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The year on Twitter: How a tumultuous year played out on social media

US President-elect Donald Trump savours his victory on November 9, 2016.
US President-elect Donald Trump savours his victory on November 9, 2016. AFP

It’s been a tumultuous, tragic and historic year. But how did 2016 play out on social media? FRANCE 24’s Caroline Clarkson shares some of the most memorable moments from the Twittersphere.


Most people would agree 2016 has been a pretty awful year on the news front. It all began on the morning of Monday, January 11, when we learned that British music legend David Bowie had died after an undisclosed battle with cancer, just days after releasing a new album. His son, Duncan Jones, took to Twitter to confirm the shock news.

If you were a Bowie fan, against Brexit and opposed to the election of Donald Trump, 2016 was all downhill from there. And since bad things tend to happen in threes, by the end of the year, we had lost two other musical greats – Prince and Leonard Cohen.

The month of March brought the Brussels bombings, an horrific attack by the Islamic State (IS) group on the European Union capital and a further shock to a continent still reeling from the November 2015 atrocities in Paris. Even worse: it emerged that the same terror cell was behind both attacks and that the Brussels bombings were precipitated by the arrest of Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam in the Belgian capital a few days earlier.

In the wake of the Brussels bombings, a slogan began doing the rounds on social media. "Je suis sick of this sh*t", it read, echoing the "Je suis Charlie" et "Je suis en terrasse" hashtags that circulated after the terror attacks in France last year.

Sadly, terrorist attacks were to continue throughout the year, not just in Europe but on every continent. The map posted below shows that Iraq, partially occupied by the Islamic State group, was by far the country that suffered the most.

There was more bad news in June, when a British lawmaker was fatally shot and stabbed in northern England. Jo Cox, a pro-EU Labour MP, was viciously attacked by a far-right extremist. She died exactly a week before the UK’s “Brexit” referendum on leaving the EU. In a country already divided by a bitter campaign, Cox’s murder shocked the nation but ultimately failed to swing public opinion in favour of remaining in the bloc. Despite all this, her widower, Brendan, has shown incredible dignity ever since his wife’s murder. He tweeted the message below on the day her killer was sentenced to life in prison.

Just over a week after Jo Cox's murder, the world awoke to the shock news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. (Pollsters, who had predicted a win for “Remain”, were left with egg on their faces). “Leave” won the referendum by a 51.9% majority, or a margin of more than one million votes. Between the stock markets crashing, European far-right leaders welcoming the result and Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his resignation, it was one of the busiest - and most surreal - mornings ever in the newsroom at FRANCE 24. As the news sank in, British “Harry Potter” author J. K. Rowling perfectly summed up the feelings of all “Remain” supporters in a tweet.

Fast-forward to November, and there was more bad news for pollsters and progressives with the shock election of Donald Trump as US president. Realising that Hillary Clinton was on course to lose the Electoral College was another surreal, caffeine-fuelled moment in the newsroom. The only consolation? British voters were now able to feel slightly less alone in their rash decision-making at the ballot box.

Trump was elected after no doubt the most divisive election campaign in US history, which saw the emergence of a far-right conservative movement dubbed “alt-right”, whose members are highly active online. During the campaign, they targeted Jewish Twitter users by putting three sets of brackets around a Jewish person’s surname in a tweet. In doing so, they were “signalling” that person to other far-right followers, who then proceeded to send the person anti-Semitic abuse.

In response, Jewish Twitter users decided to completely re-appropriate the brackets by putting them around their own names. Some non-Jewish Twitter users also did so in a show of solidarity, thereby confusing the trolls. This episode may appear anecdotal but it seems symptomatic of the intolerance and hatred stirred up – intentionally or not – by Trump’s campaign.

As for best satirical Twitter account of the year, this one has to go to Darth Putin, a spoof account featuring a winking Vladimir Putin. Darth Putin’s tweets are all highly cynical (but ring true) and provide an amusing outlet for criticising the Russian leader. The tweet below, for example, was published amid the controversy over Donald Trump’s leaked comments about grabbing women “by the p*ssy”. But it also takes a swipe at Putin over the annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Talking of Putin, no discussion of 2016 would be complete without mentioning the war in Syria. This year saw the balance of power shift in favour of the Assad regime, thanks largely to Russia’s military support. The regime has now retaken virtually the whole of Aleppo after a brutal siege of the rebel-held east, which is drawing comparisons with Russia's destruction of Grozny. With Moscow repeatedly using its veto at the UN Security Council and with no Western appetite to intervene to stop the bloodshed, the regime and its allies were left with a free hand on the ground - and in the skies.

Amid the ongoing tragedy in Syria, one Twitter account captured users' imagination. It belongs to Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old Syrian girl from besieged east Aleppo. With the help of her mother, Fatemah, Bana has been tweeting in English about their daily life under the bombs, gaining over 300,000 followers since late September. The family’s house has already been bombed once, forcing them flee to another part of east Aleppo. Bana and her mother have regularly appealed for help to escape from what UN chief Ban Ki-moon has described as “a synonym for hell”. On Monday, we learned that Bana and her family had been safely evacuated from east Aleppo - a rare piece of good news in a depressing news cycle.

Staying with good news, Austrians voted to reject the far-right in a presidential election this year - not just once, but twice. Austria thus avoided becoming the first European country to have a far-right leader since - yes, you've guessed it - Hitler.

For Twitter’s own version of its key moments from 2016 – of which there are too many to fit in one blog post – click here.

So what can we expect from 2017, with an incoming US president who spends so much time on Twitter himself? Well, if this year is anything to go by, we should probably expect the unexpected. Or as David Bowie would say: “Turn and face the strange…”

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