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Twitter on Iran: A Go-to Source or Almost Useless?

June 22, 2009 04:29 PM
by Shannon Firth
With the disputed presidential election fueling a crisis in Iran, critics debate Twitter’s value as a source of information.

Social Media Takes Center Stage in Iran

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For over a week, following the disputed June 12 elections in Iran, Twitter has been inundated with videos, photos and messages about protests in Iran. Deprived of e-mail and text messaging services, many Iranian protestors appeared to rely on Twitter to report on conditions and organize demonstrations. News seekers outside of Iran have used Twitter to stay informed.

Twitter’s significance as a source of news on the protests was underscored by a U.S. State Department request to delay scheduled site maintenance tasks so that the network would remain available to dissidents. According to BusinessWeek, Twitter complied and waited until it was 1:30 a.m. in Iran to perform its routine repairs. Even as President Obama seemed to distance himself from the fray, his administration was making certain that the unofficial information flow continued, noted Mashable.

MSNBC in one breath belittled Twitter as a tool for “transmitting narcissism in 140 characters or less,” then swiftly acknowledged that Twitter is considered the “go-to source” for information about Iran’s protests. And the Huffington Post went further saying, “Social media and Twitter are to democracy like emergency rooms are to life and death.”

Others, like BusinessWeek’s Joel Schectman, report that the Twitter site itself has been blocked and the only people able to dodge the government’s curveball are those who use who can set up proxy addresses.

According to Sysomos, a technology company in Toronto, there are only 8,600 Twitter users who report Iran as their location in their profiles. Experts in Iran say text messaging, making phone calls, and even simply knocking on doors appear to be the easiest ways to organize meetings.
Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, is also skeptical. He cautions, “Social media are helpful in exposing what's happening to the outside world, but it's a mistake to think that these protests [in Iran] are because of social media.” Zuckerman adds that the international press is only focused on social media because their own reporters can’t access the story.

Both CNET and The Economist upbraided CNN for airing a re-run of Larry King instead of discussing the protests last Saturday. And Twitter users developed the hashtag (a keyword used as an indexing tool for following a topic) #CNNfail.
One message read, “Iran went to hell, Media went to bed.” CNET also condemned the BBC, NPR, and The New York Times for remaining “mostly mute.”

And yet The Economist also tore into Twitter, calling it “almost useless” as a news source. It wrote that Americans and Britons had clogged the site with supportive tweets.

The Economist added that Twitter and YouTube are both hamstrung by “clumsy search engines.” Slate’s Jack Schafer echoed the Economist, calling Twitter “more noise than signal.” He noted an article by a colleague who had catalogued “erroneous data points,” including a rumor that Mir Hossein Mousavi was under house arrest.

Schafer also cited Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan, who said tweets were “more about the mood than hard fact,” and Zuckerman, who told NPR that supporters of Ahmadinejad are also using Twitter “as a disinformation channel.”

Ultimately, The Economist offered tempered praises to bloggers from the Huffington Post, the Atlantic and The New York Times for acting as a filter to the Twitterverse. The article read, “It was not pretty, and some of it turned out to be inaccurate. But it was by far the most comprehensive coverage available in English.”

Background: Iran's disputed elections

After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential election—or perhaps just before the announcement, as Time magazine suggested—Iran’s government temporarily suspended text messaging and e-mail services.

Mir Hossein Moussavi, Ahmadinejad’s strongest adversary, declared foul play, inciting protests that are ongoing. Without e-mail and text messaging services, some angry protestors turned to Twitter and to Farsi Web sites to both vent frustrations and to organize meetings.

Mashable has compiled a "social media timeline" for coverage of the Iranian elections on Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia and other Web sites.

Related Topic: Dying woman, a symbol for protestors

A short video of a dying woman, referred to on Twitter as Neda and discussed in messages with the hashtag #Neda, has begun circulating on YouTube, Twitter and other social media sites. The woman was allegedly shot in Teheran but as the Los Angeles Times reports, “It is not possible to verify the authenticity of these images.” 

According to CNN, protestors are calling her a martyr and have created posters with her image. Because the video is so graphic, YouTube has only allowed access to registered members.
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