Back in 2010, The New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell, reflecting on the trendy claim that Twitter had fueled recent protests in Moldova and Iran, penned an article explaining why "the revolution will not be tweeted." Facebook and Twitter, he argued, enable us to build decentralized networks of thousands of people we've never met, but these digital communities don't offer the hierarchies and strong social ties necessary for "high-risk activism" like, say, staging a sit-in at a Greensboro lunch counter in 1960. Social networking tools, he concluded, make "it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact ... They are not a natural enemy of the status quo."
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have challenged--though not necessarily debunked--Gladwell's thesis. Social media has played a pivotal role in the Arab Spring, whether it's Egyptian blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy documenting the abuses of Egyptian security forces on Flickr or Syrian activists establishing a news network on Facebook. YouTube, and Twitter to amass amateur video from across the country. Yet one could also argue that while social networks are helping protesters organize and communicate amongst themselves and with the international community, Gladwell's "high-risk activism" is happening offline. In an interview in April, Syrian human rights activist Wissam Tarif told The Atlantic Wire that social networks help him disseminate information efficiently, but that they're tools, nothing more. "The revolution is happening in the street by real people," he said. "We rely on getting information from the real people in the real uprising and we verify it" before distributing the updates via social media.
Yet, in recent weeks, real protests with real impacts have taken place not on the streets but on Twitter itself. During Canada's federal elections earlier this month, Canadians posted election information on the microblogging site in defiance of a law that prohibits reporting early results in order to prevent voters in the East from swaying voters in the West. The hashtag #tweettheresults was full of impassioned defenses of free speech. In the U.K., Twitter users have launched a massive campaign against Manchester United player Ryan Giggs's attempt to keep the press from writing about an alleged affair through a gag order, sparking a major debate about British media laws. And now, according to the Kurdish news agency Firat, a group called TwitterKurds is asking Kurds across Turkey to tweet en masse at the hashtag #TwitterKurds every Friday before the country's June elections. We're "trying to use all possible ways and tactics to raise the Kurdish issue in Turkey with media outlets, journalists, tweeps, blogs," the organizers write. Pro-Kurdish activists, the AP explained back in March, have launched a broader civil disobedience campaign in Turkey--one that has already resulted in all-night sit-in demonstrations, a female Kurdish legislator slapping a police officer in the face, and a mayor leaping on top of an armored personnel carrier--to agitate for more cultural and political rights for Kurds, who represent about 20 percent of Turkey's 74 million people. There have also been violent clashes recently between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels.
So, are these recent Twitter-based protests merely examples of low-impact social activism, as Gladwell would have predicted? Or, contrary to Gladwell's thesis, might the revolution occasionally--and, it seems, increasingly--be tweeted?