Remember Moldova

Let's hold off on pronouncements about the latest "Twitter Revolution"

“However things turn out in Iran, this will probably be forever known as the Twitter Revolution,” Kevin Drum noted yesterday. “It’s too easy to call the weekend’s activities the first revolution that was Twittered,” Marc Ambinder declared, “but when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities.” TechPresident’s Nancy Scola hinted at the implications of Ambinder’s predictions: “It’s looking possible we’ll look back at the last days’ events Iran and see the start of Web 3.0—on-the-ground historic change through social media,” she wrote. “Labeling such seemingly spontaneous antigovernment demonstrations a “Twitter Revolution” has already become something of a cliché,” Brad Stone and Noam Cohen scoffed in today’s New York Times. (This was after Andrew Sullivan had titled one of yesterday’s blog posts, provocatively and apparently unironically, “The End of the MSM?”)

Such pronouncements—The Twitter Revolution! The End of the Media as We Know It!—could prove true: Twitter’s role in the election aftermath in Iran may well signal a shift in the power of the people to transform, like Rumplestiltskin with his strands of gold, emotion into action, and collective unrest into broad political change.

Or…not. We simply don’t know. We are, to repeat the obvious, still very much in the midst of the events in Iran—from the perspective of history, at any rate. Epic summations are really only viable when they’re retrospective in nature. It’s too soon to make definitive pronouncements about the media situation in Iran, particularly when the pronouncements we make skew toward the momentous. The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.

And that’s especially true when it comes to Twitter. The ever-more-ubiquitous platform lends itself particularly well, it seems, to the whole correlation/causation fallacy: Iranians are Twittering, and Iranians are protesting—it doesn’t follow, though, that the one caused (or even enabled) the other. And yet the many pronouncements about the weekend’s “Twitter Revolution” suggest just that: they assign to Twitter, and to the people who’ve been using it, a kind of epic agency.

We have more thoughts on this forthcoming, but for now: it’s worth remembering, as TNR’s Jason Zengerle pointed out, Moldova’s so-called “Twitter Revolution” as a cautionary tale against preemptive and Twitter-triumphant melodrama. Here’s Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center who studied the Moldova uprisings and their coverage, discussing the-revolution-that-kinda-wasn’t with On the Media’s Bob Garfield:

BOB GARFIELD: Can you start by laying out for us what were the first indications that this mass of protestors in Moldova had been organized?

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: Well, what we saw in Moldova was a lot of discussion in blogs, on Facebook, lots of different social media, with youth, particularly youth on the left, very upset, believing that the elections were rigged. And then we saw street protests with more than 10,000 people out on the streets of Chisinau a week ago Tuesday. And people very, very quickly made a link between social media and the actual manifestations in the streets.

Near as we can tell, the first to the scene was The Telegraph in the U.K. with a story linking Twitter as a causal factor in all of this. And then there was a thoughtful, although perhaps a little breathless, post from my friend Evgeny Morozov on a very influential blog called Net Effect, which declared this the “Twitter Revolution.”

And then from the press standpoint of this, we were off to the races. It showed up in The New York Times the next day as the “Twitter Revolution,” and that meme propagated in a lot of different directions.

GARFIELD: Now, one thing you discovered as you looked at the data is that most of the tweets emanated not from the scene of the protest but elsewhere, because there aren’t many Twitter subscribers in Moldova. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that Twitter wasn’t a catalyst in one what happened. How big a part did it play?

ZUCKERMAN: My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn’t all that important in organizing the demonstrations. Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time.

One thing to keep in mind is that Moldova has a huge population living abroad - it’s more than 25 percent of the country - and they were really attached to Twitter as a source of information. Roughly a quarter of all of the messages posted on Tuesday, the day of the actual demonstrations, were what we call re-tweets. It’s basically saying, hey, I’m quoting this speaker who said the following. And mostly those re-tweets were reports from people who either were in the square or had news from the square.

What you saw on that Tuesday was really people trying to find ways to sort of spontaneously organize a newsroom. By Wednesday, a lot of what seems to be going on in the Twittering is a sort of self-congratulatory, hey, we just held a revolution over Twitter – isn’t this exciting? Twitter will change the world.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.