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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last summer's Twitter revolution in Iran now seen as “Astro-turf”

What with bad economic news, heated health care policy debate in Washington, H1N1 scares, and other recent news, it’s easy to already forget one of the summer’s seemingly remarkable news stories: the revolutionary use of Twitter by Iranian dissidents to communicate with the outside world after Iran’s controversial presidential election and the subsequent political crackdown.

Well, the much-vaunted generation of young citizen-activists who were using social media to take back their country from the clutches of Ahmadinejad’s regime turns out to be a lot less connected and representative than we were told. A pair of British media analysts will soon issue a report which concludes that the Iranian Twitter revolution was overblown and oversold by the U.S. and European mainstream media. “The meme was just too tempting, it seems, for anyone to dig into its veracity. The media…loves to write about Twitter,” writes Ravi Somaiya at Gawker.com about the authors’ work. The report will contrast fulsome Western claims with sobering data about the connectedness of the Iran people developed by a social media analytics company.

It turns out that many non-Iranian Twitter users switched their “locations” to Tehran to inflate the miniscule number of Iranian users cited by foreign reporters at the time. All of this is not to denigrate the grassroots courage of Iranians fighting their repressive government at home or the small number of genuine social media users who organized others at home and shared real information with the rest of the world. But in our turbulent era of mass communications, technological innovations, and disruptions, we should beware of oversold claims about “revolutionary” change.