Tag Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism

Blast from the past No. 5: Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism

Again to the archives, again a paper on Twitter: Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism. This is actually the first paper that I presented at a scientific conference, organised by the SFB Changing Protest and Media Cultures SFB/FK 615 Media Upheavals at the University of Siegen in late 2008. For a short recap of the conference have a look at this post.

In this paper I use four case studies to illustrate potential uses of Twitter for political activists. The paper was drafted in early 2008 and written in the autumn of the same year. So unfortunately I didn’t address Twitter’s Iran-moment. Still, although some of the examples in the paper may seem dated I hope the lessons drawn from the case studies are still relevant. Judge for yourself.

The paper runs at around 3900 words. If that is a bit daunting have a look at this presentation. This should contain the main idea of the paper. The complete text can be found here.

This paper laid the groundwork for the DigiActive Guide to Twitter for Activism. It also contains other ideas like the use of Twitter as an information distribution tool or as a communication backchannel which also found their way in other papers.

Andreas Jungherr (2008) ‘Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism’. Paper presented at “Social Web: Towards Networked Protest Politics?” Organized by the SFB Changing Protest and Media Cultures SFB/FK 615 Media Upheavals University of Siegen, Germany on 7-8 November.

Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism

Andreas Jungherr (2008) ‘Twittering Activists: the Uses of Twitter for Political Activism’. Paper presented at “Social Web: Towards Networked Protest Politics?” Organized by the SFB Changing Protest and Media Cultures SFB/FK 615 Media Upheavals University of Siegen, Germany on 7-8 November.

Twittering Activists: The Uses of Twitter for Political Activism
by Andreas Jungherr
2008/11/05

slightly copyedited version
2010/03/16

A Paper presented at
“Social Web: Towards Networked Protest Politics?”
Changing Protest and Media Cultures SFB/FK 615 Media Upheavals
University of Siegen, Germany
November 7, 2008

For a short glance at the argument have a look at the presentation. The full paper can be found below.

Abstract
Social web applications have proven to be disruptive in different fields of social life. One of the most successful applications of the last year has been the microblogging service Twitter. This paper uses four short case studies to illustrate the possible uses of microblogging for political activist.

Motivation
Social web applications like Facebook, Flickr and Twitter, have lowered the organizing costs for communities dramatically (Shirky: 2008). These lowered costs should vitalize social movements. Those cost benefits should show the greatest effects for small groups of activists or communities without a large organizational machinery. Especially spontaneous social activism around transient topics on a local level should profit from the ready availability of social applications. Those applications can be used to achieve tasks, which until recently, demanded large organizations and considerable resources.

Often social media applications are used by early adopters merely for hedonistic purposes. But when reaching a critical threshold in ease of use and distribution some of these applications get chosen by activists as tools for social action (Zuckerman: 2008). During 2007 the use of the social media application Twitter, a “social networking and microblogging service utilizing instant messaging, SMS or a web interface” (help.twitter.com: FAQ), has spread widely. Over the last months the use of Twitter has proven disruptive in a number of different fields: journalism (Howlett: 2008), conferences and business gatherings (Owyang: 2008), emergency proceedings in reaction to natural disasters (Poulsen: 2007) and even political activism (Simon: 2008). These events show that Twitter has become a useful tool for the organization of social movements. To understand the potential uses of Twitter for political activists the observer has to look closer at these disruptions.

The emergence of social web applications is a new phenomenon. At this stage of scientific enquiry it is vital to understand the uses and effects of different social web applications for different forms of social organizations. This paper analyses the uses of one of the most successful web applications, Twitter, in four short case studies which show different possibilities for the use of Twitter by political activists.

Incident #1) After the Assassination of Benazir Bhutto the news of this event traveled with amazing speed through the community of Twitter users, even overtaking the speed by which the blogosphere was reacting (Howlett: 2008). This incident shows the potential for political activists to distribute highly volatile information through Twitter.

