America’s Iranian Twitter Revolution

Posted on June 17, 2009 by


Which Revolution?

If the headlines had spoken of a “Twitter revolution in Canada,” a North American society with very widespread broadband Internet access, and almost complete Internet penetration, and one of the highest rates of personal computer ownership, one would have still needed to be very skeptical: 74% of Canadians surveyed have never even heard of Twitter, and only 1.45% of Canadians actually use Twitter, most of those being young, professionals, or in universities — as an active Canadian Twitter user, I am part of a minuscule minority (“74% of Canadians unaware of Twitter: online survey,” CBC News, 11 June 2009). The only Twitter revolution there could be in such a context then, is for anyone beyond that minority to actually use it — let alone challenge or transform an entire political system based on its use. That is not just true of Canada either: according to a study done by the Harvard Business School, only 10% of Twitter users generate more than 90% of Twitter content (“10% of Twitter users generate over 90% of content, study finds,” CBC News, 5 June 2009). A real Twitter revolution would be one that transcends the hype and Twitter self-promotion and sees most users generating the content.

While some, like Clay Shirky, will proclaim regarding this so-called “Twitter revolution in Iran,” that “this is it, this is the big one” (thanks to Anthropology.net) the “it” and the “one” are what are most in doubt. Yet it is doubt that is most absent from the analyses that have been hastily proffered — and when skepticism is absent from analysis, what are we left with? Hype, promotional propaganda, wishful thinking — a rush to the headline-grabbing punchline. Shirky thinks the whole world is watching, and he may be right, but he is wrong about Twitter and other social media.

This is indeed a “revolution”…but it’s for Twitter, this entity whose very existence resembles the classic story of the start up from the last dot com bust of the late 1990s, a “Bubble 2.0″ firm operating in a recession no less, without ever producing a business plan, and yet getting $20 million here and $30 million there in financing (see this, this, this, and that). Twitter may be as irrelevant to Iran as it is good for the promotion of Twitter itself, and for the self-flattery of some ardent Twitter users who believe that their tweets and their green-tinted avatars will change the world, or at least Iran. The revolution will not only be tweeted, it will be fast and easy, and it will be led by Americans themselves, “for Iran”.

As part of my preparation for this article, I not only actively followed and participated in three of the Iranian election streams on Twitter, from 13 June (the day after Iran’s elections) to this morning, 17 June, I also collected a sample of 1,280 tweets, and skimmed all of the tweets about the Iranian election starting from 13 June. Among the statements praising Twitter, and the ways of using Twitter to “show support for the Iranian people”, I have collected these as representative examples:

  • RT Huffington Post: “Iran’s Revolution Will Be Twittered (and Blogged and YouTubed and…)”
  • The revolution will be tweeted
  • WOW, Twitter is awesome!!!
  • Yep Twitter Owns! #cnnfail #iranelection
  • astounding what twitter has done with #iranelection
  • thinks Twitter’s role in the #IranElection could be historical
  • thankyou twitter
  • We’re getting more news from social media than from traditional media. Social intelligence progress!
  • facinating [sic] how twitter brings real time accounts of events
  • It is pretty easy being green. Turn Your Twitter Avatar Green To Show Solidarity with People of Iran
  • My Twitter photo has gone GREEN in support of the freedom revolution of #IranElection

None of the Twitter users who made those statements are among even the allegedly Iranian Twitter users, and all except for one locate themselves in the U.S., the other in Canada.

Whose Revolution?

Yet, some would have us believe that there is a “Twitter revolution” going on in Iran, when there is no such thing. Not only that, what is being boasted about the power of Twitter is almost entirely false. What there is instead is a rush to the finish line, a predetermined conclusion to immediately thank and praise Twitter in the context of Iran’s street protests.

How representative are Iran’s Twitter revolutionaries? In actual fact, the only allegedly Iranian Twitter users who have been identified by other Twitter users as tweeting about the Iranian protests, are fewer than 45 (see one list here), most of whose locations cannot be confirmed and almost all of whom post only in English. Yet, one can get as many as 2,500 updates in a single minute, on one stream alone (#iranelection), and most of that repetitive and uninformative material is not being posted by anyone except for a huge mass of American Twitter users. In total, only a third of Iranians even have Internet access (we saw in the Canadian case that Internet access does not translate into Twitter use) and, very interestingly, the youth who are most associated with the protests and with Twitter use, consist of 18-to-24-year-olds who in fact comprise “the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups” (poll).

The Associated Press has produced a similar analysis, noting that in Iran, “Internet usage is mostly still a phenomenon of the affluent, the youth and city-dwellers — meaning Twitter and other networks are used mostly by the young and liberal — and may overemphasize their numbers while ignoring more-conservative political sentiments among the non-connected.” Those interviewed by AP say that the Twitter hype is creating an illusion that Tehran is witnessing another revolution, or that Twitter even matters for Iranians. (See Tweeting Iran: Elex news in 140 characters or less,” by Rebecca Santana, Associated Press, 15 June 2009.)

So in this Twitter revolution, Twitter is not representative of Internet users, Internet use is not representative of a wider population, the youth are not representative of the youth, and the Iranians may not even be Iranian. Fantastic indeed, this power of “social media”.

What Are the “Revolutionaries” Saying?

“Where is my vote?” I am not sure where the votes of the disgruntled losers of the Iranian election are, but I doubt that they are in Twitter. Perhaps this view is mistaken, perhaps the way they recast their ballot is through Twitter, and one would think that the pretty young females with makeup and jewelry cast their real ballots when they held up signs in Tehran, in English, for foreign news photographers.

What is even less clear is whether they are saying anything much in Twitter. Some journalists think they see a “new stage in the evolution of social media,” in the form of the “use of Twitter in Iran” (largely mistaking Twitter for Iran with in Iran), and even claim that “information is flooding out of the country — on Twitter” (see Tweets from Tehran: The use of Twitter in Iran is a new stage in the evolution of social media,” by Ashley Terry, Global NewsJune 15, 2009). The question we should ask ourselves is: what information and what is the nature of this “flood”?

Personally, I have seen very little in the way of actual events being reported, and when they are, they are retweeted (repeated) hundreds of times over for almost an entire day. There is enormous volume, and little content. Hanson Hosein, director of digital media at the University of Washington, wrote “I’m having a hard time filtering through #iranelection, beyond the re-tweets and second-hand information passed around by Twitterers outside the country….We can’t take [tweets] at face value. It can be quite dangerous. We should be doing as much fact-checking as possible” (source). Michael Crowley also wrote, “One thing that really bothers me about these twitters and first-hand accounts posted on blogs is that there’s no way to verify them; I’ve seen several that either seemed suspect or turned out to be false” (source). Similarly, another blogger observed that, “If you, as an average news consumer, relied on Twitter you might believe all sorts of things had happened, which simply hadn’t, running a high risk of being seriously misled about events on the ground. You might at best, have simply been confused. You probably wouldn’t have thought Ahmadinejad enjoys much popular support at all” (source).

One of the most common retweets I read, over a two-day period, was this one, sometimes with minor modifications:

RT From Iran: CONFIRMED!! Army moving into Tehran against protesters! PLZ RT! URGENT!”

In fact, there was no army “move against” the protesters, not at the time, not before it, not even right after it. Some of the tweets seemed designed to deliberately spread misinformation, such as:

military is rumoured to refusing orders to shoot

and

2 million in the streets

and

@VOA claims 5000 Lebanese Hezbollah Milita h/b brought down to Iran to help control the situation #iranelection [that particular Twitter account, remains entirely blank in actual fact]

and

students being thrown from university building by police

and

IRAN: CONFIRMING 10~15 dead at dorms last night! Floors are covered w/ blood!!! (http://twitter.com/sissyto4 location: USA)

and

I have heard here that there may be a national strike in Iran on Tuesday. (said a New York twitter user)

Not only does Twitter allow Americans to engage in participant voyeurism, it allows them to create the “news” about Iran for Iranians themselves, and apparently making it up as they go along. Indeed, anyone can be an Iranian in Twitter, and in fact all are being encouraged to “become” Iranian as in this other vastly over-repeated tweet:

RT help protect Iranian tweeters by changing your timezone to GMT+3:30 and location to Tehran

In addition, having urged all to do as above, there is a further effort to mask the identity of alleged Iranian Twitter users:

When re-tweeting sources from Iran please delete handler name. Type RT SOURCE from Iran #iranelection #gr88 VERY IMPORTANT!!!! Pls RT

The problem as we see is that when everybody is in Iran, nobody is in Iran.

Social Media Are Better Than…?

The last point raises the issue of how are we to value the “information” provided by this “Twitter revolt”. The first problem is to get over short attention spans — this is not the first “Twitter revolt” as some in Twitter suggest. The latest, previous revolt was in Moldova, and I personally followed very closely the Greek riots through Twitter and many other media. Indeed, the #griots stream is still active, and when it was especially active in December of 2008, it featured countless links to independent media, loaded with photographs and videos, and many if not most of the tweets were in Greek — it was a Greek event, generated for Greeks and to be consumed by Greeks. Thus previously I have not had the reason for criticizing Twitter as I do now.

There is virtually no accountability or transparency evident in this now almost mythical “Iranian Twitter Revolution,” as we do not know who is where and why they are saying what they do. It is not as easy to get away with truth-creation in the mainstream media, especially when reporting from conflict zones: as has happened many times in the past, untruthful reporters claiming to be filing stories from the war zone have been unmasked by others as being nowhere in sight, or, if there, as never leaving their hotels. We cannot do that with Twitter. One Twitter user pleaded, “don’t retweet anything until it’s confirmed, spreading rumors will do more harm than good #iranelection” — but then, how is it confirmed? Propaganda journalism often gets unmasked; in Twitter, propaganda gets retweeted and thus remasked.

Not only is Twitter “reporting” not more credible than the mainstream media, it is also vastly less informative. On a simple quantitative scale: add up everything that is actually reported as “news” in #iranelection, whether true or not, confirmed or not, and compare it side by side with any one article from the major wire services. I would venture that half of any one article for the day contains more information than all of the day’s tweets combined. As if to confirm the relationship, many of the tweets themselves link to mainstream media sources.

As for “social media” providing egalitarian access and voice for everyone, what is most immediately apparent from #iranelection in Twitter is the drive to silence some voices: “all users IGNORE all post except from reliable sources,” said one. How do you know a source is “reliable” in Twitter? “I’m really following this closely. Fascinating watching the protests unfold” — but you are not actually watching the protests. You are entertaining an illusion in your mind that is generated by the tweets.

A Revolution in the American Fantasy

It may be wrong to single out Americans here, since there is every likelihood, given the current geopolitical context, that Israeli Twitter users (among the heaviest Twitter users one can find) have a vested interest in manipulating the discussion to serve the ends of the Israeli state, as do many Americans. One thing to do is to try to foment a division between Iran and Hezbollah, thus one posted: “large number of armed forces are lebanese/arab hired to beat down the brave iranians” — completely without substance. Another Twitter user I spoke to chose to quote the Talmud to the Iranian protesters. Interestingly, the Jerusalem Post was immediately “aware” of three “Iranian” bloggers (who post only in English), almost as soon as they joined, claiming without support that their Twitter feeds were from Iran (see here and here).

That the U.S. government has an active interest in the unfolding of the “Twitter revolution” for Iran, is an established fact. The U.S. State Department intervened to ask Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance break so as to not interrupt tweets about Iran — “Ian Kelly, a state department spokesman, told reporters at a briefing that he had recognized over the weekend the importance of social media ‘as a vital tool for citizens’ empowerment and as a way for people to get their messages out’. He said: ‘It was very clear to me that these kinds of social media played a very important role in democracy – spreading the word about what was going on’” (see US urges Twitter to delay service break,” by Chris Nuttall and Daniel Dombey, Financial Times, 17 June 2009, and U.S. State Department speaks to Twitter over Iran,” Reuters, 16 June 2009). What the U.S. State Department is also doing, of course, is reinforcing the unproven claim that this is important to Iran, while careful not to specify whose citizens are being empowered, whose word is being spread, and “out” from where. At the same time, the Obama regime claims that it is not meddling in Iranian affaris.

As if to close the feedback loop, some Twitter users directed messages at Obama’s own Twitter account, urging him to wear a green tie “in solidarity with the Iranian people”. It is interesting solidarity, given that no one has been able to show that Ahmadinejad actually lost the election, given that the entire premise for the protest is that if he won, then it must be a fraud. Not exactly top-notch analysis. (See instead, Ahmadinejad won. Get over it,” by Lynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, Politico, 15 June 2009.)

To further close the loop between “independent” Twitter users and the American state and its foreign policy aims, instructions have been provided on how to conduct “cyberwar” against Iranian websites (source). Others try to forge an ideological link between the Iranian protesters and Twitter’s American Republicans: some American Twitter conservatives inserted their #tcot tag when addressing #iranelection. Others proclaim the following:

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.-Thomas Jefferson #iranelection

Yes we care about people outside America. It’s just sometimes hard to show when the leaders of other countries keep us apart.

Yet none of these people cared about democracy when another of Egypt’s fraudulent elections took place, seeing the arrest and torture and sometimes the murder of opposition activists. In that case, a dictator favourable to American and Israeli interests is being propped up, and “we” dutifully remain indifferent. The same indifference is likely to be shown for the upcoming Afghan elections, when perhaps once again multiple voting will occur.

Glenn Greenwald put the situation best, and with far more discernment and perspicacity than any cheerleading Shirky, when he writes in The ‘Bomb Iran’ contingent’s newfound concern for The Iranian People” (Salon, 16 June 2009:

Much of the same faction now claiming such concern for the welfare of The Iranian People are the same people who have long been advocating a military attack on Iran and the dropping of large numbers of bombs on their country — actions which would result in the slaughter of many of those very same Iranian People.  During the presidential campaign, John McCain infamously sang about Bomb, Bomb, Bomb-ing Iran.  The Wall St. Journal published a war screed from Commentary‘s Norman Podhoretz entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran,” and following that, Podhoretz said in an interview that he “hopes and prays” that the U.S. “bombs the Iranians.”  John Bolton and Joe Lieberman advocated the same bombing campaign, while Bill Kristol — with typical prescience — hopefully suggested that Bush might bomb Iran if Obama were elected.  Rudy Giuliani actually said he would be open to a first-strike nuclear attack on Iran in order to stop their nuclear program.


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