Twitter And Social Justice


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A paper I wrote for class in the fall of 2009 regarding the use of Twitter as a tool to promote social change.

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Twitter And Social Justice

  1. 1. Jodi Sperber December 1, 2009 Tweetkun Olam* : Using Twitter to Promote Social Justice It could be said that 2009 was the year of Twitter. This relatively new service has seen staggering levels of growth since its launch in 2006. It is currently the 13th most popular site in the Unites States, and the 14th in the world (, 2009). Even the word “Twitter” was recently named the word of the year by the Global Language Monitor (Gaudin, 2009). It seems that a day can’t go by without one news story or another on how this tool is being used. So what is Twitter, exactly? In brief, it is a free service allowing users to send and receive messages of 140 characters or less. Messages, called “tweets,” can be sent and received via the web, Short Message Service (SMS – i.e., text messages), or third party applications. Twitter is shareable, open, participatory, and not specifically tethered to a desktop computer. Anyone with an Internet connection can create content, and anyone can participate in the conversation. This service is one component within the larger universe of social media, leveraging the World Wide Web to shift from broadcast media (one source, many eyes) to social media dialogue (many sources, many eyes) ("Social media," 2009; Wikipedia, 2009). So, for example, instead of reading the New York Times newspaper, one might read and comment on one of the many topical blogs that are updated frequently on, or communicate directly with a journalist for the paper using Twitter (New York Times, 2009a, 2009b). The democratization of knowledge and information enabled by social media is a radical departure from conventional forms of information dissemination. * * The title is a play on the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which means, “repairing the world.” This concept is bound tightly to integrity within the Jewish faith, encouraging us to challenge the pursuit of money and power and instead work towards love, kindness, generosity, peace, non-violence, and social justice. Page 1
  2. 2. Sperber An estimate of the number of active Twitter accounts is not known, as the company does not release this information. However, some statistics on site usage can be gleaned by examining monthly visitors. Using this metric, Twitter is seen as one of the fastest growing sites on the web, with a year-over- year growth of 1,382 percent between February 2009 and February 2009 (McGiboney, 2009). This does not include individuals who access the service using third party software, meaning these metrics could be conservative. At the same time, the service is too young to truly understand its “sticking power” – that is, if users will remain active, or if they simply create accounts that then remain quiet. Even if users create accounts that lie dormant, can the medium show value? It can be argued that this is the case, if one considers an idea put forth by Clay Shirky, a prominent thinker within the social media field. According to Mr. Shirky, tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring (Shirky, 2009). That is to say, the creation of the tool itself isn’t the event of importance; it is when everyone can take it for granted that it becomes interesting. Thus, even if a user rarely uses the service, the connection to the larger world is always close by, accessible at any time with the click of a mouse or a mobile phone. As the service has grown, so have the ways in which it is being leveraged. What began as a simple way to update one’s friends and followers en masse with an answer the question, “What are you doing?” has become a powerful tool for grassroots organizers, activists, and others working for social justice to quickly and effectively communicate information and ideas. So effective, in fact, that governments and traditional news sources have taken notice and, in some cases, tried to control access to the service. Page 2
  3. 3. Sperber To illustrate how this service has been leveraged since it’s inception, six anecdotes are described below. They provide specific examples of ways this has been used in relation to social justice, including a shifting media landscape, where the focus is less and less about crafting a single message to be consumed by the general public and more about a means to create an environment for organizing and sustaining groups. Organizing Around Alleged Election Fraud – Moldova and Iran One of the ways Twitter was first tested as a tool for mass political dissent was the presidential election of April 2009 in Moldova. After the Communist Party claimed victory with nearly 50% of the vote, members of opposing parties claimed that votes had been tampered with, demanding a