Is the Revolution Really Being Twittered?
Over the weekend, I, like a great many other people, got caught up in trying to find out as much as I could about the extraordinary events happening in the wake of Iran’s presidential election. Also, like a great many people, I quickly became appalled by the general lack of coverage by the U.S. news media of the growing protests (with a few notable exceptions). By and large, the best sources of fresh information I could find were on the blogs, with Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish and Nico Pitney’s blogging at HuffPo leading the way, and Twitter.
Of course, once the networks trained their fire appropriately, some piss poor excuses were offered by prominent American media figures (via Twitter in one case, natch) to explain why they dropped the ball with their initial coverage, a few journalists are questioning the value and veracity of a lot of the information that the outside world received via tweets, many of which were supposedly coming from protesters who managed to slip them by internet censors in Iran. A closely related criticism is that the value of Twitter as an organizing tool for the protesters has been over hyped.
We wouldn’t be journalists if we didn’t try to ascertain the truth behind the information that’s being tweeted with alarming speed from inside Iran and obviously, as with any kind of situation when there is a virtual flood of competing accounts, one must be doubly skeptical in assessing what news is available and how dependable it might be.
That said, I think some of the criticism of Twitter is a little unwarranted. For one, I think the comparison to the first supposed “Twitter Revolution” is incorrect. To me, the better comparison would be to last fall’s attacks in Mumbai. I haven’t seen the user stats, but I would bet that a large number of the tweets coming out are from actually inside Iran (as opposed to the situation in Moldova, where a lot of the Twitter activity came from outside the country). As Patrick Thornton points out, the widespread use of mobile phones as entry points to social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook make them especially hard to block (not that the Iranian government has stopped trying to do so). During the Mumbai attacks, Twitter was great at being able to keep people informed in almost real time, which is a lot of what was happening, and is happening, in Iran. I believe that the organizational aspects of Twitter were, and are, secondary to the more general broadcast (“What are you doing?”) aspect of Twitter. Twitter is like a Swiss Army Knife; it can be almost anything you want it to be.
The criticism that was leveled at the cable nets, to me, had less to do with any kind of social media/blog triumphalism (though there’s obviously been a bit of that), but rather about the fact that they just seemed…disinterested, which is why I really don’t understand this comment by the usually on point Michael Crowley:
And, yes, cable TV coverage was wretched this weekend, but it’s gotten a lot better now. I think a big part of the problem wasn’t that cable can’t or won’t cover a story like this, but that it was a summer weekend and lots of MSM people were checked out–and, probably accurately, assumed many of their readers and viewers were as well.
Emphasis mine. I just think that’s completely off-base. CNN, which took most of the heat for the poor coverage (though Fox and MSNBC were no better), made a name for itself with its wall to wall coverage of another revolution, that of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989. The penultimate events at Tiananmen Square happened on June 4th and 5th, just about two weeks before the events now happening in Iran. So I don’t buy the excuse that people were “checked out”; people tend to tune in to potentially world altering events. Maybe there was an echo chamber effect, but the turnover on Twitter and the action on Facebook makes me think it was more than that. Furthermore, it’s much easier now, due to cellular technology and the widespread use of laptops and broadband internet service that can capably deliver high quality video, to push news out as it happens. I contend that people would have tuned in if they’d had a credible place to go for information. It was the absence of main stream media that lead people to turn Twitter for news. Imperfect though it might have been, it was at least something, which is more than you could say for CNN (which was running a Larry King interview with the dudes from “American Chopper” or Fox News, which featured the latest bleatings of Glenn Beck).
Even in this highly fractured media environment, the cable nets and the major papers can still help drive coverage on certain stories if they choose to do so. The relationship between old media and new media can be mutalistic and supplemental instead of parasitic. But it’s obviously much harder for bloggers to do the enterprise reporting or build the broadcast audience that ABC or CBS or the Wall Street Journal has. We still need the big boys to help set the beat, and while I know that they may not have had significant resources in country, they could have pumped up the volume significantly on what was happening just by pointing attention to it.
Instead, they got to the dance late and can’t figure out why everyone thinks their beats are whack when they start spinning.