A real-time force.

Twitter flexed muscle in 2012

Posted: December 31, 2012

This was the year Twitter went from a 140-character narcissism telegraph to a tool of novel powers.

Twitter users helped win (and lose) an election. They warned of, reported on, and helped to direct disaster-aid efforts during storms and forest fires. And for the first time, war was declared, move for move, on Twitter.

Local issues brought Twitter to the fore. When the proposed merger of Abington Memorial Hospital with Holy Redeemer Health System fell through July 18, many credited a community social-media protest. Twitter figured large, broadcasting news of meetings and protests, and keeping up pressure on hospital board members. Activist Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein says Twitter "allowed us to reach out to organizations and journalists in real time to deliver our message."

No local story was bigger than Sandy. Via Twitter, the local "citizen journalist" stepped front and center during the storm, from Queens to Atlantic City.

While national networks can give the big picture, says Kathleen A. Bogle, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University, "people want something more authentic, more personal - news of their area, their block. The general media can't always address it."

People turned to social media to see and share photos and videos of their neighborhoods. A flood of 20 million tweets and Facebook and Instagram posts made Sandy the most continuously documented natural catastrophe in U.S. history.

"People become informal, citizen reporters," says Bogle, "often at great risk." Concerned about whether the mass media would hype the storm, and seeking "a more authentic reading of what's happening, [people] turned to social media."

Gov. Christie, a self-described Twitter fanatic, became the First Citizen Journalist of New Jersey. He shared what he saw ("The Jersey shore of my youth is gone"), passed along information (road closures, boil-water advisories), chided wayward behavior ("I hope and pray there will not be a loss of life because of people's decisions to stay"), and bucked up spirits ("There will be a few days of sorrow, but then New Jerseyans will say the hell with this, let's get back to work. #Sandy").

Twitter, it's fair to say, has revolutionized responses to natural disasters. During the summer's Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., Twitter users disseminated information, directed people to resources and news, and posted images. They generated more than 20,000 "crisis tweets" in the first 24 hours. Some moves by FEMA and the Red Cross (both of which monitor local Twitter traffic) were guided by tweeted reports.

Then there's sports. Tweets were so thick during the Olympics that they sometimes got in the way. Bystanders at the bike races tweeted so much, the BBC couldn't get its accounts through. Athletes were sent home over bad-taste tweets. Current U.S. soccer star Hope Solo snarled via Twitter at former star Brandi Chastain. During Usain Bolt's quest for a repeat in the men's 200-meter race (he won), a captivated world tweeted at a rate of 80,000 tweets per minute - a world record for a sporting event. But the Spice Girls' Olympic finale appearance crushed that, exciting more than 116,000 t.p.m., then an all-time Twitter record for anything.

Election Day capped an unprecedented political social-media war. Furious was the battle on Facebook, Instagram, and, especially, Twitter. Both parties tracked people's activities on Twitter and other social media to create vast "Big Data" networks of potential voters, to personalize the message from door to door.

Sean P. Goggins, assistant professor at the iSchool at Drexel University, says: "In this election, Twitter surpassed Facebook as a means of political communication. It's easier-access, and people can use it more easily to find information and follow discussions."

Goggins says Democrats were far more active on Twitter throughout, an index to the outcome. What? Can Twitter really tell you how an election is going? David Schurr, associate professor of management-information systems at the Fox School of Business at Temple University, says yes. "When you look back at Romney and Obama," he says, "swings in their social-media following were followed by similar movement in the polls. Social media is no longer in its own bubble - it can reflect real shifts in the sentiment of the overall electorate."

The day itself brought a bipartisan celebration of the vote, as hashtags such as #ivoted spurred people to the polling place. The election elicited more than 31 million tweets, a record for a U.S. political event. At the time, Schurr said it made voting "a viral, communal experience."

Thousands tweeted their experiences while in line, and #stayinline became an urgent hashtag, especially in late-breaking swing states such as Florida and Ohio. As results rolled in and tension rose, the Twitter rate surged to 327,452 tweets per minute, the highest for anything ever. (See Spice Girls, above.)

At the end of it all, a tweet went out from @BarackObama: "Four more years," with a now-famous photo of Michelle Obama embracing the reelected president. The picture rapidly became the most retweeted image in history.

We even saw the first-ever cross-border hostilities waged over Twitter. On Nov. 14, the Israel Defense Forces posted video of the killing of a Hamas official and announced the opening of an offensive. Hamas and its sympathizers responded, also via Twitter. At the time, Lawrence Husick, cochairman for the Center on the Study of Terrorism at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, called it "the first social-media war."

Near year's end, social media were again at work, with people asking for and sharing information and images from the mass shootings at Newtown, Conn., knitting those who knew with those who wanted to know.

The downside of social media was also on display, since misinformation, some of it malicious, clouded early reports. Fake Twitter accounts and Facebook pages pretended to be those of Adam Lanza, the gunman at Sandy Hook, or his brother, Ryan. "These things are crimes," said Connecticut State Police Lt. Paul Vance. "They will be investigated, statewide and federally."

What makes Twitter powerful - the creative ways people use it - also lays it open to question. "The challenge of citizen-generated data is that people trust it less than they do governmental sources," Goggins says. "And yet we know it has been and remains very useful.

"At any rate," he adds, "people are not going to stop using Twitter and finding new ways to use it."


Contact John Timpane

at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or

follow on Twitter @jtimpane.

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