What If We Twittered the Revolution and Nobody Came?

Marc Ambinder tells us that the Revolution Will Be Twittered.

… when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities. … as Iranian authorities shut down internet servers, it allowed younger protesters… to organize and to follow updates by Mir Hossein Mousavi; by spreading the word about the location of government crackdowns and the threat of machine-gun-wielding soldiers, it probably saved the lives of any number of would-be revolutionaries. … In this way, Twitter served as an intelligence service for the Iranian opposition. There are even hints that, once Iranian authorities figured this out, they attempted to spread misinformation via Twitter.
The second element is less important but more relevant to politics here at home. Given the popularity of Twitter with American political activists on the right and the left, and given the near-universal language of the Iranian twitterers’ cry from freedom, it was almost inevitable that prominent political activists here would retweet and take up their cause. … There is a now a rare and perhaps tenuous solidarity among left and right about Iran, a conviction that the United States government has to support the protesters, has to declare the election invalid, has to deny the action by the sovereign (albeit corrupt) Iranian government. The position of the Obama administration is more cautious and calculating. As painful as the images of revolution may be, as heart-rending as the suffering of the Iranian people may seem, the principle foreign policy priority of the United States vis-a-vis Iran is about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. An administration official said over the weekend that the U.S. would talk to the government of Iran as it was, not the government of Iran that it wanted. Indeed, regime change is not and has never been part of the Obama calculus.

As someone who has thought a reasonable amount over the past few years about the relationship between information technology and political action, I am somewhat skeptical of these claims (I also don’t know what the word ‘protagonal’ means, but that’s a whole different issue). First – while Twitter (like SMS) can be used to organize protests on the fly, I haven’t yet seen any evidence that it made a substantial difference to organizing efforts in Iran. This is not to say that it didn’t – but we need good evidence (which will require Persian language expertise, obviously) of correlation between specific bursts of Twitter communication and forms of social protest etc before we can really be sure that there was an effect. What we can say is that previous instances of ‘color revolution’ relied much less on technology than you would have thought from reading Western media. New technologies tend to be less reliable and more easily disrupted than traditional forms of organizing – while they are surely becoming more important over time, I think it is fair to discount some of the more breathlessly enthusiastic reporting until the actual evidence comes in.

Second – it is all very nice if left and rightwing bloggers agree on the normative valence of the apparent election fraud – but does it actually matter? Almost certainly not – unless it reshapes US policy, which, in this instance, it doesn’t seem to be doing. And is there a consensus among bloggers that the US government should declare the elections invalid? I am not seeing this consensus myself – and perhaps for good reason. Given America’s highly problematic history in Iran, an overly obtrusive condemnation or demand from the US administration would very possibly backfire. Perhaps realpolitik is driving Barack Obama’s reticence – but perhaps it is also a recognition that it is much better for him to speak softly than to wave his big stick around.

None of this is to deny that communications technologies can be important to revolutions and mass protests. Given the difficulties of coordination and collective action, communication is key to shaping people’s expectations about whether they can and should participate in social protest. Dennis Chong’s classic study of the US civil rights movement gets at this very nicely, as does some of Russell Hardin’s work. There is a reason why coup-plotters have traditionally tried for the radio and television stations. But there is also a tendency among US journalists and commentators to fetishize sophisticated technologies when very often, it is decidedly unsophisticated methods of communicating solidarity (such as pot-banging) and organization (leaflets, posters) that work best.

4 Responses to What If We Twittered the Revolution and Nobody Came?

  1. MikeGruz June 15, 2009 at 8:40 pm #

    I generally agree that the proponents of new media may be too quick to give credence to social networking in creating and sustaining this resistance. The author of this post is correct in pointing out that we need to carry out sound research on the aftermath of the election. This is true.

    I consider myself quite savvy in the workings of the Internet, especially with respect to social networking tools. As such, since Saturday morning I have been reading the Twitter feeds, looking at the Flickr photo streams, and watching videos of the protests on Youtube. This isn’t systematic study, but it also isn’t rocket science to see that this revolution (if we can yet call it that) is much, much different than the ones that came before.

    It also goes without saying that technology during the past several uprisings was much different than today. The capabilities of cell phones today means that they can record and upload video and pictures, as well as allow ordinary citizens to circumvent the established media channels under the control of a corrupt government. The simplicity of communication via Twitter (both in message length and the API used to implement it) means that it is incredibly difficult for any entity – government or otherwise – to control. Unlike text messaging, which is wholly reliant upon a state-controlled set of phone providers for its operation, Twitter is under the control of no one.

    This is the reason why Twitter is the game changer when it comes to comparing these latest uprisings to uprisings of the past, imho.

    Where I usually see fault in most criticisms of social media is this: yes, we can look at Twitter alone and say that it might not have a huge impact. We can look at any of the new media forms and say that, taken alone, blogs or Flickr or Youtube might not have much of an impact. But taken together, the fact that I can (from Nebraska) see what an Iranian student is saying about a university under siege, receive real time video showing citizens taking to the streets, only to be beaten by police, should demonstrate the very different situation repressed citizens are finding themselves in.

    I am apt to think that if a person in the central U.S. is being profoundly affected by social media use in Iran, surely it is having quite an impact on those in the thick of these protests.

    Finally, as a person who has been following these uprisings quite closely via social media technologies, I think we should be cautious in stating that “it is decidedly unsophisticated methods of communicating solidarity” that function the best. Sure, in the past this may have been the case.

    But it is not the past, and the closeness now inherent between people and technology is nothing like it was in the past. The author is correct in stating that we need to study this more closely; I most certainly agree. However, I would also highly recommend that we, as observers of the social and political world, do our best not to deny that a very different type of uprising is now occurring in Iran, and that it is more than likely aided by the new communication mediums citizens now have at their fingertips. Both time and research, of course, will tell whether I am right or wrong.

  2. JB June 15, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    I kind of liked “protagonal,” which I can only assume Ambinder is using as an adjectival form of “protagonist.”

  3. Daniel Nexon June 16, 2009 at 11:36 am #

    I think you’re right, Henry, and have been saying so (although without your erudition) for the last day or so. I just reposted a comment about these issues from a friend with family in Ira. It provides a really useful counter-narrative about the role of media and technology in what’s happening in Iran.

  4. tom s. June 16, 2009 at 10:21 pm #

    Agree absolutely – and nice to see this perspective put properly.