The Blog

Iran and Thinking Before You Speak (or Tweet)

For every valuable piece of information circulating via Twitter, there seems to be an unverified string of gossip attached to it. Such is the danger of citizen journalism.
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John Kerry writes in today's New York Times:

We are all inspired by Iran's peaceful demonstrations, the likes of which have not been seen there in three decades...

There's just one problem. If we actually want to empower the Iranian people, we have to understand how our words can be manipulated and used against us to strengthen the clerical establishment, distract Iranians from a failing economy and rally a fiercely independent populace against outside interference. Iran's hard-liners are already working hard to pin the election dispute, and the protests, as the result of American meddling. On Wednesday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry chastised American officials for "interventionist" statements. Government complaints of slanted coverage by the foreign press are rising in pitch.

We can't escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran's election must be about Iran -- not America....

"Words are important," Kerry stresses in his op-ed, and he's right. While Twitter has proven itself to be an excellent tool for organizing flash mobs, protest rallies, and social networks when the Iranian government shuts down satellites, sometimes it has also been used to spread gossip, propaganda, and half-truths.

For every valuable piece of information circulating via Twitter, there seems to be an unverified string of gossip attached to it. Such is the danger of citizen journalism. Although, to be fair, mainstream "serious business" journalism has also been known to publish complete lies (like Saddam's supposed procurement of WMDs,) so there's danger for propaganda in all sources of news.

But Kerry stresses an important point. This is not America's election, and the same pool of neo-conservatives that launched two wars (three if we count Pakistan,) would love to stick their noses in Iran's business in the name of "preserving freedom" once again. A seemingly grassroots movement like the one happening on -- among other places -- American Twitter accounts arms war hawks with a digital scapegoat for their dastardly plans. It wasn't OUR idea. The Twitter universe demands American intervention! Twitterers should keep this in mind when choosing what information they repost.

This kind of mock concern for Iranian democracy has already begun in the Twitter universe. Matthew Yglesias posted this gross Twitter update from John McCain, who was reposting yet another Tweet from ABC News' Senior White House Correspondent, Jake Tapper: "@jaketapper no prediction, but if we are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail. But this regime has tight control."

Yes, Jake, if we -- Americans -- are steadfast. What a weird way to think of an autonomous democracy. Talking Point Memo's Jacob Helibrunn posted a round-up of the salivating Neo-Cons who had sprung from the shadows in the wake of Iranian protests. There's House Minority Whip, Eric Cantor, who said, "The Administration's silence in the face of Iran's brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Middle East." Also, William Kristol got in on all the pro-Iran action by "drawing on Leo Amery's famous statement in September 1939 in parliament to Neville Chamberlain, 'Speak for England!' declared, 'Speak out kindly and gently. But speak out. Speak for liberty. Speak for America.'" And never to be left out of mock sympathizing for people he doesn't really care about, Jonah Goldberg complains in the National Review that "the new American colossus stands all but silent, her beacon dimmed, her luster tarnished. Please, Mr. President, prove me wrong. Stop voting 'present' on democracy."

Of course, this is not to say there wasn't election fraud in the Iranian election. There may well have been. The point is: we don't know. A series of experts (who probably aren't on Twitter) need to sift through a lot of information before we can know what actually happened. Read this excellent post on the suspicious timing of this selective media coverage and the sudden concern America has with Iranian voting results.

I still believe Twitter is a good tool for organizing protests. Of course, it will never (nor will any computer program) ever replace traditional real-life activism, but Twitter does have positive purposes. However, users should remember it can also circulate propaganda and unverified news.

Re-Tweet with care.

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and of course Twitter.