Twitter

The Iranian Revolution Will Be Tweeted

Yes, Twitter is playing an important role in Iran

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In a 1979 column on the abdication of the Shah, William F. Buckley noted with wonderment that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's agitprop communiques, divined from his Parisian exile and recorded onto audio cassettes for distribution in Tehran, had roused a restive Iranian population into rebellion. "Electronic communications," Buckley wrote, "which are the century's gift to totalitarian states, played paradoxically into the hands of the insurgents."

A reasonable enough assessment at the time, but one that strikes the modern reader as almost exactly backwards (thanks, in no small part, to capitalism's ability to provide sophisticated technology to the masses). While the current situation in Iran isn't analogous to the revolutionary fervor of 1979, those who have taken to the streets—carrying English-language signs, capturing the government's violent response on camera phones, tapping out urgent text messages—are relaying important information via "electronic communications," which, pace Buckley, are this century's gift to anti-totalitarians.

So it was inevitable that, like the recent political unrest in Moldova, the uprising against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be billed as a nascent "Twitter revolution."

But for every Internet epiphenomenon promoted by the blond automatons of cable news—Twitter revolutions! YouTube debates!—there exists an army of pundits offering a cynical, countervailing view. A week into the Iranian rebellion (it isn't a revolution yet, but it surely qualifies as a rebellion—in that May 1968 way), there appear to be more articles, editorials, and blog posts pooh-poohing the social-media-rebellion idea than those trumpeting it.

In a widely circulated piece from the website True/Slant (later reprinted in The Guardian), journalist Joshua Kucera grumbled that the Twitterers and bloggers in Iran sent out information that, in Kucera's curious formulation, doesn't "appear any longer to be true." He cites a handful of examples: The crowds of protesters weren't in the millions, as initially reported by some Twittering Mousavi apparatchiks, but in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps, but beyond the fact that crowd estimation is always a tricky business, mainstream media sources reported similar numbers.

Kucera scoffs at rumors that "the losing candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was put under house arrest." In the game of journalistic telephone that arises during chaotic mass protest, the details of certain stories will, of course, shift, depending on the political agenda of those relating then news. But this is not a flaw in Twitter—it's a predictable byproduct of a clique of totalitarians that turn media sources on and off like spigots. Either way, mainstream sources (this time ABC News' Middle East correspondent) told a similar story:

"[Mousavi spokesman Mostafa] Makhmalbaf clarified rumors that Mousavi was under house arrest, saying there was no official detention but that police were keeping watch on his home, exerting enough pressure to keep him indoors. "

Inaccurate stories are inevitable, Kucera argues, "But in the pre-Twitter age, those sorts of rumors petered out quickly if they weren't true." This is utter nonsense. The examples provided by Kucera have already been debunked, debated, or clarified in the blogosphere and on Twitter itself, thanks in no small part to those who passed on the initial information. By contrast, in the pre-Twitter age—think of the uprisings in East Berlin, Budapest, Gdansk, Prague; the journalism of Herb Matthews, Walter Duranty, and Edgar Snow—rumors and misinformation from totalitarian countries entered the mainstream and took months, if not years, to dislodge.

Writing at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum takes a similar line, offering a few straw men of his own: "But protests have happened before without either Twitter or the internet. And if we westerners had to rely on only a single news source to tell us what what going on, I'd still choose the dwindling band of serious outlets that provide real reporting from dangerous (and expensive) places." If forced to choose between the BBC and Twitter, I would surely choose the former. But this tells the reader nothing about the relative value of 140-character bursts from protesting Iranians, instead making the blindingly obvious point that Twitter isn't the preferred method for receiving nuanced news.

It is doubtless true that, seeking out a hot new media meme, the role of social networks has been significantly inflated by (some) reporters and (many) bloggers. But could we trace the overblown Twitter love to overblown traditional media hate? Take this example, from the increasingly unfunny media critic Jon Stewart, attacking CNN for using "unverified" photos and videos from sites like Flickr and YouTube. After the de rigueur video compare-and-contrast video segment (CNN are liars because they claim to not typically use material from the Internet, yet Rick Sanchez takes questions from viewers via Twitter!), Stewart declares that cable news channels are never to be trusted.

