Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Can a Tweet Prevent a Massacre?

I just published a post over on Global Voices with the same headline, specifically quoting Syrian opposition and their supporters, who have been attempting to trend the #RamadanMassacre hashtag today. In looking for tweets using the hashtag, I came across one from Andy Carvin that got me thinking. Can Twitter prevent a massacre?

I know I’m not the first person to ask this question. At conferences this year, I’ve heard rumblings along the lines of “What if Twitter had existed in 1995?”, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Or in 1994, the year of the Rwandan genocide. Ignoring obvious questions of mobile and Internet penetration, would it have made a difference if Bosniaks had taken out their cell phones and tweeted, or if Tutsis had taken to their laptops and uploaded videos of the massacres?

Hard to say.

What we’re seeing in Syria right now is a war of words online, in which protesters and opposition figures face off against regime supporters, attempting to articulate their own narratives about what’s happening inside the country. And without many journalists on the ground, it’s difficult to determine the facts. We know that the regime has killed innocent, unarmed civilians, but have opposition forces taken up arms? And what do the majority of Syrians really think? Do they want foreign intervention or regime change, or reforms?

With Internet penetration around 20% and mobile subscriptions close to 60%, Twitter users are certainly a minority. And yet the overwhelming majority of tweets from inside the country speak to a desire for the regime to go. More to the point, Twitter is rife with reporting from inside Syria, with activists and citizen reporters alike posting videos, photos, and other content truly damning to the regime.

But does it matter? Can it help change anything? Or are we ‘witnessing’ for the sake of it, condemned to helplessness?

Along that line of thinking is Mark Belinsky‘s SXSW panel from earlier this year, “Tweets from 9/11.” The idea is obvious: Had Twitter existed ten years ago, would events have changed at all, or would their aftermath have been different?

The key, I think, is in the second part of the question. Indeed, the aftermath of events would have been different. We would have had a more accurate assessment of what exactly went on inside those planes in their final minutes, and the possible ramifications of that information are endless.

And so, and sadly, perhaps that’s our limit now. Questions still exist around the specifics of the 1982 Hama Massacre. By ‘witnessing’ the current events in Syria, and documenting them in real time, perhaps we are able to influence their eventual outcome, if only after the fact.

12 Comments

  1. I’d like to think it would have made a difference to have twitter and blogs around in the run up to and during the Rwandan genocide (and mobile phones/cameras of course). I’m not well-enough read on Bosnia so I won’t comment on whether twitter would have made any difference there.

    The Rwandan genocide was poorly reported from the beginning. From my reading and visits to Rwanda, it was clear something was going to happen, yet western media remained either unaware or uninterested. Social media would have allowed those with an interest in Rwanda, perhaps Rwandans living abroad to receive the information in much better detail about the massacres that had been happening in the year or so before the genocide.

    That would have not only alerted media outside of Rwanda, it would have possibly interested people enough for them to learn about the history and politics inside Rwanda. I’d like to think the idea that the genocide was ‘a typical tribal war’, might have been prevented and maybe perhaps the genocide too.

    Even if not prevented, then the journalists who travelled there would have been better informed and therefore better able to explain to the public what was really going on. If their editors chose to ignore them, so what? Journalists have a far bigger audience that what goes in print via their twitter accounts…

    Secondly, social media would have alerted ordinary citizens to take action themselves.

    Why didn’t the British government respond in the way any ordinary British citizen would have expected their government to? Apparently, ‘the phone wasn’t ringing constantly’ with demands to do so, from the public.

    Via twitter, I have learned about conflicts in various countries, seen the the photographs and videos, taken steps to ensure I understand what I am seeing and literally stamped my feet along the road, along that mile to my representative’s office and demanded he insist my government take appropriate steps to put a stop to it. Without twitter that would never have happened. I’ve no idea how many others have been doing the same, but I’d bet I am not the only one. At least some pressure on the UK government during the genocide would have happened – and that would be far more difficult to deny! We, in the west weren’t quite so accustomed to our political leaders completely ignoring their electorate as we are now and they weren’t quite so used to so blatantly doing so (I don’t think?).

