Is Twitter driving the ongoing political crisis in Iran?
If the question seems premature, that's because it is: we still don't know how the unrest that followed Iran's contested June 12 presidential election is going to end, let alone what moments will emerge, in retrospect, as decisive or catastrophic for either side.
But it's already being debated. Less than one week after the vote, a bevy of smart commentators was already trumpeting the allegedly pivotal role played, in the post-election power struggle, by social media in general and Twitter in particular.
Here, for example, is Atlantic senior editor Andrew Sullivan, who boarded the Iranian Twitter bandwagon early on, writing on his blog (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com): "I have to say my skepticism about this new medium has now disappeared. Without it, one wonders if all this could have happened." And here, striking a similarly exultant note, is new-media guru Clay Shirky: "This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media."
That developing consensus, in turn, quickly prompted a backlash in which the centrality of Twitter (and, to a lesser extent, Facebook and YouTube) was called into question. In a representative June 17 piece, Slate's Jack Shafer lamented the lack of hard facts conveyed through post-Iran-election tweeting, rounded up various critiques of the "Twitter Revolution" meme, and urged Twitter enthusiasts to consider these objections before panning him as a Luddite. ("If we should be able to criticize Ayatollah Ali Khamenei without fear of being shot," Shafer posited, "so, too, should we be able to scrutinize Twitter.")
Even if it's early to be pursuing this line of inquiry, here we are — and the answers just might offer some clues to the future of 21st-century media and politics. So what, if anything, can conclusively be said about Twitter's role in Iran?
If she'd been slain five years ago, Neda Soltan — the 26-year-old Iranian woman apparently murdered by state security forces during a protest last Saturday — would likely have been subsumed into a broader, impersonal casualty count. Instead, amateur video of her gruesome death — posted on YouTube and disseminated by Twitter, even as the government rushed to curtail her family's right to mourn her — has made her an iconic symbol both of the Iranian protests and the ruling regime's moral bankruptcy.
A good way to start, it seems, would be to acknowledge that the phrase "Twitter Revolution" lumps together two subjects — Twitter's efficacy as a news-distribution tool, and its usefulness as an agent of political change — that ought to be considered separately. That said, one thing is certain: in a period when traditional journalists were either radically constrained in their reporting from Iran, or expelled altogether, Twitter played a crucial role in keeping the outside world informed about the crisis.
Mind you, if you tried to process this overwhelming stream of Twitter-driven information by yourself — say, by going to Twitter aggregator twitterfall.com and following #iranelection — there's a good chance you soon gave up in frustration. (I lasted about five minutes.) But if, instead, you let a smart, tireless journalist like the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney do the work for you — extracting meaningful new tweets from the virtual chaff, adding necessary context, and complementing all that with the best material from old-media sources — you discovered how compelling a reporting tool Twitter can be.
It's also evident that Twitter has a unique ability to collapse the emotional distance between the objects of news coverage and the reading/watching/listening public. This capacity follows from Twitter's decentralized, choose-your-own-conversation structure: if you've got a Twitter account and a cell phone (or computer) and weigh in on the Iranian situation using the tag #iranelection, your comments can be read by everyone following that subject, whether you're posting from Tehran or Teaneck. That alone creates a potential for participatory transnational solidarity that surpasses anything experienced during, say, the fall of communism two decades ago.
And if, as a non-Iranian, you join the criticism of CNN's supposedly sparse Iran coverage by posting with the tag #cnnfail — or help to disseminate information on Web proxies for Iranians seeking to avoid government censorship of the Internet — the sense of being united in struggle with Iran's dissidents grows even more palpable. As Shirky put it: "Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it."
So far, so clear. But when we turn to Twitter's role on the ground in Iran, the picture gets murkier. Case in point: on June 15, the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder wrote, in a post titled "The Revolution Will Be Twittered," of Iranian dissidents using Twitter to warn each other of impending violent crackdowns by the government, thereby saving the lives "of any number of would-be revolutionaries."