Were Protests in Moldova a Twitter Revolution?
By Brannon Cullum
On April 6, 2009, a peaceful protest began in Moldova, neighbor to Ukraine and Romania, in reaction to what some claimed were fraudulent parliamentary elections that led to the reelection of the incumbent Communist Party. The protests quickly swelled in size and gained international attention as many journalists began asserting that they were organized using Twitter, with headlines including “Moldova’s Twitter Revolution,” “Protests in Moldova Explode, With Help of Twitter,” and “Moldovans Turn to Twitter to Organize Protests.”
Looking beyond the headlines, how central was Twitter to the internal organizing efforts? Was the real power of the messaging platform found in the ability of expatriates and others around the world to follow the events in real time? How was Twitter used to mobilize people outside Moldova and raise awareness?
From all accounts, the initial flash mob organized in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, was of a “smart mob” design. Journalist Natalia Morari, 25 years old at the time, was one of the initial organizers, calling on upset youth to gather at the capital’s central square, light a candle, and silently protest the election results. She told The Guardian, "We decided to organize a flash mob for the same day using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS.” The messages sent out read: “If you believe your vote was stolen, if you did not vote for the Communists, come to the center of the city.”
Morari, like many Moldovan youth, was not happy with the government’s policies. Moldova has been independent from the Soviet Union since 1991, and as Moldovans come of age, many are frustrated to see the resurgence of the Communist party in their country. When they organized the first gathering, Morari and her friends expected around 300 people to show up, but describes how 15,000 people showed up on the first day, with more appearing on the second day. As she said at the AYM summit in Mexico City, "You should understand that Moldova is a country which was always considered unpoliticized [sic] and people would never come into the street." "None of us could imagine that such a thing could happen, but it shows there exists a very big protest inside society and within young people. Moldovan youth are not pleased with what is happening in Moldova. Liberty is a great thing for us and we don't want to live in a Soviet kind of society," Morari said in a separate interview. Aside from the efforts of Morari and her friends, there was no group or political party responsible for organizing people on the ground.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
As Morari has described in her account of the events that transpired, various social media tools, from blogs and e-mail to Twitter and SMS, were used to call for concerned Moldovans to gather at the central square for a peaceful protest. Following the original flash mob, however, events turned from calm to more chaotic. Many Moldovans were breaking into government buildings and smashing windows, resulting in arrests, injuries, and allegations of police violence. Morari concedes: “We also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the government's policies and electoral fraud."
Posting to her LiveJournal page that day, Morari claimed that she and other student organizers were not associated with the violence taking place, stating, "The group ‘I am an Anti-Communist’ declares that it has nothing to do with this disaster. None of the activists in the group took part in the riots. None of them violated the laws of the Republic of Moldova."
At the same time, once the demonstrations began, the government shut down websites originating from Moldova. Using Twitter wasn’t completely reliable either. As Morari said, Twitter was used as a way of “informing and keeping in touch with people who were interested and cared about what was happening in Moldova.” By using Twitter, members of the Moldovan diaspora, many of whom live in Romania, were able to remotely participate in the protest simply by tweeting about it. The use of three hashtags on Twitter—#pman (the acronym of Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the main square where protests were taking place in Chisinau), #Chisinau, and #Moldova—helped organize tweets about the movement and allowed people outside Moldova to monitor the events as they unfolded.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
In the absence of well-run organizations and strong leadership to coordinate the demonstrations and monitor the crowds, no one was prepared for the growing crowds and the ensuing violence.
Opposition parties and progressive youth organizations did not have the capacity or momentum at the time to control what was happening on the ground and to prevent acts of violence. The fact that the government was shutting down websites, combined with unreliable mobile networks, made it challenging for Moldovans on the ground to coordinate their activities and be informed.
Order was eventually restored in Moldova, the government retook their buildings, and subsequent smaller demonstrations were more peaceful. By April 10, four days after the first flash mob, Moldovan president Vladimir Voronin called on the courts to authorize a recount. After a formal recount was conducted, the government declared that no serious errors were detected and determined that the original count should stand.
Many journalists and scholars took to the web to analyze the extent to which this event was—or was not—a “Twitter revolution.” As writer Evgeny Morozov, as well as Natalia herself in the above video, has noted, Moldova had relatively few Twitter users at the time—estimated to be between 70 and 200 (it is hard to determine, given that many users may not have provided their actual location when registering).
Secondly, the use of Twitter in this instance appears to have been “limited to mobilization of some local supporters and raising international awareness.” Since Twitter was the buzz of the mainstream media in April 2009, the media were quick to hop on any story that involved the platform. At the time, Morozov noted, “It really helped that even nontechnology people in the U.S. and much of Western Europe are currently head over heels in love with Twitter.”
However, many media outlets failed to provide sufficient evidence that Twitter actually was the primary organizing device. As Morozov wrote:
"My Moldovan friends are telling me that a technology that would really help in that public square would not be Twitter, but a good and loud megaphone. When you have angry and disorganized crowds, you don't need decentralized platforms—you want to centralize instead."
Further, once the initial protest events were over international media quickly moved on, failing to cover any lasting or measurable impacts that the demonstrations may have had.
Comparisons have inevitably been drawn between the protests in Moldova and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. This protest received more immediate international attention than the events in Ukraine because of the mainstream media’s interest in Twitter. Without the use of social media tools to organize the initial protests and to share information, how likely would it have been that the international media would have paid much attention to the story at all? While Twitter was not essential to carrying out the protests, it greatly helped raise attention to the plight of Moldovans and increase visibility.
Morari now helps lead ThinkMoldova, an organization dedicated to helping young Moldovans take part in the future of their country. Since July 2009, a coalition of four political parties has been in power, having ousted the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova into the opposition.
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