    We would have had a far clearer idea of what was going on for all those months, we almost certainly would have had a far better idea of how widespread and systematic it was, how much of the country was affected, and we almost certainly would have seen any footage and photographs of any foreign soldiers who were involved before, during and after the genocide, and involved with what.

    We would have seen the grenades being thrown into packed churches, the places where people prayed for safety, we would have seen the circuling Interahawe, we would have had communications with the people hiding in attics. Imgaine how difficult it would have been for governments around the world to avoid the use of the word ‘genocide’ if social media existed then as it does now.

    And how difficult would it have been for the global public to be given the impression that those hundreds of thousands of people walking to Goma and Bukavu were not indeed the victims escaping the Interahawe?

    Finally, remember, the ‘government’ of Rwanda quite deliberately planned the genocide. Think about the methods used. Who took seriously the purchase of so many machetes? No one. They didn’t buy bullets not just because of cost, but because they wanted to ensure the outside world wasn’t quite so interested. They deliberately ensured the vast majority of Rwandans would participate in the genocide, openly and in broad daylight. Would the ‘government’ have done so, knowing it would be filmed? Would ordinary people have participated with the knowledge there was a possibility there would be film, photographic and written, electronic evidence of their acts? How would the clergy have behaved if they’d thought there was a possibility they would be filmed? I’d suggest many of them would have behaved as, for example, the pope would have expected. That would have been a significant difference.

    It might never have stopped the violence entirely, but many more of us would have a far better understanding of Rwanda and the means would have been very different.

    That is, of course, if mobile phone operators had wanted to and managed to keep their systems running.

    (Linda Mevern is the journalist and professor who has doggedly investigated the Rwanda Genocidde)

  2. “…without many journalists on the ground, it’s difficult to determine the facts”
    So, graphic videos of killed protesters, photographs & videos of civilians taken away by thugs, bodies thrown into rivers by soldiers, videos of tanks going in for the kill on injured civilians on the street are not factish enough for you?
    Unless we hear it from someone with a press pass, I suppose nothing ever happened as far as you are concerned.

    • I’m not personally doubting what’s happening at all. But the fact is, there are plenty who do doubt, both in the case of Syria and in the case of Libya. And let’s not also forget the propaganda emanating from Syria that threatens to counter the facts.

  3. “And so, and sadly, perhaps that’s our limit now” maybe at least Twitter, it seems saved the life of this desperate South African woman: http://bit.ly/otS3wO

  4. Miss Melvern seems to have stopped her research into events in Rwanda back when she first started and has not kept up with the flow of evidence and information coming out of the trials at the ICTR. The Rwandan government did not plan a genocide. Alison Desforges, witness for the prosecution, testified in 2006 that the idea that the Rwandan government planned genocide is absurd because it was a coalition government composed of Hutus and Tutsis and n which Tutsis and opposition parties sympathetic to the RPF, and including the RPF, held important ministries. All 3 prime ministers were RPF sympathisers. The Rwandan armed forces and gendarmerie were mixed forces of Hutus and Tutsis. Many important witnesses testified that it was the RPF that obstructed all peace attempts, sabotaged the Arusha Accords, assassinated “moderates” to blame it on the Hutus, killed scores of thousands of Hutus between 1990 and 1994 and then in April, because they knew they could not win the elections launched their final offensive by murdering the president when they shot down the plane and then attacked on the night of the 6th April (Belgian army witnesses) and commenced the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Hutus. Robert Gersony’s report to the UNHCR of October 1994 which was filed in evidence, states that the RPF engaged in the systematic ad sustained massacre of Hutu civilians commencing in April and continuing to the time of the report.

    The witnesses who described the RPF responsibility for the massacres and the war included Colonel Marchal, UN force commander in Kigali, General Dallaire, Belgian Ambassador Swinnen, RPF officiers such as Abdul Ruzibiza and Tutsi intellectuals such as Antoine Nyetera who was in Kigali and testified that it was the RPF that did all the killing not the government forces.

    If Twitter had existed in 1994, and the Hutus had been able to get out the reality of the RPF massacres as they happened, perhaps Miss Melvern would not have been so taken in by the RPF propaganda and Rwanda would be a democracy today instead of a military dictatorship.

