Let's not get carried away about Twitter power's role in Iran's demonstrations.

Media criticism.
June 17 2009 5:33 PM

Doubting Twitter

Let's not get carried away about its role in Iran's demonstrations.

Read more of Slate's coverage of Iran's June 12 election and its aftermath.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews.

I demonstrate my personal enthusiasm for Twitter dozens of times a day by posting my own tweets, reading many of those posted by the 72 folks I currently follow, and retweeting like a magpie.

Yet my zeal for Twitter knows a limit: Unlike several other technology-friendly journalists, I've found it more noise than signal in understanding the Iranian upheaval. I'm not saying that there is no signal to be found; I'm just saying that my cognitive colander isn't big enough to strain out Iran information I can rely on. Slatecontributor Joshua Kucera made this point two days ago in True/Slant, compiling an early list of erroneous data points about the Iranian uprising that Twitterers were circulating: 3 million people demonstrating against the regime, the house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi, and the annulment of the election by authorities, for instance.

Now, before the millions who herald Twitter the CNN of the people, an essential tool of democracy, and a terrific tip-line for journalists hunt me down and have my Internet connection ripped out of the wall: Relax. I follow you. I'm not setting up a 140-character straw man to knock him down. I appreciate, as Atlantic Senior Editor Andrew Sullivan wrote in his blog, that many of the reports are "more about the mood than hard fact." But my appetite for mood is easily sated while my appetite for hard fact isn't. If we should be able to criticize Ayatollah Ali Khamenei without fear of being shot, so, too, should we be able to scrutinize Twitter.

Kevin Drum counsels in MotherJones.com that before we get weak-kneed with our paeans to the revolutionary powers of Twitter, we should all remember that genuine and huge protests in Iran predate both Twitter and the Internet.

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One of the sharper Twitter critics I've read this week is Evgeny Morozov, who, writing in Slate's sister site ForeignPolicy.com yesterday, posed the heretical notion that tracking or blocking the tweets and blog postings by in-country Iranian protesters just might not be the regime's top priority. "When you've got real riots in the street, Twitter-riots do not look that threatening," he writes. Morozov also doubts that Twitter has been instrumental in organizing protests as opposed to publicizing them.

But don't dismiss Morozov as a Twitter hater—he claims to have invented "Moldova's Twitter revolution meme" back in April. He believes that the total numbers of Twitter users in a volatile country aren't as important as their ability to keep their topic circulating. Never underestimate the network effect of a few dedicated writers to sustain the conversation.

At the same time, Morozov understands the limitations of social media in overthrowing despotic states, writing, "[I]f you plan to overthrow the Castro regime and are discussing those plans on Twitter, well, perhaps, you shouldn't bother." Similarly, he says he opposed using LiveJournal to stage flash mobs in Belarus in 2006 because "this just seemed silly to me, as the KGB was essentially reading the same blogs as activists." (In another piece, Morozov observed how Twitter had misinformed the public about the swine flu outbreak.)

There's a potential dark side to the Twitter revolution. The New Republic's Jason Zengerle points to an Ethan Zuckerman interview on NPR's On the Media from April in which Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, talks about his study of Moldova's Twitter revolution.

Zuckerman found evidence that several days into that rebellion, Twitter was "being used as a disinformation channel by forces who might have been aligned with the government, essentially trying to scare people away from demonstrating again."

How long before the secret police start sending out organizational tweets—"We're massing at 7 p.m. at the Hall of the People for a march to the Hall of Justice!"—and busts everybody who shows up?

******

For a more sanguine view of Twitter power, see the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. For three sanguine tweets a day, see my Twitter feed. To tell me sanguinely that I don't get it or that I don't understand the difference between open systems and closed systems, send e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Twitter in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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