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Can Twitter Be Trusted?


By Mary Daily

Published Sep 7, 2011 8:00 AM



Last winter when throngs of Egyptians took to the streets to protest their government, Twitter users at the scene reported the cause as a primal yearning for democracy. But months later, when UCLA researcher Ramesh Srinivasan interviewed a broad segment of people there, he found something different.

“The nature of the grievances of the people on the frontlines,” he says, was much more tangible—low wages, lack of job security, stolen money and land, and as one cabdriver told him, the outrageously inflated price of tomatoes. The masses were made up of “struggling Egyptians who felt unjustly denied a better life”—and most had no access to Twitter or other social media. (Of the 85 million people living in Egypt, only five percent use Facebook and only one percent, Twitter.) They communicated through posters, megaphones and simple word-of-mouth. It was among the “elite”–organizers and leaders of the movement—that social media facilitated discussion.

Moreover, as Srinivasan, an assistant professor of Information Studies, watched a demonstration, he tracked what people at the periphery were tweeting, and found it “more inflamed than what I was actually observing.” Tweets tend to “simply echo what others are saying [and can] create mass distortion.” Yet Srinivasan discovered that because journalists often used tweets as sources for their stories, social media— accurate or not—influenced what people read in newspapers and saw on television.

In subsequent riots in London this summer, social media was blamed for inciting the protest, but Srinivasan discovered that rioters there actually used mostly Blackberry messaging to communicate. “It was not social media that drove these poorer, less educated people [to demonstrate],” he says. The uprising “came from a synergy, a propitious moment when people with different grievances and from different classes came together at the right time, and things just snowballed.”

Using social media “requires trappings of education and class”—technological literacy, electricity and connectivity, Srinivasan observes. And even people with all that don’t have influence unless they have a following. “Just being on Facebook isn’t enough.”

What was much more influential in Egypt were networks based on family, neighborhood, and church or mosque—those that required no technology. After all, “revolutions were happening long before social media,” Srinivasan says.

He also points out that the effect of technology can be different in different places. “It’s important not to generalize. What matters most is not technology. It’s culture and context.”

Cynthia Lee contributed to this story.

Images courtesy of Dan Hodgson of darkroomproductions



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