UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

July 22, 2009

THE DANGERS OF A TWITTER REVOLUTION

Evgeny Morozov, Boston Globe - It's true that social media could do wonders when it comes to making many people aware of government's abuse or the venue of a rally. However, organizing protests is quite different from publicizing them; the former requires absolute secrecy. . . Discussing logistical matters on Twitter is simply going to attract unnecessary attention of the government and other detractors. This is why most such discussions take place on secure private platforms like e-mail or instant-messaging.

Besides, not all online activism is effective activism. What good is the ability of foreigners to contribute via Twitter if their contributions only worsen the situation for activists on the ground? Consider a much-publicized campaign to launch cyber-attacks on Iranian websites that are loyal to Ahmadinejad. Thanks to a tremendous viral success, hundreds of Twitter users - including many Americans and Europeans - took up "cyber-arms'' and launched their offensive, most of them without realizing that such attacks would also slow down Internet access to everyone else, including supporters of Moussavi, who might be unable to share their protest updates.

Similarly, the inadvertent consequence of a Twitter-based campaign to publicize the online locations of proxies - sites that may help to circumvent Iran's censorship - was that access to these sites was shut down too. For all it's worth, we may as well have been observing a Twitter "counterrevolution'': The fact that Twitter-based activism is restricted to cyberspace does not absolve it of its destructive capabilities.

We may be prone to embrace the thesis that the "Twitter revolution'' is shaking down the authoritarian fixtures of Iran simply because we know so much about the online activities of Moussavi's supporters - and almost nothing about those of conservative hard-liners. That their voices are missing from Twitter does not mean they are not relying on the same new media tools to mobilize their own supporters; they simply do it in Farsi and on local sites - we simply do not know where to look.

We shouldn't forget that Iran's hard-liners are not averse to technology: After all, it was the use of tape recorders and video cassettes that allowed the exiled Ayatollah Khomenei to build up revolutionary spirit in the country during the 1970s. His more contemporary adherents are as keen on blogging as their secular counterparts; religious seminaries in Qom, Iran's center of Islamic learning, have been offering blogging workshops since 2006; a dedicated organ - called The Bureau for the Development of Religious Web Logs - has been controlling these developments.

Thus, Iran's regime is quite knowledgeable about social media. Perhaps we should not read too much into the government's reluctance - or, some have argued, inability - to ban tools like Twitter. The reasons for these may be much more banal: These tools are simply too useful as sources of intelligence about what is happening in the country. Not only do they help the Iran government to follow the events closely (as well as to understand the perception of the government's actions) in every single locality with an Internet connection, they also help it to understand the connections between various activists and their supporters in the West. From the intelligence-gathering perspective, Twitter has been a gift from heaven.

However tempting it might be to attribute the Iranian protests to the power of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, we should be extremely careful in our conclusions, especially given that the evidence we are working with is extremely sparse. By sticking labels like "cyber-revolution'' on events in Tehran, we overstate the power of social media and make it look much more threatening than it really is.

. . . The repercussions of a false "Twitter revolution'' in Tehran might be global too. Unfortunately, it is going to be bloggers in Russia, China, or Egypt who would eventually pay the price for such exaggeration; their governments, already suspicious of new media, may now want to take preventive measures - that usually involve intimidation and arrest - well in advance.

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