by Emily von Wiese, Public Communication/CDAE major @ University of Vermont.
Dubbed the “Twitter Revolution,” the Iranian 2009 Green Movement sparked the advent of social media platforms as political organizing tools. Iranians took to the streets after the 2009 presidential election, protesting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and demanding his removal from office. Before elected president, Ahmadinejad served as the mayor of Tehran, where he built a violent reputation for himself, consistently violating human rights, instilling fear in Iranians throughout the country. Having just risen to popularity, Twitter became the way Iranians communicated with one another and with those outside the country. Iranians used the social media platform to post important logistical protest information, as well as posting updates to inform those outside of the country on the happenings. U.S. news media pounced on this idea of a new form of activism, and used Twitter as the new symbol for activism. The story of the “Twitter Revolution” took over U.S. media outlets, showing the world this new power that social media has given citizens. This exaggeration and focus on Twitter’s role in the protests took away from media coverage the people of Iran and the issues they face. This coverage failed to give Americans an accurate and full picture of the Iranian political climate and the oppression faced by Iranian citizens. Evgeny Morozov sums up Twitter’s role in the Iranian protests when he writes, “If a tree falls in the forest, and everybody tweets about it, it may not be the tweets that moved the tree.” (Morozov, 2012) Although Twitter was abuzz with Tweets about the Iranian protests, how much of a role did Twitter really play in facilitating these protests? According to the U.S. media, it played the biggest and most important role, but according to researchers and those on the ground during the protests, Twitter didn’t play as big of a role as the U.S. media made us think.
As Iranians were in the depths of fighting for their rights, the U.S. media focused not on the people who were fueling this protest, but the western technology being used by these people. Iranian elections accounted for 28% of the news during the week of June 15th, the most attention on an international event other than the Iraq war since 2007 (Pew, 2009). The main media narrative throughout being the role of social media as a facilitator for the protests. Due to restrictions on foreign reporters in Iran, media outlets relied on social media to gather information from the ground. A large portion of mainstream coverage on Iran focused on Social media, with 1 in every 20 stories published about Iran during the week of June 15th focusing completely on social media’s role in the uprisings. The U.S. government played a large role in aiding this Twitter media narrative, with a State Department official requesting Twitter delay scheduled site maintenance in Iran to not disrupt Iranians’ ability to organize their protests. This move not only politicized Twitter, showing the rest of the world that the United States government views Twitter as a democracy spreading tool; it gave the media another big story to run, further exaggerating the role of Twitter. State Department involvement with Twitter, and the vast media coverage on it helped spread cyber-utopian ideals, spreading the idea that the internet , especially social media, holds the key to spreading democracy, and is a powerful political tool that can be utilized by people and governments across the world. This mode of thinking is dangerous since the U.S. government has almost no grasp on the use and implications of social media. The news media’s focus on these issues made it seem as though Twitter was the reason the protests were organized and continuing to happen. This was not the case.
Hamid Tehrani, editor of the blogging network Global Voices, argues that the role of Twitter was overemphasized by western media, the Guardian reported on his thoughts in an article titled, “Iran’s ‘Twitter Revolution’ was exaggerated, says editor.” Tehrani admonished the western media coverage of the protests, “The west was focused not on the Iranian people but on the role of western technology. . . Twitter was important in publicising what was happening, but its role was overemphasised.” (Weaver, 2010) He goes on to estimate that there were fewer than 1,000 active Twitter users in or around Tehran at the time of the protests, a number much smaller than the media reports made it seem at the time. In a June 2009 article, Wired spoke to professor Babak Rahimi, author of “Internet & Politics in Post-revolutionary Iran,” who was in Tehran at the time. Rahimi spoke of the Western media’s “over-hyping” of Twitter, “I just wonder (or worry) how the U.S. media is projecting its own image of Iran into what is going here on the ground.” (Wired, 2009) A 2010 article from The Atlantic evaluates the “Twitter Revolution,” concluding that Twitter wasn’t the democracy spreading, political organizing tool that Western media reported on. Although Twitter wasn’t used as a key organizational tool in the Green Movement, “the Green movement remains the first major world event broadcast worldwide almost entirely via social media.” (Keller, 2010) This marks the first sign of a serious paradigm shift about where and how we get news, prompting a serious look into the relationship between social media and the traditional media.