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Iran, citizen media and media attention

It’s been an interesting few days for people who study social media. As the protests over election results have continued in Iran, and Iranian authorities have prevented most mainstream journalists from reporting on events, there’s been a great deal of focus on social media tools, which have become very important for sharing events on the ground in Iran with audiences around the world. I, like many of my friends at the Berkman Center and Global Voices, have spent much of the past two days on the phone with reporters, fielding questions about:

– Whether social media is enabling, causing or otherwise driving the protests in Iran
– How Iranian users are managing to access the internet despite widespread filtering
– The ethics (and practice) of distributed denial of service attacks as a form of information warfare
– Whether such online activities are unprecedented

Rather than tell you what I and colleagues have been saying to reporters, I’ll point you to one of the better stories, by Anne-Marie Corley in MIT’s Technology Review – she interviews several of my Berkman and Open Net Initiative colleagues and outlines the argument many of us are making:

– Social media is probably more important as a tool to share the protests with the rest of the world than it is as an organizing tool on the ground.
– Iranians have been accessing social networking sites and blogging platforms despite years of filtering – there’s a cadre of folks who understand how to get around these blocks and are probably teaching others.
– Because so many Iranians use social media tools – often to talk about topics other than politics – they’re a “latent community” that can come to life and have political influence when events on the ground dictate.

Gaurav Mishra rounds up dozens of blog and MSM articles and offers an excellent overview of arguments around these questions (with a strong dose of his own interpretation, much of which I share.) He references Evgeny Morozov, who’s got a thorough denunciation of DDOS as a strategy for protest, correctly pointing out that it mostly functions to make participants feel better about themselves by giving them a way to feel involved with the protests. Unfortunately, unlike positive online gestures of solidarity (retweeting reports from Iran, turning Twitter or Facebook pictures green), this one does little more than piss off sysadmins, helps Iranian authorities make the case that forces outside Iran are “attacking the country” and encourage user-driven censorship as a response to unwanted speech.

So, given the wealth of commentary on the questions above by folks smarter than me, let me weigh in on some of the questions I haven’t heard asked.

Biases and social media – One of the reasons MSM outlets are so focused on social media is that they’re not able to deploy reporters to cover these protests. In some cases, the majority of reporting from the ground is coming from social media. It’s worth asking what the biases might be in amplifying those social media reports. Ahmedinejad’s supporters tend to be poorer, more rural, less educated and more likely to speak Farsi than Mousavi’s supporters – a picture of the protests via social media runs the danger of overstating Mousavi support or minimizing Ahmedinejad support. We’ve been trying to counterbalance this a bit at Global Voices – Hamid Tehrani, our Iran editor, did a brief roundup last night of bloggers supporting Ahmedinejad. It’s worth noting that the posts he quotes are all in Farsi: language may well be a barrier that is influencing coverage as well, if voices for reform are easily quoted in English and voices for the status quo are in Farsi.

My friend and colleague David Sasaki reminded GV editors that bloggers had predicted a Rafsanjani victory in 2005, and suffered their “Howard Dean” moment when it became clear that their candidate had little support outside the most liberal bloggers. That’s a very different situation than what’s happening now – the hundreds of thousands of peple in the streets points to profound support for Mousavi – but reminds us that the online voices from Iran, especially the English-speaking ones, probably aren’t representative of mainstream opinion.

An Iran story, not a social media story – Iran is one of the countries American and British media pay closest attention to. The use of social media for protest – especially to promote a protest to international audiences – is far from unique. But because there’s such strong media focus on Iran, and such interest in the use of social media for protest, this is a perfect storm for interest in this topic.

I’ve been asking some of the reporters I’ve spoken with where they were on other recent social media and protest stories. Citizen media has emerged as one of the key spaces for journalism in Fiji in the wake of a coup government that’s censoring mainstream media. It’s been a key source of information in Madagascar as that country’s suffered through a violent change of government. (One reporter who I mentioned this to remarked that Madagascar was “just a speck of an island somewhere”. That speck is twice the size of Great Britain and has the population of Australia…) In Guatemala, online media publicized the assasination of a lawyer by forces close to the president… and government authorities began arresting people for twittering the story to amplify it. These weren’t huge stories for most newspapers – the Iran story is huge not because of the social media aspect, but because protests in Iran are a huge story independent of citizen media.

Flock – I’ve written at some length about homophily, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. Turns out that reporters flock, too. It’s somewhat amazing to me the extent to which reporters from really good newspapers are all asking the same questions. I’m glad that people are taking a close look at the phenomenon of social media in the Iranian protests – it’s an important, fascinating and worthwhile topic. But there’s a lot of topics out there, and I wonder whether we benefit from a thousand well-researched stories on this phenomenon rather than a hundred, and nine hundred other stories.

