Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twitter And Iran--How Accurate Is Twitter As A News Medium?

A lot has already been written about the roll that Twitter has played in the dissemination of information about situation in Iran following last week's election. In What if Twitter is leading us all astray in Iran?, Joshua Kucera raises the question about the reliability of that information:
Here are a few of the things that we’ve “learned” the last few days about the Iranian elections and their aftermath:

3 million people protested Monday in Tehran
— the losing candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was put under house arrest
— the president of the election monitoring committee declared the election invalid on Saturday

These are just a handful of data points that have been shooting around the Internet, via Twitter or the opposition-friendly blogs. And all have been instrumental in building a public opinion case against the Iranian government for undercounting the support for Mousavi.

But there is a problem:
The problem is, none of them appear any longer to be true. The crowd was in the hundreds of thousands, most newspapers reported. Mousavi’s own wife said he wasn’t under house arrest Sunday, and Monday he appeared in person at the protest. And if the president of the election monitoring commission has gone over to the opposition, no serious reporter has reported it.
Is it possible that if instead of relaying information about the unrest in Iran--Twitter is causing or encouraging it it? As Kucera points out, thanks to new Twitter, Facebook and blogs--rumors can acquire a much longer lifespan.

Andrew Sullivan responds to Kucera's criticism about the size of the crowd in the Monday demonstration in Tehran--after all, Kucera's link is to Sullivan's report blog which quotes that tweet. But to defend that number, Sullivan refers to an article in Time Magazine:
And although the Interior Ministry kept broadcasting a communiqué warning that no permit had been issued for the rally, 2 million to 3 million Iranians from a broad cross section of society converged on Freedom Square to demand a recount.
The only problem is that no source is quoted--so as far as Sullivan knows, the writer of that article is getting that peace of information from the same source Sullivan did: Twitter. In fact, Sullivan himself admits right afterwards:
Most news outlets reported the crowds were in the hundreds of thousands, but we have no way of knowing the truth.
The bottom line:
As we have said many, many times, you should read the tweets, and any other information coming out of Iran, very provisionally.
Actually there are two issues regarding Twitter and the demonstrations in Iran: organizing and focusing the demonstrations in Iran and bringing information out of Iran. According to The Washington Post:
"Twitter's impact inside Iran is zero," said Mehdi Yahyanejad, manager of a Farsi-language news site based in Los Angeles. "Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look . . . you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves."

However, an Iranian-American activist in Washington said that tweets from a handful of students have been instrumental in getting information to people outside Iran. She spoke on condition of anonymity citing concern that authorities in Tehran could block her from receiving transmissions.
Yet, the article goes on to point out that though some of the information coming out of Iran via Twitter has been verified, there have been reports that have been either unverifiable or have been debunked altogether. It is the writer--not the technology--that determines the veracity of the information.

Emphasizing the question about how effective Twitter is in Iran, Ben Smith at Politico notes that the number of people following the official Mousavi Twitter feed is kind of low. Currently, there are only 14, 667 people following it.

Maybe after the situation in Iran resolves itself, it may be possible to evaluate this dual functionality of Twitter and how effective it is. In the meantime, Twitter is providing access to information that is inaccessible any other way.

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