Beyond the reductionist "mainstream media sucks" message here, Stewart is arguing that if CNN can't get a visa extension to report from Tehran it has failed its viewers. If the network airs captivating images from the protests it gathered from online sources, but plays it safe by noting that they cannot be independently verified, it has failed its viewers. (Last week, before the protests, Stewart mocked those who feared Iranian power because, as the elections demonstrated, the country "appears to have one of the more vibrant democracies in the Middle East.")

Much of this smacks of old media protectionism; another chance to underscore the dubious point that only professionals can discern what is accurate and what is disinformation—a skill with which old media gatekeepers are often credited but too rarely demonstrate. Warnings that certain political forces in Iran might use Twitter to spread false information are fair enough (and have already been heeded by attentive Iranians), but there is nothing new about the phenomenon. One need only to look at Christopher Andrews and Vassily Mitrokhin's book The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World to see the number of false stories that Soviet intelligence slipped into Western newspapers and "retweeted" into the American media. Nor was this exclusively the domain of the KGB. Journalist Claire Sterling, Bob Woodward wrote in Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, inadvertently used a few pieces of CIA "black propaganda" first published in the Italian press and recycled back into newspapers in the United States.

It took years, if not decades, to correct this misinformation. The dubious reports from Iran, though of questionable significance in the first place, took, at most, a few days to dispel.

While it is less interesting to focus on the Internet—yes, the Internet in general—as a vital tool for Iranian dissidents, it's necessary to point out that, for non-Iranians both observing and covering the rebellion, Twitter is playing a secondary role to websites like YouTube and Flickr, both of which have provided compelling images and video from the streets of Tehran. And while Twitter is not the reason students are on the streets, it has played a significant role in allowing the opposition to organize and spread its message to supporters in the West. To dismiss it as pure media hype would be foolish.

Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of
Reason magazine.

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  1. Time to play Cathy Young:

    Not bad Moynihan. Not bad.

  2. Which revolution? The one where University Students demanded a change to the entire establishment? Right, happened in 1979. Or do you mean the current kerfuffle involving University Students? Yeah, let me predict how this will go. Moving from a democracy to a non-democracy: Usually moves quickly. Can be done with a revolution. Putting one guy in charge and making him supreme leader: Simple. From a totalitarian theocracy to a democracy? Slow. Very slow. Putting in entire cabinets, systems and institutions with checks-and-balances? Complicated. Takes a long time. We’re not going to see anything new in Iran for quite a while, aside from token, incremental changes.

  3. OMG! Like, I’m at the rally and I saw like this cute boy throwing rocks LOL

  4. Uhhh…..WE DON’T CARE ABOUT TWITTER.

    WE DON’T CARE.

    WE DON’T CARE.

    99% of people don’t use Twitter. 90% of people are horrified at the very thought of a tool whose primary use is to receive spam from your favorite celebrity. Yes, it has a minor role to play (among many other tools) in organizing crowds, and an even bigger one in allowing journalists to follow the organization process, but just like you don’t care about the tools I use for my job, I don’t give a damn about the tools you use for yours.

    Please, ENOUGH ABOUT TWITTER.

  5. Since this appears to be today’s Iran thread, I’ve been meaning to plug (not surprisingly) Global Voices, FP’s “Passport”, RFE/RL, and VOA.

  6. If Israel were smart, they would throw their support behind the Iranian students.

    If Iran moved beyond a quieter thug like Mousavi to a free country, it would be a great benefit to the world and Israel.

    Imagine, Israel’s worst enemy on the way to becoming its friend if Israel would have the guts to support the students in the streets. The Ernst Rhoem wannabes at so-called “Reason” magazine would go more batshit crazy than they are already at the thought that Israel might not get nuked and 5.5 million Jews won’t die in a second holocaust.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

  7. I noticed this over on Slashdot a short while ago.

    It seems that if you’re an American supporter of the Iranian protestors, you’d better be exercising your second amendment rights. Never know when a pack of Amadinnerjacket’s fans might try to beat you up.

    -jcr

  8. If Israel were smart, they would throw their support behind the Iranian students.

    If Iran moved beyond a quieter thug like Mousavi to a free country, it would be a great benefit to the world and Israel.

    The first statement makes the second very unlikely.

  9. If Israel were smart, they would throw their support behind the Iranian students. send their tuffest internet tuff guy stateside to beat the everloving dogshit out of underzog.

  10. A lot of the Persians aren’t filled with the Judenhass that you are your merry crew in Hit and Run are filled with, Eichmannhope.

