Moldova's Twitter revolution is NOT a myth

As someone who started the "Moldova's Twitter revolution" meme, I think I owe the world another essay. No, no, I am not going to renounce the meme -- quite the opposite, I'd like to step up the debate.

Let me say this upfront: I don't think that Moldova's Twitter revolution failed because of Twitter. No, it failed because of politics -- and Moldovan politics are not the easiest kind of politics to make sense of. I firmly believe that social media did a great job; political leadership from Moldova's opposition simply wasn't there to exploit it in meaningful and smart ways.

Now that we've dealt with politics, let's dig into gray areas on the role of Twitter. First of all, I still stay behind all of the points I made in my previous post on the subject, especially the one about the world's current obsession with Twitter playing an important role in making these protests visible.

Beyond that, I think we won't get far in our analysis of Twitter's role in this week's events without making a distinction between "planning" and "executing" a revolution. I have never argued or believed that social media -- and Twitter in particular -- is good for planning revolutions; if you plan to overthrow the Castro regime and are discussing those plans on Twitter, well, perhaps, you shouldn't bother.

The open nature of such platforms makes revolutions planned on Twitter or Wikipedia very unlikely to succeed, for  authoritarian governments are likely to monitor such conversations and eliminate most emerging threats almost in real time. This is also why I spoke against the use of LiveJournal for planning flash-mobs in Belarus in 2006 -- this just seemed silly to me, as the KGB was essentially reading the same blogs as activists. Too bad it happens to be among Clay Shirky's favorite examples --  also mentioned in his book -- of new and smart online organizing.

However, this doesn't mean that social media tools like Twitter shouldn't be used to raise awareness of the unfolding events once the tactics have been planned with the help of more secure platforms. Quite the opposite: I think that raising awareness of existing protests -- both nationally and internationally -- is where social media adds most value. What protesting movements decide to do with the political capital accumulated through the Internet is for them to decide; in the Moldovan case, I think the the political parties leading the protests simply squandered it.

Perhaps, the biggest fallacy committed by the critics of my "Twitter revolution" thesis has been to assume that Twitter exists in some sort of isolated environment that is easily quantifiable and shut off from other media platforms. It's this kind of assumption that leads them to conclude that "few Twitter accounts=few reasons for the Twitter revolution to happen."

Well, I am sorry to break the news, but Twitter doesn't exist in isolation; and we would not learn much only if we watch discussions started on Twitter only within Twitter -- most interesting stuff is likely to happen outside of it (even though slicing these dicussions through Twitter alone might be useful for other meme-tracking purposes). Twitter is part of a much richer social media landscape, with many other important services and networks (Facebook, LiveJournal, WordPress, and many others come to mind) that are usually connected in ways that are not always visible to English-language audiences -- and sometimes, not even to bots that do data-mining for these audiences (do you know how "memes" and ideas spread between Twitter and, say, the Russian-language portion of LiveJournal -- especially its sections that are password-protected? I certainly don't.)

When a new posts appears on Twitter, it usually has a life cycle that is invisible to most of us: somebody posts it to a Romanian-language blog, somebody posts it to a Russian blog on LiveJournal, etc -- and suddenly, these re-posts allow for initial updates to be discovered by local media -- who may not know about Twitter at all -- who then pass on the news to even greater and more diverse audiences.

In the case of Moldova, it's possible that Twitter has made much bigger impact on the new media environment outside of (rather than inside) the Twittersphere by simply feeding a stream of blogs, social networks, and text messages with content. In my view, people who point to the low number of Twitter users in Moldova as proof of the mythical nature of the subject have conceptual difficulties understanding how networks work; on a good network, you don't need to have the maximum number of connections to be powerful -- you just need to be connected to enough nodes with connections of their own.

As such, the number of Twitter users in Moldova is important, but not particularly relevant -- or even very illustrative of anything. The fact that so few of them actually managed to keep the entire global Twittersphere discussing an obscure country for almost a week only proves that Twitter has more power than we think. That only 80 users have blown this story out of any proportion to me looks like the clearest indication that our public sphere is getting democratized; I think it would be an even more powerful example if there were only 8 users.

Think of it this way: I have quite a few Moldovan friends, several of them on Twitter. Because of this blog, I also have the capacity to beam their narrative to a much wider global audience. In this environment,  fixating on the actual user numbers is meaningless; it's like taking the "social" out of  the "social media." We didn't build all those networks in vain -- this is how information is supposed to flow.

Another crucial innovation missed by most analysts of social media's role in the protests seems pretty straight-forward to me: the Twitter revolution proved that the public square -- the usual place where riots and rallies take place -- may no longer be the focal point of organizational efforts. It's still important but the balance of power has shifted away from it by giving the audience of the protests a virtual role to play as well. Yes, as Daniel Bennet points out in his critique, Twitter may not have played a role in coordinating events in the square. But there was NO coordination in that square - all reports look like it was total chaos and anarchy. With or without Twitter, there was nothing to organize as the genuine political agenda seemed to be amiss. 

But to prioritize the internal organizational elements of this story is to entirely miss out on the crucial role that Twitter played in mobilizing the masses outside of and far away from the square (and, in part, getting some of them TO the square in the first place). I can think of many situations, in which  what is happening outside -- and especially what is being discussed outside -- is far more important than what is happening inside the rioting crowds. 

For example -- and I am just thinking aloud here -- suppose that Twitter's non-Moldova-based masses were not as fond of Moldova's protesters as they turned out to be. Suppose that, in fact, they were supportive of the communists. Could Twitter help to channel their energy somewhere?

Something similar happened in the war between Georgia and Russia last summer, when we saw Russian Internet users bond together and start organize their own cyberattacks on Georgian targets. Now, just imagine if someone has leveraged all the buzz about events in Moldova by asking those people to lend their idle computer power for a DDOS attack on the entire cyberinfrastructure of Romania, which the Moldovan government thinks played a role in the riots. In this scenario, the protests themselves are just a prelude to a much bigger distributed global protest that may be exponentially bigger than events taking place in the square; those only serve as a prelude (mind you that the overthrow of the government is not really always the point of a protest; there could be many other objectives).
 
Finally, my original reasoning for dubbing this a "Twitter revolution" rather than a "Grape revolution" was to signify that it's qualitatively different -- mostly because of the role that technology played -- from the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. I still think that this is the case -- and it's very hard for me to accept the opposite when I see Twitter still full of buzz around what happened.

The naysayers here remind of people who insist on claiming that reality doesn't exist even after knocking their head on the wall -- I simply don't buy into the thesis that it was a CIA-inspired Twitter campaign... It's kind of surprising to see so many people misunderstand the power of networks in such profound ways. 

Photo by James Wheare/Flickr

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