ACM - Computers in Entertainment

The Little Tweeter That Could: A game changer in the social and political movement

By Dennis Anderson, Gali Einav

The Little Tweeter That Could: A game changer in the social and political movement

Twitter, a microblogging tool, was intended for a short updates on one’s activity to be shared with subscribers. As of today, Twitter has more than 500 millions registered, less than two years ago that number was 102 million. According to the recent Pew Research Center’s study, 15 percent of American adults are Twitter users. Twitter is described as, "an online activity that is particularly popular with young adults, minorities, and those who live in cities.” This survey finds most of these people use Twitter for mundane personal or business related updates. Some people use Twitter to update their Facebook status as many social networks offer similar features. Many corporations have an online marketing strategy as most of their customers moved to the online from traditional media like newspapers. This strategy includes Twitter, social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and blogs. This creates the complex relationship with users, marketers, and platform providers.

According to recent Twitter data from December 2010, the number of “Tweets” in 2010 reached 25 billion, more than a 50 percent increase over 2009. It is true that Twitter users Tweet about mundane issues and celebrity gossip, but there is a substantial use of Twitter commenting on international, news provoking issues. For example, the Gulf Oil spill was the top “trends on Twitter” mentioned for 2010; “Haiti Earthquake” reached number four. Twitter is also used to follow news. According to Comscore, the top 20 sites on Twitter included CNN Breaking News, The New York Times, and NPR.

Twitter gets tricky when working within a governmental environment, which can be sensitive about what’s shared by its own citizens. Some authoritarian countries have propaganda agencies to control what gets broadcasted on the Internet.  Here is where the use of Twitter and other social media tools are instrumental in social and political movements. In recent times, we have seen many activists use Twitter and Facebook to organize group gatherings and discussion groups. After the last presidential election in Iran, many people used cell phones and Tweets to voice their dissident view as well as coordinating and covering the protests. This became a major threat to the Iranian government, which blocked media outlets and the Internet. With all these attempts to isolate their citizens from information, many people find other ways to access and share information. This is a major challenge that countries like China are facing as more and more of its citizens are information technology literate. Access to information is a fundamental human right today. The question is how much can this be controlled when there are many sophisticated tools that can circumvent the government machinery.

The recent case with WikiLeaks demonstrates how a group of protesters can challenge the powerful organizations and governments. WikiLeaks was founded as a not-for-profit media organization with a goal of bringing “important news and information to the public.” It became the news itself when the British authority arrested Julian Assange, the founder. In response hackers started a campaign of denial of service attacks against those companies who blocked or severed services to WikiLeaks including MasterCard and Visa.  Operation Payback was organized with a combination of mobile phones and the Internet using YouTube, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. When you combine all these tools strategically, this can be a major challenge or threat to anyone or government. Clearly this alerted all governments and their vulnerability. This was very significant as it highlights what is possible when a group of motivated individuals can coordinate an international campaign to protest online. This was also a wake up call to Global 500 companies as they operate in some countries that do not respect basic human rights. 

One lesson out of all these cases is transparency. If a government or business is transparent about what it does and respects basic human rights regardless of where they do business, perhaps, these tools can be used for other purposes. Until then, these tools will continue to change the social and political movement throughout the world.  It has already changed how we consume and distribute news.

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