42 thoughts on “Iran, citizen media and media attention”

  1. Hi Ethan,
    I agree with you that reporters journalists tend to copy each other. I’ve been in your position, and I’m now a journalist, so I that’s something I had many occasions to see. I also agree that we probably overestimate, as often, the role of social medias, especially Twitter. But I’m not that convinced by your argument about social medias being mostly used to connect to the outside world. I’m in close contacts with young iranians who participate in the protests. Difficult to draw conclusions, but I feel that they’re also using the Internet and social media – actually more Yahoo Messenger and Gmail chat than Twitter – to circulate information about the protest (time of meeting, etc). In other words, I’d tend to think that the Internet (not just Twitter) is playing a major role in the protests. Although let’s keep in mind that circunventing online censorship is easier than escaping the Pasdaran… So it doesn’t mean that the mouvement will be successful.
    (Sorry for the bad English, no time to write a proper comment…)

  2. No disagreement there, Julien – I suspect there’s a lot of chat and IM being used, as well as mobile phone calls and SMS, which is what contacts in Iran are telling me about… I think that all forms of communication are important, but that we might be overestimating the value of social media as an organizing tool, though not as a reporting tool. Thanks for weighing in.

    Islamoyankee, thanks for the Juan Cole link. Hadn’t seen that – very helpful context.

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  6. Note that the voting results for 2005 were actually almost identical to this year’s: 61.69% for Ahmadinejad and 35.93% for Rafsanjani, though Ahmadinejad scored less than Rafsanjani in the first round of voting.
    However, with, then, some 64% turnout, this year’s turnout of 85% is astounding. Perhaps, in the light of some 30 towns having a voter turnout of over 100%, this can be easily explained…

    Also, on vote rigging, Rafsanjani, in 2005, complained of voting irregularities as well, which, in the light of Moussavi being seen as a proxy for the Rafsanjani family, starts to indicate that this year’s election could simply be something of a rerun of the previous one.

    But back to citizen media: Indeed, Moussavi’s support is significant, but, if anything, not likely enough to be a significant majority of the population, though perhaps the most vocal and, surely, visible.
    In ‘the west’, the lower classes of society typically don’t often make the news, then when they, en masse, vote for a right wing candidate, everyone is suddenly shocked at not being able to see this coming (Le Pen, Wilders, BNP, Haider).

    Clearly, Ahmadinejad has quite some support. We just don’t hear much about it.

  7. I agree with your point on bias. I see the same phenomenon happening often in international reporting on Turkey (where I am based)

    As well as the language barrier I think it’s partly due to a ‘western’ way of seeing the world. As one Iranian/English blogger put it:

    “My information on this is generally funneled through western minds.”


    Until you are exposed to different cultural value systems and ways of thinking I think it’s very difficult to imagine how they work.

    I’m thinking maybe the section of society which speaks English and uses social media is more likely to have experience in working with and relating to the ‘Western’ way of thinking, thus compounding the bias.

  8. That’s really helpful, Babak – thanks for the context regarding 2005 and 2009. The obvious difference is the protest movement – any thoughts on why similar results would lead to such dissimilar reactions four years later? Perhaps I’m wrong and Twitter is the magic ingredient?

    Liz, thanks very much for the reference to ddmmyyyy.org – the post you reference is at http://www.ddmmyyyy.org/2009/06/presidential-elections.php and in general, that’s a very interesting and useful blog. I made the point at a conference yesterday that reading iranian media in English is always going to give some level of bias – I’m guessing that a lot of Iranians writing in English (i.e., the ones most being read by Western audiences) are going to have a significantly different point of view than many of those writing in Persian. Thanks for weighing in.

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  10. Interesting and informative as always — one element I don’t see touched upon, however, is whether the wider awareness of the volume of protest has an emboldening effect (or souring effect, depending upon whether one is for or against)on greater numbers of people. The greater array of means to transmit information does not cause this, but it does seem as though it can accelerate the process. My sense of events in the USSR from 1987 onward is that it was not until the large-scale public protests of 1989 (the linked-hands commemoration of the Moltov-Ribbentrop pact, for example) that people became convinced that “there are more of us than there are of them.” This does not mean that the govt can not clamp down, but it does seem to suggest that it has to try a lot harder (which makes any failures to succeed all the more evident — a factor of some importance, I would think, in a society that is so clearly a few old people trying to run a huge number of young people). The overall issue in the USSR, as I remember it, was people simply stopped believing the gov’t was competent to do anything at all, and so they pretty much quit caring what the gov’t thought.

