Twitter is Not Reality, Even in Guatemala

Guatemalans took to the streets in protest over the alleged murder of a prominent attorney by the country’s president, and an unrelated man was arrested for tweeting about it. The protests were reportedly organized on Facebook and other social networking sites, and streamed live to the world by laptop. Xeni Jardin of Boing Boing has been reporting from Guatemala directly for the past two weeks, and in an essay two days ago she calls this the “Twitter Revolution“. I love the story of new technology enabling mass social dissent and change, but I’m not at all sure it’s true. Sorely missing from Xeni’s narrative is the role of other communication networks — like good old fashioned word-of-mouth — and the demographics of internet access in a poor country.

The background: Attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot while riding his bicycle on May 10th, just a few days after recording a video message which begins,

If you are watching this message, it is because I was assassinated by President Álvaro Colom.

The video implicates not only the president but the major state-owned bank, and indeed much of the current government, and there were mass protests in the capital city. Xeni has been covering the story from Guatemala since the 20th, and I can only commend her for actually being there. However, her coverage has focussed on the role of the internet in these protests.

Google is not reality and Twitter is not reality in exactly the same way that television is not reality. Part of the reason that Middle-Eastern peasants have such a warped view of America is that they too watch Desperate Housewives (via satellite or bootleg VCD), but never get the chance to actually meet some Americans. To them, all American women are blonde and slutty. There’s no reason to believe that we’re not getting a similarly warped view of other cultures when we watch their internet.

For it is something else entirely to be walking the streets of a foreign country. It’s a different world; the language is different and the food is different and the way things get done are different. We can fire up our web browsers and speculate about Facebook-organized protests, but it means nothing without the context. Maybe people in the Guatemalan cafes are angry, maybe they are apathetic; or maybe talking about politics over coffee is a luxury that the desperately poor rural population cannot afford, along with internet access. The only way to know is to go there.

Therefore, Kudos to Xeni for understanding the value of on-the-ground journalism, for being there, and for putting in so much time trying to learn something about people in another country. Consequently I am a little surprised that she would write,

Rosenberg’s video was handed out on DVDs at his funeral. The footage spread within days to YouTube and other video networks. Soon, it was the focal point of chatter among mostly young Guatemalans (who are more well-off than Guatemala’s extremely poor majority) on social sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Hi5. Remixes of the video soon appeared online, along with subtitled versions and amateur op-ed responses to the claims therein.

Those same social networks also played a role in organizing massive demonstrations in the country’s capital, Guatemala City. Crowds one weekend were estimated to be between 30,000 and 50,000. Newspapers in Guatemala credited social networks such as Facebook and Hi5 with “summoning” the petition signers.

The implication of this — and of the headline “The Twitter Revolution” — is that online tools played a crucial role in the spread of information and the organization of protests. But I don’t think we actually know this; I don’t think we actually can know it just from watching Twitter and Facebook and counting the number of webcasts. It’s exciting to talk about the role of technology in social justice, but these are just the most externally visible pieces of a huge and complex phenomenon.

So what role did “new media” actually play in spreading and coordinating organized dissent? Did anyone survey the protesters and ask them how they heard about the protest?

I can just as easily imagine that Twitter and Facebook and all the rest played only a relatively minor role in the massive response to Rosenberg’s death. Communication networks existed long before technology, in the form of dense and fast-responding social networks. When my friend had a motorcycle to sell in a small town in India, he walked into a dealership. The dealer didn’t buy his bike and my friend walked away without giving any contact information, but four hours later a pair of Tamil men knocked on his hotel room door with an offer of 15,000 rupees cash. In India, communication moves with astonishing speed along the networks of big extended families, business partnerships, chatter at the chai stand, and other channels I was never privy to.

And so we come to someone handing out DVDs of Rosenberg’s last statement at his funeral. The DVDs were played on existing, ubiquitous, cheap technology (DVD players now cost under $20 worldwide). They were doubtless copied and probably re-copied onto VCDs which can be duplicated on any dirt-cheap relic of a computer, and endlessly passed hand to hand. Meanwhile, unlike computers and internet access, mobile phones really are a ubiquitous technology, and surely good old-fashioned telephone gossip played a huge role.

It would have been weird if the video hadn’t eventually been posted online and the topic had never made it to Twitter. But just because something was online doesn’t mean that it had any effect. “Online” is just the part of a culture’s psyche that is easiest to measure,  and it’s also exciting to report on if you’re an idealistic technologist (like me.) And it’s the preferred method of young, well-off Guatemalans who are politically motivated and rich enough to spend endless hours online in a country where bandwidth is very expensive, in relative terms. These are precisely the people who a tech-savvy foreigner like Xeni would be spending the most time with.

This problem of understanding is not unique to Guatemala, of course. One of my favorite pieces of research is the study of Iranian bloggers that came out of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society which I have previously commented on here. Not only did this work dispel some dearly-held new media myths (e.g. “the majority of Iranian bloggers are politically liberal,” which is just not true) but it raised some really tricky questions about the relationship between a society and its online footprint. Who, exactly, are these people writing blogs?

So, Xeni, I have some questions about Guatemala’s “Twitter revolution.” You were there, so perhaps you can shed some light on them:

  • What fraction of the Guatemalan population has internet access?
  • How many Guatemalan Twitter users are there?
  • What is the demographic of each of these groups? What is known about the political leanings of these demographics?
  • How many users joined Facebook groups concerning the protests? How many protestors were there? How does this ratio compare with protests organized online in developed countries?
  • Was/is the Rosenberg video widely copied and circulated on DVD/VCD? Can you buy it at street level from the usual sources for pirated videos?
  • What is know about SMS usage in these protests, a technology which is far more widely deployed than Twitter?
  • Finally, did you get the chance to ask random protestors how they heard about the protest?

If we truly believe in the potential for new media in social change — and I certainly do — then we have to be ruthlessly honest about the cause and effect relationships involved. Yes, mass protests really are organized online in our rich and digital corner of the world, but that doesn’t mean that anyone else does it the same way. If Guatemalans might mistakenly think that all Americans act just like they do on TV, we’re in danger of believing that all Guatemalans act just like they do on the internet.

UPDATE: And it turns out that a key piece of context was missed by the twitter stream and related commentary: the counter-protests for Colom that took place. These were reportedly of the same magnitude as the anti-Colom demomstrations, but they involved slum-dwellers and the rural poor, who don’t tweet.

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