Think Again

Think Again: Twitter

The groundbreaking microblogging service is great for sharing links and communicating with friends. It's not so good at spreading democracy and overthrowing dictatorships.

"Authoritarian regimes should fear Twitter"

Not at all. You can't fear what doesn't exist -- and Twitter barely exists, if it exists at all, in most authoritarian countries. Generally, either they have their own microblogging services or Internet access is too slow and expensive for Twitter to be broadly useful. Furthermore, anyone who does use Twitter probably speaks English, has international contacts, and travels more than the rest of the population -- in other words, they are already lost causes, as far as the regime is concerned.

Combined with other tools - e-mail, social networking, and blogs -- Twitter can certainly be helpful in spreading news about upcoming flashmobs and protests. The demonstrations following Moldova's disputed election earlier this year were a perfect example, where a dozen local Twitter maniacs used the service to spread news about their flashmob. Eventually, their campaign (which went beyond Twitter and included Facebook and LiveJournal as well) attracted thousands of people and spilled into loud protests. While the Moldovan "Twitterati" had very little impact on the events on the ground, they did a great job using Twitter's global, viral reach to keep the protests in the international news.

However, Twitter use in authoritarian countries comes with major drawbacks. Twitter creates an extensive online paper trail that can be easily used against dissidents. In fact, as Twitter use becomes more common, authoritarian governments are likely to exploit Twitter to gather open-source intelligence on the opposition -- not a difficult task for anyone with an Internet hook-up. So Twitter could help authorities identify dissent at very early stages, tracking not just individual activists, but entire activist networks. An online friend list could enable a serious crack-down.

"Twitter was the best source of news about the post-election protests in Iran."

It depends. Twitter was a great resource during the protests -- for people who knew how to use it. If you had spent the previous six months carefully studying the Iranian Twitterverse, you would already know who to trust and who to ignore. Unfortunately, 99.9 percent of the readers around the world who turned to Twitter during the uprising had absolutely no idea what they were looking at.

Most of them relied on particular "keywords" (like #iranelection) to read everything that was being posted about the events in Tehran. After a few days, the #iranelection and #moussavi channels contained so much noise that they became attractive destinations for spammers and marketers. (Many of these spammers are clearly run on some sort of auto-pilot, because #iranelection is still one of the most popular trending topics on Twitter, though very few users seem to still be talking about the election.)

To make things worse, supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began spreading misinformation.  Some of them were quickly ferreted out on sites like, but the damage was done.

Of course, not everyone was going into the Iranian Twitterworld blind. The best way to read the Iranian tweeters was probably second-hand on the sites of established bloggers like The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan and The Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, both of whom did admirable work curating the valuable posts and vetting out the junk. Still, the Iranian protests pointed out some of the dangers of relying on Twitter for breaking news from abroad.

"Twitter is a great organizing tool."

Perhaps. If your objective is to get 500 people to do the Thriller dance in Grand Central Station, Twitter, with its penchant for all things viral, is your best friend. The NYPD (which also Twitters, by the way) might even decide to let you get away with it.  But if you're trying to overthrow a tyrannical government somewhere in the Middle East, you may want to think twice. Members of the local Mukhabarat (secret police) may trail behind the NYPD in their tech-enthusiasm, but chances are they are also reading your feed. You'd be much better off organizing your revolution with more secure tools -- like encrypted e-mail or even instant messaging -- and turning to Twitter only to publicize the protests that are already underway. 

The events in Moldova fell somewhere in between: a flashmob that, rather unexpectedly, grew into a mini-revolution. The events in Iran were part of an organized campaign by the Moussavi camp and, as such, were probably carefully planned offline by a handful of Moussavi's top aides who spread the word using tools they learned as young revolutionaries in 1979. Leaflets, posters, and even fax machines can still be very effective organizing tools, precisely because they are not dependent on the Internet -- which, as Iranians found out during the protests, can suffer from unbearable slowness or equally unbearable censorship. Twitter was instrumental as a publicity tool, but played little role in instigating or coordinating the protests.

"Twitter is replacing blogging."

Not quite. Twitter is surely taking over many of the niches previously reserved for blogging: simple link-sharing, for one. It also seems much better positioned to allow discussions of breaking news -- checking multiple blogs takes an eternity compared with Twitter's instant flow of information. But blogs still have a good chance of survival.  One-hundred-forty characters is not very much; blogs could become a space for longer, more analytical writing, an ironic fate for a medium once mocked for its own brevity and shallowness.