repeat election. Using Twitter and other social media tools, news and other information was disseminated using the hash tag (a text string preceded by “#”, included anywhere in the message, used for categorization and tracking purposes) #pman, which stands for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, (a central square in the Capital city of Chisinau) (Morozov, 2009). In addition, several NGOs and other opposing parties used the service to organize a rally that attracted over 10,000 protesters (Barry, 2009). The impact of these new organizing tools clearly touched a nerve within the government, who shut down Internet service in Chisinau after hundreds of firsthand accounts flooded onto the Internet (Barry, 2009). A few months later, in June 2009, elections were held in Iran to choose a new president. While the country’s official news outlet reported that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won with 62% of the vote, questions were raised by both Iranian citizens as well as outside parties regarding the validity of the outcome(BBC News, 2009; Worth, 2009). Similar to the Moldova experience, mass text messaging made possible via Twitter was utilized as one organizing tool to arrange large rallies to protest the results. Page 3
  4. 4. Sperber In addition to the protests, citizens posted uncensored news items throughout the day. The hash tag #iranelection was established as a way for anyone around the globe to easily search for information relating to conversation on this topic, and send messages back. The use of Twitter as a means of communication were significant enough that the U.S. State Department reached out to Twitter headquarters and requested they delay a scheduled network upgrade so Iranian citizens could continue using the service and information could continue to flow (Grossman, 2009; Lowensohn, 2009). China is tested China has a well-earned reputation for being a region that traditional media sources have had trouble penetrating. Thirty- three years ago, when a tremendous earthquake hit the Tangshan province in eastern China, it took the government months to admit that anything had happened despite the death of over 250,000 people (Moore, 2009). When another earthquake of sizeable magnitude hit the Sichuan province in May 2008, however, the news was instantly reported via Twitter. Within minutes, people posted messages about the event in both text and images. While China may have been quicker to report the news this time around, they were never given the choice, as ordinary citizens took matters into their own hands. Similarly, while the Chinese government had refused outside help in 1976, grassroots organizing took matters into their own hands: within 12 hours, sites popped up to allow people from around the world to donate money to help alleviate some of the cost of damages incurred by the earthquake (Shirky, 2009). Social media avenues like Twitter also supported the mobilization, if not radicalization, of mourning mothers who lost their only child due to the earthquake. Nearly 7,000 schools collapsed, blamed in part to a corrupt administration overlooking Page 4
  5. 5. Sperber sub-standard safety precautions. With individuals now having the ability to quickly organize and share their hurt, anger, and energy over public channels, groups formed to demand justice. In one instance, this resulted in a local official getting down on his knees to beg forgiveness and to ask that they stop speaking out (Shirky, 2009). In effect, ordinary citizens leveraged Twitter to help gain some measure of control in a situation that they may have previously viewed as beyond their control. This is similar to efforts within the United States to encourage patients to take charge of their own health, where previously they may have simple believed their lives were solely in the hands of doctors ("De-victimizing AIDS," 1993). The Chinese government observed these outcomes and clearly was not pleased. Thus, as the 20 year anniversary of the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square approached, the Chinese government decided to block access to Twitter and similar social media services altogether (Branigan, 2009). They understood that there was no way to filter what citizens could report, and the only way to fully control the message was to eliminate the medium. A New Approach for US Presidential Candidates Unlike the presidential election cycles highlighted above, the United States presidential election of 2008 saw an embracing of Twitter. Every candidate (or, more likely, a member of staff) had an account, and used the service to share information on their political positions, upcoming rallies and events, reactions to other candidates, and news coverage. Today, President Obama’s staff keeps his account active, frequently posting stories of daily events at the White House and encouraging his nearly three million followers to remain engaged in the civic process by taking action on a variety of topics including health care reform, environmental causes, and education. Unfortunately, the President’s account falls short of truly participatory, as it is more Page 5
