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2010-05-05

Finding friends, tweeting in politically-charged countries

In politically-active countries, such as Turkey, social media has an especially significant place in society. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

In politically-active countries, such as Turkey, social media has an especially significant place in society. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

By Kathy Ibarra for Infosurhoy.com — 05/05/2010

WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – From political activists in Venezuela to protesters in Iran to everyday teens, it seems that people all over the world are using some form of social media.

It’s no coincidence that social media experiences particular popularity in politically-charged countries.

Few can forget the protests and the impact of Twitter following the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran last June. While the government tried to censor the media, Iranians were using Twitter to exchange news and information in real time. That’s why the protests are known not only as the “Green Revolution,” but also as the “Twitter Revolution.”

Today there are over 105 million registered users on Twitter, tweeting an average of 55 million tweets a day, according to data released by the official Twitter developer conference Chirp. Seventy percent of these tweets are coming from outside the United States, primarily from Japan, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and Indonesia, according to a recent study by Paris-based Semiocast.

The Southeast Asian country of Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest number of Facebook users, with 21 million, according to The New York Times. Although the country has a history of political corruption, its citizens are seeing social media as a tool to promote democracy and advance freedoms.

Facebook, with 400 million users around the world, serves as an outlet for freedom of expression in Turkey too, where the median age is 28 and government censorship of the Internet is not uncommon.

Gulay Ozkan, a Turkish Internet and mobile entrepreneur, explored the topic of social media in Turkey in a recent interview with Thomas Crampton, a researcher of social media in Asia.

“Social media has become a hot topic in Turkey, mainly because it gives us such freedom,” expressed Ozkan. “The Internet brings more freedom to people.”

Cansu Karayazi, 22, is a Turkish university student who has studied in the United States for the past four years. She has also seen the role of Facebook in Turkish society.

“Turkish people use Facebook to read and share news,” explained Karayazi. “I also see people posting a lot of caricatures and jokes with political content.”

Karayazi joined the social media site in 2006 and now uses Facebook more than email to maintain correspondence with family and friends back home.

Turkey is the country with the fourth largest number of Facebook users worldwide, and Facebook has definitely noticed, tailoring Turkey-specific Facebook applications to combine tradition with technology.

“I recently downloaded an application, fortune telling from Turkish coffee. I just like looking at the fortunes of my friends and posting on their walls,” described Karayazi. “I only wish they would make the English version of it.”

Friending in Latin America

Silvia Catalina Malaver, a 26-year-old entrepreneur and designer in Bogotá, Colombia, has used Facebook for about two and a half years. Beyond using Facebook to keep in touch with her family and friends, Malaver uses the social media site to find news on the upcoming elections in Colombia, scheduled for May 30.

“I read news items related to the elections that my friends post to their Facebook profiles. Each person has a sort of campaign for their favorite candidate,” says Malaver. “They use Facebook to post videos or quotes that I post to my profile if I like them too.”

As a young entrepreneur, Malaver sees Facebook as an important tool to publicize Chocolata, a brownie company she started seven months ago with two of her university friends.

“On the social networking site Facebook, we find a key space not only to make ourselves known, but also to maintain direct contact with our clients,” explains Malaver.

Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, and Brazil rank among the top twenty countries for number of Facebook users, according to the statistics portal Facebakers.

Beyond networking, social media enabled the world to help Chileans and Haitians during catastrophic times. The Chilean Red Cross actively used its Twitter feed (#CruzRojainfoma) immediately after the devastating magnitude 8.8 earthquake on Feb. 27, tweeting such messages as “share your Wi-Fi with residents for them to inform and communicate.”

Twitter has been exponentially gaining popularity in the region. Brazil ranks third among top countries on Twitter, according to Semiocast, accounting for 12% of messages worldwide. Only half of the messages on Twitter are in English, while 9% of tweets are in Portuguese and 4% are in Spanish.

Tweeting from Venezuela

Venezuelan politics now extend beyond Caracas, playing out in the Twittersphere and captivating the world’s attention. Government oppositionists, in particular students and other young Venezuelans, have embraced Twitter, informing one another about the next protest and the latest political news via tweets.

This past February, the Twitter page #freevenezuela was the fourth most commented topic on Twitter worldwide. With over 60,000 entries, #freevenezuela inspired the opposition to take to the streets, protesting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s attacks on freedom of the press.

Although Chávez has vehemently criticized Twitter in the past, he has also jumped on the bandwagon, posting his first tweet on April 27 to his page @chavezcandanga. Since his Twitter debut, he’s tweeted over half a dozen times.

Twitter use in Venezuela grew 1000% in 2009, positioning the country among those with some of the highest rates per capita of Twitter users in Latin America, according to Reuters.

“For the government it is relatively easy to neutralize a television or radio station,” said the creator of twitter-venezuela.com, Billy Vaisberg, to Reuters. “But Twitter has hundreds of thousands of people using a service that is not located in Venezuela.”

The Venezuelan government may try to lock up some of the opposition, but their voices are not silenced, thanks to Twitter.

Arrested this past December, Judge María Lourdes Afiuni is among the political activists tweeting from Venezuela.

“I do not ask for clemency, they will not make me get on my knees, do what they may,” tweeted Afiuni on April 20 to her more than 14,000 followers, a figure that increases by the hundreds daily.

Such political messages have converted the Venezuelan Twittersphere into a virtual battlefield, where the tweet is mightier than the sword.

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