The Diminishing Role of Government in the Social Media Age [#iranElection]

What if I were to tell you that the somewhat infamous image board 4chan was currently playing an instrumental role with how the US is perceived in Iran, currently. That would be a scary thought to most of us who are familiar with the reputation the site has, and probably a bit scary to a good portion of the message board’s participants, too, I’d wager.

I’ll get back to that tidbit in a moment, though. Many of us in the blogosphere as well as those reporting in the mainstream media have focused on the role that Twitter has played in facilitating communication within Iran for the now seemingly millions of protestors calling for a recount and fair election. When you examine what some are saying, like Harvard senior researcher Ethan Zuckerman, Twitter isn’t what Iranians are using, primarily, to talk to other Iranians:

“Social media is not at all a prime mover of what is happening on the ground,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society…

“The people I know mainly tell me they hear about these protests from friends or by SMS,” [Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council] says.

image So exactly why is Twitter getting all the attention it’s getting right now? The public perception, which is incidentally the same perception apparently shared by the US State Department, is that the status microblogging service is facilitating the revolution, there. I think Matthew DeVries best expressed that sentiment in a thread on Friendfeed about the State Department’s acknowlegement of Twitter:

[Evan Williams] is now sitting there thinking “This is the finger I use to turn on and off the revolution of the second biggest country in the middle east, and it’s the same finger I use to scratch my ass” – Matthew DeVries

If that sentiment isn’t correct, what is the proper sentiment? Ryan Tate at Valleywag has a theory:

While Twitter might not be drawing large crowds to marches, it is unquestionably useful for publishing news in an atmosphere of suppression. This disproportionately benefits foreign news organizations and the American digerati, so it’s no wonder these elites are the ones most loudly trumpeting Twitter as a crucial instrument of communication on the Iran situation.

Still, these benefactors would do well to remind their readers that, with regard to Twitter and actual Iranians in Iran, the medium has not yet become the message.

That’s one angle to take, I suppose. The truth is that the days of it being primarily “media elite” as the only users of Twitter, as Ryan puts it, are long past. Most Twitter users use Twitter as it was intended – as a way to communicate with their close friends. That means, for most people, when news is important, it finds them.

And news did find most of us on Twitter, regardless of media blackout or other governmentally imposed technological limitations. Twitter (and as the numbers telling us now – Facebook) was the conduit by which news found us.


What Was That About 4chan You Were Saying?

I happened upon a SlashDot thread earlier this evening that was incredibly illuminating. The conversations taking place on that thread were, as is common on the site, a lot more interesting than what the article was about.

The original article was an examination of early 90’s science fiction’s view of cyberwar juxtaposed with the reality of what is going on now. The threads that emerged below that image painted a much more nuanced picture of what’s going on within the various tight-knit communities outside what is traditionally considered the “Web 2.0” bubble.

For instance, it appears that news discovery and discussion community Fark is playing an intregral role in the creation and dissemination of proxy servers to those in Iran who are looking to regain Internet access:

Re: Fark
Threads on Fark have reached over 20K posts. People are setting up proxy servers to allow outgoing Twitter messages (bypassing Iranian firewall filters), with several people giving out do-it-yourself proxy kits. There is an active Go Green campaign and protests planned in many cities. Posting of relevant Twitter messages to keep everyone informed.

Even more surprising is that 4chan is doing a lot of the same stuff, with an added flair one might imagine is more their style.

Not to mention 4chan, but…
Those mischievous denizens over at 4chan have apparently managed to throw up over 9000 proxies and waged a very effective series of denial of service attacks against the Iranian government. Somebody send those guys some Redbull and Cheetos!

any story about this that doesn’t mention Fark…
Anyone that writes a story about this that doesn’t mention Fark specifically needs to do a bit more research on the subject. Tats(uma) obviously gets quite a bit of credit, but he wasn’t the only person there keeping up with the tweets. Fark (and oddly, 4chan) became major filters for finding the real data for the first several days. I’m amazed at the people who still don’t know there’s effectively a civil war going on in Iran, since CNN and other mainstream media didn’t really start reporting on it until yesterday.

image It’s interesting to note this because these types of communities are generally known for their chaotic style and wild antics, that on when they occasionally spill out into the real world are generally portrayed in a somewhat negative light.

It is these sorts of actually helpful actions by Fark, 4chan, and members of their community who’ve sparked up projects outside of those communities that are acting as ambassadors to the people of Iran, and having an unmitigated effect on how Americans are percieved in that country.

There have already been messages from Iranians acknowledging the support they’re getting from Americans and expressing their surprise and gratitude, even while acknowledging a lack of coverage by US media. If the Iranian people understand that the American people are their friends, they will be considerably less likely to view America as an enemy and considerably more likely to oppose an anti-American viewpoint by their own government.

This is more about Americans bonding with Iranians than it is about the US government bonding with the Iranian government.

We’re Not Just Diminishing the Role of Heritage Media, but Government Itself

In a way, it is this wider picture of social media that really turned on the lightbulb for me. Those of us in the field of journalism, in the blogosphere, and in social media punditry world have been focused on the role of Twitter in changing the paradigm of Heritage Media news outlets like CNN through crowd-sourced news gathering.

image There have been a lot of salient things said to that affect, and you may hear one or two more salient thoughts from me before I’m talked out on the topic, but what dawned on me is that governments and traditional media have for a long time acted as a hard and fast barrier between the peoples of countries on opposite sides of the world.

Despite language barriers and technological difficulties – or perhaps because they existed – two countries that for decades have been imagining the worst of one another came together in solidarity for the cause of freedom.

When I say they came together, I don’t mean it in a “I’ll change my profile icon green for a few days” sort of way, but in a “let’s mobilize our community to provide tactical and strategic support for your community” sort of way.

This is the stuff that we have traditionally relegated to all of our respective shadow governments and intelligence organizations in the past, and a quick perusal throughout modern history shows the monumental fail after monumental fail that typically results in.

It’s no longer the case that we as citizens must yell and scream at our governments to make an overt public statement of support – we can do that for ourselves in a way they’ll hear. We don’t have to call our congressmen and ask for them to lobby the intelligence sub-committee to increase funding to the program being used to develop better technology to aid distressed and oppressed people – we can simply wrap it up in a.rar file and send it to them.

That’s what’s happening now, and it’s simply impressive to watch.