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There was a time when journalists thought that Twitter would bring about a revolution that would change the world. They were right — but not for the reasons they initially thought.
Text: Brittaney Carter

On Friday June 12, 2009, Twitter’s timeline lit up with updates from Iran as the people went to the voting booths to elect a president. Among the candidates were the traditionalist and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and three other reformists with ideas for transforming the Islamic republic.

Ahmadinejad was declared the winner, and it took less than a day for murmurs of election fraud to grow into shouts of injustice and street violence to break out. Journalists were forbidden from reporting from the streets, and then cell phone service stopped. High-profile members of the opposition parties were put under house arrest — or were arrested altogether. The New York Times Nahid Siamdoust reported that by Saturday evening, the streets of Tehran had turned into “urban battlefields.” And Twitter reported it all.

In spite of the government’s attempts to stifle communications inside Iran, young people and reformists were still able to get online where they ignited what is now being called the “Green Revolution.” Anyone with a cell phone or a digital camera immediately became a citizen journalist, and the people created their own media, uploading photos and videos, sending emails and writing blog posts about the situation inside the country. They shared much of this information via posted links and short messages, or “tweets”, on Twitter.

“For nearly two weeks, the global media relied heavily on the social media, including Twitter, for their daily news reports,” explains Dr. Yahya Kamalipour, Director of the Center for Global Studies at Purdue University Calumet.

In the end, the Green Revolution was only another chapter in a much larger global change concerning the dissemination of information. Bloggers, columnists, and communication experts began to see how the Internet, and more specifically Twitter, could step up in the absence of professional journalists to give first-hand accounts of political events. It was history in the making because it was the first time people witnessed a major event unfold in real-time through 140-character tweets and status updates instead of turning on the television or picking up a newspaper.

Initially, pundits were predicting that this social media phenomenon, dubbed the “Twitter Revolution,” would bring about political change in places like Iran. However, when the streets of Tehran cleared and the protests finally ceased, there was no election recount and the dubiously elected Ahmadinejad remained president.

“Twitter cannot stop a bullet,” said Charles Krauthammer while reflecting on the protests during a 2010 interview on Fox News All-Stars. “That’s the lesson of what happened last year. There was a lot of romantic outpouring here thinking that Facebook is going to stop the Revolutionary Guards. It doesn’t. ”

The online social community may not have exacted political change, but Twitter inarguably served as a tool for social change. For example, as a show of solidarity for Iranians who wanted political reform, some users changed their account settings to reflect Tehran as their location in their Twitter profiles. The original intent was to protect people tweeting from inside Tehran by “confusing” Iranian officials. But such enthusiasm proved to be a double-edged sword for scholars researching the topic because it caused confusion about how many people were actually tweeting from Tehran.

People outside of Iran who felt that major cable news networks were not efficiently covering the events used Twitter to express their disappointment. Many Twitter users posted messages related to the trending topic “#cnnfail” to say that CNN should acknowledge its own shortcomings in covering the news in Iran and improve international coverage. Almost two years later, users still include this “tag” in posts to hold the network accountable for holes in its current news coverage.

To end the dispute, the Twitter Revolution does not concern just controversial political events. It also serves as a lifeline of information during other major events such as natural disasters. “The capacity for collective action and impromptu coordination has a lot of potential in all areas of social life,” explains Dr. Joss Hands, author and co-director of the Anglia Research Centre in Digital Culture.

This capacity was evidenced as far back as November 2008 during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, when victims tweeted to let people know that they were under siege. More recently, after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, people used Twitter to send updates about the situation on the ground because there was no cell phone service. And after the February 2010 earthquake in Chile, people again used Twitter to upload and share photos of the damage with a world waiting for news.

The character limit of Twitter posts can prove problematic for conveying complex messages, however — especially messages about a hotly contested election. “It’s very hard to make a good argument in 140 characters or less. Thus, there is a very big risk of someone misinterpreting what you are trying to say,” says Evgeny Morozov, author and contributing editor for Foreign Policy magazine.

So the question remains, if users can only communicate through a few sentences at a time, how could Twitter become the preferred vehicle for breaking news in highly controversial situations? Why aren’t we discussing a “Blogger” revolution, or some other online application that makes it possible to paint a more complete picture?

Hands provided a possible explanation for Twitter’s international impact in spite of its shortcomings in areas like word count. “I think there is a significant impact from blogging on mainstream journalism, but in fast-moving situations the brevity and speed of Twitter is well-suited,” he said.

Twitter works because it is a fast-moving account of the Internet as a whole. The site enables users to create a mosaic of information from almost anywhere on the Web. They can construct their own timelines using other sources of multimedia such as blog posts, videos, photos, and links to other websites. After the Iran elections users tweeted incidents of being held against their will, hospital locations and links to videos and photos. Readers had the chance to process this information in two dimensions — initially through a quick perusal of the public timeline and then again as they chose which links and stories they wanted to read in more depth.

In Iran, Twitter also proved to be more advantageous not because of its format but because of its versatility. In addition to posting online, users can tweet from their cell phones, which kept the Twitter discussion active even when the government interfered with Internet communication.

Twitter can be a useful tool for communication, but it’s best to be very careful about how we study it, Morozov says. In a chat transcript published on Washington Post’s website, he pointed out that Twitter was not being used to organize protests after the elections in Iran, as some online reports suggested. It was, however, a rich source of information for protests that were already in progress.

Iran’s government is not the only political establishment to be turned upside down by social media. In April 2009, the European republic of Moldova held elections that gave way to the formation of a communist government. On Monday, April 6, an organized crowd of 15,000 young adults assembled to peacefully protest the election results. The event, named “I Am Not a Communist,” had been organized via Facebook, various blog sites, and email exchanges.

In less than 24 hours, the country’s young, liberal population created a Twitter-fueled firestorm by feeding the trending topic “#pman” or Piata Marii Adunari Nationale. This is a public square in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau where they encouraged Twitter followers to show up and join them in their protests. By Tuesday, another crowd of 10,000 had formed, but the protest was no longer peaceful. That night, the Moldovan youth, hungry for political, social, and economic change, raided and set fire to government buildings in the capital.

Naysayers cited the relatively low number of Twitter users — a cursory Google search shows that there were about 70 users who set Moldova as their location — as proof that social media was not a major factor in organizing those protests. However, this small population of Twitter users in Moldova only proves how powerful those tweets were. Twitter does not exist in a vacuum, as evidenced by how quickly and surely those few messages fueled an international conversation in the online community.

Moldova has endured three election cycles since the April 2009 protests with still no prospects for a stable government. However, the coalition formed by the opposition parties who benefited from the Twitter Revolution is slowly creeping toward a majority vote.

In the end, Krauthammer is right. Twitter could not stop the bullets, nor could it change the outcomes of the 2009 elections in Iran and Moldova. But the Twitter Revolution isn’t significant because of its capacity to transform political situations. Twitter is important because, when Iranians and Moldovans could not democratize their government, it gave them a way to democratize their information. Universally, it changed the way we educate ourselves and the way we get our news.

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