A Guide to Tweeting for Peace and Social Change

December 9, 2013

Peace and Collaborative Development Network
December 6, 2013

Since its founding in 2006, Twitter has rapidly grown to be one of the most powerful online platforms for connecting hundreds of millions of individuals and organizations around the world. While the estimates vary, Twitter estimates they have over 100 million active monthly users of the platform and almost 500 million registered Tweeters, with several hundred million tweets sent per day (see http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/twitter-statistics-2012_b18914) . The service is experiencing exponential growth and has rapidly changed the Internet (see the bottom of the guide for an infographic that has more detailed info/stats on Twitter).

This resource guide provides an introduction to Twitter, discuss the role it can and has played in peacebuilding and social change and offers key resources to begin actively using the platform. Over the past few years, Twitter has rapidly become a powerful tool for connecting social activists fostering political reform and change in many regions of the world. From the Arab spring countries, to Occupy Wall Street in the US, to how individuals inform and connect on serious issues such as organizing political movements, documenting resistance, reporting on violence, to more lighthearted uses such as connected groups around common issues, ranging from education to humor, Twitter has and will continue to have a tremendous impact. It is important to note Twitter is part of the larger movement of using mobile tools for social tools, such as the field of crisis mapping (http://crisismappers.net/ a separate PCDN guide should be forthcoming soon on this field).

What is Twitter?

Before getting into specifics, first it is important to define some of the key terms related to Twitter. According to the company, “Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting.” The central aspect of Twitter are Tweets, which are similar to SMS messages of less than 140 characters and can contain text, links, pictures and other media. While 140 characters might sound absurdly short, a Single Tweet by a high profile Tweeter (someone who does the Tweeting) can reach the world within a few minutes and have and possibly mobilize millions to take action and/or put pressure on cause a government, company or some other institution to change their unjust actions.

How does Twitter work?

Anyone who has Internet access can setup a Twitter Account by going to Twitter.com and registering (it is free and only takes a few minutes). A Tweet can be written online via the Twitter Platform, via a Twitter client or Software program on a smartphone or computer or via many other means (a summary of some key programs is provided below).

The key feature of Twitter is that it provides a real time means of communicating with the world. Once a user has an account, she can then find users who are tweeting on topics of interest, such as peace, politics, food, Bollywood movies, music, and much more. One of the most useful aspects of Twitter is that users can be constantly surprised and find new Twitter Friends and sources of news, inspiration and fun.

One of the most powerful features of Twitter is that any user can “Retweet” or repost instantaneously in a second a “Tweet” that is compelling. When a user Retweets the message is distributed to all of the user’s followers and this can create a chain that sends a particular Tweet viral and go from 100 people reading to 1 million in a short time frame.

Users can also create lists of Tweeters who Tweet on similar topics to help organize access to information. A newer trend is creating Twibes, which is “..a group of Twitter users with a common interest” http://blog.twibes.com/twitter-tools/what-is-a-twibe

A key organizing feature of Twitter is the use of Hashtags which Twitter defines as “The # symbol, called a hashtag, is used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages.” When posting a Tweet using the # symbol to highlight key topics is key for helping to attract greater interest in a post.

How to find interesting Tweeters to follow?

There are several main ways to find Tweeters to follow. The first, is if a user has a friend or institution that she would like to follow on Twitter it is possible to search Twitter and find the account (Twitter accounts are written with the @sign. For example the Twitter Account for PCDN is @pcdnetwork and can also be accessed at https://twitter.com/#!/pcdnetwork). To follow a user go to the profile page on Twitter and click on follow. Second, Twitter provides some general categories such as Music, News, and Food that can help to identify interesting Tweeters. Third, Twitter also has wonderful suggestions for accounts to follow based on a user’s particular interests. For example, if a user starts following Twitter Accounts from leading news outlets such as Al Jazeera English or AlertNetTwitter will recommend other key news sources.

How can a user get others to follow her account?

One of the key ways to start attracting a healthy number of Twitter followers is to create a clear and compelling profile page (which is a user’s public profile). Second, to post regularly updates about key news, events, inspiring news stories, etc. It is important to experiment and find a Tweeter identity as one gets comfortable with the platform.

What is the connection of Twitter to Peace and Social Change?

A key question is can a single Tweet create peace? While it is unlikely that one tweet will create sustainable peace, one posting can go viral and create significant pressure on a regime, company or other institution to pay attention and take corrective action.

There are countless examples of how Twitter has helped to Tweet for Change. However, there is there is a very healthy debate in the field, where some scholars and activists believe Twitter and other online platforms do not have much of an impact. They are critical of the lazy person’s approach to social change by clicking or Retweeting at a computer instead of doing the long-difficult work needed to create an impact. For example, as Malcolm Gladwell comments, “This revolution will not be Tweeted.” On the other hand, there are countless organizations and individuals that are effectively using Twitter as a tool for new forms of organizing, connecting and creating change. Twitter has curated a collection of stories where the platform has had a tremendous positive impact on individuals, communities and the world (see http://stories.twitter.com/). Examples include Wael Ghonim a prominent activist in the Egyptian revolution who was imprisoned after and a global campaign for his release took place largely through Twitter and other social networks. Upon his release Ghonim stated “”If you want to liberate a government, give them the Internet.”

For a wonderful report exploring the debate about the “Twitter Revolutions” see USIP’s report, Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics

Other powerful examples of the impact of Twitter include:

  • Chris Strouth who Tweeted he needed a kidney and found a donor
  • In Kenya, Village Leader Francis Kariuki uses Twitter to stop crime
  • Tweeting for Peace could have a big impact on relations between Pakistan and Indira or other conflicted regions

What does it take to have influence on Twitter?

There is no single recipe for how to have influence on Twitter. One of the key factors is how many followers a user has. But what is almost equally important is how many users Retweet a user’s original Tweet. Thus a user with 1000 followers who posts a Tweet which many of her followers Retweet may have a bigger impact than a user with a much larger number of followers.

Some of the world’s top politicians, celebrities and others have over a million or more followers. For example the musician Lady Gaga has over 23 million followers, while Shakira has almost 16 million (see the top Tweeters http://twittercounter.com/pages/100). With both musicians actively engaged in social projects, anti-bullying, education and other initiatives a single Tweet can have a big impact. Of course many Tweets are simple fun, or not designed to have an impact or there are also spammers as well.

For a fascinating review of diplomacy and Twitter, see the new Twiplomacy 2013 report which discusses how governments around the globe are using Twitter.

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