An activist’s guide to live tweeting

Attendees live tweet from the 2012 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference

Attendees live tweet from the 2012 National Students for Justice in Palestine conference.

Sara Jawhari

With activists (and potential supporters) embracing Twitter in growing numbers, more individuals and organizations have begun leveraging this ubiquitous “microblogging” platform to draw attention to unfolding events as they happen.

I can state from personal experience the same thing that Twitter says based on studying vast amounts of data: “Live tweeting” consistently increases retweets, mentions, and new followers. In fact, I’ve observed it to be the single most effective tactic for rapidly attracting new followers.

Here’s how Twitter’s official live tweeting “best practices” page defines it:

Live-tweet (v.): to engage on Twitter for a continuous period of time — anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours — with a sequence of focused Tweets.

While the general public is mainly inclined to live tweet television programs (don’t get me started), the practice is increasingly being applied at conferences, debates, legal proceedings and all manner of other events at which potentially compelling tweet content is continually generated.

With the idea catching on across a multitude of sectors, articles offering specialized tips for the live tweeting have begun appearing for journalists, public relations firms, nonprofits, search engine optimization (SEO) experts, sports fans and even lawyers.

Rather than rehash a large amount of material that can easily be found elsewhere, I’ll quickly outline the core principles, then move on to some more specialized tips of particular utility to activists — many of which you probably won’t find anywhere else.

Live tweeting: The basics

Know what to share

Train yourself to run through a quick set of questions as you observe the event you’re tweeting: Is the information unique or important? Are you sure it isn’t obvious or redundant? Will it be interesting to anyone outside of the event? Can it enhance the experience of anyone at the event? What do you expect your followers (or those following the hashtag) to find appealing about it? Can you readily express it in a single tweet?

Speed is critical in live tweeting. By cutting down on superfluous content, you’ll be less likely to miss opportunities, and leave yourself with more time to convey the important things in the most compelling way possible.

Note: Be sure to think like an activist, not just like a journalist: Is this a public event, or is it intended specifically for activists? Do you really want to be sharing this content with the world? Does the risk of what the opposition might do with it outweigh the benefit of sharing it in this particular venue? If you’re not sure, don’t tweet it. Anything you tweet has the potential to be instantly indexed somewhere (and thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know that it will be), even if you delete it thirty seconds later.

Context is king

It’s tempting to act as a social stenographer, but that’s not what you’re there for. Verbatim quotes can be great, but don’t get so hung up on them that you end up providing isolated sound bytes that may be misinterpreted. If you can’t express it in a single tweet, don’t tweet it.

Some try to work around this by appending a “#pt” (previous tweet) hashtag to a followup tweet that adds context. This sounds great in theory, but the fact is that most of the users who see one of those tweets will never see the other.

Attribute everything

Anything you tweet that isn’t purely your own commentary should be properly attributed. If the person you’re quoting is on Twitter, use their @ handle. Try searching both Twitter itself and Google to identify them, and be certain you’re citing the correct user. If the person is not on Twitter, but is affiliated with an organization that does have an account, you many consider using something like “@pchrgaza’s Sourani,” bearing in mind that this may suggest that the person is actively speaking on behalf of the organization, and that this will also consume valuable extra characters.

This is one place where it’s okay to bend the “single tweet” rule, but only because affiliation is not absolutely essential to attribution. As such, your first tweet could be:

Attributing a tweet by mentioning an organization

While tweets containing actual quotes or paraphrasing could shorten the attribution:

Attributing a tweet without a @mention

Now, on to the less general stuff:

Be prepared

Tweeting requires an electronic device, whether it’s a phone, tablet, or laptop. Electronic devices require power, whether it’s an AC outlet or a battery. I usually come prepared with at least two devices, one of which is a netbook into which I can plug another device to charge via USB if I decide to most of my tweeting on the other device. Close all unnecessary applications on your devices and dim your displays to speed performance and increase battery life.

If you’re planning to tweet and want to play it safe, see if the event organizers will help ensure you can sit near a working outlet. They may also be willing to share a wifi access code being distributed on a need-to-know basis to reduce bandwidth consumption.

Also regarding connectivity: if you’ve got a mobile wifi hotspot of your own, all the better. If you have a smartphone and a good tethering app, you can use that to provide a data connection to your laptop (though this can drain the phone’s battery more quickly).

Using multiple accounts

In some situations, you may want to tweet from multiple accounts. If so, have a strategy in mind for what kind content you’ll tweet from each — dividing it up randomly is okay, but you’ll likely get better engagement by varying your focus or tone across the accounts. Have a different device (or a different browser or tab) dedicated to each account so you’ll be able to switch back and forth easily and reduce the chance you’ll get confused.

In Firefox, you can use a “Private Window” to run additional concurrent sessions in Twitter or HootSuite or whatever you’re using without the need to open a separate browser, which will consume memory and drain your battery more quickly. The equivalent in Chrome is an “Incognito Tab,” but Chrome, as a closed-source application developed by a company whose business model revolves around data collection, is a riskier choice for an activist.

