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Second guessing Twitter's effect on post-election Iran

By Matthew Shaer / June 25, 2009

In this June 20 file photo, which was originally posted on the Internet, an Iranian woman carries rocks at an anti-government protest in Tehran, Iran. What role has Twitter played in post-election Iran?



In today's Boston Phoenix, media critic Adam Reilly offers a typically sober analysis of Twitter's role in post-election Iran. His take: the social network allowed outsiders a view into the turmoil on the streets of Tehran. Even more important, it allowed Americans to discuss, vet, filter, and label news that might otherwise have gone unread.

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But Reilly – like an assortment of like-minded media critics – is skeptical that anything conclusive can be said about Twitter's direct effect on the protests. First, Reilly argues that Twitter has played such a "vital newsgathering role" mostly because many veteran journalists were either constrained by the Iranian government or forced to leave Iran. In a situation less punishing – say the ongoing Mark Sanford debacle – Twitter probably wouldn't have as much clout. The reason: trained reporters would still be able to function in a traditional manner.

Reilly also cautions against reading into Twitter as a populist tool. After all, couldn't Twitter just as easily be co-opted by the forces of the state? "Even if Twitter's role in the Iranian protest movement proves to have been as robust as some contend," Reilly writes:

[T]hat won't mean that, as a technology, it's possessed of some sort of inherent, neo-Hegelian, collective-consciousness-manifesting benevolence. Just think, for example, how queasily handy Twitter would have been when the Hutus whipped up paranoid resentment of the Tutsis prior to the Rwandan genocide — or how similarly useful it could be for tech-savvy anti-Semites looking to organize a pogrom.

Parsing the meaning of another 'Twitter Revolution'

This last idea is not without precedent. Writing on The New Republic's blog, Jason Zengerle last week pointed to an On the Media interview with Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In the interview, Zuckerman discusses the "Twitter Revolution" in Moldova – several days of postelection protest purportedly spurred on by the Twittering classes – but spends more time questioning Twitter's ultimate efficacy.

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