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In a June 19th interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Ethan Zuckerman critiques the popular claim that a “twitter revolution” is happening on the streets of Tehran. Zuckerman says “the real story is that we have a protest movement where hundreds of thousands of people have very bravely taken to the streets”. He dismantles the notion that social media played a major role in organizing the protests in Iran’s captial after the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential election on June 13th.

Zuckerman says it is more traditional media – phone calls and text messages – that are being used on the ground, while social media – Facebook and Twitter – have played valuable roles in connecting people and amplifying voices. Messages on Twitter have allowed family and friends to connect and share information globally, and the amplification effect comes from Twitter’s “retweet” feature, with 1 out of every 3 twitter messages tagged “#iranelection” being retweets.

Echoing some of Zuckerman’s statements, John Palfrey, Bruce Etling and Robert Faris argue in a related opinion piece in today’s Washington Post that “the real revolution is on the streets – and offline”:

Yet for all their promise, there are sharp limits on what Twitter and other Web tools such as Facebook and blogs can do for citizens in authoritarian societies. The 140 characters allowed in a tweet are not the end of politics as we know it — and at times can even play into the hands of hard-line regimes. No amount of Twittering will force Iran’s leaders to change course…if true revolution is coming, it must happen offline.

But in a CSPAN video highlighted by Andrew Malcom on the LA Times blog, Defense Secretary Robert Gates seems to take a more optimistic view of what social media can to do create political change:

It is increasingly difficult for an authoritarian government to maintain control of all the means of communication that are available to its citizens…I think it’s a huge win for freedom around the world

Clearly, the political influence of social media cannot be parsed with a few thoughts and quotes, but it will be interesting to continue monitoring the analysis in this area.


about Anna van Someren

I am a research associate at Center for Future Civic Media a collaboration of the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies.

Previously, I worked as creative manager at Project New Media Literacies where I produced videos and developed the Learning Library.


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