Incident #2) At the 2008 SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, the journalist Sarah Lacy interviewed Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg in a keynote presentation. During this interview a large group of Twitter users in the audience started to share their, mostly negative, reactions to Sarah Lacy’s interview style in real time on their respective Twitter-Feeds. Parts of the audience were using Twitter as an open backchannel to an event they shared. Their criticism was first raised and amplified on their Twitter-Feeds before they expressed their criticism at the keynote presentation itself (Owyang: 2008). This incident shows the potential for political activists to use Twitter as a powerful backchannel to social events.

Incident #3) During the San Diego wildfires in October 2007 volunteers and journalists started to use Twitter. Via Twitter they distributed live updates on the position of fires and orchestrated collective action (Poulsen: 2007). This incident shows that political activists can use Twitter to efficiently coordinate social action and protests.

Incident #4) In April 2008 the American journalism student James Karl Buck covered political protests in Egypt. During his work he was arrested by the Egyptian police. Via SMS he posted the word “Arrested” on his Twitter-Feed. Friends and colleagues of his monitored his Twitter-Feed and could secure his release in a matter of hours (Simon: 2008). This incident shows that political activists can use Twitter to monitor each other’s situation and in doing so increase their security.

These case studies show clearly four possibilities which are open to political activists who are using Twitter:

Lesson #1) Microblogging facilitates the fast distribution of information to a local or global community of interest.

Lesson #2) The use of microblogging feeds can be a powerful open backchannel to actively monitor and comment on current events.

Lesson #3) The use of Twitter can be an efficient way to organize and coordinate small groups for collective action and protests.

Lesson #4) The use of Twitter can establish a remote presence for a group of activists.

These case studies show that political activists can use the social web application Twitter as a tool in their communication strategy and in the organization of social movements. Twitter does not lend itself to every task at hand. Its design and the way it is commonly used suggest specific uses of Twitter for political activists to achieve tasks that were until recently only possible for large organizations with considerable resources.

Methodology
The social web and social applications are rather new phenomena. This makes a comprehensive scientific discussion of the potential of microblogging for political activists difficult. Microblogging tools like Twitter have not yet become standard tools in the communication strategy of groups who are trying to influence political processes. Especially large institutions like political parties seem very hesitant to integrate these new tools in their communication strategies. Still there exist isolated use-cases which carry lessons for those who try to influence public opinion or who try to organize collective action. This paper uses four events and the reactions to them on the microblogging platform Twitter to show exemplarily four different possibilities for activists to use microblogging tools to better achieve their goals.

The aim of this paper is not to give a how-to version to political activism via Twitter. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the demands of different groups and environments. Each group has to assess the possibilities and limitations of microblogging for their specific purposes. A communication solution which can be perfect for a local politician trying to connect with her constituency could be of no use to a group of human rights activists trying to increase their voice. Each situation and each aim needs a customized communication strategy. The promise of microblogging lies in its short form and its adaptability to different situations and different needs.

The following case studies serve to showcase some of the possibilities of microblogging in various communication contexts. They are by no means comprehensive and only serve as an indication for the possibilities of the use of microblogging to influence public opinion or to organize collective action. In fact each documented attempt by political activists to use Twitter or a comparable service can serve as an experiment on the possibilities of microblogging and only further our understanding of the interactions between the social web, public opinion and collective action.

This is also the time to shortly address a challenge which the processes here described hold for democratic societies. While democratic societies rightly applaud the chance that through microblogging dissenting opinions in oppressed societies can increasingly be voiced, microblogging also holds the real possibility for extremist fringe groups in established democracies to use the same communication tools to achieve their goals and thereby destabilize established democracies. This challenge has to be addressed in the future.

What is Twitter?
Twitter is a microblogging service which went live in October 2006 (Obviously: 2007). Twitter allows its users to post messages of up to 140 characters to a personal message feed. Users have the possibility to syndicate feeds by other users. This means they are notified through different communication channels if a feed, which a user has syndicated, is updated. This syndication is called “following”. A user who syndicated a given feed is called “follower”. On the profile pages of any given user, there is a list of all the users who are following her, and all the users she is following herself.