Time is precious

Events can move fast … very fast. The first tweet to express an idea, even if it does so poorly, is often the only one that gets retweeted. Keep your tweets timely: populate as much of your “Compose” window as you can ahead of time. If you’re not sure what’s happening next, this may consist only of the hashtag:

Tweet with hashtag prepopulated

If you expect to be quoting a particular person, prepopulate the attribution as well:

Tweet with hashtag and mention prepopulated

Note that in both cases, I’ve included the extra spaces I’ll need once I populate the rest of the content, and positioned the cursor exactly where I’ll need it when I start typing. The fewer clicks or keystrokes required later, the better.

How to stand out from the crowd

Some events are much more heavily tweeted than others. Here are some ways to be heard through the noise and provide compelling content even while many other people are trying to do the exact same thing:

Make it visual

Go beyond text. Snap a photo, a perhaps even a short video (a Vine, for example) if there’s some visually-interesting action going on. Subjects may include speakers, crowd shots (the usual caveats about consent apply), presentation slides or anything else that’s better expressed in images than in words. If you’re particularly deft, or find some extra time during a break, you could even enhance your image with an app like PopAGraph to make it stand out even more.

Collaborate and listen

Did someone else already tweet the same basic thing you’d planned to share, except without attribution, context, or expressed in unclear language? It’s okay to try to improve on it, but don’t make a habit of this. Some of your fellow tweeters may interpret it as “poaching,” or even feel insulted that you seem to think you can do better. Be careful, don’t overdo it, and if it feels appropriate, offer a “hat tip” mention (“h/t”) to the original source.

If you can’t beat ‘em, annotate ‘em

At some events, there will be so many people tweeting, or some people doing such a good job of tweeting, that you may feel you have nothing more to contribute. Wrong. If other tweeters are churning out great quotes, try to provide additional value by linking to relevant resources online:

Annotation tweet

Annotation is one way to build on great content, but it’s not the only way: if you feel comfortable doing so, add some commentary. Provide some analysis. Offer a new metaphor. Make connections. Crack a joke. Have fun with it.

The man/woman/person who wasn’t there

Whoever said “You had to be there” got it wrong. Increasingly, you don’t have to be there. As more events are livestreamed, it’s becoming possible to do nearly all of this from your own living room, a cafe, a closed military zone or wherever you happen to find yourself at the time.

I’ve tweeted many events without actually being there: sometimes I rely on a livestream; other times I’m just expanding, commenting, or annotating. In many cases, friends following my tweets — even friends actually at the event — have been shocked to learn that I was nowhere near the place when I was tweeting.


It’s a not a word yet, but it should be.

Not only do you not have to be there, you don’t even have to be on their side.

One has only to look so far as the Twitter timelines of the last few hours (as of this writing) to find an example of “tagjacking,” one tactic used for hashtivism:

In this case, activists have been “tagjacking” a hashtag in use by Israel occupation profiteer SodaStream to surface their own messages to anyone following that hashtag.

Note the two different approaches in the above tweets:

The first, from the official Twitter account of @JVPBoston, is overt in its messaging. Should a Twitter user see this tweet, they’re unlikely to click the link unless they’re specifically interested in learning about the boycott that’s mentioned.

The second, from the personal account of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation’s @Anna_Baltzer, is much stealthier. Someone who would have otherwise ignored the tweet is more likely to click the link because they’re curious about what this video might be (in this case, it’s a link to — SURPRISE! — a video promoting the boycott). The preview image and title aren’t normally visible unless the tweet is expanded as it is above. If they were, it would ruin the effect.

Both of these approaches, especially the second, were heavily used — also against SodaStream — during the last Super Bowl.

All of the techniques described in the earlier sections of this guide can potentially be applied to someone else’s hashtag.

Here’s an example of “annotation” as former Hillel CEO Wayne Firestone addressed the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA):

Hashtivism also provides a fantastic opportunity to roll out parody accounts like these:

On Twitter, part of the message is always the messenger, and tweets may be interpreted very differently depending on whether they come from an organizational account, a low-profile personal account, or a satirical account specifically designed to resemble that of someone or something else.

Be mindful that users may complain to Twitter that you’re spamming their hashtag by tweeting “multiple unrelated updates” to it, which could theoretically result in a penalty (usually a very brief suspension) from Twitter. However, this is rare, and also depends upon the interpretation of “unrelated.” Keep it relevant in one way or another, and you’re probably in the clear.

Whose tweets? Our tweets!

Whether sharing the experience of an event for an activist audience or acting as a disruptive force among someone else’s audience, activists who engage in live tweeting have an arsenal of potential tools and techniques at their disposal. They can broadcast an event to Twitter users across the globe, enhance the experience of others actually present, contribute to a crowdsourced transcript that preserves the event for posterity, derail the marketing campaign of an unethical corporation or introduce audiences anywhere to challenging new ideas.

As I’m unable to attend the third national conference of Students for Justice in Palestine this weekend, I’m looking forward to seeing some of these principles put into practice as I follow along from afar.

Just don’t use what you’ve learned here to tweet American Idol, or I’ll have to block you.


Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.