The Year Of Twitter

31 Dec,2012

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

It seems incredible that a website circumscribed by 140 characters should have become so influential. But 2012 cemented what we learnt in 2011: That Twitter was a power to reckon with – it could shake governments and topple dictators. Information and opinions can now spread faster than wildfire – that is a metaphor that is no longer valid. News moves around the world on Twitter – whether by phone or computer or various popular hybrids.

 

For the media this micro-blogging site can be a bonus or a bugbear. It precludes the need to conduct vox pops – newspapers and news channels both dedicate sections to opinions on Twitter. It allows you to access famous people who may otherwise surround themselves with impenetrable walls. It also gives you immediate insight into what people are thinking or talking about. Armchair activists are in full flow on Twitter. It can however also make journalists lazy – why go and seek out people when you can just follow them on Twitter. And it can blind you to other realities and other people who do not express themselves or live in cyberspace.

 

The events of the last month explain just how Twitter can work. Abhijit Mukherjee’s ridiculous comments to a Bengali TV channel on “dented and painted” women would never have been heard or seen by the rest of India even five years ago. But thanks to Twitter, he was exposed, had to apologise and got his father, the President of India, hopping mad. The immediate vehicle of Mukherjee’s downfall was YouTube but the engine which pushed his sexist idiocy to the world was Twitter. The traditional media – even television – cannot compete with this.

 

Shambhavi Saxena is a young student who was part of the protests in Delhi. Her tweets about her experiences at the Parliament Street police station exposed to the nation the extent of police highhandedness a citizen in India has to endure. Her tweets about being shoved around at the police station while there to rescue other women protestors were re-tweeted until people started to call the police station to find out what was happening. The confrontational stance of the police continued until they also realised that too many people knew.

 

But true to Twitter’s diverse nature, many “tweeps” also attacked Shambhavi. She was called a liar, with people asking how she could be tweeting while her head was being bashed into a wall. Twitter may a miracle of dissemination of news and views but it cannot escape from the vagaries and facets of human nature. Finally, other media and witnesses had to step in to corroborate Shambhavi’s story.

 

Governments today ignore Twitter at their own peril. The Arab Spring of 2011 cemented that. By 2012 we know that have outlet, will talk. Anthropologists and sociologists know that gossip is a driving force in human communication. Twitter is that and more. However there is one arm of the media which has to remain wary of using Twitter. The Internet remains antagonistic to manipulation by marketers and advertisers and Twitter is no different. You can find out what is happening but have to be careful about how you spread your own message. But across all that, one incontrovertible fact remains. As Che Guevara (a fictionalised historical character, not a T-shirt) sang in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita: “the voice of the people cannot be and will not be and must not be denied”. Ask Wael Ghonim and Ai Weiwei. Or better yet, follow them.

 

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