Users can either choose to monitor their syndicated feeds through the web portal of Twitter or through different desktop or mobile phone applications through which they are also able to update their own feeds. In the past it was also possible to be informed of selected Twitter-Feeds through SMS. Today this is only possible in selected countries (Twitter Blog: 2008). Still, there is a strong immediacy of Twitter updates and to the fast distribution of information through Twitter. The self selection of users who decide to follow a given feed leads to network effects. A group of followers of a given feed often form a community of interest. This facilitates the dissemination of news through these communities.

Twitter users have also the possibility to add keywords to their messages. The “#” sign at the beginning of a word signals a keyword (Twitter Fan Wiki: 2008). This convention enables users to monitor special keywords. Even if they do not follow all the feeds of users which post on a given topic they can monitor the respective messages. Especially during the 2008 American presidential election campaign different third party applications used this convention to offer different mashups and mappings of political messages in the Twitterverse (see for example: Election 2008; or: Politweets).

Twitter is not the only microblogging application available for use. There are a number of other services comparable to Twitter (see for example: identi.ca; Jaiku; Plurk or Pownce). Still, Twitter is the most widely used microblogging service. As of November 2008 there are probably around 3 million Twitter accounts in use (TwitDir: 2008). The events described in this paper happened on and with Twitter. But this does not mean the lessons drawn from these incidents neccessarily only apply to the use of Twitter. on the contrary, it is reasonable to assume these processes, although observed on Twitter, also apply to the use of microblogging applications in general.

Since Twitter is a rather new phenomenon a convention for the academic citation of Twitter-Feeds is not yet clearly established. This paper adopts a convention from Twitter itself, where if a user is directly addressed her user name gets preceded by the sign “@”. Therefor if the feed of a given user is cited in this paper the citation is given through her username preceded by “@” (i. e. @username).

The Incidents
The following incidents took place between late 2007 and early 2008. They are chosen for the amount of documentation that is available on them and their appropriateness to serve as a showcase for the possibilities the use of microblogging tools hold for political activists.

Incident #1) The Assassination of Benazir Bhutto
On December 27, 2007 the world was shocked by the events in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. The leader of the Pakistani opposition party Pakistan Peoples Party, Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack during a political rally (BBC News: 2007). The news coverage by the established media outlets was heavily supplemented by news from local bloggers (Gahran: 2007). This mutual dependency between established media and the blogosphere is not new, instead it is rather typical for the uneasy relationship between the two. What was new this time around, was the introduction of a third element: microblogging. Local Twitterers, like Dr. Awab Alvi (@teeth) or social media consultant Dina Mehta (@dina, Mehta: 2007) started to monitor local and international media outlets and posted their observations and comments on their Twitter-Feeds and blogs. Prominent Twitterers like Dave Winer (@davewiner), Laura Finton (@pistachio) and Dennis Howlett (@dahowlett) started also to to post snippets of different news sources to their respective Twitter-Feeds. From then on the Twitterverse was abuzz with discussion on the events in Rawalpindi and their possible repercussions (Howlett: 2008).

The reason for the immediacy and intencity of this discussion lies in the nature of Twitter and of microblogging in general. Since Twitter is a tool mainly used to receive personal updates by a community of interest, news hits faster. Many users of Twitter use applications that show recent Tweets on the user’s desktop. Instead of having to actively visit the site of a given news outlet, or a news aggregation site, or instead of actively checking one’s RSS Feeds to find the news of Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination, any Twitter user connected to the power users like Winer, Finton or Howlett was informed immediately of the events in Pakistan. Also an immediate reaction was further facilitated through the brevity of Twitter messages. Instead of having to publish a balanced blog post on the events Twitterers could comment in messages of 140 characters or less. What these comments may have lacked in depth or balance they made up for through immediacy. And with each of these comments on Twitter the news of Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination spread further through the Twitterverse.

This incident holds the first lesson on the use of microblogging for political activists:

Lesson #1) Microblogging facilitates the fast distribution of information to a local or global community of interest.

