Media140: Twitter and the Iranian election

A new study of Twitter in the Iranian elections has found the use of the social network was greatly exaggerated. British writer Charles Leadbeater and his team found there were less than 20,000 tweeters with an Iranian address and many included foreigners who changed their location to “Tehran” in sympathy with protesters. The report also found only one third of Iranians have internet access skewed towards the younger and urban opposition supporters. According to Valleywag such a tiny proportion of Iranians on Twitter means any stories about a new movement based on the social network are meaningless.

Yet the 2009 Iranian election was one of the most important moments for Twitter in its short life. NYU Professor Clay Shirky called it “the big one” and the first revolution catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. Leadbeater’s findings dispute the transformation part of Shirky’s statement but the global impact is accurate. The US State Department deemed it to be so important, it twisted Twitter’s arm to delay a critical network upgrade in June so it wouldn’t cut daytime services to Iranians disputing the election result.

Introducing the third panel of the media140 conference in Sydney last Thursday, ABC’s Fran Kelly called the election a “watershed moment” for social media. The session was entitled “social media lessons from the Iranian uprising” and featured ABC’s Mark Colvin, Al Jazeera’s head of social media Riyaad Minty, UTS lecturer Tony Maniaty, SBS News Director Paul Cutler and University of Wollongong’s Dr Jason Wilson.

Mark Colvin was an ABC foreign correspondent and in Iran during the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago. He said the slogans on the street “Marg Bar Amrika” (Death to America) have been changed to “Marh Bar Diktator” (Death to the dictator) as protesters turned against their own government.

Colvin said Iran’s so-called Twitter revolution began abroad. Americans angry with the lack of coverage of unfolding events after the disputed election began posting comments using the hashtag #cnnfail. The 24 hour broadcaster pushed the official Iranian line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won the election but failed to report on the disputed fairness of the ballot. Iranian authorities expelled the reporters of other broadcasters, such as the BBC for covering the growing unrest on the streets of Tehran. Colvin said #cnnfail became a symbol for what was wrong with old media and Twitter took centre stage as people sought out alternative sources of information.

There were a lot of people purporting to give eye-witness accounts. Colvin used his knowledge of Iran and journalistic nous to verify what was trustworthy and what wasn’t. In Australia and elsewhere he quickly became acknowledged as an expert on the topic. However, he acknowledges “Twitter didn’t really achieve much at all inside Iran.” The social media buzz gave the protesters a sense their protest was worth persisting with but it also helped spread rumours, false pictures and inflated protest tallies. Colvin said the revolution was defeated but there were two unexpected benefits: it made the people of Iran human in western eyes and it helped Iranians see they were not alone. “The pretence [of religious rule] has been stripped away, and part of what did that was created by Twitter, social media, and the world wide web,” he concluded.

Jason Wilson also believes the revolution said more about Twitter than about Iran. Wilson said it was amazing to watch how people in Australia and elsewhere discussed the issue and invested emotionally in it, through Twitter. Wilson said it was an “intense” experience unlike any other he had witnessed in the web2.0 world. But focusing on Twitter underestimates the influence of the Iranian blogosphere, he noted. Wilson said blogs were a crucial space for dissent and debate and responsible for getting the protesters out on the street. Facebook groups and old fashioned word-of-mouth also played a big role.

The Iranian experience also showed potential flaws of Twitter. It was all too easy, said Wilson, to retweet something rather than check its accuracy. The hype around Twitter also disguises its effect in Iran was overstated and its user base exclusive. Ahmadinejad’s rural and poor constituency (as confirmed by Leadbeater et al) are “the last people who are likely to fish up on Twitter” and therefore without a voice in the west. “We need to be reflexive about the nature of [Twitter’s] networks when we think about this platform as a source of information” Wilson concluded.

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