Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twittering Off the Beaten Path

"What if Twitter is leading us all astray in Iran?

Protesters in Tehran on June 15 (Getty)

Protesters in Tehran on June 15 (Getty)

Here are a few of the things that we’ve “learned” the last few days about the Iranian elections and their aftermath:

3 million people protested Monday in Tehran
— the losing candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, was put under house arrest
— the president of the election monitoring committee declared the election invalid on Saturday

These are just a handful of data points that have been shooting around the Internet, via Twitter or the opposition-friendly blogs. And all have been instrumental in building a public opinion case against the Iranian government for undercounting the support for Mousavi.

The problem is, none of them appear any longer to be true. The crowd was in the hundreds of thousands, most newspapers reported. Mousavi’s own wife said he wasn’t under house arrest Sunday, and Monday he appeared in person at the protest. And if the president of the election monitoring commission has gone over to the opposition, no serious reporter has reported it.

Also courtesy of the blogosphere, we have two sets of “real” vote counts “leaked” from the Interior Ministry; one set had Ahmedinejad getting 28 percent, and another gave him 13 percent. These are just a few examples I was able to come up with quickly.

Andrew Sullivan, who has been leading the charge in the U.S. to try to get us all to wear green and support the opposition, says that “[t]his event has been Twitter’s finest hour.” One of his commenters tells him: “You are gathering information from a myriad of sources and putting it out there for a cohesive message. CNN, NY Times, et al are merely running an article about ‘thousands’ of protesters. Its a canned message from just a few stale sources.”

But instead, it looks like the Internet is the medium for a lot of unfounded rumors by a lot of (understandably) passionate people in Iran. This is a chaotic situation, and rumors flourish in that environment. I’ve been there: I remember spending a morning in Iraq, during the war, trying to track down confirmation that Tariq Aziz was killed in a hail of bullets trying to run a roadblock while attempting to flee into Kurdistan. Everyone was convinced it had happened. Later in the day he gave a press conference to demonstrate that he was still alive. In Serbia in 2001, as word began to spread that Slobodan Milosevic was going to be arrested soon, a crowd gathered in his backyard, and rumors spread several times that Milosevic had killed himself, or that it was the CIA who was going to make the arrest.

But in the pre-Twitter age, those sorts of rumors petered out quickly if they weren’t true. If they were true, then journalists found out about them and reported them as fact. Now, the latter is still happening, which is why the journalists in Tehran now are writing pieces with considerably more nuance than what you see on blogs. But the former isn’t true any more – rumors can have a longer lifespan on a network of sympathetic blogs, Facebook postings and Twitter feeds.

At this point, we don’t know if there was election fraud or not. The AP has a story describing the current state of play on the fraud allegations (the speed of the announcement is now the main point of debate), and although the evidence for fraud is all in the beginning of the story and the evidence against is at the end, it’s a pretty balanced look that probably isn’t going to convince anyone to change their mind. So no need to rehash the arguments here.

None of this is to excuse the behavior of the government after the election results came out. Or to diminish the bravery and courage of the people who are out in the streets in Tehran getting beaten. But what if it’s based on a lie? A Twitter-fueled, mass delusion of a lie? That the one third of people who voted for Mousavi convinced themselves, via a social media echo chamber that selectively picked rumors and amplified them until they appeared true, that they in fact represented two thirds of the country? And then tried to bring down the government based on that delusion? Maybe it’s not the case this time. But doesn’t this entire episode seem to show how such a thing could happen? And then what?


Twitter and Life in the Shitter

The Tweeting Trolls of the U.S. Military

Agent Provocateurs in Iran