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What If We Twittered the Revolution and Nobody Came?

- June 15, 2009

“Marc Ambinder”:http://politics.theatlantic.com/2009/06/its_too_easy_to_call.php tells us that the Revolution Will Be Twittered.

bq. … when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities. … as Iranian authorities shut down internet servers, it allowed younger protesters… to organize and to follow updates by Mir Hossein Mousavi; by spreading the word about the location of government crackdowns and the threat of machine-gun-wielding soldiers, it probably saved the lives of any number of would-be revolutionaries. … In this way, Twitter served as an intelligence service for the Iranian opposition. There are even hints that, once Iranian authorities figured this out, they attempted to spread misinformation via Twitter.

bq. The second element is less important but more relevant to politics here at home. Given the popularity of Twitter with American political activists on the right and the left, and given the near-universal language of the Iranian twitterers’ cry from freedom, it was almost inevitable that prominent political activists here would retweet and take up their cause. … There is a now a rare and perhaps tenuous solidarity among left and right about Iran, a conviction that the United States government has to support the protesters, has to declare the election invalid, has to deny the action by the sovereign (albeit corrupt) Iranian government. The position of the Obama administration is more cautious and calculating. As painful as the images of revolution may be, as heart-rending as the suffering of the Iranian people may seem, the principle foreign policy priority of the United States vis-a-vis Iran is about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. An administration official said over the weekend that the U.S. would talk to the government of Iran as it was, not the government of Iran that it wanted. Indeed, regime change is not and has never been part of the Obama calculus.

As someone who has thought a reasonable amount over the past few years about the relationship between information technology and political action, I am somewhat skeptical of these claims (I also don’t know what the word ‘protagonal’ means, but that’s a whole different issue). First – while Twitter (like SMS) can be used to organize protests on the fly, I haven’t yet seen any evidence that it made a substantial difference to organizing efforts in Iran. This is not to say that it didn’t – but we need good evidence (which will require Persian language expertise, obviously) of correlation between specific bursts of Twitter communication and forms of social protest etc before we can really be sure that there was an effect. What we can say is that previous instances of ‘color revolution’ relied much less on technology than you would have thought from reading Western media. New technologies tend to be less reliable and more easily disrupted than traditional forms of organizing – while they are surely becoming _more_ important over time, I think it is fair to discount some of the more breathlessly enthusiastic reporting until the actual evidence comes in.

Second – it is all very nice if left and rightwing bloggers agree on the normative valence of the apparent election fraud – but does it actually matter? Almost certainly not – unless it reshapes US policy, which, in this instance, it doesn’t seem to be doing. And is there a consensus among bloggers that the US government should declare the elections invalid? I am not seeing this consensus myself – and perhaps for good reason. Given America’s highly problematic history in Iran, an overly obtrusive condemnation or demand from the US administration would very possibly backfire. Perhaps _realpolitik_ is driving Barack Obama’s reticence – but perhaps it is also a recognition that it is much better for him to speak softly than to wave his big stick around.

None of this is to deny that communications technologies _can_ be important to revolutions and mass protests. Given the difficulties of coordination and collective action, communication is key to shaping people’s expectations about whether they can and should participate in social protest. Dennis Chong’s “classic study”:http://www.northwestern.edu/ipr/publications/books/chong2.html of the US civil rights movement gets at this very nicely, as does some of Russell Hardin’s work. There is a reason why coup-plotters have traditionally tried for the radio and television stations. But there is also a tendency among US journalists and commentators to fetishize sophisticated technologies when very often, it is decidedly unsophisticated methods of communicating solidarity (such as pot-banging) and organization (leaflets, posters) that work best.