Twitter as a Tool for Social Change

By Josh Catone
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Twitter may not have figured out how to make money, but people using the application have begun to figure out how to put it to work in a number of useful ways. It’s often been discussed how Twitter allows for a millisecond news cycle and aids in the sourcing of news tips from citizen journalists on the ground. But Twitter is also being used for controlled news and information gathering both by reporters and by projects aiming to affect social change.

The best early example of this, is probably conservative blogger Patrick Ruffini’s Twittering Iowa project earlier this year. Ruffini set up a special Twitter account during the Iowa caucuses last January and asked readers who were attending the actual caucus sites to Twitter early results during the actual caucus. The result was that Ruffini was able to see the trend toward a Barack Obama victory hours before the press confirmed it.

More recently, political technology blog techPresident is planning to use Twitter and special hashtags to form a network of volunteers who can watch polling places for signs of fraudulent voting activity and instantly report back over Twitter. lays out their plans. “Imagine a Nationwide web map with pins identifying every zip code where Americans are waiting over 30 minutes to vote or indicating those election districts where the voting machines are not working,” they write. “Collectively we will inform each other when when the lines too long and ensure that media and watchdog groups know where problems exist.”

There were actually problems in Florida today at some polling places where early voting began — so there is clearly a need for this sort of monitoring. A project like techPresident’s works extremely well at keeping track of these types t of issues for the same reasons that Twitter works so well as an instant, early news distribution platform:

  1. It’s fast.
  2. It’s open.
  3. It’s easy.
  4. It’s two way.

Twitter works well as a vehicle for news or data gathering because it allows researchers or organizers to crowdsource those tasks and create a network that can pull in information faster and cover more ground than a single reporter, or even a team of reporters could. One of the downsides of Twitter is that it is rather jumbled — there’s a high ratio of noise to signal. But as the above examples show, with some specifically directed tweeting or clever use of hashtags, sorting the valuable data from the garbage isn’t very difficult.

techPresident is also proposing a way to use Twitter to keep track of intrusive robocalls.

Twitter isn’t the only site getting in on the social change act. A lot of social networking sites are beginning to be leveraged for community organizing and data gathering. YouTube, for example, is urging voters in the US to video their vote as a way to monitor and minimize potential vote fraud. Last February, an anti-FARC group in Columbia used Facebook to help organize hundreds of thousands of protesters in just a couple of days.

This sort of rapid data gathering and social organizing simply wasn’t possible a couple of years ago. Patrick Ruffini, writing at techPresident shortly after his Twittering Iowa project, concluded that Twitter “open sources the process of developing ideas and gathering news tips, giving us a complete window onto the news cycle,” and predicted that Twitter would be the breakout tool of this election cycle.

While that’s not totally clear — and certainly isn’t true from a campaigning perspective — Twitter and social tools are definitely becoming invaluable pieces of technology for agents of social change.

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  • Anonymous

    What is with the Sitepoint and Twitter?
    Cut the advertising crap and write something useful.

  • Advertising? I’m not sure what you mean. Twitter is not an advertiser at SitePoint (as far as I know, Twitter has never spent any money on advertising anywhere).

  • Priscilla

    What you say about Twitter is only true if your constituents are based in the global north, and particularly in North America. This is because there are enough people using Twitter in North America to warrant the amount of effort a “social change agent” needs to put in to build a community of supporters and activists.

    In most other countries, Twitter isn’t yet a useful activist tool because there isn’t a critical mass of users, or for that matter a diverse range of users.


  • @Priscilla: Thanks for the comment! I don’t actually agree with your assertion, though. What techPresident is doing, and what Patrick Ruffini did could work anywhere, regardless of the current installed user base. Twitter can be used as an organizational tool and you can build the use from the ground up in your organization. :)

  • cybergrace

    I work with low-literacy communities in NYC and this is very practical. Not at all an ad. Great for community-based folks, thank you, Josh!

  • John Lee

    Twitter is definitely another Internet social media phenomenon! It is exciting to see how companies are leveraging its power in many different ways. Here’s another blog post I recently came across on Twitter and business: