Cyber-con

In the London Review of Books, James Harkin writes:

Does Twitter have the power that is claimed for it? Some evidence from the contested Iranian election is presented in Death to the Dictator!, the first book-length account of the activist movement’s rise and fall. The book claims to be the work of an Iranian journalist writing under a pseudonym, and it mostly describes the experience of an (also pseudonymous) young man from Tehran who is swept up in the excitement and then arrested and tortured by the Basij militia. What starts out as a campaign alleging electoral fraud in support of a defeated politician quickly spirals into something more interesting: a chaotic uprising against the clerics and the Revolutionary Guards which, had it continued to spread and gather momentum, might have threatened the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Social media, however, play a minor role in Afsaneh Moqadam’s story, and an ambiguous one. At first the protesters are happy to use their mobiles to let each other know about upcoming rallies, and to share images of the demonstrations on YouTube. Soon, however, they grow wary of the rush of information. ‘Cellphone cameras, Facebook, Twitter, the satellite stations,’ the anonymous narrator complains: ‘The media are supposed to reflect what is going on, but they seem, in fact, to be making everything happen much faster. There’s no time to argue what it all means.’ Many come to believe that Western mobile phone companies have supplied the Iranian government with software to enable them to eavesdrop on their conversations. Some even fear that their mobiles have become bugging devices.

Before long the protagonist is urging his fellow activists not to bring their mobiles on demonstrations – if they lose them or drop them, they will be traced back to their owners. On one of the later demos, he notices someone surreptitiously taking pictures of himself and his fellow demonstrators on his mobile phone. Then he sees a photo of himself on a pro-government website that is soliciting help in identifying the troublemakers – a novel application of what internet gurus call ‘crowdsourcing’. It’s only after the crackdown on 20 June that the protesters retreat to their apartments to spend hours on the internet, sharing anti-filtering software and searching for scraps of news on Facebook, YouTube and reformist websites. And it’s now that the authorities clamp down hard: the internet is often blocked or so slow that it almost comes to a halt and the mobile network is often switched off, making it impossible to send texts. When service is finally restored, one semi-serious suggestion passed around among the activists is that they abandon the entire medium: ‘Boycott SMSs! That will cost the telecoms a packet!’

If Death to the Dictator! has little time for Twitter, that’s hardly surprising. When you look at the figures you realise that only a very small number of Iranians were using it. In 2009, according to a firm called Sysomos which analyses social media, there were 19,235 Twitter accounts in Iran – 0.03 per cent of the population. Researchers at al-Jazeera found only 60 Twitter accounts active in Tehran at the time of the demonstrations, which fell to six after the crackdown. There’s certainly a growing internet culture in Iran – in Blogistan, the media academics Annabelle Sreberny and Gholam Khiabany estimate that there are about 70,000 active blogs in the country, including a vibrant gay blogosphere – but it’s far from being the preserve of liberal reformists. Ahmadinejad’s supporters used Facebook and Twitter to spread his campaign messages while, on the other side, someone set up a Facebook group called ‘I bet I can find 1 million people who dislike Ahmadinejad’ (it had attracted 26,000 followers by April 2010). There’s little evidence, however, that any of this internet activity fuelled the street demonstrations; most were organised by word of mouth and text messages sent to friends. But the internet helped protesters bypass the state media and, for the few information-hungry Iranians who had it, Twitter allowed news to be sent out of the country when the authorities were blocking the mobile network. Even here, however, the global solidarity it bought for their cause might well have distracted them from the real work of reaching out to their fellow citizens.

It was more useful for the global media. ‘Twitter functioned mainly as a huge echo chamber of solidarity messages from global voices, that simply slowed the general speed of traffic,’ the authors of Blogistan conclude. On 16 June the authorities forbade journalists from covering the demonstrations without permission. Kicking their heels in their hotel rooms, most foreign correspondents began surfing through the blizzard of tweets and video clips to try and work out what was going on. But it was all difficult to verify, and a good part was tweeted from outside the country: to add to the chaos, many overseas sympathisers had changed their location to make it look as if they were in Iran. The point – perhaps – was to confuse the Iranian authorities by opening the information gates, but the flood of unverifiable tweets may have confused the protesters too. Some of what was sent around on Twitter – the news, for example, that Mousavi had been arrested – simply wasn’t true, so the movement’s high-profile foreign supporters were often retweeting rumour and disinformation from the comfort of their desktops. ‘Here, there is lots of buzz,’ the owner of a US-based activist site told the Washington Post. ‘But once you look … you see most of it is Americans tweeting among themselves.’

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2 thoughts on “Cyber-con

  1. Christopher Hoare

    I’m very skeptical of the value of this wave of wireless and Internet communication. It’s mostly ignorance unleashed. The speed of informed discussion is slowed and the speed of stupidity magnified.

    But it’s all another 21st century bubble, that will likely explode and disappear in a few years. The more ‘investors’ who are brought down with it, the better for the core values of humanity.

  2. alexno

    There you are, all those thousands of Bazaris from south Tehran, who made the revolution in 1979, don’t seem to have been on twitter, indeed don’t seem to have moved against Ahmedinejad at all. As for all the peasants in the countryside, they don’t seem to have had twitter accounts either, although I would have thought at least their acquiescence would have been necessary for a successful revolution.

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