The Evolution of the Twitter Revolution

People hold tied Polish, right, and Ukrainian flags during a demonstration supporting the opposition movement in Ukraine, in Warsaw, Poland.

People hold tied Polish, right, and Ukrainian flags during a demonstration supporting the opposition movement in Ukraine, in Warsaw, Poland. Czarek Sokolowski/AP

From Iran to Ukraine, the role of social media in global protests is changing, but it’s definitely here to stay.

Perhaps the most important and consistent observation about the role social media plays in global protest movements is that it isn’t static; it evolves just as the movements and the media themselves do, analysts said during an event on Monday sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace.

Whenever Twitter and other social networks appear to have played a defining role in a protest or revolutionary movement -- from Iran to Egypt to Turkey to Ukraine -- there’s typically been a succeeding narrative that says it was less influential than it seemed at the time or functioned in a different manner.

While these analyses are often valid, said Joshua Tucker, a New York University politics professor who’s studying social media’s role in the protests in Ukraine, they ignore a larger lesson: that social media as an organizing and broadcasting tool is growing with each protest movement and shows no sign of slowing.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine protests that don’t utilize social media,” he said. “If you want to understand protests moving forward -- what leads to protests, the dynamics of protests -- you have to get a handle on how social media impacts protesters.”

Protesters in Kiev are using Twitter and Facebook to organize medical care and related services as well as to broadcast information and images to domestic and international audiences, Tucker said.

Opposition leaders also used Twitter in late January to announce they would not accept a power sharing deal with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych fled the capital this weekend and opposition forces have taken power there.

“It’s hard to imagine this is going backward,” Tucker said, “that we’re going to be in a less networked world where people have less access to instant information.”

When Twitter played a major role in the 2009 Iranian protests following the reelection of President Mahmoud Achmadenijad, much was made of the fact that the micro-blogging site was first hailed as an organizing tool among protesters but, upon further investigation, appeared to have acted more as a megaphone alerting the West -- often in English language tweets -- about the protests and the state crackdown.

A report issued by USIP’s Blogs and Bullets team this week found Syrian protesters’ use of social media has evolved throughout the three-year conflict to address different audiences.

During the conflict’s early days in 2011, a large proportion of tweets were in English and aimed at a Western audience, the report’s authors said. This was bolstered by the fact that few western journalists were able to enter Syria to see the conflict firsthand and so were dependent on secondhand reporting from social media sources on the ground.

As the conflict continued, the proportion of English-language tweets diminished, they said. And tweets that were in English tended to focus on the possibility of international intervention or aid while Arabic-language tweets focused on battles and massacres on the ground. It was only in August 2013 when President Obama briefly sought congressional support for some U.S. intervention in the conflict that Arabic-language tweets again began focusing on the conflict’s international scope, they said.

During that middle period, many of the most popular Arabic-language tweets, based on the number of times they were retweeted, were aimed at soliciting funding and resources from people in other Arab states, said report author Deen Freelon, an assistant professor of communications studies at American University.

That often served to fragment Syrian factions as they competed against each other for scarce resources, Freelon said. It also pushed the Arabic-language Twitter dialogue to be more sectarian and anti-Shiite and thus make the West more cautious about getting involved. The majority of the Syrian opposition is Sunni Muslim while the government of embattled President Basher Assad comes primarily from a Shia sect.  

Similarly, the focus in English language tweets on western intervention, whether military or otherwise, may have diminished U.S. public interest in the conflict, Freelon said, because it replaced the early “Arab Spring frame,” a popular uprising against an autocratic ruler, with an “Iraq frame,” a foreign conflict that the U.S. may get bogged down in.