    • Thank you, Christopher. I was sighing and wondering if I needed to write something like this myself. It is disheartening to see that a free electronic communications activist like Jillian York, who isn’t likely to have any particular agenda re Rwanda/Congo/Africa, has simply accepted the forced consensus about the truth of the Rwanda Genocide contained in her phrase “if Tutsis had taken to their laptops and uploaded videos of the massacres?”

    • Christopher, Ann,

      You’re right – I have no agenda, and this was simply meant to be a casual reference, as I’ve heard other people raise the point at conferences.

      That said, I have no desire to get into a discussion or argument about these points, because I am simply no expert on Rwanda.

      -Jillian

  5. i wish it were this simple. the idea that twitter could save victims rests on the assumption that there is an unbiased and free press that operates free of propaganda constraints. but thats not the case. anyone with their head screwed on straight knows that what receives coverage conforms to “filters” that determine who or what is “worthy” or “unworthy” to report or to report in what way.

    we dont need tweets to know the US military committed a massacre in fallujah, even though the press didnt report it honestly and accurately, and knowing didnt save them. same for bahrain or trade unionists in colombia, or the people of gaza.

    the US and its proxies can commit massacres and genocides right out in the open–they, in fact, do–and there is nothing twitter or facebook can do about it. the problem is less about knowledge and more about power dynamics. it’s like what marx said about philosophers knowing the world but the point being to change it. knowledge is readily available. but organized action needed to constrain power is not.

    does malvern or york think twitter would have saved the serbs of Croatia? what about the victims of the RPF in Rwanda? or the Serb victims of the KLA? or the Congolese victims of Kagame and Museveni? should ethiopians tweet their starvation? would they get enough people active in abolishing markets (an institution that allocates resources based on profits and not human need)?

  6. Twitter is just an experiment with real time group-think. Since it’s just a variation on mob mentality I’d say it is much more likely to cause a massacre than prevent one. Angry mobs tend to be violent, irrational and emotional. Besides that, 90% of the people who use Twitter have attention deficit disorder and 50% are too stupid to be able to use a computer without assistance anyway, and that’s hardly the type of person you’d want to seek assistance from during a crisis anyway, even if they weren’t part of an online angry mob. Right? But that’s not important because any twitter activist knows twitter is for starting trouble, not for resolving it. Even President Obama only uses Twitter to tell his followers to harass Republicans. This whole discussion is just mental masturbation.

    Anyway, what I really want to know is: what’s up with the funky dates? Don’t you think you’re taking this “citizen of the world” thing a bit too far?

  7. I can’t speak to Rwanda, but I believe that Twitter and the Internet could have dramatically altered events in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and could have prevented innumerable deaths months, if not years prior to Srebrenica. Had people been able to share with the world the realities of the siege on Sarajevo — that alone could have raised international awareness, demanding a much stronger intervention, much earlier. I think about the reporters and editors at Oslobodjenje in Sarajevo, who were fighting desperately to document the events around them while being under direct attack. If they had direct connections with the outside world (and the electricity/signal to get the message out–that would likely be the greater obstacle, even today), I believe Europe and the US could not have possibly sat out as long as they did, in the way they did. Together with everyday people documenting their realities, it could have changed everything.

  8. katharine,

    you really think the mainstream press would cover the tweets exposing the realities of “unworthy” victims?

    so a month after Srebrenica, nearly 1,200 Serbian civilians were slaughtered in Croatia… considering the politicization of the conflict, do you really think the popular press would have said anything about it if there were tweets? we knew about it at the time, so we didnt even need twitter, yet no stink was made. in fact, the US celebrated it.

    there have been dozens of conflicts and wars and attacks that resulted in the brutal deaths of people at the hands of the US and its allies but it predictably gets much less coverage, not to mention sustained coverage, as the politically convenient crimes (often exaggerated) of “enemies.”

    for the yugoslav wars, a period of about 10 years, a little over 100,000 people died mostly in combat. this is heralded as this genocide and ethnic cleansing and a horrible war. the serbs are demonized to being little more than nazi’s. at the same time in Congo about 6 million people are killed as US puppets Rwanda and Uganda literally destroy the place.

    for an experiment, i just went to nytimes.com and did a date range of jan1 1991 through dec 31 1999, and searched these words:
    serbian genocide: 365 pieces
    congo genocide: 95 pieces

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