we are aware that one person using new media technologies can sometimes far out-produce a large organization in producing and disseminating information on a given issue.

Vulnerablilities

Interestingly, vulnerability to being simply shut off, or to being tracked by state surveillance, makes its way into the margins of a number of these articles. We hear from Natalia Morar, on the run from the authorities, who said to The Guardian: “I haven’t spoken on the phone or gone online for two days for fear of being traced.” Moreover,

It was “ironic”, she added, that the tools she used to launch a revolution could now potentially betray her whereabouts.

The Guardian is right to put square quotes on “ironic”…because there is either nothing ironic about the fact that state surveillance can read blog posts and tweets and track opponents, or something very ironic about a Twitter activist who seems oblivious to this fact.

Morozov expands on this issue in “Think Again: Twitter”:

Twitter use in authoritarian countries comes with major drawbacks. Twitter creates an extensive online paper trail that can be easily used against dissidents. In fact, as Twitter use becomes more common, authoritarian governments are likely to exploit Twitter to gather open-source intelligence on the opposition — not a difficult task for anyone with an Internet hook-up. So Twitter could help authorities identify dissent at very early stages, tracking not just individual activists, but entire activist networks. An online friend list could enable a serious crack-down.

Annoyed authorities can also pull the plug, as Morozov noted in another article: “the authorities may have required some Moldovan ISPs to restrict Internet connection with the outside world, so the protesters might soon face difficulties in getting their reports out.” Then this in fact happened, as verified by The New York Times.

These vulnerabilities are significant enough that they ought to lead to a major questioning of the use of social media networking in either mounting or documenting protest actions (we can safely drop “revolution” as none of these cases involved one).

Coordination/Organization/Action — Documentation/Publication

One of the enduring tensions in almost all of the pieces is the question about the role of social media such as Twitter in mobilizing, organizing, and documenting protest actions. Generally, there is little or no evidence to suggest that Twitter was used to organize and coordinate protests. Daniel Bennett wrote: “a number of commentators claimed that this was the beginnings of the first Twitter revolution and that Twitter had played a ‘key role in organising the protests’.” Indeed, The Telegraph was one of them, as was TechCrunch. Bennett is very skeptical, and rightly so:

“But where’s the evidence? Not many of the people who have actually written these and similar articles have bothered to find some tweets that might hint at some kind of organisational role for Twitter.”

Speaking of Moldova, Morozov wrote in “More analysis of Twitter’s role in Moldova“:

“The use of Twitter has been limited to mobilization of some local supporters and raising international awareness. It didn’t really help much in coordinating actions of people who ARE already on the square, in part because they are offline. My Moldovan friends are telling me that a technology that would really help in that public square would not be Twitter, but a good and loud megaphone.”

Regarding Iran, he argued, “Twitter was instrumental as a publicity tool, but played little role in instigating or coordinating the protests.”

As for mobilizing such actions, this is often assumed, and this is where ethnography should come in: we need to hear directly from protest participants, aside from the Twitter leaders, about the extent to which their reading of tweets motivated them to act. We do not have such information, in either the cases of Greece, Moldova, or Iran.

In terms of documentation, this is not safe territory either for our assumptions: while Morozov wrote that “images (moving as well as still) spread faster than words; and images, of course, transcend language barriers,” visual anthropologists will be quick to say “not so fast.” First of all, where it comes to propagation via new media, there is a problem with what is meant by “spread.” If spread means movement, then no, words if anything travel faster and more easily than heavy-to-load images and videos. If spread means gaining a wide following, then Morozov’s statement is possibly true — but that does not resolve the problem that images do not readily convey, by themselves, any of their intended meanings (indeed, neither do words very often). Images can conceal as much as they reveal, and the act of “transcendence” sometimes effectively means that the images are lifted out of context, and may be shorn of their attachments to the cultural conventions of their makers (the photographers or videographers), which are necessary to understand the framing of the image. Even in terms of basic empirical evidence, showing an action, we have problems. The famous video of the dying Neda in Iran, for example, does not tell us who shot her, or why, and it does not reveal the fact that she was not a protester but just an onlooker, even though it was a protest movement that seized her as an icon of their movement. That image certainly spread, but what exactly did it spread? (We leave aside for now how images have been extensively falsified in the Iranian case.)

Regarding Moldova, Morozov wrote, “While the Moldovan ‘Twitterati’ had very little impact on the events on the ground, they did a great job using Twitter’s global, viral reach to keep the protests in the international news.” This seems to be a relatively unproblematic statement.

One of the interesting questions to emerge from the role of “external spectator/actors” in the cases of both Greece and Moldova is that of the where and when of action and documentation. Leaving aside the most basic understanding that publication is a form of action, because total inaction means not publishing, not doing anything, the problem lies with Clay Shirky‘s equation of publication with action. There seems to be agreement on two fronts: (a) the Greek rioters did not need Twitter to either mobilize or organize, but they did document their protests, and after we saw solidarity protests spread internationally; and, (b) the Moldovan case did not spark a similar phenomenon of solidarity protests (Moldovan issues may be “too local,” whereas Greek anarchists were part of anarchism as an already transnational phenomenon), but Moldovans abroad played an important role in keeping the protests in the sights of the news media.

Speaking of the Greek case alone now (although in the Iranian case we also saw numerous sympathy protests organized internationally), it seems that while Twitter may be insignificant in spawning action at the local heart of the confrontation, it can, through documentation and consciousness-raising, motivate actions in distant locations, which are again locally organized by a variety of means, not all Twitter, and not all electronic.

It seems to be rather indisputable that social media tools can be very effective in documentation, publication, dissemination, and conscious-raising. Depending on the conflict in question, and depending on the movement or campaign at focus, this very quality may even be the most significant. Especially if we think in terms of political conflicts fought entirely on the plane of image management and public relations. In that case, publication is action in a very real sense, even if no rocks are thrown.

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About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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