  6. 6. Sperber of a one-way stream of information. Still, it serves as a model from which to build. A Student is Arrested Overseas The above examples are illustrations of how Twitter has been employed to bring a mass of people together to organize around a political cause. The service, however, has also been used to provide assistance to a single individual in need. At 9:33am on April 10th, 2008, James Karl Buck, a journalism graduate student at UC Berkeley, typed a single word: “Arrested” (Buck, 2009). Mr. Buck had been covering a labor rally near a textile mill outside of Cairo, and after photographing the event he was arrested for reasons not made clear to him. Having only his cell phone with him, he took advantage of Twitter’s reach to alert those who followed him online. Thus, he was able to communicate that something was wrong, and he needed help. Upon receiving the message, his friends contacted the US Embassy and his school, who sent a lawyer to get him out of jail. With the help of the lawyer he was released the next day (Simon, 2009). Mr. Buck hadn’t been using the service for a long time prior to his trip to Egypt, and opted to use text messaging because he thought a call might look too conspicuous. After this experience, however, he indicated that this service helped assuage fears he would be entirely out of touch with people he knew. In his own words, he described it thusly: "Whether it saved my life, or whether it just kept me sane, I don't know" (Musgrove, 2008). Organizing for Clean Water - Twestival The final example of how individuals have exploited the reach of Twitter was selected as it shows how this tool can be used as a new means of fundraising and philanthropy. On January 8, 2009, a tweet went out asking other cities to join in hosting a Twestival (Twitter + festival), to be held on February 12 2009. The goal was to raise money for a non-profit organization called charity: Page 6
  7. 7. Sperber water, which provides clean, safe drinking water to developing nations ("charity: water," 2009). The concept was to organize via Twitter, and meet up in person to raise the funds. In less than 30 days, nearly 1,000 volunteers in over 200 cities hosted an event, with more than 10,000 people attending overall. Over $250,000 was raised, funding 55 water projects in Uganda, Ethiopia, and India (Rose, 2009). This success of the effort has prompted organizers to continue, with both local and global events taking place throughout the year (Cashmore, 2009). The above examples illustrate not only how Twitter is different than tools that have come before it, but also that a simple concept in the hands of imagination and creativity can have a tremendous impact. This does not mean, however, that tweets are a silver bullet to address social ills. What Twitter does well is brevity and speed; messages are sent instantly, with no editing, censorship, or delay. Eyewitness reports can be gathered from anyone who has an account and access to text messaging or the web. Seen from another perspective, the speed of Twitter can be viewed as a hindrance. In the same ways that the service is used to promote social justice and the sharing of accurate information, it can just as easily be used for personal attacks, or to spread misinformation. Individuals must rely on others’ honestly and integrity, or be savvy enough to question when a message seems false. While this isn’t a common occurrence, it certainly does happen. By purposeful design, Twitter also lacks depth – at 140 characters maximum there is an inevitable lack of substance. Thus, the service may be better suited to event reporting than actual news reporting. The nascence of the service has been raised as well, with some noting that Twitter is still young, and perhaps is being imbued with too much credibility. As one blogger put it, “in a major international crisis, one of the prime channels of communication and news for individuals, media outlets, and governments alike is a employees, no discernible business model, a history of Page 7
