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.