Politics & Media
May 04, 2009, 07:26AM

The Revolution Will Barely Be Tweeted

How social networking solved the mystery of the recent "Twitter Revolution” in Moldova.

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"Boy in Yellow" in action.

On Tuesday, April 7, the center of Chisinau erupted into chaos. Moldovans took to the streets of the capital in protest of recent parliamentary elections, in which the Communists won a bare majority of the votes against the would-be liberal coalition's combined 35 percent. The OSCE signed off on the elections, but apparently 15,000 Moldovans weren't so sure. What started out as a large, albeit peaceful student demonstration soon turned violent. Protesters began throwing rocks, and some in the crowd broke into the Parliament and Presidency, located on either end of a large plaza. They torched the façades of the two buildings, and tossed reams of documents out of the windows. One group of people—who in the coming days would be the subject of much scrutiny and intrigue—even managed to hoist the Romanian and European Union flags atop the two main seats of power in Moldova.

Though the police had been conspicuously absent during the day of April 7 while the buildings burned, they emerged in full force overnight and over the course of the next few days. Hundreds of people were detained, many were beaten, some even sexually assaulted (all translations from cited Romanian articles are mine, not professional ones), and three bodies of dead protesters have been found strewn about the capital. The crackdown and overt threats from the government warned Moldovans in no uncertain terms that the events of Tuesday would not be allowed to repeat themselves on Wednesday, or Thursday, or any day thereafter.

Moldova is a small, poor country, without its own distinct language or any strong unified ethnic identity, and normally the events of April 7 would not have gotten more than a cursory mention in the West. But the media had a hook: Twitter. The protests in Moldova coincided with the American media's infatuation with Twitter, and because the events were being relayed in real time on Twitter, the English-language media dubbed the events of April 7 the "Twitter Revolution."

The only problem is that there was no revolution, and there actually wasn't even much Twitter, at least in the sense that the media meant it. The liberal opposition seemed taken aback by the large turnout and the violence, and the Communists remained in control of the real sources of power in a poor Eastern European country—the military, broadcast media, and border controls. The violence tainted the protesters' hitherto peaceful and righteous image, giving the government an excuse to forbid further protests. Far from inciting the people to revolution, the violence of April 7 and ensuing crackdown mostly scared Moldovans away from demonstrations later in the week.

As for Twitter, some have already pointed out the absurdity of, for example, the Telegraph's headline "Students use Twitter to storm presidency in Moldova." Though the events in Piata Marii Adunari Nationale (or "Great National Assembly Square," the capital's central plaza) were heavily tweeted and the searchable hash tag #pman was indeed "trending" over the next few days, actual use of Twitter by those located in the square and in the government buildings on the day of the violent protests would have been rare, given the lack of cell phone coverage in the square and paucity of Twitter users in Moldova. A quantitative analysis of the Twitter hash tag #pman by Ethan Zuckerman confirmed this, as he found that the tweeting didn't really take off until around noon on Tuesday, after the violence had already begun.

But though the initial pronouncements of a Twitter-fueled revolution appear to have been false, social networking sites did play an important role in the days following the protests. By allowing anyone with an Internet connection access to primary sources that normally only a journalist would have, they accelerated the process of uncovering the truth about the events of April 7.

Despite the Western media's general failure to pick up on it, pictures and video have been cropping up on the Internet that contradict the original story told to the Moldovan people and broadcast around the world. The violence, the liberals claim, was not a spontaneous eruption of discontent on the part of genuine protesters, nor was it part of a Romanian ploy to annex the mostly Romanian-speaking country, as Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin has repeatedly argued. Rather, the government infiltrated what would otherwise have been a peaceful protest and incited the crowds to violence, in order to head off any future demonstrations—potentially larger, more peaceful, and more credible. The first piece of evidence, and still the most compelling, was a photo of protesters atop the Parliament, seen above this article. In the picture, you see what appear to be two protesters dancing around the EU flag, which they raised in place of the Moldovan one. But they are not alone, and you can clearly make out the two men behind them, one even wearing a policeman's cap.

