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 assassination 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.
This article originally appeared in Ethan Zuckerman's blog, My heart's in Accra.
Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Emmanuel Gadenne.
"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...."
You should come to some of the Shorenstein Center events to learn much, much more about the limitations of the best reporters. What years of attending the brownbag lunches there has taught me is that reporters don't see the forest for the trees but tend also not to see the trees for the leaves.