The mainstream news media also continues to be suspicious of Twitter. It took about five years to convince most newspapers and magazines that blogging was an acceptable medium for reporting news, and many are still catching up. Twitter may take less time to sink in, but don't expect it to happen overnight.

The situation in the developing world is different, particularly in countries where blogging hasn't yet fully taken off or where zany platforms predominate that define what "blogging" is and how it's done. Russians love LiveJournal, Brazilians love Orkut, and the Chinese love QQ; for them, these sites offer a platform not only for blogging, but also for social networking, instant messaging, and other online distractions. Thus, even if they do find Twitter very appealing, their primary digital life happens on other platforms. 

On the other hand, the proliferation of the mobile Internet in Africa might cause millions of new Web users to skip the blogging stage altogether and jump straight to Twitter: After all, it's hard to write an 800-word essay on a cellphone keypad.

"Twitter doesn't have a business model and might go under soon."

Don't worry. First, Twitter is very addictive -- and people are usually eager to pay to keep their addictions going. Second, it's a great intelligence-gathering tool for news organizations, marketers, and even the CIA. As with very good network, its value will rise as more members join. There's still a need for better tools to make sense of all the data generated on Twitter -- but this is not an insurmountable task. Someone will eventually figure out how to unlock Twitter's data reservoirs for the wider public (that is, the wider paying public).

Third, it still makes a very appealing acquisition target for Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft. The problem is that none of them know how to keep its entrepreneurial spirit alive. (Google already has a dismal record of killing similar companies by buying them. Just look at Twitter's early, ill-fated competitor, Jaiku -- or, actually, don't look.) But this problem isn't impossible to solve either.

Finally, the more we talk about "Twitter revolutions," the more American diplomats and policymakers fall in love with the tool. "Twitter diplomacy" might soon replace the expensive efforts of the struggling Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). So what that they would only get 140 characters to express the American position on a given subject? Stripping these messages of the legalese would only add to their appeal, while helping to tap into the otherwise ADD-ed minds of the "digital natives" who might never have heard the radio broadcast of BBG's Voice of America because they don't know what radio is. And given how much U.S. government money has spent to bolster the BBG, even buying Twitter outright would look like a rounding mistake.

"Twitter is brimming with spammers, impostors, and just plain crazy people."

Sure.  But that's also true of the Internet as a whole, and it doesn't stop us from using it. Compared to e-mail, Twitter spam doesn't really look that menacing, and its administrators are beginning to crack down on those who abuse the system to push sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll on unsuspecting tweeters.

Impostors are indeed in vast supply. For instance, I suspect that the funny "Slavoj Zizek" that I am following on Twitter is not really the radical Slovenian philosopher. But this endless guesswork only makes it more fun. Twitter is a very curious universe in which even impostors add value, as long as they share cool and interesting links. (Would the real Zizek have turned me on to the marvelous site "White People Who Study Hegel?") The proliferation of impostors might even present Twitter with an actual business model, something it lacks at the moment: charging celebrities for authenticating their accounts and displaying a proud "I've been authenticated" badge. Successful companies have been built on less.

"Twitter conversations are shallow and serious people should avoid it."

Who cares? Obviously, Twitter is not the letters section of the New York Review of Books. Those looking for deep, long, insightful conversations shouldn't bother. But what attracts so many smart people to Twitter is a chance to follow what other smart people are reading and browsing -- and to do so in real time. What "Twitter virgins" do not understand is that Twitter actually facilitates the discovery of all those long and uber-insightful conversations that are happening elsewhere. As a discovery tool that works for everyone, it beats everything else out there, from syndication services like Delicious and RSS to aggregator blogs like Kottke and BoingBoing.

In the Twitter universe, you are what you follow -- so if you find Twitter boring, you're probably following the wrong people. Figuring out how to sift through all the noise and actually get hold of signal can be a challenging task, of course, requiring time and a fair amount of tinkering. But ultimately it pays off. A carefully maintained Twitter feed can deliver you information that is far more diverse and interesting than it was in the pre-Twitter days. One-hundred-forty characters are more than enough to describe a link or express one idea. 

