Thursday, June 18, 2009

Is Twitter’s Role in Iran Being Overblown?

Following the presidential elections in Iran last week, protests have broken out in the streets for at least 5 days now with no real end in sight. What is truly remarkable about the situation is how much credit Twitter - the new-media social networking website - has been given for this “revolution”.

It is true that Twitter has been a uniquely accessible service for the protesters. While the government - in an effort to crack down on the information leaving Iran - has been slowing internet connection and removing websites such as Facebook, Twitter has been okay because it is so compatible with SMS text messaging. Furthermore, as cell phone reception is turned off in some areas, Twitter feeds can still be updated by “relay” websites.

But the Iran-Twitter fascination grew even more when the U.S. State Department announced that they asked Twitter to postpone some scheduled maintenance because, as Secretary Clinton says, “keeping that line of communications open and enabling people to share information, particularly at a time when there was not many other sources of information, is an important expression of the right to speak out and to be able to organize.”

She also added, humorously, “I wouldn't know a twitter from a tweeter, but apparently it is very important.”

So of course it wasn’t long before some in the media said that the State Department controls Twitter. The operators of the social networking service responded saying:

“When we worked with our network provider yesterday to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network…

…It's humbling to think that our two-year old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance. However, it's important to note that the State Department does not have access to our decision making process. Nevertheless, we can both agree that the open exchange of information is a positive force in the world.”

But is Twitter really that significant in Iran’s protests?

The simple answer is “not really” - its role is being overblown by American media which are (for the most part) doing a particularly poor job covering the developments in Iran.

From an article in the Washington Post:

It is hard to say how much twittering is actually going on inside Iran. The tweets circulated by expatriates in the United States tend to be in English -- the Twitter interface does not support the use of Farsi. And though many people may be sending tweets out of Iran, their use inside Iran may be low, some say.

"Twitter's impact inside Iran is zero," said Mehdi Yahyanejad, manager of a Farsi-language news site based in Los Angeles. "Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves."

And as Thomas Friedman points out in his recent New York Times column:

“…the Islamists and their regimes have a trump card: guns. Guns trump cellphones. Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet. The [only reason the] Sunni Awakening in Iraq succeeded because the moderates there were armed.”

And if you look at opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi’s Twitter feed (as of noon EST today) he only has about 15,000 followers - a small fraction of the number of protesters right now - and as you would probably imagine, many of those followers are from places other than Iran.

What the American fascination with Twitter in these protests has produced is suspicion on the part of the Iranian regime. The government of Iran now blames “intolerable” American meddling in their domestic affairs for the current demonstrations - exactly what President Obama was trying to avoid! As much as we Americans want to reject it, the actions taken by our State Department do give some weight to that argument.

What is much more interesting about Twitter is not the impact it has in Iran, but rather the impact it has in American politics.

A few weeks ago, we mentioned how RNC New Media Director Todd Herman tweeted “new racism = no better than old” in reference to Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. Despite the fact that RNC Chairman Michael Steele was trying to stay away of accusing her of racism, the Rush Limbaugh rhetoric found its way onto Twitter.

Now Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker finds a slew of tweets made by GOP activists and operatives that keep them anywhere but on-message.

Take this recent tweet by Mike Green of Starboard Communication, a Republican consulting firm: “JUST HEARD THAT OBAMA IS GOING TO IMPOSE A 40% TAX ON ASPIRIN BECAUSE IT’S WHITE AND IT WORKS.”

It wasn’t long before Green apologized - using two tweets - for his comment.



As Hertzberg points out, a simple “I made a mistake” would have sufficed, but the relatively long apology (for Twitter) was probably something his firm made him do.

Then there’s Rusty DePass, a GOP county chairman from South Carolina, who posted a rather crude update on Facebook referring to an escaped gorilla from a local zoo: “I’M SURE IT’S JUST ONE OF MICHELLE [OBAMA]’S ANCESTORS—PROBABLY HARMLESS.” In his less sincere apology, he told the press “I am as sorry as I can be if I offended anyone. The comment was clearly in jest…the comment was hers, not mine” (referring to her belief in evolution).

New media can be extremely useful to political campaigning (which is why we use Twitter, follow us at because it’s cheap and it reaches out to a broad audience that is no longer interested in seeing political TV ads or mailers. But it’s also creating problems with keeping operatives and activists on message - an incredibly important component of campaigns.

Of course, you can see more debate about the relevance of Twitter in Iranian politics by going to this article at But make no mistake about it, Twitter is going to play a much larger role (even if it’s less reported on) in the United States - especially come 2010.

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