Second guessing Twitter's effect on post-election Iran

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    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?
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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.

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:

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[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.

"My take on it at this point is that Twitter probably wasn't all that important in organizing the demonstration," Zuckerman said. "Where I think they were enormously important is helping people, particularly people in the Moldovan Diaspora, keep up with the events in real time." He pointed to the large Moldovan diaspora, and said that much of the Twittering had been recycled among Moldovans abroad.

"Roughly a quarter of all of the messages posted on Tuesday, the day of the actual demonstrations, were what we call re-tweets," Zuckerman said, adding that, "By Wednesday, a lot of what seems to be going on in the Twittering is a sort of self-congratulatory, hey, we just held a revolution over Twitter – isn't this exciting? Twitter will change the world."

Zuckerman then suggested that Twitter may have been incorporated by pro-government forces. "Fascinatingly," he said, "it looks like it is being used as a disinformation channel by forces who might have been aligned with the government, essentially trying to scare people away from demonstrating again."

In our pages

The Monitor has written extensively on the "Twitter Revolution," both on this blog and in our World section. On June 19, Yigal Schleifer wrote, "Twitter has emerged as the most powerful way to disseminate photos, organize protests, and describe street scenes in the aftermath of the contested June 12 election. Iranians' reliance on the social-networking tool has elevated it from a banal way to update one's friends in 140-character bursts to an agent for historic changes in the Islamic Republic."

And on June 17, I argued that the "terse, frenetic nature of the site that makes it so useful. Users can communicate information quickly and clearly, and with minimal effort. More important, they can reach a much wider audience than with a simple Facebook profile update." In that article, I pointed to a quote from social media guru Gaurav Mishra, who argued that the idea of a Twitter revolution was “suspect… The amount of people who use these tools in Iran is very small and could not support protests that size,” Mishra said.

For his part, Reilly writes that there is one easy way for us to figure out how Twitter impacted the events in Iran. "It's true that Twitter may have saved tens of thousands of lives in the days following the election," he acknowledges:

Then again, it may not have saved any at all. We simply don't know, since no journalist or historian or political scientist has yet had the luxury of talking with key figures from the opposition and figuring out how important Twitter was in terms of protecting dissenters. No one's been able to study — with the precision required to make the sort of declaratory statement everyone currently craves — exactly what role Twitter played in mobilizing and sustaining resistance to the regime.

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Is Twitter a revolutionary tool? Or is it still just a glorified distraction? Tell us here – or on Twitter.

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