    They appreciate the Jews and they don’t appreciate that pretend people, the Palestinians. Especially since the Mullahs have imported the so-called Palestinians from Hamas to crack the student protestors heads in.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

    P.S. Here is your citation: Israel’s rare opportunity (excerpt from the link)

    “Were Netanyahu to explain that the same mullahs who seek to disenfranchise and repress the Iranian people seek to destroy Israel with nuclear bombs; were he [Netanyahu] to call for Iran to stop financing Hamas and Hizbullah terrorists who are reportedly now deployed in Iran to brutalize the protesters, and instead invest in the Iranian economy for the benefit of Iran’s people, he would be sending a message that already resonates with the people of Iran.

  11. LMNOP,

    Looks like you were right. They’re going with the Dan Pipes, “Ahmadinejad is crazy, so having him in charge makes drumming up support against Iran easier.”

  12. This is one of those times I hate being right.

  13. All articles about twitter need to be limited to 140 characters.

  14. It seems Israel doing something a little right here.

    I heard on the news that Israel taunted the Iranian regime that it will fall.

    It would be terrible if the Iranian regime fell and the new leaders decided to do something else other than build nukes for Israel and U.S. (an emp type device for America), wouldn’t it you Ernst Rhoem wannabes?

    Hey Rhoemites! It sucks to be you these days.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here (and the G-d of the Jews is here too, watching over his chosen people :D)!

  15. Mmm, underzog, that’s some good crazy.

    underzog sort of has the same posting style as Lefiti, come to think about it. Less profanity and more Nazi references, sure, but the underlying harping on a perceived yet nonexistent tenet of libertarianism is the same. Plus Lefiti would go through phases where he/she/it would post big chunks of the Talmud, usually in response to Sullum’s posts for whatever reason.

  16. These mobs are motivated by Western propaganda.

    They want a state that gives more to the individual.

    In the process, it becomes decay-bound like the West and heads toward a slow collapse.

    We should mind our own business, and fix our own problems, here in the West.

  17. I don’t know Xeones, I think he’s starting to out himself as performance art. While it’s certainly possible to be so stupid you wind up pushing people away from the side you’re ostensibly, but legitimately, arguing for (see Dondero, Eric; Wacko, Lone), there’s a certain point where the overboard just doesn’t become credible.

    Dondero actually believes himself to be a libertarian. Lonewhacker is a complete loser with nothing better to do than post on the Internet all day. It makes sense that they would come to H&R and post and post to try to change people’s views – yet in a totally disfunctional and ineffective way.

    However, the mideast is a side issue for most libertarians, and someone obsessively posting about Israel only makes sense if it’s a part-time thing, as zoggy used to be.

  18. The sunshine here.

    Here is
    the sunshine,
    with delicate
    rays and the
    sound of a
    light breeze:
    and this is
    my care, when
    everything
    shines and the
    night fades
    away.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  19. All is well in Tehran! Plenty of food! Teargas schmeargas! Nothing to see here. Move along.

  20. I know a bunch of people got twittered the goatse.

    Goatse in a muslim country. Nice.

  21. We’re getting tons of tweets (that we can’t verify) and here are some more! (that we can’t verify)
    Stay tuned to CNN for more unverifiable tweets!

  22. Underzog, you make me slightly ashamed to be banging a Jewish chick.

  23. Eastern Europe and the Soviet Empire did a fine job of falling apart by themselves. We had best just remain on the sidelines as we did then, and avoid pretentious, silly posturing.

  24. An open message to President Obama:

    You have urged an end to “violent and unjust actions”.

    David Kilcullen, the Australian former adviser on counter-insurgency to General David Petraeus, made the following comments on the civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes in western Pakistan:

    Mr Kilcullen said the hit rate on drone attacks was “unacceptably low”. He said the US had killed 14 mid-level or lower level al-Qaeda leaders since 2006 but the strikes had killed 700 civilians.

    This action is far more violent and unjust than anything the Iranian Security forces are doing right now to deal with the election protests.

    I urge you to end these violent and unjust actions immediately.

  25. From Iran blasting the U.S.?

    Taqqiyah at its finest

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

  26. Good luck to those Iranians who are trying to obtain their freedom.

    I don’t know whether or not the election was rigged. I don’t think Mousavi becoming president would be sufficient to make Iran a fundementally free country. But it seems like this might be becoming a catalyst for people with other greivences against the theocratic system to make their voices known in a way that they haven’t so far.

