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The Irony of Iran's ‘Twitter Revolution’

Categories: Iran, Activism

Iran Green Revolution

I had earlier written about the use of social technologies in the 2009 Iran presidential election campaign [1].

Now, Mir-Hossein Mousavi's supporters are disputing the overwhelming victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the elections (Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices [2]).

Various observers have called the protests ‘Facebook/ Twitter protests’, claiming that social media tools have been critical in organizing these protests (Clay Shirky on TED Blog [3], Lev Glossman in Time [4], Mark Ambinder at The Atlantic [5]). The #IranElection Twitter feed [6] has indeed been hyperactive all week (Ben Parr in Mashable [7]).

Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and Delicious have also been used to organize DDOS attacks against government and pro-Ahmedinejad websites, including Ahmadinejad.ir [8] (Noah Shachtman at Wired [9]). It seems that some US bloggers are also promoting these DDOS attacks (Nancy Scola at TechPresident [10]) and a DC based political firm is actually participating in them, in a misguided (and illegal) attempt at digital activism (Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy [11]).

Some Ahmadinejad supporters are also using blogs and Twitter to explain why they believe he legitimately won (Hamid Tehrani in Global Voices [12]).

In an attempt to quell the protests, the Iran government has blocked several social networking websites like Twitter [13], Facebook [14] and YouTube [15], apart from several international news websites (Richard Sambrook at BBC [16], Associated Press [17]).

On the other side, the US State Department has reportedly “asked Twitter to refrain from going down for periodic scheduled maintenance at this critical time” (Elise Labott at CNN [18], Nancy Scola at TechPresident [19]).

Twitter is being used in many ways in post-election Iran: for organizing protests, for sharing first hand reports from the ground, for focusing international attention on the protests and for changing the news agenda for international news organizations.

When the dust settles down on the Iran election crisis, we will see that Twitter was more useful as a media tool and not as an organizing tool. We will see that Twitter didn't really change much in Iran in terms of organizing the protests, but it did play an important role in engaging the international community in the protests and focusing media attention on the protests (see Evgeny Morozov at Foreign Policy [20], Daniel Terdiman at CNet [21] and Marshall Kirkpatrick at RWW [22] on #CNNFail [23]).

In fact, there are less than 10,000 Twitter users in Iran (Sysomos [24] via BusinessWeek [25]) and less than 100 of them seem to be active. Given these small numbers, it's quite amazing that their tweets have generated such a multiplier effect via retweets etc. (The number of Twitter users in Iran might be artificially high as of today because of a misguided campaign that asked people to change their Twitter location to Tehran to make it difficult for the Iran government to target dissidents.)

However, the on-ground organizing in Iran is probably happening via mobile phones and offline networks, the same networks that were previously used to mobilize Mousavi's supporters to go out and vote for him.

Calling the Iran protests a ‘Twitter Revolution’ is not only distracting but also dangerous because it reduces a legitimate broad-based grassroots movement to what's quickly becoming a cliche, after Moldova.

Mary Joyce at DigiActive.org [26] uses my 4Cs social media framework [27] to evaluate the campaign and says: “this campaign has achieved Content Creation and Collaboration on Collective Action, but will it be able to create a Community which will sustain long term action once the Iranian election is gone from the headlines?”

Evgeny Morozov [28] shares my skepticism about “the claims that Twitter has been instrumental in organizing the protests” and thinks that it mostly played a role “in publicizing the violence or the already planned protests and rallies.”

Nancy Scola at TechPresident [29] agrees that, “as we saw in Moldova, the idea of a “Twitter Revolution” isn't always borne out by the facts, at least to the extent that the uprising would have not taken place without the tool.”

Brand Stone and Noam Cohen at NYT [30] agree with me that “labeling such seemingly spontaneous anti-government demonstrations a “Twitter Revolution” has already become something of a cliché.

Kara Swisher at AllThingsD [31] is annoyed at the media hype for Twitter “because it is how the tools are used by people, more than the tools themselves, that should be the focus.”

Ethan Zuckerman [32] is amazed at “the extent to which reporters from really good newspapers are all asking the same questions.”

Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic [33] reminds the intelligence community that most reports on Twitter are noise, not signal intelligence.

Tom Watson at TechPresident [34] reminds us that there are limits to what technology can do, “especially when men and women are marching in streets patrolled by the troops of an absolutist religious dictatorship, facing soldiers’ guns in public and the noose behind the prison wall.”

Cross-posted at Gauravonomics, my blog on social media and social change [35].