Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Final Paper: Twitter and Protests

Over the past couple of years social media has taken the world by storm.  It has changed the way people run elections, politics, and protests. Before the use of the internet and new media, it was much harder to organize a protest or a rally.  Twitter was created in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone.  Twitter is micro blogging where users can only use 140 characters for one “tweet.”  “So what exactly makes Twitter the medium of the moment? It's free, highly mobile, very personal and very quick. It's also built to spread, and fast” (Lev Grossman, 2009).  Now there are roughly 18.1 million Twitter users in the United States and 145 million in the world.  Twitter has many functions that help people get their message out to the public.  When you have a Twitter you can write a blurb with the small amount of characters you have.  People can take pictures, twitpics, on their phone and post them on Twitter so the world can see.  If a picture doesn’t say a thousand words then a video would.  People can post videos of things they have seen or things they enjoy on twitter.  Twitterers can also post things called hashtags- #theylooklikethis- where people can find or search for things that they like or groups they want to be associated with.  The great thing about Twitter is that you do not need a computer to tweet all people need is a cell phone, an iPod, or anything that has any internet connection and screen.  Now tweets can be sent directly through to your phone through sms.  Also the main difference between other social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace is that Twitter is public where anyone can see anything you post unless you choose to create certain blocks on your tweets.  Also you do not have to be yourself when you tweet.  You can take the name of your favorite character or show.  You can also take your nick name as your user id.  Because of all of these features people around the world can tweet what they see or their views on their current government.  “Twitter isn't a magic bullet against dictators” but it is a spark that can start a wild fire (Grossman 2009).
            In the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s these protests were held even without the new technology we have today.  During this time Television was the “new” technology of the day.  People were able to gather and protest against the injustices that they had been facing for many years.  The television provided a way for the rest of the country to see what was going on in the south.  In 1957, Little Rock was desegregated but there were picketers around these four African-American students who just wanted to go to school.  During this time there wasn’t any internet where people could e-mail, Facebook, MySpace, or tweet anybody to garner any support.  In the 1930’s and 40’s the radio was the “new” media where people would sit down and listen to President Roosevelt give his fire side chats.  In the 60’s it was the Television that made people come together and fight against injustice.  People watched on television protests get blown down from high pressured water hoses.  Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech in front of the camera that was then spread all over the country.  During this time Television was the Twitter of its day.  It showed people what they could not see or could not experience because they were in a different state.    

            The year 2009, became a crucial year for Twitter.  It was the first time people started using Twitter as a form of protest.  During the 2009 Presidential Election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi was running against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Ahmadinejad had 62 percent of the votes compared to Mousavi’s 34 percent of the votes.  June 13 is when protests started to escalate.  “After the election in Iran, cries of protest from supporters of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi arose in all possible media, but the loudest cries were heard in a medium that didn't even exist the last time Iran had an election” (Grossman, 2009).  During this time the Iranian government decided to take matters into their own hands and try and stop the dissent online and off.  The Twitter world exploded with tweets from people who were outraged by this.  The tweets were in English and in Farsi.  The government tried to shut down the internet but they were unsuccessful because it is not easy for the government to stop or even control social  networking sites.  To stop all internet use would mean that Iran’s businesses would then have to shut down and suffer losses because the government did not like what the public was posting.  Some people said that it is hard to tell whether or not certain tweets are truthful or fabricated but there are checks and balances put into place so that fabricated stories are not spread through the internet.  This is how people can know what the people are saying in Iran are telling the truth and are such a threat to the Iranian government (Levinson, 140).  The government was able to censor the newspapers with “whited-out news stories” but “Twitter was delivering information from street level, in real time” (Grossman, 2009).  Twitter became the people’s outlet to their frustration.  “Twitter didn't start the protests in Iran, nor did it make them possible” but this did make the protestors bold and reinforce their beliefs in this case (Grossman, 2009).  Twitter has been able to engage populations with its immediacy that has never been possible before.  Now Twitter is able to gather many people together.  Especially in the last year alone there have been many protests because of Twitter and its reach across the globe.   
            To start this year off Egypt was confronted with a crisis.  People were unhappy with the way the government was being run.  There were many people protesting President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-reign.  On January 25, 2011 opposition leaders in Egypt declared this day the “Day of Rage” where protestors would take to the streets and protest this unruly reign.  Civilians and protestors were able to upload videos and images of people standing up to the military in the streets of Cairo.  These images and videos went viral and re-tweeted, re-blogged and sent all over the world to people wanting to know what exactly was going on in Egypt.  Many journalists were being censored any many quite so that they could tell the public the truth of what was going on.  Egyptian journalist, Mona el-Tahawy, was one of these journalists who had a twitter and was tweeting what was going on and the state of the protesting that was happening in Cairo.  “Twitter has been a powerful enabler of democratic expression”, (Levinson, 139).  The Egyptian government mimicked what the Iranian government did two years earlier.  They started shutting down the internet along with all the social networking sites that helped organize certain protesting locations.  Defaced pictures of Mubarak were posted on Twitter while a constant stream of activity was being put online.     