The revelation that the government was in on the flag stunt made a mockery of Vladimir Voronin's earlier accusations. The president had been using the mounting of the flags as evidence of an attempted coup by Romania and the liberal opposition, and he called the incident "the greatest affront to Moldova's very independence." Already questions had been raised about how the protesters got to the secured roof, but an image of police standing idly by while these protesters defamed the Parliament with foreign flags raised serious questions about the government's involvement in the violence and events of April 7.

In a pattern, which would become familiar over the next few days, the first picture is of imprecise origin. Its blurriness hints that an amateur took it, as does the fact that nobody has claimed credit for it. Despite its unknown provenance, the photo spread like wildfire, and within days every Romanian-language media organization not operated by the Moldovan state was showing the picture. (One possible reason for posting it online, aside from immediacy, could have been fear of retribution from the Moldovan government—a smart move, perhaps.)

One of the two young protesters on the roof in the picture was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, and after the picture surfaced, social networking sites started buzzing with more pictures of this mysterious "boy in yellow," as he became known. He was often pictured surrounded by older men with shaved heads and leather jackets, who stuck out among the long-haired, t-shirt-wearing students.

From there, the crowd-sourced investigation into the violence went into overdrive, and blogs began uncovering even more evidence that the boy in yellow was a provocateur. In his blog Alexandru Cozer wrote about his discovery of the boy in yellow speaking in news broadcasts during the run-up to the elections—but not as a liberal sympathizer. In the first video, uploaded to YouTube on March 5 (before the boy's significance was known), a boy who bears a striking resemblance to the boy in yellow appears at a Liberal-Democrat Party anti-government rally claiming that he was paid to be there. The video was first broadcast on a TV station called Omega, believed to be controlled by the Communist Party, and was part of a concerted campaign on behalf of the government to leverage the media against the opposition.

The second video was published on the JurnalTV YouTube channel (an internet TV project by the oppositional paper Jurnal de Chisinau). In it, the boy resurfaces, claiming again to have been paid to protest by one of the liberal parties. But this time, rather than the Liberal-Democrat Party, it was the Our Moldova Alliance who supposedly bribed him to march. He arrived late to the rally, among a group of leather-clad kids with shaved heads. It was clear that April 7 was not the first time he'd done something to make the liberal opposition look bad.

But the crowd-sourced investigators were not satisfied, and the Romanian-language blogosphere continued to uncover evidence that the boy in the yellow shirt was an agent provocateur. The boy was spotted again in a video made before the elections alongside politician Iurie Rosca. Though the leader of the nominally independent Popular Christian Democratic Party, Rosca supports the Communists and for his loyalty was rewarded with the vice presidency of the parliament in 2005.

By this point, those who had perpetrated the violence could not ignore the obvious incongruities of their story. In a belated attempt to rectify the images with the party line that the government didn't instigate the violence, Iurie Rosca's TV station, EuTV, ran a news segment on April 13 in which the boys came on camera and "denounced themselves," as one Romanian paper put it.

The two boys revealed themselves as Ion Galatchi and Dragos Musteata, and they told an eyebrow-raising tale that only made the government seem more suspicious. The boys asked for help from the police in raising the foreign flags, saying that it would signal to the crowds that the building was "not an object to destroy." All they wanted was to "calm the masses," they said, and we are to believe that the policemen then obligingly showed them to the roof in order to raise the European and Romanian flags. Naturally, this only enflamed the crowd further. But given the massive police presence directly behind the building all day, it seems unlikely that any officer would have allowed protesters to take down the Moldovan flag without the permission of the government.

The Moldovan government never explicitly commented on the EuTV report, but there is reason to believe that they knew about it before it aired—the video confession bore the initials "MAI" in the corner, short for the Moldovan Ministry of Interior Affairs. Voronin has since quieted down about the flag incident inside of Moldova, but Russia's President Medvedev still talking about it as late as April 17 as if the government hadn't just admitted that it was facilitated by the police.

