Since the Arab Spring protests in 2011, there's been a perception that social media is a fantastic tool for democracy. Some have even gone as far as to claim credit, as though we here in the west have played a part in freeing the enslaved courtesy of providing these kind of tools. Such perceptions can differ somewhat from reality however.
A new study has looked at the role social media, and Twitter in particular, has played in the recent protests in Turkey. The researchers found that over 2 million tweets with hashtags related to the protest were sent during a 24 hour period in late May.
“What is unique about this particular case is how Twitter is being used to spread information about the demonstrations from the ground,” report Pablo Barberá and Megan Metzger, doctoral candidates at New York University. “Unlike some other recent uprisings, around 90 percent of all geo-located tweets are coming from within Turkey and 50 percent from within Istanbul.
“In comparison, other studies estimated that only 30 percent of those tweeting during the Egyptian revolution were actually in the country. Additionally, approximately 88 percent of the tweets are in Turkish, which suggests the audience of the tweets is other Turkish citizens and not so much the international community.”
The researchers believe that protestors took to Twitter in large part out of distrust of more mainstream news media in Turkey.
“Part of the reason for the extraordinary number of tweets is related to a phenomenon that is emerging in response to a perceived lack of media coverage in the Turkish media,” they observed.
“Dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the event, which has been almost non-existent within Turkey, Turkish protestors have begun live-tweeting the protests as well as using smart-phones to live stream video of the protests.
“This, along with recent articles in the Western news media, has become a major source of information about this week’s events. Protesters have encouraged Turks to turn off their televisions today in protest over the lack of coverage of the mainstream media by promoting the hashtag #BugünTelevizyonlar?Kapat (literally, ‘turn off the TVs today’), which has been used in more than 50,000 tweets so far.”
So how big a deal is this? Is Twitter really becoming a tool for freedom and democracy? Maybe. Barbera and Metzger believe that the event reflects the transition of Twitter from supplementing mainstream media into displacing it.
“Where traditional forms of news have failed to fully capture the intensity of the protests, or to elucidate the grievances that protesters are expressing, social media have provided those participating with a mechanism through which not only to communicate and exchange information with each other, but essentially to take the place of more traditional forms of media,” they write.