From the Arab Spring uprisings to the MeToo movement, in which women spoke out about sexual assault, Twitter has proven to be a formidable ally for political activists and opposition groups, whose reach and influence would be hard to replace.
Other social media platforms may have more users, but the network, now owned by billionaire Elon Musk, dominates the global conversation — even as Twitter’s future is in question.
“Twitter is clearly very influential in getting the media and officials to pay attention. So it occupies a very special and unique place in that regard,” said Mahsa Alimardani, a senior researcher at human rights NGO Article 19.
During the anti-government protests that have rocked Iran in recent months, tweets “help Iranians witness the pain and struggles of their countrymen and help the world witness what is happening,” she told AFP.
Especially in countries that have cracked down on independent journalism or foreign correspondents, Twitter offers a crucial lifeline to the outside world.
This week, posts from inside the Foxconn-run Chinese iPhone factory showed workers rebelling against a total Covid lockdown, shattering the government’s attempts to present a facade of calm amid its draconian efforts to contain the virus.
“It is very important to bring information to the international media, but also to document human rights abuses and atrocities,” said Marcus Michaelsen, a researcher specializing in digital activism under authoritarian regimes.
– ‘Protest Identity’ –
Twitter had around 237 million daily users at the end of June, far fewer than Facebook’s nearly two billion or TikTok one billion users.
But its concise, at-a-glance format allows the network to punch far beyond its weight for opposition groups, as anyone can become a “citizen journalist,” instantly sharing images government agencies don’t want to see.
For Nadia Idle, an Egyptian-British activist who took part in the 2011 Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, tweets from anti-regime protests in the Middle East encouraged people by showing they were not alone.
“Their ability to broadcast this event and the amount of activists tweeting in English made it a spectacle for people on the outside,” she said.
With viral tweets provoking global outrage, outside governments can also feel domestic pressure to take action, or at least condemn repressive governments.
And even in democratic countries, Twitter’s function as a digital town hall can provide activists with a megaphone that may have been unattainable before.
Over the past decade, the BlackLivesMatter hashtag has become synonymous with the movement, which highlights racism and police violence against African Americans and sheds light on discrimination that often goes unnoticed.
“They use the capabilities of Twitter and social media to create a protest identity, to create a shared feeling within the movement,” Michaelsen said.
“They know that they can reach journalists and politicians more directly and directly than, say, on Instagram.”
– “Would be a great loss” –
Since the upheaval of Musk’s takeover, Twitter has seen a wave of defectors, as people fear posts are no longer being curated enough to weed out disinformation and provocation.
Activists warn that with the death of Twitter, the world will lose an important historical record of social movements that might not have gained traction without the digital documentation.
“Twitter has kept an archive of so many different movements and so many different events… So losing that archive would be a huge loss, it’s a historical record in a way,” Alimardani said.
Charles Lister, a political scientist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said that oppressive regimes or terrorist groups would be the only beneficiaries if they lost strong control over their behavior.
In his work on the Syrian civil war, Lister says Twitter has been “vital” in documenting war crimes and providing aid.