So far, Twitter's influence on global politics is still very marginal; while it helps to draw public attention to otherwise overlooked problems and places, this will stop as soon as the media discovers yet another digital darling. But despite what you may hear from the overly conservative naysayers, Twitter's cultural impact is far greater. We may currently be at the very dawn of the era of Twitter Renaissance. Avoid it at your own peril.

Think Again

Think Again: Africa's Crisis

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heads to Africa, the continent is in far better shape than most experts think.

"Conditions in Africa Are Medieval."

Not in the slightest. It's true that some countries in the region are as poor as England under William the Conqueror, but that doesn't mean Africa's on the verge of doomsday. How many serfs had a cellphone? More than 63 million Nigerians do. Millions travel on buses and trucks across the continent each year, even if the average African road is still fairly bumpy. The list of modern technologies now ubiquitous in the region also includes cement, corrugated iron, steel wire, piping, plastic sheeting and containers, synthetic and cheap cotton clothing, rubber-soled shoes, bicycles, butane, paraffin candles, pens, paper, books, radios, televisions, vaccines, antibiotics, and bed nets.

The spread of these technologies has helped expand economies, improve quality of life, and extend health. About 10 percent of infants die in their first year of life in Africa -- still shockingly high, but considerably lower than the European average less than 100 years ago, let alone 800 years past. And about two thirds of Africans are literate -- a level achieved in Spain only in the 1920s.

"Africa Is Stuck in a Malthusian Trap."

Hardly. Malthus's world was one of stagnant economies where population growth was cut short by declining health, famine, or war. Thanks to the spread of technologies and new ideas, African economies are expanding fast and population growth has been accompanied by better health.

The continent of Africa has seen output expand 6½ times between 1950 and 2001. Of course, the population has grown nearly fourfold, so GDP per capita has only increased 67 percent. But that's hardly stagnation. Indeed, only one country in the region (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) has seen GDP growth rates average below 0.5 percent up to this year -- the run-of-the-mill growth rate when Malthus was writing in early 19th-century Britain. And though there have been all too many humanitarian disasters in the region, the great majority of Africa's population has been unaffected. The percentage of Africans south of the Sahara who died in wars each year over the last third of the 20th century was about a hundredth of a percent. The average percentage affected by famine over the last 15 years was less than three tenths of a percent. Africa has seen child mortality fall from 26.5 to 15 percent since 1960 and life expectancy increase by 10 years.

"Good Health and Education Are Too Expensive for African Countries."

Only sometimes. Some widespread health conditions in the region -- notably HIV/AIDS -- are still expensive to treat. But the most effective interventions for promoting health in Africa are remarkably cheap. Breast-feeding, hand-washing, sugar-salt solutions, vaccines, antibiotics, and bed nets together save millions -- and could save millions more -- and none need cost more than $5 a pop. Rollout of a vaccination program, for example, has slashed annual measles deaths in the region from 396,000 to 36,000 in just six years. And though Chad isn't going to see universal college enrollment anytime soon, some very poor countries have already achieved near-universal primary education based in large part on free schooling. In Nigeria, an estimated 76 percent of children expected to be completing primary school, based on their age, did so in 2005.

That even the poorest countries can afford to provide a basic level of health services and education to all of their citizens is one reason why many African countries that are as poor today as ever have still seen considerable progress in health and education. Take Niger, a landlocked country largely made up of desert. With a per capita gross national income of $170, it was desperately poor in 1962. And it is not much richer today -- income per head is just $280. Yet life expectancy has increased from 40 to 57 years over that time, and literacy rates have more than tripled.

"Adding More Schools and Clinics Is the Key to Education and Healthcare."

If only. Building schools and increasing access to medical help is a vital first step -- and the thousands of new primary schools and the rollout of primary-care programs are real regional success stories that have played a big role in improving quality of life. But access is only the first step. For a start, the quality of provision is often atrociously low. A recent survey of primary-school math teachers from seven countries in southern Africa found them scoring lower on math tests than their students. Also, there are social forces that play a huge role in determining outcomes. Deon Filmer of the World Bank looked at school location and enrollment data across 21 countries and estimated that if every rural household was next door to a school, it would increase attendance just 3 percent. The bigger factor is attitudes: Some survey respondents in Burkina Faso, for example, suggested that sending girls to school was the surest way for them to end up as prostitutes.

