How Twitter and other social media can draw the US into foreign interventions

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to resign by the end of the month. That announcement came after thousands of Algerians took to the streets in March to protest his decision to run for a fifth term.

Social media played a crucial role in those demonstrations, allowing protesters to coordinate the place and time of the mass gatherings.

We do not yet know whether President Bouteflika will keep his promise. Perhaps even more uncertain, will the international community hold him accountable if he does not?

The answer might depend on how active Algerians will be on Twitter. In at least one case, Twitter usage had a dramatic impact abroad during a country’s civil unrest.

My colleague Benjamin T. Jones and I found that during the 2011 Libyan civil war, social media helped convince other countries such the U.S. to intervene in favor of protesters.

Winning support one tweet at a time

The Libyan civil war exploded in February 2011. Libyan leader
Moammar Gadhafi had been in power since 1969, and those who opposed him wanted to implement reforms aimed at reducing government corruption and providing greater political transparency.

Protests began on Feb. 15 in Benghazi and spread to other cities. By Feb. 27, the opposition announced it had organized itself into the National Transitional Council, or the NTC. They claimed to be the true representative of the Libyan people.

A few days later, the NTC established a Twitter account to publicize their version of the conflict.

Up to the civil war, Gadhafi had meticulously controlled most of the communication coming out of Libya. He sought to project an image of the country as a place where political order prevailed and citizens supported him.

Twitter became a powerful instrument to air the rebels’ account of the conflict and present themselves to the international community as a viable – even preferable – alternative to Gadhafi.

Tweets and US policy changes

In our research, we collected data on all the tweets by Libyan rebels. We then used statistical techniques to measure how the rebels’ Twitter feed affected both U.S. behavior toward the Libyan government and relations with the rebels.

We found that messages that denounced Gadhafi’s atrocities against civilians were significantly correlated with the decision of the U.S. to adopt more cooperative behaviors with the rebels – for example, to praise their activities and to agree to meet with them.

Correlation, of course, does not mean causation.

However, even after we accounted for other factors, such as the behavior of the rebels toward Gadhafi and U.S. intelligence on the field, we found that the rebels’ tweets contributed to the U.S. becoming more cooperative with the rebels.

This happened despite the fact that President Barack Obama was reluctant to intervene at the outset of the conflict.