A 140-Character Revolution?

According to Wikipedia, Twitter is “an online social networking and microblogging service that enables users to send and read short 140-character text messages, called ‘tweets’.”  Twitter is in the top ten most visited websites worldwide, and has over 255 million monthly active users and 500 million tweets are posted per day (on average).  In the past few years Twitter has been featured more and more by mainstream news sources for various reasons, as seen in the below screenshots of a Google News search of “Twitter” on May 6, 2014:

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 7.22.14 PM Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 7.22.33 PM

Some users have begun to use Twitter to interact with social or political movements.  Hashtags are a critical component that facilitate these interactions.  A hashtag, #, is used to denote keywords or topics within a tweet, and this  allows for an easy way to categorize tweets.  “Twitter activists” use hashtags to moderate and contribute to conversations about a particular issues.  An example of this is #BringBackOurGirls, seen above; this hashtag reflects a global reaction to the April 14th kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian school girls by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Whether Twitter activism is effective or not is a matter of much controversy.  Some people assert that Twitter and other similar social media platforms give a voice to groups of people who are oppressed and allows these groups to discuss shared experiences.  Others state that Twitter is still an oppressive form of communication because Twitter itself is a corporation that can monitor users and censor content, and it is ultimately a profit-seeking venture.

Another question is whether Twitter activism can start revolutions or if it can just fuel a fire that begins in “real life”.  Sandor Vegh divided online activism into three categories:

  • Awareness/Advocacy – these tweets seek to raise awareness about a particular issue
  • Organization/Mobilization – these tweets seek to make plans to organize or mobilize for a particular cause
  • Action/Reaction – these tweets reflect the results of the plans made previously

The awareness/advocacy function is used most often by Twitter activists because the platform allows them to reach millions of people, and therefore alert the world to their cause.

I will not provide answers to these questions, but rather explore them by examining hashtags used for social/political movements.  The cases I will consider include Twitter usage in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as hashtags that undermine colonialism and Orientalism.


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