The Revolution Will Be Twittered

It's too easy to call the weekend's activities the first revolution that was Twittered, but when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities.

Had the revolution not been twitted, we'd still know about the misaligned election results, and given the hard work of traditional journalists -- ABC's Jim Scuitto, the New York Times's Bill Keller, a legion of correspondents for European newspapers -- the West would have some idea of the counter-Ahmadinejad protests.

The Twitter technology added two elements to this. Number one -- as Iranian authorities shut down internet servers, it allowed younger protesters, particularly those affiliated with universities in Tehran, to organize and to follow updates by Mir Hossein Mousavi; by spreading the word about the location of government crackdowns and the threat of machine-gun-wielding soldiers, it probably saved the lives of any number of would-be revolutionaries. We don't know how many Iranians belong to Twitter; there seems to have been about two dozen active voices from Tehran, but if we assume a multiplier effect -- these 24 people can coordinate with their 20 friends -- the use of the technology as a central organizing hub that circumvented official channels of communication cannot be understated. In this way, Twitter served as an intelligence service for the Iranian opposition. There are even hints that, once Iranian authorities figured this out, they attempted to spread misinformation via Twitter.

The second element is less important but more relevant to politics here at home. Given the popularity of Twitter with American political activists on the right and the left, and given the near-universal language of the Iranian twitterers' cry from freedom, it was almost inevitable that prominent political activists here would retweet and take up their cause. By the end of the weekend, a whole meta-narrative about media coverage had been created, complete with a #cnnfail hashtag; (CNN's response: debate the role of twitter.)

There is a now a rare and perhaps tenuous solidarity among left and right about Iran, a conviction that the United States government has to support the protesters, has to declare the election invalid, has to deny the action by the sovereign (albeit corrupt) Iranian government.  The position of the Obama administration is more cautious and calculating. As painful as the images of revolution may be, as heart-rending as the suffering of the Iranian people may seem, the principle foreign policy priority of the United States vis-a-vis Iran is about Iran's nuclear enrichment program. An administration official said over the weekend that the U.S. would talk to the government of Iran as it was, not the government of Iran that it wanted. Indeed, regime change is not and has never been part of the Obama calculus. In some ways, the public attention (and activist attention) being given to the Iranian opposition may complicate the administration's public diplomacy efforts.  The public will demand expressions of sympathy for the protestors, when Obama wants a stable government he can deal with.

As with every example of an election and its enabling technology -- Nigeria and cell phones, 2008 and the Net, 2004 and affinity organizing -- it's too simplistic to correlate one's preferred outcome -- in this case, the unsheathing of dissent in Iran -- with the effect of technology alone. As the sun falls in Iran tonight, there is fresh evidence that the mullahs who run the country are embarrassed at the worldwide outrage over their election. After spending the weekend in denial about the election rigging allegations, they've suddenly accepted an "appeal" from two of the challengers and will spend 10 days investigating the results. Perhaps that's designed to buy the regime 10 days of peace, but it will probably have the opposite effect.

Why hasn't Mousavi been arrested or killed? Iran's regime is thuggish, but I don't think it wants to risk further alienating Europe or China. And I surmise that because the Iranian government knows that the opposition -- maybe we should call them the silent majority? -- has ways of communicating and organizing outside of their control. Mousavi would become an instant martyr. Twitter, Facebook, blogs -- and the mainstream media -- are all colluding to keep hope alive for the Iranian people.