Twitter, Social Media and the revolution in Iran

Will Sunday June 14, 2009 go down in the history books as when Twitter finally came into its own as the voice of the people. Will it be the date when we realize that there is a power in Social Media that can facilitate real social change in ways that no government can.

Or is all just a case of wishful thinking from a minority of people in the Social Media realm trying to pin the popularity of Social Media to the coattails of an event that was bound to happen.

When it all started

It was the Saturday prior to the 14th of June that the first rumbling began to be heard moving through the Twittersphere. The rumblings of a people who felt that the election for the next Iranian president had been stolen from the people as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected. It was also during this time that it became apparent that if you wanted to find out what was happening in Iran you weren’t going to hear it from the mainstream media.

As Sunday rolled around all kinds of questions were being asked on Twitter as to why organizations like CNN weren’t providing more than just a ticker news bite at the bottom of the screen mentioning who won the election. According to what you heard / read on Twitter or a growing number of blogs, CNN and the other mainstream outlets were totally ignoring the growing Green Revolution that was beginning to roll across the Iranian landscape.

There were those however that tried to point out that while the coverage might not have been perfect CNN did in fact provide more coverage than other news organizations

“This is an incredibly important story that CNN, across all of our platforms, has covered thoroughly every day for a week with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in Tehran, among others,” CNN spokesperson Bridget Leininger told the WSJ. “We share people’s expectations of CNN and have delivered far more coverage of the Iranian election and aftermath than any other network.”

In fact, CNN had 101 mentions of Iran up until 1pmET on Sunday — then a 70% increase in mentions over the next nine hours. As of 1pmET yesterday, FNC had 75 mentions and MSNBC 53.

Source Mediabistro

Even CNN’s Rick “Mr. Tweeter” Sanchez went to the airwaves to defend CNN

CNN’s Rick Sanchez took the #CNNfail criticism head-on this afternoon, in a segment at the end of his 3pmET hour. “There have been some questions raised on Twitter as to whether we covered any of the events enough over the weekend,” said Sanchez. “Frankly, it’s a compliment that you expected us to cover it more than our competitors, and we did.”

Source: Mediabistro

As did apparently Don Lemon

Twitterers expressed early on that CNN wasn’t satiating their news needs, and the CNN failure meme (#cnnfail) became so prevalent that anchor Don Lemon took to Twitter to defend the network. On Sunday, CNN improved its coverage, but a press crackdown in Iran meant that, for all major news outlets, reporting became difficult and dangerous.

Source: Daily Intel

The fact was though that all these news organizations seem to be spending more time talking about Twitter and Iran rather than providing news about Iran itself

Meanwhile, Howard Kurtz had Rick Sanchez and sportswriter Gregg Doyel on Reliable Sources for an utterly useless but incredibly ironic debate over Twitter’s relevance. To his credit Sanchez, a mildly obsessive Twitterer, sort of gets it, mentioning that he interviewed someone in Tehran on his show that he’d met on Twitter, but no one on the show seemed to grasp the fact that the Twitter was in midst of handing CNN its proverbial ass as a news source before, during and after the airing of Reliable Sources.

Source: Valleywag

It’s more than just Twitter in the game

While much of the attention centered around Twitter and how it was being used to get the news in Iran out to the world it wasn’t the only Social Media tool that was being used – or misused. It turns out that Friendfeed was becoming another really popular spot for Iranians to get the news out, and because of the way Friendfeed handles conversations there was a lot of comments being made on the news. Unfortunately this isn’t something that the controlling Iranian government wanted so it blocked all access to Friendfeed from within the country

Interestingly enough just as Twitter and Friendfeed were all about getting the news out to the world it appears that YouTube was doing exactly the opposite. According to some preliminary investigating by Mark “Rizzn” Hopkins YouTube is taking down any and all videos it can of the uprising in Iran

If you do a Twitter search using the terms ‘youtube’ and ‘removed,’ you’ll come up with hundreds of tweets from folks who’ve ostensibly had their videos of the riots in Iran removed. This points to a larger pattern of removal, and based on what I’m reading, it seems to center around description and title keyword matches around words like “beating,” “death,” and “killed.”

There might be other terms, and if this is in fact the case as to why the videos are being so quickly removed, it’s a new tactic to me.

If this is indeed the case and this news gains any real traction YouTube could potentially find itself in a PR nightmare.

From Monday forward

Then Monday came the news that the election results had been leaked, showing that rather than being the winner Ahmadinejad actually came in third. Surprisingly though, the Iranian supreme leaders called for an investigation into the election but this has done very little to quell the growing uprising.

At the same time that Twitterites and other Social Media mavens are slapping #CNNFail to their tweets it is becoming increasingly difficult for mainstream media to even report about what is happening

This morning Iran’s Culture Ministry stripped all foreign media of their press accreditation and warned that any journalists seen filming or photographing in the streets will be arrested. But all is not lost — luckily, they are still allowed to report from their hotel rooms (about the firmness of their mattresses or the softness of their toilet paper, we guess).

Source: Daily Intel

This in turn is making Twitter an even more important vehicle of getting news out – even if it is raw and hard to substantiate. Important enough that apparently the State Department was the one responsible for getting Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance that would have shut the service down for a period of time.

Senior officials say the State Department is working with Twitter and other social networking sites to ensure Iranians are able to continue to communicate to each other and the outside world.

By necessity, the US is staying hands off of the election drama playing out in Iran, and officials say they are not providing messages to Iranians or “quarterbacking” the disputed election process.

But they do want to make sure the technology is able to play its sorely-needed role in the crisis, which is why the State Department is advising social networking sites to make sure their networks stay up and running for Iranians to use them and helping them stay ahead of anyone who would try to shut them down.

Source: CNN :: Anderson Cooper

And help is coming in all forms as the Iranian government continues to try and stem the flow of news making its way out to the world. Whether it be all out attacks against Iranian government sites to people from around the world providing constantly updated lists of web proxies for those in Iran to use the news keeps flowing out to the world.

Even as we hear reports of protesters dying the news doesn’t seem to be stopping. If anything it is growing like a tidal wave. Granted this isn’t the first time that Twitter has been used to get out the news about a country in political upheaval but it is the first time that it has forced mainstream media to focus on the very thing it is supposed to do – that is bring us the news as it is happening.

As much as we might like to believe that technology can be responsible for tearing down the walls of a repressive government the fact is only time will tell if this is indeed the case. Additionally as much as we might like to point out the failings of mainstream media in this case it is interesting that those suggesting that old media has to change are also among the ones calling for that old media to give them even more news. As Louis Gray put it

That CNN did not lead the way in covering the Iran conflict this week, after decades of our relying on them to be there, as they were in Desert Storm, Operation: Iraqi Freedom, Somalia, Bosnia and others, is not up for debate. But the question is – did we really not want them to fail, or are you happy that they did?

Twitter and Social Media as a whole may be on the vanguard of change and letting us all be a part of that change but that doesn’t change the reality that we still expect our news standard bearers to keep us on the frontlines.

Does this mean that organizations like CNN failed in this duty? – most definitely.

Does it mean that we can only expect that Twitter and other Social Media tools are the only way we should be getting the news as it happens? – most definitely not.

It does mean however that the two can work together and when they do we win. Instead of spending so much time knocking old media or making fun of the new social media tools we should be working on ways to get them to work together. Each serves a purpose and in this changing world they can both help effect social and political change.

That is what Iran is teaching us right now.