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  12. Charles, I think that’s an extremely useful train of thought. Theorists of social action propose that it’s critically important for individuals to discover that they’re not alone in protesting a condition or an injustice. Discovering thousands of people on the streets angry about the issues you’re concerned about is a powerful emotional effect. One open question is whether social media has the same effect, whether it reinforces those feelings more strongly or more weakly than the realworld reinforcement.

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  18. Very interesting post. I agree that the attention to iran has been initially driven by mainstream media interest on the country, while there was no interest at all in covering the reports about social media being an important tool in Guatemala, Madagascar and Fiji.
    But I think what is fundamental about social media use on Iran is the size of this cross country, cross cultures and cross religions audience involved; the number of users directly talking or sharing news about Iran can be a leading case for ‘social media audiences influence’, as a ‘come-together potential’ that might one day directly influence mainstream agendas, IMHO.

  19. Ethan, I think as with Moldova, you are seriously underestimating just how important a role Twitter played (keeping in mind that Twitter mainly functioned by relays to websites and out again on various accounts tweeting and often translating those relays) — even though I am not having any illusions here about people being able to Twitter their way to liberal democracy and economic prosperity — they can’t. Still, it is a significantly new and important factor and one that may fade in time, but which is indeed operative now.

    You seem to want to insist that unless the chief leaders of a resistance movement on the street are coordinating their moves block by block using Twitter on their mobile phones, a resistance can’t count as a Twitter Revolution. That just seems very short-sighted to me, and fails to sufficiently take into account what it means for a large diaspora to be connected to some people getting the word out, and in turn, a wider group of active supporters and the general public. That leveraged the small number of students in Teheran into millions, and that means something because it helps create the international community’s pressure, too.

    You say, “Social media is probably more important as a tool to share the protests with the rest of the world than it is as an organizing tool on the ground.”

    But there is a certain ricochet effect that comes from diaspora talking to lots of uninvolved family, still within the country, people not in the main cities, and conveying impressions from a scene the government is trying to suppress. Having people get the word out to Western news operations that are hampered in their coverage of a totalitarian country is also terribly important in giving them tips and independent interview sources, of course mindful of all the factors noted of the inherent bias in the English speakers or urban-based.

    There were dozens of people tweeting out of Iran as you can see from the searches on Twitter. Some 200 at one point. Sure, many went dead and never came back on the air as cell phones went dead or people got arrested. And sure, the government seeded disinformation and False Dmitrys throughout the whole scene, they were cleverly using the same tools. Still, there were enough people getting through, involving enough diaspora and close supporters, that it really made a difference. I would argue it probably prolonged and made larger the protests than they ever would have been before Twitter (or the Internet) but — that brings us to a terrible dilemma.

    Because unless a resistance movement reaches that magic Reuters wire service mark of 100,000 in the main public square with no more than 9 killed (a formula I’ve seen in many of these stories over decades), and then can push forward to the next level of 500,000 and keep under 20 killed, and accomplish things like enlisting the police to turn against the regime and make more ordinary people feel as if they can safely turn out in the streets, the movement loses.

    So turning out more people, and garnering more foreign cheerleaders, and helping more diaspora ricochet back into less involved families — it still doesn’t succeed — the regime and its tools of oppression are too great, and the siding of some of the population with the ruling party too grave a reality (like Belarus).

    So then it turns into a scene like Andijan or worse. The tragedy of social media seems to be that it is indeed a tool for organizing and gaining support and making movements bigger than they would be — but not sufficiently enough to make them break through and succeed. Nothing can replace the f2f person-by-person persuasion that has to happen in politics to get people to cease supporting an oppressive regime.

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  25. Its rather too early to say how this is all going to play out (though certainly not to early to be thinking about whats happening now) , and to estimate the impact of citizen and social media like Twitter in its outcome.

    As someone else pointed out, if the immediate outcomes of this is suppression of the protest movement, there is still, over the longer term, the potential for a strong & lasting influence. The images and stories of strength of the protest movement, and the violence with which the regime responded to it that were reported and disseminated via the citizen & social media, at least as much as they were through the old journalistic institutions. That information will trickle back in to the country over time.

    Babak, I think you need to reach further back in looking for inputs to your electoral calculus. As Juan Cole pointed out, Iranians were electing people much more reformist than Moussavi earlier this decade by strong margins. In 2005 people didn’t just refrain from voting out of disillusionment or protest, the electoral slate was also engineered by the religious establishment to constrain available choices, which probably distorted the numbers even further.

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