Iran's Twitter Revolution? Maybe Not Yet

Media across the globe have been focusing on a "Twitter Revolution" in Iran as hundreds of thousands of street protestors purportedly mobilized their demonstrations using the microblogging service. So great has the notion of Twitter's role in the Iranian protests become that the U.S. State Dept. reportedly asked the company to defer some maintenance. Twitter says it rescheduled maintenance work from June 15 to later the next day, or about 1:30 a.m. in Iran. "It made sense for Twitter…to keep services active during this highly visible global event," the San Francisco company said on its blog.

However, Iran experts and social networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers' ability to get people on the street. Indeed, most of the organizing has occurred through far more mundane means: SMS text messages and word of mouth. Sysomos, a Toronto-based Web analytics company that researches social media, says there are only about 8,600 Twitter users whose profiles indicate they are from Iran.

"I think the idea of a Twitter revolution is very suspect," says Gaurav Mishra, co-founder of 20:20 WebTech, a company that analyzes the effects of social media. "The amount of people who use these tools in Iran is very small and could not support protests that size."

And with the government blocking the Twitter site, that small group becomes even smaller. Tech-savvy netizens can use proxy addresses such as Tor or to bypass the government block of certain IP addresses. But for many users, circumnavigating the government's blockage is too big a hurdle, and organizing in more conventional ways, such as over the phone or by knocking on doors, can be both quicker and easier.

Raising Awareness Elsewhere

Mishra, who has organized social media activism campaigns for elections in India, says the main reason to use the tools is the attention it generates in the international media. Indeed, one of Twitter's primary contributions in the Iranian elections has been to raise awareness of the issue among tech-savvy users outside the country.

"Political organizers use these tools because they create a multiplier effect—not only do you get a story about the campaign but then you also get a story about the fact they are using social-networking tools," Mishra says. "So you get two stories for the price of one. The international media loves [the] social-networking world. But in India or in Iran, their use is still somewhat limited."

Another reason for the hype surrounding Twitter's role in these protests is the lack of good access for reporters in Iran and the difficulty of covering the story of the protested elections. Iran's religious leadership declared incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner on June 12 with 63% of the vote a mere two hours after polls had closed. The opposition, which had largely supported Mir Hussein Mousavi, took to the streets of Tehran to protest; bloody crackdowns by police and militia followed. At least six people have died and many more have been injured, according to reports.

For now, these tools represent the best chance the demonstrations have of getting continued coverage. "Social media is not at all a prime mover of what is happening on the ground," says Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. "The reason social media is so interesting [for the press] is that the international media doesn't have its members on the ground."

Twitter in Moldova?

Zuckerman analyzed protests in Moldova this past April, which were also labeled a "Twitter Revolution," and found the vast majority of tweets, or Twitter postings, during the protests were coming from outside the country, either Moldovan expats or just people sympathetic to the movement.

"Of the 700 people who were twittering on the Moldovan protests, less than 200 were in Moldova at the time," Zuckerman said. "Social media are helpful in exposing what's happening to the outside world, but it's a mistake to think that these protests [in Iran] are because of social media. It's more conventional things like word-of-mouth and phone calls that really bring massive numbers of people into the streets."

A study by Mike Edwards, a social network researcher at Parsons The New School for Design, examined 79,000 tweets related to the Iran protests, and found that one-third are repostings of other tweets. The general ratio of reposts to posts is 1-to-20, and even in other fast-breaking global news events, when reposting might be more common, such as the swine flu outbreak, Edwards says he has seen the number go only as high as 1 in 5. This could indicate the amount of information deployed by protestors in Iran is small compared to the amount recirculated by outsiders, although Edwards cautions there are other possible explanations.

"There is this romantic notion that the people tweeting are the ones in the streets, but that is not what is happening," Edwards says. "The hubs are generally not people on the ground, and many are not in the country."

Exaggerating the News?

One analyst cautioned that while Twitter or Facebook may keep the outside world's attention trained on Iranian protests, there was also a danger such tools could exaggerate the movement's momentum. "You can get the notion that Ahmadinejad is very unpopular and that Mousavi has this groundswell of support, but we don't have data that shows that," says Reva Bhalla, director of analysis for Austin (Tex.)-based Stratfor, a strategic intelligence and forecasting company. "Ahmadinejad has real support, but his supporters don't have smartphones. There is a real risk of amplifying [one side]." Ahmadinejad is thought to have a greater base of support in rural areas, while Mousavi is popular with urbanites.

Still, regardless of how much a mover social media may be in the protests, Iran watchers agree that the tools do represent a step forward. "Governments like Iran, Syria, and Egypt are really struggling with how to continue limiting information," Bhalla said. "No matter how hard these governments try to block communication, now there is always going to be a hole. This really is a case study in how technology can affect closed societies."

Mousavi introduced the use of social-networking tools to his campaign last month, Iran experts say, because he didn't have the access to state-run television and newspapers Ahmadinejad enjoys. "They needed an alternative means to campaign and get their message across," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. But Parsi, like others, acknowledges that Facebook and Twitter were important mainly for letting people outside the country follow events, and text messages and phone calls were the primary mover of people in Iran's protests. "The people I know mainly tell me they hear about these protests from friends or by SMS," Parsi says.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE