Friday, June 19, 2009

The Revolution Will NOT Be Twittered (Updated)

I've already posted about the accuracy of Twitter in the context of Iran. This seems to be a topic that is not going away and is being further examined.

For example, despite the enormous popularity of Twitter, Slate finds that Doubting Twitter is still a good idea:

One of the sharper Twitter critics I've read this week is Evgeny Morozov, who, writing in Slate's sister site yesterday, posed the heretical notion that tracking or blocking the tweets and blog postings by in-country Iranian protesters just might not be the regime's top priority. "When you've got real riots in the street, Twitter-riots do not look that threatening," he writes. Morozov also doubts that Twitter has been instrumental in organizing protests as opposed to publicizing them.

In Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet, Business Week shares that thought, noting what is being used instead:

However, 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.

"I think the idea of a Twitter revolution is very suspect," says Gaurav Mishra, co-founder of 20:20 WebTech, a company that analyzes the effects of social media. "The amount of people who use these tools in Iran is very small and could not support protests that size." [emphasis added]

The key importance of Twitter, then, is not the hard information it can provide--instead, the strength of Twitter is to keep the topic alive and circulating. That is something that can be done with just a core group.

Turning to the potential problem of Twitter in these kinds of situations, Business Week notes:
One analyst cautioned that while Twitter or Facebook may keep the outside world's attention trained on Iranian protests, there was also a danger such tools could exaggerate the movement's momentum. "You can get the notion that Ahmadinejad is very unpopular and that Mousavi has this groundswell of support, but we don't have data that shows that," says Reva Bhalla, director of analysis for Austin (Tex.)-based Stratfor, a strategic intelligence and forecasting company. "Ahmadinejad has real support, but his supporters don't have smartphones. There is a real risk of amplifying [one side]." Ahmadinejad is thought to have a greater base of support in rural areas, while Mousavi is popular with urbanites.
Slate goes a step further--the potential danger for protesters who use Twitter:

There's a potential dark side to the Twitter revolution. The New Republic's Jason Zengerle points to an Ethan Zuckerman interview on NPR's On the Media from April in which Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, talks about his study of Moldova's Twitter revolution.

Zuckerman found evidence that several days into that rebellion, Twitter was "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."

How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets—"We're massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!"—and busts everybody who shows up?

None of this is aimed at diminishing what Twitter has been able to accomplish. The fact remains that Twitter has been a formidable tool in generating and maintaining interest in world events in general and in Iran in particular. It is just necessary to remember that Twitter--and the other social media tools--do have limitations.

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan differs--and ponders the role Twitter would have made in The French Revolution:
A small point on the technological aspects of the Iranian situation. Some ask if the impact of the new technology is exaggerated. No. Twittering and YouTubing made the story take hold and take off. But did the technology create the rebellion? No, it encouraged what was there. If they Twittered and liveblogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: "this aft 3pm @ the bastille." It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support. Revolutions are revolutions and rebellions are rebellions; they don't work unless the people are for it. In Iran, Twitter reported and encouraged. But the conviction must be there to be encouraged.

The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and nonstop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?
(check out the Slate article for links to other interesting articles on this subject)

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