One of the major concerns of political activists is to enable a fast distribution of in their view relevant information to a community of interest. Before the advent of blogs this was rather difficult and cost intensive since one had to either go through established media channels or self-publish the information in costly publications. This situation started to change through the growing relevance of the blogosphere and easy syndication through RSS. The use of microblogging applications holds further promise for political activists. Information now travels even faster than through blogs and through the communal nature between groups of Twitterers news that gets adopted by a Twitterer for her feed carries with it an implicit endorsement and therefore gains in social relevance for the followers of this Twitterer. The chance of further distribution of this information therefore rises, as compared to information contained in an anonymous press release.

Microblogging is important for political activists since through it they can distribute information faster and can attach social significance to it.

Incident #2) The 2008 SXSW Lacy / Zuckerberg keynote
The annual South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas holds special significance for the success story that is Twitter. At the 2007 meeting of this conference there was a presentation by the Twitter development team. More importantly, during the conference a number of participants started to use Twitter to share opinions on the presentations or to meet up. This widespread adoption of Twitter amongst SXSW participants became a milestone in the spread of the application (Calore: 2007). The high density of Twitter users at the same event one year later made the incident at the 2008 SXSW possible.

One of the highly aticipated events during the 2008 meeting of the South by Southwest conference was a moderated keynote address with the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The event was scheduled as an interview between Zuckerberg and the business journalist Sarah Lacy (@sarahcuda). What started out as a highlight of the conference became an infamous example of a keynote gone wrong.

Already during the opening questions a group of Twitter users started to share their, mostly negative reactions, to Sarah Lacy’s interview style, in real time on their Twitter-Feeds. The comments ranged from specific objections to questions or answers to personal insults against the interviewer. Other twittering audience members started to join in and soon the negative opinions in the Twitterverse spilled over in the conference room, when audience members started to actively and vocally expressed their criticism during the keynote itself (Owyang: 2008). After the dust settled some of the twittering critics felt their criticism during the keynote to be excessive and some even publicly apologized for their behavior (Scoble: 2008). There are different explanations for the event. Some commentators seek the reason in the business oriented questions by Sarah Lacy and the technology centered interests of the audience (Solis: 2008). Others think that Twitter functioned as an echo chamber of the negative opinions and facilitated the emergence of a twittering mob (Hinckley: 2008).

While the exact reasons for this event remain unclear, this incident holds the second lesson on the use of microblogging for political activists:

Lesson #2) The use of microblogging feeds can be a powerful open backchannel to actively monitor and comment on current events.

Until now it had been difficult for political activists to establish a communication sphere in which opinions could be voiced in real time by every participant of a social event. Until now this running commentary had to be provided by a proxy. For example a pair of journalists that were commenting on the course of a shared social event, like for example a political rally or a sports event. Through the easy use of microblogging applications like Twitter it is now very easy for users to comment and receive comments in real time during social events. An additional example for this possibility is the use of Twitter during the 2008 American presidential campaign. There was the attempt to provide a running commentary on the televised debates of the two presidential candidates (Current). In this active backchanneling of social events lies a chance for political activists to create a communication sphere where it is possible voice opinions which would remain otherwise unheard off in the public discourse.

Microblogging is important for political activists since through its easy use as an open communication backchannel political activists can establish echo chambers for opinions that would otherwise appear isolated and maybe even disappear from the public discourse.

Incident #3) San Diego wildfires
In October 2007 San Diego fell victim to disastrous wildfires. Since residential areas were in danger, San Diego citizens depended on real time news coverage on the ever changing location of the fires and rescue procedures. The established media outlets could not satisfy this urgent need for current information. So two residents, Nate Ritter (@nateritter) and Dan Tentler (@viss) started to post real time updates with information on the fires and rescue proceedings to their personal Twitter-Feeds. On their feeds they aggregated news from the official media outlets, as well as information gathered by neighbors and friends who monitored the developments on the street. Through this their Twitter-Feeds became an information backbone to the community (Poulsen: 2007).

The San Diego events hold the third lesson for political activists regarding the use of microblogging services:

Lesson #3) The use of Twitter can be an efficient way to organize and coordinate small groups for collective action and protests.

As seen in San Diego, Twitter can serve as an easy tool to establish a fast and cheap resource for crowd resourcing. Political activists equipped with mobile communication devices become intelligent sensors who are able to monitor in real time events. This can be the monitoring of natural disasters, the monitoring of rescue procedures (Poulsen: 2007) or the monitoring of elections (see for example: Twitter Vote Report). Through the observance of communication conventions, like the inclusion of agreed-upon keywords, it is possible for each community member to monitor the messages of other users on the given event. On the basis of this situation awareness groups of political activists can be coordinated and even take coordinated action in seemingly chaotic situations. This makes Twitter to an excellent crowd sourcing and tool for political activists.

Microblogging is important for political activists, since microblogging feeds can be used to monitor events in real time and coordinate collective action.

Incident #4) James Karl Buck twitters in Egypt
During anti-government protests in Egypt in April 2008, the American journalism student James Karl Buck was arrested by the Egyptian police. Still on the way to the police station, Buck managed to use his cell phone and send a SMS. With this SMS he updated his personal Twitter Feed with just one word “Arrested”. Friends and colleagues of James Karl Buck monitored his Twitter-Feed and could secure his release from an Egyptian jail in a matter of hours, although they were miles away (Simon: 2008).

This incident clearly holds the fourth lesson for political activists regarding the use of microblogging services:

Lesson #4) The use of Twitter can establish a remote presence for a group of activists.

Through the routine use of Twitter political activists are able to establish a virtual presence for each member of the group no matter where that person is located. It is also possible for other people interested in or sympathetic to the group to participate in the community on Twitter. Through this groups of activists can increase their reach beyond directly involved people. As seen in this incident, it is also possible for political activists to activate certain pre formulated procedures at the publication of a specific message. Twitter serves in this case as a distribution channel for cues for action to communities, send by individuals.

Microblogging is important for political activists since it enables community members to monitor their respective situation effortlessly. This increases the security of political activists considerably.

Conclusion
This paper tried to use four events which occurred during late 2007 and early 2008 to illustrate the potential the use of microblogging applications holds for political activists. Out of the presented incidents four lesson for political activists were derived. These lessons are:

Lesson #1) Microblogging facilitates the fast distribution of information to a local or global community of interest: Microblogging is important for political activists since through it they can distribute information faster and can attach social significance to it.

Lesson #2) The use of microblogging feeds can be a powerful open backchannel to actively monitor and comment on current events: Microblogging is important for political activists since through its easy use as an open communication backchannel political activists can establish echo chambers for opinions that would otherwise appear isolated and maybe even disappear from the public discourse.

Lesson #3) The use of Twitter can be an efficient way to organize and coordinate small groups for collective action and protests: Microblogging is important for political activists, since microblogging feeds can be used to monitor events in real time and coordinate collective action.

Lesson #4) The use of Twitter can establish a presence for a group of activists: Microblogging is important for political activists since it enables community members to monitor their respective situation effortlessly. This increases the security of political activists considerably.

These lessons do not cover all possible uses of microblogging for political activists. At this stage, it is not yet possible to account for all these possibilities. All we can do this early in the game is to actively search for exemplary events, which illustrate the potential of microblogging. There remain difficulties. While it is useful to analyze events after the fact, categorize them and systematically compare them to similar events, the academic understanding of this phenomenon remains incomplete. To accurately assess the potential of microblogging for political activists, scientists have to incorporate operational aspects in their analysis. To do this they have to closely accompany groups of political activists who try to incorporate microblogging into their communication strategy.

Right now is not the time for comprehensive accounts of the possible uses of microblogging for political activists and the effects this may or may not have for societies. Right now is the time for tinkering. The real challenge does not yet lie with the scientists. The real challenge lies with political activists. Theirs is the possibility to adapt microblogging tools for their needs and thereby uncover the hidden potentials for social change that lie still dormant in the widespread adoption of this technology. We as scientists can accompany them on their way be it as tinkerers or as reflective observers.

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