After the EuTV video aired, the Romanian blogosphere again leapt into action, and seemingly out of thin air produced a video hosted on Blogspot contradicting Galatchi's statement that his intentions were purely peaceful. The video clearly shows a young boy smashing through the door of one of the two government buildings on April 7, apparently with the help of two hands from within. The boy is wearing a red hoodie, but at one point the cameraman zooms in, it's Ion Galatchi, the infamous boy in yellow himself!

But that's not the only proof that Ion Galatchi wasn't really trying to play peacemaker. On YouTube, I found another video of our hero in yellow, where at 2:30 you can see him in his red hoodie, throwing rocks at a building. The video was among many posted by someone who joined YouTube three days after the violent protests, and according to YouTube's statistics, the video hadn't been watched by anyone other than its creator before I found it.

The fact that he was never arrested for these violent actions is also suspicious. Despite the government's bloody crackdown and Ion Gala?chi's high profile among the rioters, he appears to have made it out unscathed, and his name is not on the Moldovan Interior Ministry's list of those detained or arrested during the protests.

In addition to the photo and video evidence, Alexandru Cozer posted a series of anonymous testimonials from readers of his blog, which further implicate Ion Galatchi as an agent provocateur. One reader claims that the boy in yellow tried to get him to ram a military truck through the doors of the Parliament. He was arrested after he refused, but the police were curiously uninterested in investigating the reader's claims about the boy with access to a military truck, trying to storm Parliament.

Other emails received by Cozer hint to Galatchi's origins. One person identified Ion Galatchi as the son of Valentina Galatchi, a government functionary. Another relayed the story of a friend who worked as a security guard, who claimed to have seen the boy in the yellow shirt carrying PPCD campaign posters in a building where Iurie Rosca's Popular Christian Democratic Party had rented an office.

So, while the events don't fit the Western media's narrative of a city full of protesters converging on Twitter and almost pulling off a revolution, technology did play an indispensable role in telling the story of April 7. The original photo of the boys on the roof alongside the police might have eventually made its way to the media in the absence of the Internet, but it might not have. The myriad pictures of the boy in yellow, posted online before their creators realized they were significant, almost surely would not have been accessible to anyone who wished to see them. And it seems unlikely that, had YouTube not existed, journalists would have been able to find the videos of Ion Galatchi among the thousands of hours of broadcasts. Finally, for whatever reason, the authors of the testimonials on Alexandru Cozer's blog chose to send them to him and not to the traditional media. Absent his blog, they might have written to TV stations and newspapers, but who knows if they would have been printed.

This isn't to say that the traditional media outlets—the TV stations and newspapers—played no role in uncovering the truth about the April 7 riots. Rather, the relationship between new media and old was symbiotic, with information flowing freely back and forth. Important primary sources were often unleashed on new media networks, but at other times bloggers were synthesizing raw video put online by old media. The traditional press bestowed legitimacy on the rumors, and in a country with low Internet penetration rates, the TV stations and newspapers gave the evidence a wider airing than if it had been transmitted only online and via word-of-mouth. From here, social networking further disseminated the stories—Ethan Zuckerman's analysis of the Twitter chatter revealed that the URLs shared on Twitter were split roughly evenly between blogs and traditional media sources. Rather than crowding each other out, new media and old have complemented each other in the days following the April 7 violence, providing more complete coverage than either could sustain on its own.

The only elected communist party in Eastern Europe has not forgotten the disinformation tactics they learned during the Soviet era, but the tactics haven't kept up with the information age. Though the Communists remain in power, domestic opposition is simmering. Abroad, Voronin and the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova are losing their credibility. When the regime finally collapses—and it may not be long before it does—the Internet and social networking sites can take credit for uncovering the essential truths of April 7, even if it wasn't quite the Twitter Revolution that we thought it would be.


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