In Defence Of Twitter Activism

The revolution is being Tweeted

This article was originally published as part of a debate in the new edition of Nerve magazine.

There’s a lot of criticisms you could make of Facebook and other ‘social networking’ websites such as Twitter and MySpace. Ritchie Hunter is right to raise these concerns. Of course, like any for profit business, it exists to make money, and its owners can’t be trusted one kilobite. But my argument is that it is a powerful tool, which quite apart from ‘throwing sheep’ and other such timewasting, can help to bring people together, and change the world.

Personally, I owe a lot to social networking websites. I met my long-term girlfriend on MySpace, then we moved things onto Facebook, and now we live together. There’s no way we would have met ‘in real life’ without social networking technology, because we lived at opposite ends of the country. But we started talking over shared interests, and the rest is history!

But of possibly even greater historical significance is the way Facebook and Twitter are being used to organise political change. When Noam Chomsky was asked about this on Newsnight in March, he replied that “a hammer doesn’t care if it’s being used to hammer in a nail or bash a prisoner’s head in”, and of course the technology itself is ‘neutral’ when it comes to politics; it can create or destroy. But the fact remains that it was widely used in the recent Egyptian pro-democracy movement, both to organise actions and just spread the news internationally – under conditions where the corporate media wasn’t getting the story out properly. The regime of Hosni Mubarak tacitly acknowledged the power of social networking when it shut down the internet for a short time. Mubarak also held Wael Ghohim – the Facebook organiser of major Cairo protests – in custody for twelve days.

The power of #solidarity

While Facebook and Twitter are having a large impact in the Middle East protests – from Algeria to Yemen – they have also been used in the Wisconsin, USA protests against massive effective pay cuts for public sector workers, and the restriction of trade union rights. In the UK too, it is being used to link up anti-cuts campaigns such as UK Uncut, student university occupiers, and others.

What links all of this is a beautiful and wonderful Twitter ‘hashtag’: #solidarity. By subscribing to the hashtag feed, Tweeters from around the world can share info, offer suggestions, participate, or just sympathise with people in struggle against austerity and oppression – whether they be in Liverpool or Lisbon, Birkenhead or Bahrain. And when the working people of the world really do unite, the social networking billionaires better hide out with their friends on Wall Street.

We can’t turn the clock back, so Facebook and Twitter are here to stay, for better and for worse. While being careful about exactly what we put online, let’s put these tools to use in creating a better society.

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