    This particular round of protests might not be the Persian Perestrokia freedom-lovers were waiting for. They may not get serious change this time around. But Iranians won’t forget what happened here. This could be a rallying point for a move towards freedom some time down the line.

    By the way, here’s an online petition favoring freedom of speech and assembly:

    http://takeaction.amnestyusa.org/siteapps/advocacy/ActionItem.aspx?c=jhKPIXPCIoE&b=2590179&aid=12454&msource=semgoogle09l&cid=psgi2454

  27. These mobs are motivated by Western propaganda.

    They want a state that gives more to the individual.

    If you mean “gives more freedom to the individual” then I would hope that is what they want. That would be the only thing that is rational to want regarding the state and individual freedom.

    In the process, it becomes decay-bound like the West and heads toward a slow collapse.

    I call bullshit! What evidence do you have that the West is headed towards a slow collapse?

  28. Congress has passed a resolution:

    The resolution “condemns the ongoing violence against demonstrators by the Government of Iran and pro-government militias, as well as the ongoing government suppression of independent electronic communication through interference with the Internet and cellphones.” It also “affirms the universality of individual rights and the importance of democratic and fair elections.”

    There was one dissenting vote: Ron Paul. To put it mildly, Dr. Paul is a lunatic. Libertarians should pass a resolution condemning Ron Paul.

  29. Chavez talking about the Green rebellion today

    Always enlightening to hear

    “”We send greetings to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president who has great Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Iranian people. We ask the world to be respected because Iran is trying to undermine the strength of the Iranian revolution,” Chavez said.

    “We demand respect for the world. The victory of Ahmadinejad, has been a triumph in the whole line. They are trying to tarnish the victory of Ahmadinejad and thereby weakening the government and the Islamic revolution. I know that they are not going to achieve,” the Venezuelan president insisted.

    Since the elections of June 12, in which Ahmadinejad won the election but have been answered by the opposition, Chavez has repeatedly stated its support for the Iranian president.

    This week, noted that he had spoken by telephone with his Iranian to express solidarity, and the Foreign Ministry in Caracas rejected in a statement “the vicious and unfounded campaign to discredit it, from outside, has been unleashed against the institutions of Iran.”

    http://www.univision.com/contentroot/wirefeeds/world/7978989.html

    (apologies for the shit translation just googled it)

  30. As I said earlier, Netanyahu is taking the initiative and praising the Iranian freedom fighters.

    Israel is the country (zionist entity) that Libertarians love to hate, but at least it’s better than the Libertarians who criticize it and hope for its destruction; e.g., Libertarians who loath Israel

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

  31. The Jewish Defense League Marching Song

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here!”

  32. At least now I know how underzog earns his money. He’s the world’s largest manufacturer of strawmen.

  33. I fear this Iranian shit is gonna end badly. Islam will get a split atom before it gets a split between church and state. What they need is an Arabian Martin Luther, what they’re getting is the bomb.

    Victor Hanson has a good piece today on all this–

    http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson062109.html

    I agree with him (on this at least), human liberty is an objectively valuable thing for all people, everywhere. That makes me a classical liberal. Whether I can actually do anything about it or not is another matter.

  34. What they need is an Arabian Persian Martin Luther, what they’re getting is the bomb.

    FTFY. Those Persians get really pissed off if you call ’em Arab. 😉

  35. BG: “I call bullshit! What evidence do you have that the West is headed towards a slow collapse?”

    Right on, BG! It’s a *fast* collapse.

  36. There was one dissenting vote: Ron Paul. To put it mildly, Dr. Paul is a lunatic. Libertarians should pass a resolution condemning Ron Paul.

    A noninterventionist foreign policy is a noninterventionist foreign policy. Why capitulate?

  37. BG: “I call bullshit! What evidence do you have that the West is headed towards a slow collapse?”

    Right on, BG! It’s a *fast* collapse.

    And what evidence do you have of that?

    If you think there will be a “fast collapse”, do you case to make any predictions about when specific “collapsing” events are likely to happen?

  38. Point taken re: Arabian/Persian Luther. However, I think Islam’s Luther could come from anyplace in the Islamic world, so long as it isn’t from the West.

    Which is the dominant strain of Islam? Luther wouldn’t be from that one.

  39. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

  40. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no jokeIf you think there will be a “fast collapse”, do you case to make any predictions about when specific “collapsing” events are likely to happen?

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