Over the last two months, protests have been breaking out in Iran over the “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President. The dissenters comprise of supporters of the candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who are convinced that the election has been stolen from them. I have been following the protests avidly since mid-June, not only because it is happening in a country that neighbors my own, India (and has rich cultural and linguistic ties with it), but also because of how the protests were popularly relayed to the outside world: through the social networking site Twitter. The use of this new technology for organizing protests and relaying news has riveted MSM (mainstream) news sites and the blogosphere, and been much discussed in general public discourse. The Revolution, it was said, would be Twittered.
Andrew Sullivan called it “history rendered in the collective, scattered mind, [as]…it has never happened before,” broadcast to a mesmerized and cheering world, used to organize in ways that managed to surpass traditional (and now censored) modes of communication. Thousands were tweeting the Revolution, from within, and without. And Twitter was changed forever. Or has Twitter changed us?
Essentially, the idea was that given the clamp down on the Press, the protesting Iranians had to step in with citizen journalism: it had to be “One Person = One Broadcaster.” When it was rumored that the IP addresses of those posting incendiary information could be tracked, others outside of Iran stepped in to offer proxy servers. News and information were suddenly “democratized.” According to Jim Manzi, Twitter, which enabled “peer-to-peer communication” in an unprecedented manner, was the new “enemy of dictators,” permitting users to circumvent traditional communicative tools if they are clamped down, and also, very useful in organizing efforts.
Folks quickly noticed the critical role Twitter was playing in information dissemination in Iran. In the heat of the protests, Twitter announced plans for maintenance which would cause the site to be down temporarily during the day in Iran. Under pressure from the Twitterati and the White House, it rescheduled the scheduled maintenance. David Ogles thought the landscape of news dissemination iself had changed:
We have entered a wilder world of journalism, one with less control over primary sources and places a greater burden on readers to use their critical faculties instead. However, it is not by its nature a less truthful world. Our understanding and accuracy will only improve the more citizens participate, whether by creating, aggregating, or interpreting the aggregation of the instantaneous raw observations.
We, the people, would be called upon to become news aggregators, to interpret, verify, trust without really “knowing” the news source. As we became broadcasters, our responsibilities as news consumers also increased. [Tip: The article also talks about Charles Peirce, for you Semiotics-ophiles out there reading this.]
Not everyone was sold on the role that Twitter played in the early days of the protests. A Wired piece cautioned the West against having a “collective Twitter-gasm” about its role in relaying news. It criticized Time for saying that Twitter was “the medium of the movement,” calling it an “overstatement.” Kevin Drum also suggested being cautious about Twitter’s role. There was too much information, and it was difficult determining the veracity or credibility of sources. According to him, while the MSM just did not have enough information, with Twitter “the overwhelming surge of intensely local and intensely personal views made it far too easy to get caught up in events and see things happening that just weren’t there.” Marc Ambinder, in a similar vein, was skeptical about Twitter’s ability to offer organizational tools, saying that “we need good evidence (which will require Persian language expertise, obviously) of correlation between specific bursts of Twitter communication and forms of social protest etc before we can really be sure that there was an effect.” Technologies like Twitter, he went on to add, “tend to be less reliable and more easily disrupted than traditional forms of organizing,” though they might eventually come into their own in the future. Until then, he cautioned against relying on the “breathlessly enthusiastic reporting” that was coming to us in the form of Green Tweets. Jack Schafer also felt the same way. In an article in Slate, he said most of the tweets were “more noise than signal,” making it difficult to make sense of what was happening in Iran; he bemoaned the fact that his “cognitive colander” was not “big enough to strain out Iran information I can rely on.” A piece in Business Week also felt that there might be much ado about little:
…Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers’ ability to get people on the street. Indeed, most of the organizing has occurred through far more mundane means: SMS text messages and word of mouth. Sysomos, a Toronto-based Web analytics company that researches social media, says there are only about 8,600 Twitter users whose profiles indicate they are from Iran.
Regardless, it is patently clear that something momentous started happening in Iran in mid-June 2009, and that some of the “steam” came from Twitter. The instant micro-broadcasting of the Revolt catapulted Twitter to new heights, and opened it up to new scrunity. The last word has not been written on the topic, and probably can never be, but whatever Twitter’s merits or drawbacks, it’s got people talking. And in more than “140 words or less.”