Taksim Square Protests: Actually, Twitter is Really Really Important This Time Around


How important of a role has social media played in the recent upheavals in the Middle East?

It depends on the country and the timing. Iran's Green Revolution in 2009 was not primarily fueled by Twitter, a new study shows.

TIME magazine ran an article in 2009 praising Twitter for its pivotal role in the post-presidential election protests by helping activists organize and giving them a voice in a media-censored state. Calling it "the medium of the movement," Twitter's influence may have been overstated.

Annenburg School for Communication's Center for Global Communication Studies conducted a survey more than a year after the protests and interviewed over 2,800 "young, educated, metropolitan, and technologically savvy Iranians." The results of the 2011 survey show the exact opposite conclusion of the TIME article.

Twitter was the least popular platform for communication and information during the Green Revolution, with only 17% of those surveyed sharing or following tweets. In comparison, 49% of those surveyed used family and friends as a source of information, followed by print media at 42%, and work and school at 33%.

The overemphasis on Twitter was most likely the result of limited information. Most of the tweets on the Green Revolution were followed by users in America and were tweeted in English. Twitter was only three years old at the time of the Revolution, searching Twitter in Farsi was not yet an option, and Twitter was only receiving 22 million tweets per day worldwide.

Fast-forward two years to the start of the Arab Spring. By this time, Twitter had grown and was receiving 140 million tweets per day. Over 280,000 of those came from Egypt and were about the revolution. One activist from Cairo stated "We use Facebook to schedule protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world," illustrating the essential role of social media.

While Twitter may not have caused the Arab Spring, it changed the ability of its users to affect politics. Twitter became a forum for people to debate sensitive political topics that couldn't be discussed in public.

Now, its 2013, Turkey is in the midst of nation-wide anti-government protests, and Twitter receives 500 million tweets per day.

Approximately 38 people were detained last night in Turkey for their tweets on the Taksim Square protests. They have been accused of "inciting riots and conducting propaganda."

While most of the tweets from Iran were directed towards an American audience, and the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions were shared on Twitter globally, the Turkish tweets seem largely contained to Turkey.

Over 10 million tweets have been sent these past three days using the hashtags #occupygezi, #direngeziparki, and #geziparki. 90% of these have come from Turkey, and half of them are directly from Istanbul. The interesting part is that 80% of these tweets are in Turkish, suggesting that the intended audience is domestic rather than global.

"There is a trouble called Twitter. Unmitigated lies are there [on Twitter]," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said. "The thing that is called social media is a troublemaker in societies today."

While Twitter may be causing trouble, it's for Erdogan and the AKP, not society.