Can Social Media Save Iran?

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Today I’m here to talk about Twitter and its relationship with ongoing political protests in Iran, although I think the catalyst for this part of Media 140 was the prominence of Twitter around the time of the Iranian elections earlier this year.

I bring a few different perspectives to this discussion — my doctoral training was in media history, I’ve worked on online e-democracy and citizen journalism projects, and I comment publicly on media, new media and politics at newmatilda.com. I’m an avid Twitter user, but in this instance I’ll try to be an analyst rather than an evangelist, not least because I think media companies are capable of doing the latter job for themselves.

I think the events in Iran around the time of the election revealed a lot about Twitter’s affordances and constraints as a platform. The affordances first: at the time it was amazing to watch how people here in Australia and elsewhere were mobilised to talk about, and emotionally invest in, political events in a faraway country. It was extraordinary to read in real time, on a public feed, commentary from people who were inside the country and directly involved in these events. Some examples of mainstream media coverage of the event — and famously CNN’s — appeared feeble beside what was happening on my feed.

But what was seldom mentioned was how great it was to be able to get real time, expert commentary from experienced journalists and Iran-watchers like Mark Colvin on Twitter. There was a brief, shining moment where it seemed that Twitter helped people to establish a different kind of relationship with major geopolitical events than is allowed by broadcast media. It also seemed qualitatively different from my own prior experiences of user-driven, web-based platforms, and the best way I can describe for the moment is that it seemed more intense — perhaps because of its instantaneous and communal aspects.

Nevertheless, the claims some people made for Twitter, especially in the heat of the moment, were too bold. Crediting Twitter alone with driving events in Iran risked writing out, just for a start, the long history of the Iranian/Farsi political blogosphere. This is extensive and diverse, and is the venue for, among other things, complex political debate that belies the somewhat simplistic, black hats and white hats version of events that some seemed willing to accept on Twitter.

If any one web-based technology has raised political consciousness in Iran in recent years — if any mere communications platform can be connected with the brave decision of so many to put their bodies on the line in the streets — it’s the blogs. We know how large Iran’s largely blog-based online public sphere is, and how crucial it has been in preserving a space for dissent and debate in the face of a state that doesn’t tend to encourage such things. Iranian people weren’t waiting around for Twitter as a focus for their dissent.

Further, a lot of the protest organisation that was done via social networks was accomplished using announcements from Facebook groups associated with political candidates. One wonders why this wasn’t mentioned more. Within Iran, where the Government moved quickly to limit and monitor internet use, word of mouth also played a role in organising protest. The point is that when we get too excited about the newest technological platform, we might fail to recognise that most political action is interwoven with a whole ecology of information and communication practices. Twitter gave us a new way to track events — but we weren’t confronting the Iranian state.

There was also too little said regarding what these events revealed about Twitter’s limitations as a tool of political protest and communication. One thing to focus on briefly is that while a tool like Twitter might be highly accessible, this can also work against the dispersal of quality information: if news can be spread easily, so too can simple errors and deliberate falsehoods. It’s much easier to retweet something than it is to check whether it’s true. It’s very difficult to ensure over time that people communicating from inside a country in turmoil are who they say they are. Life and death situations throw all of this into some relief. As I have written before, digital literacy for social networks needs to encompass some of the attitude to sources and facts that the ideal version of journalistic practice embodies, but that’s a longer conversation.

The rhetoric surrounding Twitter at the moment is very familiar to media historians, and resembles what has greeted the emergence of every medium throughout industrial modernity. That’s not to underestimate Twitter’s usefulness, it’s just to say that this revolution has been announced before.

There are some fallacies of futurology that recur when new media arrive. New media are always seen as superseding their predecessors, but very few media technologies disappear from use in any simple way. They persist alongside emerging ones, because they still have applications. New media are always seen as more transparent, but when we settle down we usually realise that no medium is a pure avenue of information; each one is used to select and frame events in specific ways. New media are often seen as democratising, but what do we mean by that exactly, beyond a normative endorsement? In fact, new media tend to gather unique publics, and there’s enough research about social networks now to suggest that they have specific audiences, and are capable of exclusion as well as inclusion.

The last thing to say about Iran, then, is that although that election may have been stolen, Ahmadinejad has a constituency. Disproportionately they are rural and poor, and altogether they’re the last people who are likely to turn up on Twitter, and thus the last we would have heard from during conflict around the election. We here today are a specific group marked by specific privileges, and the Twitter user-base is not as inclusive as we might like to think. Especially if we are journalists, we need to think hard about the nature of the networks we engage with when we’re chasing information.

This is an edited version of Jason’s speech at the Media 140 conference in Sydney.

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