Evaluating Iran's Twitter Revolution

By Jared Keller

At the height of mass post-election protests that took place a year ago this month in Iran, known as the "Green Revolution," Western media outlets were filled with a flurry of reports of protesters using Twitter, e-mail, blogs, and text messages to coordinate rallies, share information, and locate compatriots. Journalists were agape at the sudden influx of information coming out of the country, unusual in light of the Iranian authorities' media blackout. "The immediacy of the reports was gripping," reported the Washington Times. "Well-developed Twitter lists showed a constant stream of situation updates and links to photos and videos, all of which painted a portrait of the developing turmoil. Digital photos and videos proliferated and were picked up and reported in countless external sources safe from the regime's Net crackdown." Journalists even gave the unrest in Tehran a second moniker: the "Twitter Revolution."

But was there really a "Twitter Revolution?" Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari recently described the idea in Foreign Policy as "an irresistible meme during the post-election protests, a story that wrote itself." Esfandiari explained that opposition activists primarily utilized text messages, email, and blog posts to organize protests, while "good old-fashioned word of mouth" was most influential medium for coordinating opposition. Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter were not ideal for rapid communication among protestors, and utilized more by observers in other countries. "Western journalists who couldn't reach -- or didn't bother reaching? -- people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets posted with tag #iranelection," quipped Esfandiari. "Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi."

The concept of a "Twitter Revolution," as challenged by Esfandiari and others, is rooted in the idea that Twitter was the lifeblood of the Green revolution. Taking this definition, Esfandiari and other critics are right: Twitter was no secret weapon that magically made the Islamic Republic disappear. "Twitter cannot stop a bullet," mused Charles Krauthammer on the Green Revolution's anniversary. "There was a lot of romantic outpouring here thinking that Facebook is going to stop the Revolutionary Guards. It doesn't. Thuggery, a determined regime that is oppressive, that will shoot, almost always wins." Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, now our bread and butter, were more influential in mobilizing Diaspora Iranians and international observers in solidarity rather than coordinating street protests inside Iran.

But while Twitter failed as an organizational tool, the Green movement remains the first major world event broadcast worldwide almost entirely via social media. Given the extent of the Iranian regime of repression, the amount of information publicized real-time through social networks allowed the international community an unprecedented peek into the turmoil afflicting Iran. For the Greens, the international reaction to the post-election violence gave the movement critical international visibility. While crowd sourcing is now a familiar concept to even the marginally tech-savvy, Twitter's use on a massive scale was rarely contemplated nor executed prior to the Iranian election. The Green revolution was a Twitter revolution; while social media fell short organizationally, it brought the violence in the streets of Tehran to the forefront of the geopolitical conversation.

The unprecedented use of Twitter also situated the micro-blogging service at the center of a global social transformation. The Green Revolution was far from social media's political coming-out party; Barack Obama's media-centric 2008 presidential campaign was an early testing ground for new media as a means for political communication and organization, and the practices pioneered there quickly spread to other political movements around the globe. But it was the critical role of Twitter as a lightning rod for international attention that established it as a tool for political communication rather than outright organization. Iran's post-election unrest was the micro-blogging service's baptism by fire as a means to observe, report, and record, real-time, the unfolding of a crisis.

Since the Iranian election protests, Twitter has provided eyes and ears in the direst situations. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year provided striking examples. With Haiti's communications infrastructure virtually obliterated and cell phones an inconsistent lifeline, Twitter and other social media provided a glimpse of conditions on the ground. Mashable's Ben Parr reported that thousands of Facebook and Twitter updates appeared every minute, while Twitter was used to disseminate "moving and gut-wrenching TwitPics of the disaster. "Following the 8.8 magnitude quake in Chile, Victor Herrero of USA Today wrote that in Conception, the epicenter of the quake "social-networking tools such as Twitter, Facebook and some Google applications have been at the forefront of transmitting highly localized information ... about finding families and friends, food and water, ways to get transportation." As in Iran, Hatians and Chileans used social media to create a mosaic of the human drama on the ground. And the medium's potential as an organizational tool continues to evolve, as we've seen in the case of South Korea's recent elections, narrowly overlapping with the anniversary of last year's political unrest in Iran.

The Green Revolution in Iran was muzzled, sadly, its political organs now defunct and its development totally stifled although the movement continues to put pressure on the Iranian regime a year after its initial protests. The Twitter Revolution, however, is far from over.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/06/evaluating-irans-twitter-revolution/58337/