As for healthcare, survey data from across 45 developing countries suggests that if parents were a little better educated and knew more about treatments, this alone might reduce child mortality by about a third, according to analysis by Peter Boone and Zhaoguo Zhan. That suggests the importance of education and social marketing to health outcomes. In Bangladesh, for example, NGOs have encouraged the construction and use of latrines in rural areas by spreading the message that defecating in fields ends, in effect, with people eating their own feces. This approach has had more widespread success than traditional programs which just subsidized latrine construction.

"TV Is the New Opiate of the Masses."

That depends on what people are watching. More than a billion people worldwide have seen Baywatch, and you have to wonder whether that time could have been better spent. Still, the importance of knowledge and attitudes to development outcomes suggests a big role for communications technologies. And studies from around the world suggest TV watching in poor households can have a big impact. In Brazil, women watching soap operas on the Rede Globo network have fewer kids possibly as a result. In India, the majority of households in the state of Tamil Nadu have cable access -- and according to Emily Oster and Robert Jensen of the National Bureau of Economic Research, that access is associated with greater gender equality in the household, greater female schooling, and (once again) lower fertility. In Africa, TV campaigns have increased AIDS awareness in a number of countries. And it isn't just television that can change attitudes -- there have been considerable successes using community education programs to increase immunization, improve hygiene, raise land-mine awareness, and promote breast-feeding.

"Development Means Economic Growth."

It's more than that. The argument that sub-Saharan Africa is in a crisis of development is usually buttressed by grim statistics on the region's economic performance. Average per capita growth rates over the past 45 years have only just surpassed half a percentage point. About half of the people in the region still live on less than a dollar a day. They need more economic growth. But this is a limited perspective on what actually contributes to quality of life. If basic education and health services are affordable even in the poorest countries, and if there's a big role for knowledge and ideas in creating demand for these services, this suggests that income growth alone is unlikely to be a panacea.

And that's what the cross-country evidence points to as well. Economic growth is a comparatively minor factor in determining improvement in health and education as well as a whole range of other elements of the quality of life. Economist Bill Easterly's study of "life during growth" around the world found that changes in per capita income were the driving force behind improvements for perhaps three of 69 measures of broad-based development -- calorie and protein intake and fixed phones per person. But for the other 66 measures -- covering health, education, political stability, and the quality of government, infrastructure, and the environment -- income growth was not the driving force in change. There's much more to life than money, and people concerned with development need to think more broadly if they are to help sustain Africa's progress.

The United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which set global targets for progress in areas including health, education, and the environment alongside income, are a welcome step in this direction. Some of the targets are too ambitious for a number of countries south of the Sahara to reach by the 2015 deadline, even with continued dramatic progress. But at least they help broaden the focus of the development community beyond GDP per capita.

"Aid Doesn't Work."

Sometimes. Sure, a lot of aid to Africa is wasted, and some goes to support silly ideas or countries that can't use it well. But aid has also supported some programs that have made a real difference in quality of life -- things like supporting the measles vaccination program, helping to eradicate smallpox, fighting river blindness, funding educational radio programs, building sewage networks, and providing scholarships so that poor children can afford to stay in school. Even the conclusion of the vast literature regarding aid's impact on economic growth is more positive than you might think. Researchers Hristos Doucouliagos and Martin Paldam recently conducted a "metastudy" of aid effectiveness that aggregates results from 543 estimates made in 68 papers. The exercise suggested a small positive impact of aid on per capita growth rates -- though the result is a statistically weak one. And with a greater understanding of what drives development in Africa and beyond, aid could play an even bigger role.

Too many people in Africa suffer under dictatorial regimes; too many parents see their children die of diseases that can be treated for cents; too many children leave school uneducated or never make it to class in the first place. Nonetheless, there is a lot of good news about Africa -- not least evidence of considerable improvements in average quality of life across the region and of a positive role played by both governments and donors in that process. Understanding that progress and its causes is an important step in ensuring it continues, so that ever fewer parents suffer the loss of a child, ever more children are educated, and an ever larger proportion of Africans can live life in peace.

Correction: The article originally stated, "In Nigeria, an estimated 72 percent of children who start primary school successfully complete it through the last year." In fact, 76 percent of children who were expected to be completing primary school in 2005, based on their age, did so. Foreign Policy regrets the error.