“It was Sullivan who famously proclaimed ‘The Revolution Will Be Twittered’ and called Twitter ‘the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran,’” writes Evgeny Morozov a Foreign Policy blogger and Georgetown University Fellow. “It is easy to see why so many pundits accepted this narrative: they had seen something similar before,” he continues, referring to the “Velvet Revolutions” of Eastern Europe during the eighties and nineties.
However, Morozov quickly points out the fundamental flaw in such pre-emptive victories:
“In reality…this new media ecosystem [like Facebook and Twitter] is very much like the old game of ‘Telephone,’ in which errors steadily accumulate in the transmission process, and the final message has nothing in common with the original.”
Morozov’s critique – in the Fall 2009 issue of Dissent – on the opinion that Iran’s protest movement is somehow catalyzed through the conduits of social networking would make any postmodern thinker at least grin. However, Morozov posits that it is wishful thinking and arrogance on the side of Western democracy exporters who believe that the gadgets and toys for capitalist mass consumption can be seriously considered a source for “real change”.
According to Morozov, Twitter and Facebook severely limit global audiences from receiving the “entire picture” of an ongoing situation. Contexts – important to make informed decisions in everyday life – are reduced to 140 characters or at best brief allusions. People end up filling this lack of context with their own subjective interpretations, which further pollutes “reality” or distorts it altogether in order to fit a predefined Western conception.
Furthermore, Twitter and Facebook undermine consensual and verifiable truth by having to compete with viral “mis-“ or “dis-information”. These parallel narratives, repackaged or “retweeted” over and over, are avenues where extreme political viewpoints can seep into the public sphere by masking their source. In other words, groups with ulterior political ambitions can mask their spin as truth by going “viral” through cyberspace. Therefore, as American lawmakers become more familiarized or connected with the collection of inaccurate information, they prescribe inadequate or wrong solutions that only exacerbate the situation in Iran.
Iranian authorities have also quickly become savvy to the “democratic” media by being able to access a library of open source information on dissenters that they use to crackdown on opposition members, protestors, and their families by using it for intimidation or “evidence” in show trials. With access to vast swaths of open-source knowledge, networks, and affiliations, Iranian authorities can run their country with an iron fist—akin to a national prison system where “order” is maintained through computer surveillance monitors.
Worst of all, Twitter and Facebook mollify mass outrage to cookie-cutter, bourgeoisie protesting:
“What do 100 million people invited to join the Facebook group “100 Million Facebook members for Democracy in Iran” expect to get out of their membership? Is it just a gigantic exercise in collective transcontinental wishful thinking? Do they really expect that their “slacktivism”—a catchy new word that describes such feel-good but useless Internet activism—would have some impact? Slacktivists may successfully grapple with corporate PR outfits that have increasingly grown fond of polluting and astroturfing cyberspace; whether they will be able to topple authoritarian governments is less obvious.”
While mass youth and student protesters engage in real, mortal combat with their brutal, authoritarian state, it is disappointing to know that people are patting themselves on the back for the witty comment they put on their Facebook status.
However, Morozov does not place blame completely at the doorstep of cyber enthusiasts and well wishers of a new egalitarian (Western) world order, but also Iranian-American bloggers who guide much of the general “cyber-opinion” due to the traditional media blackout in Iran:
“Thus, to blame Andrew Sullivan for first dreaming up the ‘Twitter Revolution,’ we have to blame a bevy of English-speaking Iranian bloggers who had shaped his opinion (many of them from the Iranian diaspora, with strong pro-Western feelings—why else blog in English?), as well as Farsi-speaking bloggers in Tehran who had shaped the opinion of the English-speaking Iranians, and so forth. Factor in various political biases, and it becomes clear that what Andrew Sullivan is “seeing” might be radically different from what is actually happening.”
To put it simply, popular bloggers have no alternative other than to use Iranian-Americans as the “next best source” on Iran – possibly due to perceived ethnic affiliations with Iran – the information that is acquired is often polluted with individual biases and ’79 Revolution baggage to merit neutral, credible fact.
However, as Morozov correctly concludes that Twitter and Facebook were fleeting in catalyzing a “revolution” in Iran, he skips discussing the implications of social media on the United States. Traditional media and political and social networks in the United States have evolved tremendously when it has come to discussing Iran. Not long ago the country was more or less a non-issue or – at best – just another country to invade. Over the last year pragmatism has entered the sphere of debate where clear distinctions are made between Iran’s people and their government, potential future outcomes in “dealing” with the country are considered, and the diaspora is no longer content in sitting and waiting for Iran to change. They are finding as many avenues as possible to support positive, peaceful change.
Twitter and Facebook did not cause the United States to think differently, the Iranian people did. Twitter and Facebook simply allowed for the global dissemination of information while the Iranian authorites tried so hard to keep a media blackout.
Therefore, it would be disingenuous to conclude that individuals might (or should) think that social media is a means to an end. However, it cannot be overlooked that it has the power to signal the genuine discontent that exists inside and outside of Iran.