The True 'Twitter Revolution'

Was there a Twitter revolution in Iran? To Iason Athanasiadis, an independent journalist whose detention there sparked a global uproar that culminated in his release, the answer comes quickly: No.

He was just as quick to qualify that answer on Oct. 15, as he spoke to a small group at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, co-hosted by the Dart Center. Twitter and other social media websites were crucial in determining how the uprising following the June presidential election was perceived; the protests that followed the state news agency's announcement that incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won a decisive victory became ubiquitous in the West in the form of social media: YouTube videos and Twitter "tweets." But as Athanasiadis described, there is a wide gulf between what is seen outside Iran and what is actually happening on the ground.

There were some 500 journalists on the ground to document the historic elections, but, as Athanasiadis describes it, when reports came out of irregularities and protests began, a situation the ruling party was proud of turned into its biggest embarrassment. As journalists were expelled and text messaging, cell phones and other forms of communication were restricted, the media turned to other sources of information.

"Twitter was the great excuse of the Western media," said Athanasiadis. Local Twitter users — along with users of YouTube, blogs and Facebook — became a way to report without reporters, with all the problems of being unable to vet sources that this implies.

When using social media as a reporting tool, Athanasiadis is careful to triangulate.  "I've never really quoted anyone that I've never met," he said. The same could not be said for much of the Western press, who, faced with the alternative of reporting nothing, often relied on broadcasting messages and videos before investigating their provenance. It was one such video, of Neda Agha Soltan dying after being shot in the chest, that became the most powerful and recognizable symbol of the protests.

The video turned out to be authentic, but social media also helped spread false images of Neda, inflated protest tallies, and rumors; the multitude of non-Iranian Twitter users who changed their stated location to Tehran made parsing the authentic from the inauthentic all the more difficult.

"All social networking media ... is a panic augmenter or an anger maximizer," he said. "Certainly it was a good way of spreading misinformation."

In the absence of other sources, this amplified mix of noise and facts made a difference inside Iran as well as abroad; Seeing their messages multiplied by other Iranians and non-Iranians alike, protesters were led to think: "Clearly we're in the majority, and clearly the elections have been thrown ... and so clearly we should go out into the streets."

In this sense, Twitter was a significant tool of, if not revolution, at least activism. "It has been a dream for democracy activists," said Athanasiadis. But the flip side of this is equally true:   "Social networking tends to group like-minded people together." To see this grouping as a true reflection of the world is dangerous.

There is an opposite trend, though, to Internet media, social and otherwise, that Athanasiadis also cites: online, people are apt to encounter a range of people and ideas from other countries, making it increasingly difficult to hold a truly warped picture of the rest of the world. "The masks of demonization are coming down," he said.

In the end, this may be a revolution more lasting and significant than anything caused by Twitter.