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The New York Times on Moldova: Twits, Not Tweets

Wishing to bolster its own ad revenues, the Times falsely claimed that Moldovans used Twitter to rally the masses against the reelection of a Communist government.

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April 25, 2009 - 12:00 am
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On April 7, the New York Times ran a story titled “Protests in Moldova Explode, with Help of Twitter.” It claimed that “a crowd of more than 10,000 young Moldovans” had “materialized seemingly out of nowhere” to protest against the reelection of a Communist government “by enlisting text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network.” The Times breathlessly announced that the protesters had created “their own searchable tag on Twitter, rallying Moldovans to join and propelling events in this small former Soviet state onto a Twitter list of newly popular topics, so people around the world could keep track.”

It was a surprising story, given that Moldova doesn’t rank in the top 120 nations of the world for per capita GDP. The economy is so weak that one quarter of the nation’s workforce is employed abroad, and the local population relies heavily on their remittances. Though it has over 4 million citizens, only 700,000 of them are identified as Internet users (in other words, roughly 85% of the population goes nowhere near cyberspace), the same number of webheads as there are in El Salvador. An average Moldovan earns less than $150 per month, which translates into an hourly wage of 93 cents for full-time employment. In light of this, one might have thought Moldovans might be more interested in a Twix than a Twitter. But there wasn’t a single word challenging the notion of a Twitterized revolution in the Times report, so readers could rest assured the paper had vetted the claim and confirmed it beyond cavil.

Except that it hadn’t. The very next day, writing on the Frontline Club website, PhD student Daniel Bennett exposed the real facts, commenting, “Not many of the people who have actually written these and similar articles have bothered to find some tweets that might hint at some kind of organizational role for Twitter.” Not the New York Times, anyway. It turns out that hardly anyone in Moldova is registered on Twitter. Tweets could not have been posted from the main public square where the protests took place because there was no cell phone reception there. One of the main organizers of the rally, internationally known journalist Natalia Morar, explained on her Russian-language blog that emails and SMS cell phone messages brought out the protesters. Perhaps the Times reporter didn’t speak Russian.

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