  8. 8. Sperber technical instability, and a misinformation-related lawsuit on the table. This is a problem” (McCarthy, 2009). However, the rapidity with which the service has been adopted and gained mainstream acceptance supports the idea that this type of tool fulfills a significant communication gap. While the commercial growth of this particular service is significant, what is perhaps more momentous is the emergence of a novel way to communicate in real time, at little cost, using a common device, across geographical boundaries. People have used Twitter to share ideas, indicate dissent, and organize a gathering of likeminded supporters. It has shown a capability to help reduce isolation, and the flow of information is expanded beyond government-sanctioned channels. Indeed, the concept of a Master Narrative, which describes an internalized and assumed position of authority, can be turned on its head, as anyone with access to a network and a cell phone can share their reality (Hill, 2008 forthcoming). To this extent, Counter Narratives, the voice of marginalized groups, can be quickly and widely disseminated, providing opportunity to paint a more complete picture of any situation or experience. It may come to pass that Twitter does not survive as a company, or that it becomes so bloated with companies and individuals trying to use it as a self-marketing tool that people discontinue use. To the extent that Twitter represents a novel way of sharing information, it doesn’t matter if this particular company shutters its doors. What will continue is the medium itself, as too many people are invested in seeing this type of service utilized to simply let it die. We may not know what specific tool or service will follow, but it is safe to say that this type of service is going to proliferate. There is no going back. While individuals may have previously been isolated and invisible, they now have a means to find others to share their voice. This act of having a voice, or not being Page 8
  9. 9. Sperber invisible, has been argued to be one of the most powerful aspects of political power. Writer and political activist Michael Harrington described this with regards to poverty in his influential book, “The Other America”: “It is one of the cruelest ironies of social life in advanced countries that the dispossessed at the bottom of society are unable to speak for themselves.... They are without lobbies of their own; they put forward no legislative program. As a group, they are atomized… That the poor are invisible is one of the most important things about them. They are not simply neglected and forgotten as in the old rhetoric of reform; what is much worse, they are not seen” (Harrington, 1962). Twitter may not be specifically aimed at the poor in society, but it has opened the door for everyone to be less invisible. References Cited (2009). site information. Retrieved November 29, 2009: com/siteinfo/ Barry, E. (2009). Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter. Retrieved April 7, 2009: BBC News (2009). Ahmadinejad defiant on 'free' Iran poll. Retrieved November 20, 2009: Branigan, T. (2009). China blocks Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail ahead of Tiananmen anniversary. Retrieved June 3, 2009: china itter-china Buck, J. (2009). Twitter Status Update: "Arrested". Retrieved November 28, 2009: Cashmore, P. (2009). Twestival Local: Biggest Twitter Fundraising Event in History Returns. Retrieved November 20, 2009: charity: water (2009). Retrieved November 20, 2009, from De-victimizing AIDS (1993). Going Home(Spring 1993), 4. Page 9
  10. 10. Sperber Gaudin, S. (2009). 'Twitter' is the Word of the Year. Retrieved November 30, 2009: Grossman, L. (2009). Iran Protests: Twitter, the Medium of the Movement. Retrieved June 17, 2009: Harrington, M. (1962). The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Macmillan. Hill, A. (2008 forthcoming). Choice, Social Structure, Education Policy, and the Failure to Achieve Educational Equality. In E. C. Jordan (Ed.), Race, Markets and Social Structures (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications. Lowensohn, J. (2009). Twitter downtime gets delayed for Iranian election news. Retrieved November 8, 2009: McCarthy, C. (2009). With Iran crisis, Twitter's youth is over. Retrieved June 18, 2009: 13577_3-10267946-36.html 13577_3-10267946-36.html McGiboney, M. (2009). Twitter’s Tweet Smell Of Success. Retrieved November 28, 2009: Moore, M. (2009). China earthquake brings out citizen journalists. Retrieved November 14, 2009: Morozov, E. (2009). Moldova's Twitter Revolution. Retrieved November 8, 2009: Musgrove, M. (2008). Held by Egyptian Authorities? Time to 'Tweet'. Retrieved November 29, 2009: dyn/content/article/2008/04/18/AR2008041802803.htmlhtt p:// dyn/content/article/2008/04/18/AR2008041802803.html New York Times (2009a). Blog listings. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from New York Times (2009b). Twitter Lists. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from itter Rose, A. (2009). Twestival Raises Over $250K and Counting. Retrieved November 20, 2009: Shirky, C. (2009). How social media can make history. Retrieved November 2, 2009: Simon, M. (2009). Student 'Twitters' his way out of Egyptian jail. Retrieved April 25, 2008: Social media (2009). Retrieved November 20, 2009, from Wikipedia: .org/wiki/Social_media Wikipedia (2009). Social media. Retrieved November 20, 2009, from Wikipedia: Page 10
  11. 11. Sperber .org/wiki/Social_media Worth, R. (2009). Both Sides Claim Victory in Presidential Election in Iran. Retrieved November 20, 2009: Page 11