            Due to the recent protests in Egypt people all over the world have begun protesting.  Perhaps some of the most coverage recently has been about Syria and the protesting and killings that are going on there.  Protestors are threatening the government with the tool that is Twitter and other social networking sites.  “The regime is ready to do anything against us, including committing massacres,” Malath Aumran says. “But we are telling the regime that if you shoot and kill people the pictures will be online and on television five minutes later” (Blanford, 2011).  The people in Syria perhaps have been the loudest with their protesting.  The only thing these protestors need is a laptop and the internet to be able to access these social networking sites to be able to sustain and shake this regime in Syria.  Protestors are organizing using Twitter and Facebook.  For the past three weeks protestors have been rioting and using social networking to organize their protestors.  They have made “an online revolution” (Blanford, 2011).  Aumran is able to track the protests from his apartment using Twitter, Facebook, and Skype.  They are his eyes and ears to what is going on outside.  Aumuran is his cover, his real name is Rami Nakhle and has had to flee Syria but he still stands up against the injustice that is occurring in Syria.  Cal Perry, an Al Jazeera reporter for the English channel, has been tweeting about the devastation and death that he has witnessed.  Here are some from The New York Times article “Social Media Accounts of Protests in Syria”:
I witnessed a funeral march. Cut down by gunfire.
Directly into crowd. Horrible.

Gunfire was so intense, cars hit nearby. Firing was on
overpass that connects Deraa with Izraa. Road cut totally.
Military zone.

Was forced to turn around and flee to #Lebanon. 10k
north of Izraa where we saw people shot, my taxi driver
(from Deraa) started to cry.

Military zone seems to be about 20k from Jordanian
border. Just 10k from where people were killed, soldiers
at checkpoint were laughing.

It was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen.
So many people must have been killed.
Through the 140 characters that Twitter allows for one tweet, Perry was able to paint many images of the carnage and suffering that is happening to the people in Syria.  People in Syria are now using Twitter to just shed light to what is going on.  With the help of Twitter and other social networking sites people around the world are being informed of what the Syrian government is going and what riots are taking place.  Twitter is going to where some journalists and camera crews would not be able to do.  The small camera on a phone and the uplink to Twitter is getting these images out to the public.  The protestors are fighting a two front battle using their strength in numbers and their words. "Those of us online are not actually organizing the demonstrations, but helping people on the ground to stay connected," said one cyber activist in Damascus, speaking to the BBC on Skype. He asked to not to be named for safety reasons” (Ghattas, 2011).  These people online are giving hope to the people who are planning the demonstrations and also they are letting people know that people care and support the protestors.  The people who organize what is going on online are trying to let people know that they are not alone in this fight.
What is happening in Syria is also happening in Libya as well.  Through the use of Twitter the world is understanding and is able to see the atrocities that are occurring thousands of miles away.  Like Libya and Syria, Arab and Middle Eastern countries are using Twitter and social networking sites to show their anger towards their government and their country.  “Arab users of the social-networking site jumped from nearly 12 million in January last year to around 21 million by the end of 2010, the report said” (Presse, 2011).  In these countries Twitter is used to get information out but also to tell people if and when they are protesting or rallying.  Because of Twitter citizen journalism is increasing immensely.  Twitter is the way for people to get their information out and they are reporting on what they are seeing and hearing.    

