A year ago cultural policy researcher Ben Eltham and I delivered a conference paper (PDF) and presentation (PDF) on divergent views of Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 elections. The paper’s comparative approach and mention of United States diplomacy and psychology operations policies caused a furore in the peer review process. The paper later became our most downloaded, read, debated and cited paper yet.
A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Our paper’s view was slightly more nuanced and tried to offer multiple perspectives. Twitter’s market valuation and public visibility soared because of event-driven stories like Iran’s elections and the social network’s ‘net responder’ role during California and Victoria’s 2009 fires. Its self-organising capability and viral nature enabled Western activists, international non-government organisations, and media to monitor Iran’s elections. However, those same features enabled Iran’s Basij paramilitary to hunt down protestors during the uncertainty about the election’s outcome. Twitter’s social network platform also fulfilled what neoconservative strategists had been looking for since at least late 1998 and publicly since 2000: a ‘next generation’ replacement for radio and satellite television broadcasts into Iran, usually from a Los Angeles-based diaspora to Tehran students.
Gladwell updates our paper’s findings:
In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
Eltham gave our paper a melancholic, realist conclusion: for all the #IranElection tweets, the Basij targeted, arrested and killed real people.