June 21, 2009

Twittering the Revolution: Don't Believe the Hype?

First off, let me praise those bloggers -- Andrew Sullivan, Nico Pitney, Robert Mackey -- who have used Twitter feeds from Iran to tirelessly live-blog the uprising in Tehran. But all the same, I am happy that articles and analysis are now popping up that question the actual usefulness of Twitter as a tool of the revolution. Because it seems apparent that while Twitter has been useful in getting news out of Iran, it has been the more old-school techniques -- like, you know, word of mouth -- that have really been the driving forces behind organizing the protests that have shaken the mullahs.

The New York Times puts things in perspective in today's paper:

Skeptics note that only a small number of people used Twitter to organize protests in Iran and that other means — individual text messaging, old-fashioned word of mouth and Farsi-language Web sites — were more influential. But Twitter did prove to be a crucial tool in the cat-and-mouse game between the opposition and the government over enlisting world opinion.

More nuance arrives in today's Washington Post:

First, Twitter's own internal architecture puts limits on political activism. There are so many messages streaming through at any moment that any single entry is unlikely to break through the din, and the limit of 140 characters -- part of the service's charm and the secret of its success -- militates against sustained argument and nuance. (Yes, "Give me liberty or give me death" totals just 32 characters, but Patrick Henry's full speech exceeded 1,200 words.) What's most exciting is the aggregate effect of all this speech and what it reveals about the zeitgeist of the moment, but it still reflects a worldwide user population that skews wealthy, English-speaking and well-educated. The same is true of the blogosphere and social networks such as Facebook.

Second, governments that are jealous of their power can push back on cyberspace when they feel threatened. The Iranian state runs one of the world's most formidable online censorship regimes. In the past week alone, officials have blocked access to YouTube, Facebook and the majority of Web sites most often cited by reformist segments of the Persian blogosphere. They supplement this censorship with surveillance and the threat of imprisonment for those who speak out. Even if they fail to block political speech or organizing activities, the possibility of future retaliation can chill the most devoted activists and critics.

Paradoxically, the "freedom to scream" online may actually assist authoritarian regimes by serving as a political release valve of sorts. If dissent is channeled into cyberspace, it can keep protesters off the streets and help state security forces track political activism and new online voices. As Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim said last week during a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, this appears to be part of a long tradition for governments in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, where dissent is channeled into universities and allowed to thrive there, as long as it does not escape the university walls.

Third, the blogosphere is not limited to young, liberal, anti-regime activists; state sympathizers are increasingly active in the battle for online supremacy. Our research into the Iranian blogosphere shows that political and religious conservatives are no less prominent than regime critics. While the Iranian blogosphere is indeed a place where women speak out for their rights, young people criticize the morality police, journalists fight censorship, reformists press for change, and dissidents call for revolution, it is also a place where the supreme leader is praised, the Holocaust denied, the Islamic Revolution defended and Hezbollah celebrated. It is also a place where Islamist student groups mobilize and pro-establishment leaders, including President Ahmadinejad, reach out to their constituents within the Iranian public. Our most recent research suggests that the number and popularity of politically conservative and Islamic bloggers has grown over the past year, relative to the number of secular reformists, possibly due to the events leading up to the presidential election.

So let's not go all Twitter crazy just yet. Oh, and Evgeny Morozov went off on Foreign Policy's net.effect blog. Worth reading.