The revolution was not tweeted

Sat, Feb 20, 2010, 00:00

The protests following last year’s Iranian election were hailed as the ‘Twitter Revolution’. But a new reports claims Twitter had little or no effect on the events that unfolded. So does social media have a role to play in social activism? asks MARY FITZGERALDForeign Affairs Correspondent

REMEMBER ALL the headlines breathlessly declaring last summer’s post-election turmoil in Iran to be some kind of Twitter Revolution? When tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed return to power, countless western commentators rushed to declare the microblogging service the hero of the hour. Twitter was hailed as a valuable instrument for organising demonstrations, acting as a means of communication between protesters, and providing the latest information on the dramatic events unfolding in the Islamic Republic. “The revolution will be twittered,” proclaimed US-based blogger Andrew Sullivan.

“This is it. The big one,” opined new media guru Clay Shirky.

The Twitter Revolution narrative became so compelling that a US state department official reportedly asked the company to postpone maintenance work so as not to disrupt the flow of tweets apparently emanating from Iran. British prime minister Gordon Brown argued that this brave new digital world meant that something like the Rwandan genocide could not happen again.

But the notion that Twitter and other social media played a defining role in orchestrating one of the greatest challenges the Islamic Republic has faced in its 30-year history always seemed vastly overcooked to anyone who was on the ground in Iran at the time.

Of the scores of protesters I met in Tehran and two other major cities, Isfahan and Shiraz, only one had ever used Twitter, and she admitted that was only once or twice. Most had never even heard of it. With internet access disrupted and text-messaging services shut down, Iranians learned of the anti-government rallies through word of mouth or calls made on landline phones.

The Iranian Twitter Revolution meme is thoroughly debunked in Cloud Culture, a new study examining the impact of social media on the way we live our lives. It reports that a third of Iranians have internet access and the number of Twitter users in the country during last June’s unrest amounted to just 0.082 per cent of the population. “It’s clear that its influence in co-ordinating a serious challenge to a powerfully entrenched regime was wildly overstated,” the report notes.

The idea that Iran was undergoing a Twitter Revolution incorrectly characterised and even trivialised what happened last summer, says Parvin Ardalan, a leading Iranian women’s rights activist who attended the protests. “It was much deeper and wider than that. It involved people from every level of society,” she argues, adding that the focus on Twitter, Facebook and other social media helped bolster the Iranian regime’s claims that the protests were part of a western conspiracy to destabilise the country.

THE EXAMPLE OFIran poses broader questions regarding the use of new media for social and political activism in authoritarian states. The novelty of these tools and their potential to change the way we behave and interact has given rise to what some have termed techno-utopianism. One of the sceptics when it comes to techno-utopianist ideas about the power of the web as a tool for dissidents in oppressive states is Evgeny Morozov, currently the Yahoo! Fellow at Georgetown University. Morozov, whose book on the internet and democracy will be published later this year, argues that the more democratic a country already is, the greater role social media can play.

“I’ve come to believe that it’s not our faulty understanding of the internet, but our faulty understanding of modern authoritarianism and the process of democratisation that confuses us,” he says in an e-mail interview.

“I bet most pundits and policy wonks in Washington, and to a smaller degree Brussels, think of Iranians or the Chinese as being on the brink of the revolution – all they need to add is just some technology . . . This is a very naive view and it underestimates the degree of popularity that these regimes actually enjoy. In short, I think we need to sort out our politics before we even start thinking about technology’s role in it.”

Morozov says his main concern relates to the growing politicisation of cyberspace, in which “the US government acts or speaks as if Google/Twitter/Facebook are the next Voice of America – which makes authoritarian governments suspect that all users of such services are potentially revolutionaries of some sort.” Sooner or later, he maintains, this will lead to “the further ‘localisation’ of the web, whereby local Chinese, Iranian, Russian companies will become more successful than American ones.”

AN UNFORTUNATEconsequence of this, Morozov adds, is that native firms are much more likely to bow to government censorship pressure. “To a large extent, this is already happening in China.” The potential of the web and social media as tools for political and human-rights activism is a double-edged sword. There is much evidence of repressive governments developing increasingly sophisticated programmes to monitor, manipulate and subvert information transmitted on the internet.

“Surveillance and censorship is growing and the lack of security for digitally stored or communicated information is becoming a major problem for human-rights defenders in some countries,” says Dublin-based human rights organisation Front Line.

Working with Tactical Tech, an international NGO that trains advocates in the use of technology for social change, Front Line has developed a digital security tool kit so that activists can learn about ways to ensure confidential e-mail and instant messaging, anonymous surfing and censorship circumvention, data encryption and secure file deletion. At its biannual conference held in Dublin last week, Front Line organised workshops on digital security for some 100 human rights defenders attending the event.

“There is great enthusiasm about the potential of these tools,” says Wojtek Bogusz, a digital security consultant who works with Front Line. “Very often it is the only way to get your voice heard outside a particular country, and sometimes it is the only way of communicating internally too.

“We can see how powerful and serious this is as a means of communication from the actions governments like those in China and Iran are taking to control or suppress it.”

Ali, a man who works for Tactical Tech, says the importance of the sense of community engendered by social media should not be underestimated. “Human rights activists can often feel isolated and their work can make them feel like David against the Goliath. These tools help by allowing them discover that people on the other side of the world are doing similar things. That brings a feeling of empowerment.”

Gaurav Mishra, who has organised social media-based campaigns for elections in India, says one of the main reasons to use Twitter or Facebook in these contexts is that it increases the chances that your cause will catch the attention of an international media obsessed with such tools. “Political organisers use these tools because they create a multiplier effect – not only do you get a story about the campaign but then you also get a story about the fact they are using social-networking tools,” he told BusinessWeek in the wake of the Iranian protests last year. “So you get two stories for the price of one. The international media loves [the] social-networking world. But in India or in Iran, their use is still somewhat limited.”