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The Twitter Revolution

- April 8, 2009

Josh Tucker sends the following, lending a little social science to the recent events in Moldova:

In the aftermath of potentially fraudulent elections on Sunday, citizens – and in particular younger citizens – of the former Soviet republic of Moldova took to the streets in large numbers yesterday in a manner that brings to mind the “colored revolutions” that swept through the region earlier this decade, although it is worth noting that it is not the outcome of the election so much as the magnitude of the victory that appears to be in question.

I have written previously about the role that electoral fraud can play in helping people to overcome the collective action problems that normally prevent citizens from protesting against abusive regimes. The gist of my argument is that in the period of time following a potentially fraudulent election the costs of protest to individual citizens may significantly be lower than usual, and the potential benefit from protest – the opportunity to actually “throw the bums out” if the election result is reversed – is much higher than usual.

One of the key factors that I identified in terms of lowering the anticipated costs of protest was the expectation that others would be protesting as well, and thus the likelihood of punishment being borne by any one particular individual would be low (as opposed to, for example, refusing to pay a bribe to a fire inspector who could then shut down your business).

The events unfolding in Moldova, however, suggest that internet-based social networking tools that were not even present during the original colored revolutions, such as Facebook and especially Twitter, may also be able to play a very valuable role in allowing even loosely organized opposition networks to coordinate protest activity. To the extent that a constant stream of Twitter posts increases any individual’s confidence that there will be more protestors in the street at a particular place at a particular point in time, it should also serve to lower the perceived costs of participation to potential protestors.

This is a development that is worth watching, because once this genie is out of the bag, it may significantly change the dynamics of how public protests develop and play out in the future. Of particular interest will be how this affects protest in “competitive authoritarian” regimes where the authorities lack the will or resources to block internet services such as Twitter but are involved in manipulating other forms of mass media.

To follow current developments in Moldova, search on #pman in Twitter (here). The “tweets” are coming in fast and furious as I write this, although one recent one just commented on the “over-hyped effects of Twitter in Moldovan protests”…

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