The Ugandan government is afraid of what has happened in Iran and Egypt and Syria and so they want to shut down twitter to the public.  People are holding protests called “walk to work.”  They are protesting the current regime in Uganda.  In response the government has decided to try and shut down both Facebook and Twitter.  “On Friday, blogs and newspapers began reporting that the Ugandan Communications Commission had issued a letter to several of the country's major telecoms, asking them to block access to Facebook and Twitter” (Heacock, 2011). Add picture here
            In Mumbai in 2008, twitter was given a live up to date occurrence of what was happening when the terrorists had taken control of the hotel.  Nobody within a ten mile radius could have gotten in to tell the world what was happening but the people in the area were given minute by minute information about the status of what the terrorists were doing and what the people were seeing on the streets.  There is a down side for Twitter being as immediate as it is.  If a terrorist had a Twitter they would be able to see what is going around them and in any situation they are in.  In the case for Mumbai, if a terrorist had gotten a hold of anything that discussed the location of police officers or what the citizens outside were doing the terrorists could cause major damage.     

            Twitter has become a phenomenon where people can post what they are doing, what their interests are, pictures of what they are doing, and videos.  It is a way of expression for the people around the world.  But Twitter is not just about the clothes we like or the movies we have just seen and if they are good or bad, Twitter can be held to something so much more.  Its meaning to many people is a way of showing what is going on in peoples countries.  It is a way for people to show their support to what is happening in Syria or Libya.  People are given a voice through Twitter.  Words are everything to people and the more people here about what is going on in the world the better of people will be.  Twitter has provided a window into the world and lives of others.  Other people want news organizations to use Twitter so that news is there quick and simple.  People want to know what is happening and a blurb of 140 characters can tell anyone what they want to know about a certain story that is on the other side of the world.  This makes “Twitter practically ideal for a mass protest movement, both very easy for the average citizen to use and very hard for any central authority to control” (Grossman, 2009). 


  1. I think that the new voice of politics is found in that of social media sites. In many ways people are able to protest or support initiatives without actually being at a creation place. This being the case, people can gain more support for a cause or against a regime. It really is the 'voice' of the people and I think if the medium didn't exist many of the dictatorships across the world would still be in power.

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  3. I think your approach on the use of Twitter was just excellent. Reading the title of the paper I thought "Ok, just another paper about Twitter and how we can show off our new Rolex", but I am glad you proved me wrong. It really is amazing how social media platforms have redefined what communication is. And reading some of the papers of my fellow classmates has helped me realized that to an even greater extent. I always say that the ease with which anybody can post anything on the Internet is not good. Your paper made me want to reexamine my opinion. Especially because that ease is directly related to the circulation of news about dictatorial regimes, massacres, attempts for suppression of uprisings etc. What in the past involved print to get publicized, and thus took a lot more time and effort, and could also be hampered more easily, can now reach a very large audience in just a few seconds by use of a computer. This is a much more effective revolution and one that takes a lot more effort to be suppressed. The active role of the user is more than evident in New New Media.

  4. It is amazing to me how much Twitter has caught on. I enjoy following celebrities especially. It's like getting a text message from star. It is much more powerful than people think. Gilbert Gottfried lost his job as the Afflac Duck because of his posts on Twitter. It practically started a revolution in Egypt. Now days everyone has a Cell Phone, so literally you can share a thought with the world from just about any physical location. When one feels the need to protest, there no need to use the first amendment right to peacefully assemble word for word when you can peacefully assemble on the cloud.

  5. I agree with Alex...this paper was def interesting. Its amazing to see Twitter so powerful. Twitter for some is a "time-waster," but to others its a powerful business tool, a convincing political network, just to name a few. I am not really into Twitter, but i am sure at some point i will get sucked in.

  6. I agree with Ken. As a pop culture fanatic, I love following celebrities on twitter, but sometimes I think a little too much information is shared. Obviously there are pros and cons to this medium, so who knows when it will "go out of style." Overall, I think your paper showed some really great points as to how twitter has helped with protests. It really shows how far social media can get us.

  7. I agree with Alex, you have taken me to another level of understanding when it comes to the use of Twitter. Many people think that Twitter is just another social media site that gives you the opportunity to interact with people on the web but as you have proven Twitter can be used as a source of support. You have clearly explained how Twitter was used as a source to protest. Twitter is so much more than what it was originally created for, one can spread an idea to millions of people from the comfort of your own home. Many people do use twitter to find out what celebrities and their friends are doing because twitter is the first application that famous people actually use. Users feel like they are on a personal level with the people they "follow". Unlike Facebook where there are mostly just fan pages that someone in a corporate office monitors the page, the users are actually tweeting from their phone.