How to be useful: Twitter activist edition

Having talked a bit about my reasons for discomfort with the way we in the West have been following “Twitter revolutions”, I wanted to give a few ideas about how to use Twitter to engage usefully with struggles in other parts of the world. I’ve been thinking about this primarily in regards to the Egyptian protests, but I think most of these suggestions could also be useful if you’re thinking about natural disasters or other international events.

Know your audience

Think about who follows you on Twitter, and the ways in which you might be able to connect with them usefully.

  • If you know people who are on the ground during a protest or a dangerous situation, retweeting information about police movements and roadblocks can be useful. If most of your followers live outside the area of unrest, this might not be a particularly effective way of showing support.
  • If most of your Twitter followers are likely to already agree with your perspective, think about giving them ways to turn their ideas into action. This might mean sharing information about which ministers to lobby (boomerang politics is one way to try to pressure other governments into changing their policies), organisations to donate to, upcoming vigils or protests, or providing meaningful support in other ways.
  • If most of your Twitter followers are unlikely to have heard about what’s happening, or have a perspective you disagree with, try to pass on information that will engage and convince them. This can be a tricky balancing act, as most people prefer not to feel like they’re being preached to. Humour, personal stories, and good infographics can help.


Be careful what you throw into the stream

Be aware that people in the midst of the situation may be relying on a hashtag for up-to-date information.

  • Be cautious and critical about what you retweet. During the 2009 protests in Iran, there’s some evidence that the government and/or government sympathisers were using Twitter to send out false information (cf. this list on Twitspam and Morris’ brief post on Twitter psyops). As well as actively malicious information, rumours can be passed quickly on Twitter: try to confirm stories before you pass them on, particularly if they may have important consequences.
  • If you can, try to work out who is using relevant hashtags and for what. If activists have asked that you keep a certain hashtag clear for on-the-ground information, respect their request.

Don’t compromise activists’ safety

Twitter has shown a commendable willingness to support activists, delaying maintenance during the 2009 Iranian protests and refusing to hand over information on its users during the US government investigation of Wikileaks. However, there are still ways in which Twitter can be a threat to activists’ safety.

  • If you know Twitter activists’ real names, Facebook accounts, or other details, don’t use them. (You knew this already, though, right?)
  • Be careful what you share: during the Iranian protests, sharing proxy IP addresses for protesters’ use meant the security forces could find them and shut them down.


Do you have more ideas? Feel free to share them in the comments. There are lots of people out there who are looking for ways to help, they just need to know how.

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