Twitter's influence mounts as reach grows

Twitter's influence mounts as reach grows
File picture shows Egypt's ousted President Mubarak sitting inside a dock at the police academy on the outskirts of Cairo.

WASHINGTON - It is becoming the preferred social network for American teens. It is an important "second screen" for TV viewers of NFL football and "Dancing With the Stars." It also happens to be a tool for social activists which arguably can help topple governments.

In its brief history, Twitter has become ingrained in global politics, culture and entertainment, in addition to being a simple tool for sharing ideas.

Twitter has become a democratizing force in political life, as seen during popular movements in Arab countries, but also in the United States and other developed nations.

In Arab countries, "it is very difficult for the state to dominate public discourse anymore because of Twitter," said Adel Iskandar, a Georgetown University professor of communication and scholar of Arab studies.

"You can have an official statement, and this can be taken to task in an instantaneous way by the public at large. This changes the dynamics and structure of power." Iskandar said it would be "an oversimplification" to attribute the Arab Spring uprisings to Twitter, but maintained that the one-to-many messaging service "speeded things up."

"These protest movements could have occurred over six or seven years," he said. "But in a couple of days people found out what was happening a thousand miles away."

Important tool for democracy activists

Iskandar said the same is essentially true in the United States and elsewhere, because the populace on Twitter can instantly respond or debunk messages from political leaders trying to control their message.

Twitter "has a way of disrupting the status quo in an almost effortless way," he told AFP.

Philip Howard, who heads the Digital Activism Research Project at the University of Washington, said Twitter "is still one of the most important social networking tools for democracy advocates." Howard told AFP that authoritarian regimes have cracked down or entrapped dissidents using Facebook but that "content flows more quickly on Twitter and it's harder to do that."

He said that Twitter's speed and mobility is useful "in the heavy days of protests when you are trying to get thousands of people to the central square."

Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina sociologist who researched recent protests in Turkey, said Twitter was "pretty much the social network that facilitated the protesters ability to break censorship."

She said dissidents in Turkey like Twitter "because it is lightweight, it protects the users, and you can follow people without having to friend them, which is important for many forms of communication." Panagiotis Metaxas, who heads media arts and sciences at Wellesley College, said Twitter has some advantages over other platforms like Facebook, because each tweet is equal.

"The kind of things we broadcast on Twitter have a greater propagation life than on Facebook," he said.

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