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Jun. 15 2009 - 11:17 pm | 296 views | 8 recommendations | 42 comments

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?

___

Like this post on the Iranian election aftermath? Check out these other posts from True/Slant contributors:

Phil Zabriskie: ‘Winds of Tehran Part II’
Jonathan Curiel: In droves, Iran’s women have come out of their political closet
Mark Drapeau: How the Iranian Elections Turned “CNN Fail” Into a Media Success
Ethan Porter: Obama engages by not engaging
Marc Herman: How Iran ‘Jams’ Election News
Kate Klonick: This is no green revolution
Ryan Sager: Iran: Knowing Nothing


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  1. collapse expand

    Josh, once again, you are one of the few rationally objecting voices to the fervor about the elections in Iran the general public is indulging in. I appreciate your “wait and see” approach to this debacle.

    There is something about Twitter that gives stories more staying power. Three people say it, and then it just zooms around, until NBC and CBS are quoting it on the 5:30 news.

  2. collapse expand

    Good for you, Josh Kucera. A voice of reason. I want to know as badly as the next guy, but I rather hear nothing if I can’t get the truth.

    Just as I wish for ourselves, I wish the people of Iran the leader they choose. But I wonder how we’ll know for sure either way. After all, we’re still bickering about our own “stolen” 2000 election …

  3. collapse expand

    Thanks so much, Josh. This is a really crucial discussion.

    I’m sure that most of this (oversized crowd estimates etc) is an innocent over-reach in a time of chaos.

    But the Iranian opposition no doubt knows that the western media is happy to pass these rumors on, and there is a real danger when we encourage people to self-report w/out any vetting. Sullivan and the other bloggers who’ve gone a little nuts these past few days are practically begging them to exaggerate or tell us stories we want to hear.

  4. collapse expand

    Josh,

    You make several valid points. But you could just as easily point to errors made by traditional journalists, no? Because something is “tracked down” doesn’t mean that it is necessarily true, though I applaud the standards that a great many journalists still maintain. My thinking is that Twitter has simply beaten cable news at its own game.

    http://trueslant.com/davidknowles/2009/06/16/did-twitter-just-overthrow-mainstream-media/

    Twitter doesn’t replace the need for reliable, measured journalism, but the opposite certainly hasn’t been proven to be true, either.

  5. collapse expand

    I don’t think it’s useful to conflate Twitter and the internet, as you do in a couple of places here. What we saw on Twitter over the weekend broke into two categories: Twitter feeds that either originated or purported to originate in Iran, and were generating content; and feeds like Sullivan’s that were rebroadcasting content sourced elsewhere. In both cases, readers should have exercised some skepticism about the validity of the facts. But that’s true of a lot of the sources available online, whether they’re blogs or social networking sites. Caveat emptor, I guess is what I’m saying. Yeah, Twitter got a lot of attention this weekend and drove a lot of the online action. But to throw it into the fire by itself, as you do in a couple places here (not throughout), is to accuse it of being solely responsible for the shortcomings of unmediated online reporting in general. And I think Twitter gets a bad enough rap as it is.

  6. collapse expand

    Bill – I agree, and if I mentioned Twitter alone, it was just shorthand for all social media. I’m not trying to single out Twitter.

    David – I agree again, up to a point. But I think these are two separate issues. Cable news truly did fail this story. And social media appears to have. But I don’t think print media did.

  7. collapse expand

    “Social Media echo chamber” is an apt description of Twitter. Paper, TV, radio, blogs, Twitter…platforms for news, all of them. Twitter is simply that, a platform. It can disseminate information or misinformation. It’s only as good – as valuable and effective – as the people who use it. That includes those who Twitter AND those who follow. In today’s world, both writers and readers have more responsibility. Oh, and thanks for including some of those…what are they called again…oh, yeah, facts. I think some may have forgotten what facts look like. This is a good reminder.

  8. collapse expand

    Josh, Andrea: Yep. Slate’s John Dickerson said one of the smartest things I ever heard about Twitter: “If you don’t want to be bored on Twitter, don’t follow boring people.” He was trying to offer a reply to the critics who lob up the lazy charge that Twitter is, in toto, people writing about what they had for lunch (all evidence to the contrary, but finding that evidence means, you know, actually looking at the service). But it’s a more broadly applicable approach than that: If you don’t want to get bad information on Twitter, don’t trust unreliable sources. In other words, the point you made so well above. Thanks.

  9. collapse expand

    Great post, I’m a little late to this.

    Perhaps this is an obvious point, but one of the “dangers” of the printed word (whether it’s printed on the internet or in the newspapers) is that people take it very seriously. So the rumors you mentioned, Josh, circling around crowds in foreign capitals, as you suggest, die out because when one hears a rumor, you usually wouldn’t give it that much credibility–ie, identified as rumor. But reading a rumor gives it more legitimacy. Journos do get a bunch of stuff wrong on the first drafts(ever go back and re-report a wire story a week later?) but usually there are some(if broken) standards to make sure we’re acting responsibly, not just, “I heard this from a guy who heard it from a guy.”

  10. collapse expand

    There are parallels to this new challenge all around us — in healthcare, where we once listened to our doctor, we now go to webmd and other sites and chat with people everywhere who have had similar experience to ours; in tracking pedophiles, people now share what they know the way police once sent out bulletins to qualified officers only; in product safety, citizen journalism is causing multinational corporations to deal when they suspect a defect or grounds for a lawsuit. The list goes on, of course. In news, there is a particular urgency fueling everyone’s haste, and seasoned reporters will increasingly play the paternal, Walter Cronkite, role. The voice of reason. The purveyor of calm. This used to come from politicians. Those days are over. When people need news thrills, we are all at risk.

  11. collapse expand

    I’m glad to see someone remove their “hopes” for this situation, and spell out some facts…Fact is, we’re being talked to by people trying to sway our opinion.
    Why are all of their signs in English?
    George Soros financed the “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova earlier this year…Testing ground?
    We don’t know….Let’s please stay out of it.

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    I'm a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to Slate, EurasiaNet and U.S. News and World Report. But before that I was a high school teacher in Bulgaria, an illegal day laborer in Tel Aviv, a wire service reporter in South Dakota, a war correspondent in Iraq and a Pentagon hack. And as often as I can, I try to get myself on a bus or train in a new country, looking out the window and trying to figure out what it all means. (See more at www.joshuakucera.net. And follow me on Twitter.)

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