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Iran: Myth and reality about Twitter

International media coverage of the Iranian protest movement in the past weeks has widely celebrated ‘Twitter power’ as a tool of organizing and reporting on protests, but the reliance on Twitter has had both positive and negative results in this crisis. We look at some of them here to demystify the actual degree of impact.

There is no doubt citizens protesting the results of the June presidential election have made efficient use of  Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs to ‘immortalize’ their movement and broadcast scenes of violence by security forces, but the centerpoint of this movement are the people and not technology.

With journalists prohibited from doing their work and a world audience thirsty for information from Iran, citizen media has often become a primary source of information. Unfortunately, the true identity and reliability of twitter users was not always known, and we saw instances where the lines of fact and fiction blurred – just as they may have in the presidential election results themselves.

1-Communication tool for reformists leaders

After the election on June 12, several websites belonging to reformists were filtered. Security forces heightened their control of newspapers, reformist personalities were jailed, and those who were still free were barred from access to national television and radio. The Internet is still almost the only window for them to communicate with the public. The Facebook page of Mir Hussein Mousavi's campaign has more than 100,000 supporters. On Twitter his campaign has around 30,000 followers. Ghloamhussein Karbaschi, a top adviser to Mehdi Karroubi, a second reformist candidate in the election, tweets to inform his 5000 followers of events. Twitter and Facebook along with reformist websites such as Ghlamnews help communicate the decisions of reformist leaders and pass on the message.

2-Closing the gap between Iran and the world

Iranian tweets touched thousands around the world and it seems by following and re-tweeting people feel involved. The most common search topic on Twitter for days has been #iranelection (the “hashtag” for discussions on Iran) and global media outlets are relying on information and images disseminated via Twitter as well. According to Bloggasm, tweets coming out of Iran are retweeted an average of 57.8 times.

3-Twitter does not organize demonstrations:

Reformist leaders and their supporters make decisions to organize protests and they communicate it through different means. We have no evidence that people tweeted each other to organize a demonstration. As Evgeny Mozrov, a fellow of the Open Society Institute in New York said to the Washington Post:

“[Twitter] has been of great help in terms of getting information out of the country. Whether it has helped to organize protests — something that most of the media are claiming at the moment — is not at all certain, for, as a public platform, Twitter is not particularly helpful for planning a revolution (authorities could be reading those messages as well!).”

4-Tweets can misinform people:

Recently one of several people tweeted that 700,000 people had gathered at the Ghoba mosque in Tehran. Several people re-tweeted it and even posted the news on their blogs. Meanwhile mainstream international media estimated the number of protesters was between 3000-5000 people. What could have happened to the other a 699,5000 people?

As the new Twitter Journalism website by founder of Breaking Tweets, Craig Kanalley, explains:

“It’s obvious people want information from Iran, and they want it in real-time. So it doesn’t take much for a person to hit “RT” and to rebroadcast information they feel may be a “scoop.” But where’s the gatekeeper?
The gatekeeper is the retweeter, who takes a look at the tweet and within seconds decides its value. Anyone who eyes a retweet must keep this in mind, and treat every tweet with caution until confirmed.”

5-Tweeting is recycling news and tips

Most people tweet what they read on websites, and have also shared useful tips and information to help Iranians circumvent internet filtering and censorship. In other words tweeting helps create an information pool.

6-Misunderstanding the sender:

Sometimes there are ‘senders’, like Iranians based in the West, for example, who receive information about a demonstration from a source and tweet it without checking the facts, or without mentioning any references. Receivers – especially if they are not Iranians – may think the guy is in Tehran and tweeting from the frontlines.

7-Activism and agendas:

Most Iranians who tweet are activists supporting the protest movement and promoting a cause. Their information should be double-checked and not be accepted at face value, or as an eyewitness observation.

With all these things in mind, it is clear that Twitter is both a source of information as well as mis-information. It's the people behind the screens that matter, as much as the people who report on what they are saying.

18 comments

  • You know, twitter becomes more mis-information service. I think it depends on its popularity.

  • Most of the analysis I’ve seen so far is dominated by English twets. I imagine internal discussions were mainly in Persian. Do you have any data on that?

  • geneven

    Twitter is approximately as reliable as conversations with real people are. I never saw the tweet about 700,000 people, and if I had, I would have immediately looked to see whether reliable people echoed that estimate, just as I would never trust a spectacular claim by Fox News.

    In other words, Twitter is extremely reliable and extremely helpful, if used properly.

  • […] Hamid Tehrani at Global Voices has an interesting analysis of Iran: Myth and reality about Twitter. […]

  • سارا

    great article. I just have one quick note. In your language you assume that tweeters are male. For example:

    “Receivers – especially if they are not Iranians – may think the GUY is in Tehran and tweeting from the frontlines.”

    It is no doubt that Iranian women have been equally present in most aspects of this struggle, including reporting and tweeting. So I would appreciate you using gender-neutral language. Being invisible is not a good feeling.

  • Usefull information. It doesn’t take long with a some critical evaluation to figure this out… you can vet the twits by what you’ve seen before, by an increasing number of filter questions… but then the information is there where it’s too often absent altogether from MSM.

  • Very true indeed and a good example. I remember the first tweet estimating 3000 ppl gathered. Then it was RT’ed a few times, and suddenly it became 33000, then 60.000 and finally 700.000

    My personal estimate is more than 3000, possibly more than 5000 that wanted to attend but was blocked. But we will never know for sure.

    Any information being published, be it twitter or even newspapers, should at all times be treated with sceptism. By investigating further the reader may eventually be able to piece the right information together and make up their own minds of what to think.

  • […] Tehrani of Global Voices gives a sober assessment of the role of Twitter in the Iranian election protests. One of the issues he raises is the temptation to relay breaking news without verifying it. The […]

  • Excellent piece, Hamid, particularly your conclusion, which begs reiteration: “It’s the people behind the screens that matter, as much as the people who report on what they are saying.”

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