Using Twitter in Grassroots Political Demonstrations

Iranian Elections and Twitter

Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden

It’s kind of odd  when we  think of how this little web application called Twitter can actually have a role in politics. When I say little, I mean in terms of how much one can write on it… just 140 characters… that’s it. Most politicians couldn’t ask for a contribution in less than 140 characters.

To give us context, the average cell phone call is 3 minutes and 15 seconds; Twitter messages (Tweets) can only be as long as this sentence.

So, what is the political importance of this? The answer is not much in terms of practical traditional big media campaigning. However, for grass roots campaigning and protesting this is a huge game changer. Think of it this way… Cell phones are ubiquitous. Almost every cell phone sold today has the basic SMS text capability. This was the lowest common denominator that Twitter was designed for. Twitter supports the 140 character limit that cell phones have. This means the cell phone, which traditionally has been one-to-one communication, now becomes a powerful mass communication tool.

Now, as an example, let’s say you have some sort of demonstration to get legislation that legalizes marijuana (easy now… just an example). The first thing you as the organizer does is try to rally some support. You make calls, get a website and/or blog and start your outreach to get people to come to the demonstration that support your views.

Now you add Twitter to this mix and this is what happens:

Pre-demonstration

Demonstrations require preparation.

  1. You create a Twitter account. Let’s say @PotParty
  2. Then you would want to promote a hash tag (#). This is used to flag all conversation related to your demonstration. Let’s say we use #DCPot. You want this to be small so it is easy to add to your Tweet and doesn’t use up valuable characters.
  3. Add your Twitter account name and hash tag to any blogs, emails or other communication tools that you use.
  4. Start to Tweet using your account and refer to the hash tag. When you Tweet, you are using Twitter to send messages to followers. For instance, you may say “Save the Date – July 4th March on Washington to Legalize Pot #DCPot Please RT. (The “Please RT” at the end politely asks others to “Re-Tweet” the post you made)
  5. Repeat step 4 with different messages and information that is relevant.
  6. Re-Tweet other relevant Tweets… it builds community respect and people tend to return the love.
  7. Search various terms on http://search.twitter.com that have to do with your issue. As you find relevant “Tweets” from others, follow them. Following someone means that you will get their messages as part of your “home timeline”.  Your home page on Twitter shows you all the Tweets of the people you are “following”. Think of this as a ticker tape service with Tweets instead of stock prices.

As your activities pick up on Twitter, you may want to use Twitter tools such as TweetDeck which provide a richer and more powerful Twitter interface. Once you get momentum, you will find that people start to follow you and use your hash tag in Tweets about your demonstration. This will build on itself and if you do your outreach effectively, things will reach a tipping point in which the velocity of follows and hash tag uses exponentially increases before the demonstration.

Just prior to the event, encourage your followers and others who plan on attending the demonstration to follow with “Device Updates ON”. This means that when you send a Tweet, they will get this delivered to whichever mobile device they define Twitter to send them to. Most people will use their cell phone. This will be critical at the demonstration for it allows you to communicate via your cell phone to the hundreds or thousands of people who are looking to you for leadership and direction at the demonstration.

Like with any open communication platform, you will be opening yourself to having as many people as possible tap into your communication. Keep this in mind as you Tweet. Assume it will be read by both your fans and those that are counter to your position.

At the Demonstration

This is where Twitter becomes invaluable. Twitter becomes your personal bullhorn without the horn. Twitter supports the ability for you to send a text message (SMS) from your phone. This message will then automatically get sent to ALL of your followers who have Device Updates ON. If you did your job right, you now have hundreds or thousands of people who get direction from you directly on their cell phone. Use this to tell people where to go, what to do, what to say etc. It is a powerful way to lead the participants of the demonstration in such a way that to the onlooker, the crowd seems to have one mind and support your goals in the demonstration. Where other demonstrations fail to gel due to lack of unity, Twitter can help insure that your followers get the direction you are giving.

Twitter is a powerful tool, but it is just a tool. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this tool is largely up to the organizers that use it. One of the most powerful examples of Twitter use in demonstrations was the demonstrations that took place in Iran after the Presidential election. While Twitter was used to get information out to the world, it was also an effective organizing tool for the demonstrations.

If you have any examples of how you have used Twitter at a political demonstration, share it in the comments below. Happy Twittering!

If you would like to follow me, I am @glenng. We also have a Twitter account for the show which is @politalkpodcast.

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