Twitter Can Start a Revolution, But Can it Finish One?


By Hampton Stephens, on April 9, 2009, Trend Lines

The would-be "Twitter revolution" in Moldova is already showing signs of fizzling, with no new reports of protests, the original organizers of the anti-government gathering of 15,000 distancing themselves from the violence of a few, and the leader of the Communist government attempting to spin the protests as a coup plot by neighbor Romania rather than as a spontaneous outpouring of anger against his feckless government.

Yesterday, however, the Internet was, yes, atwitter with news of this Twitter Revolution. Almost as soon as this New York Times story was posted on the Times' Web site yesterday (and on the front page of the print paper), my own mobile phone began to thrum with the sound of incoming Tweets referencing events in Moldova.

It's not only the foreign policy wonks that have jumped on the Moldova story. Heck, even Lance Armstrong weighed in -- tweeting "This is amazing" before passing on a link to the Times story. Indeed, over the last couple of months, almost no Twitter-related story has gone uncovered. Twitter's combination of technological appeal, business interest, pop-cultural significance and in-crowd cachet make it catnip for media types -- who are themselves some of some of Twitter's most avid users.

Add human drama and the possibility of political revolution to the mix and it's clear the Moldova story was well positioned -- had it lasted -- to serve as the ultimate expression of media's Twitter fascination.

Thus, despite the initial prominence of the story, there was ample reason to be circumspect of its significance. Would the New York Times really splash the news across their front page if the events there didn't have the potential to become a full-scale revolution? Would the normally staid Radio Free Europe not only write a story, but also issue a press release about the events in Moldova were those events not of significant and lasting importance? The Twitter factor makes these sort of appeals to media authority even more unreliable than normal.

As Evgeny Morozov pointed out Tuesday on Foreign Policy's Net Effect blog, it remains quite unclear how significant a role technology plays in facilitating democratic change in non-democratic countries.

This is, in some ways, an old story (or at least "old" in terms of the short history of information and communications technology). The potential for technology to play a significant role in democratization has been clear for years, and the idea gained particular appeal earlier this decade in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the advent of democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere in which technology played a significant role as an organizing tool. Back then, as now, there was often a gap between the enthusiasm that many felt for the outsize potential of information and communications technology (ICT) in ushering in the latest wave of democratization, and the reality on the ground.

I should admit that I was among those early believers in the political potential of so-called ICT. In this piece, which originally appeared in TCS Daily in May 2005, I attempted a sort of survey of the recent research of political scientists into the subject. Even in those heady days, when it looked like technology might play a role in sweeping away authoritarianism from Syria to Kyrgyzstan, I struggled mightily to reach this perhaps overly optimistic conclusion:

The scholarship pertaining to the political effects of ICT . . . is ambiguous. Obstacles to the spread of technology to closed societies undoubtedly exist, and authoritarian regimes are eager to use technology to maintain legitimacy while preventing its use as a tool of opposition. But the political movements of the last few months indicate these difficulties have not prevented the use of technology as a force for liberation. Furthermore, because of the incredibly fast pace of technological change, to attempt a definitive examination of the effects of technology on international politics is to constantly be overcome by events.

What is known for certain is this: Technologies such as satellite television, the Internet and mobile telecommunications now have a foothold in the non-free world, and, barring extraordinary measures by those in power, that foothold will grow. In light of this, the evidence political scientists continue to gather likely will only confirm what intuition already tell us: The free flow of information that is enabled by modern technology cannot possibly be a good thing for those who remain in power by suppressing liberty.

The best paper I found on the subject at the time was by Daniel Drezner. That paper now seems to have disappeared from its former home on the Web site of Yale University, so you'll have to make due with my 2005 piece's brief treatment of Drezner's description of the role technology plays in reversing "information cascades." Put simply, "When authoritarian control is fragile, a little bit of information can have a dramatic effect on the political behavior of citizens."

In the end, however, if the result is to be lasting "revolution" rather than fleeting protest, the movements (democratic or otherwise) that technology helps foment must find other means -- the ballot box or the point of a gun -- to take real power.