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The Social Media Revolution That Wasn’t

In the wake of controversial election results in Iran, there’s been much discussion about the role of social media in communicating popular sentiment among the rank and file there. Mashable reports “mindblowing” statistics on Twitter, claiming evidence that social media has been at the nexus of the Iranian unrest.

But, does Tiananmen Square + Twitter = Tehran? It’s very cool to think that #Cnnfail – the protests of the Twitterverse about what it viewed as insufficient coverage of the election and its aftermath on CNN – might have accelerated the traditional media’s reporting on the events in Iran. But, social media’s being credited with much more. Some have hailed “the end of totalitarianism.”  The Vancouver Sun describes #TwitterIran as “the central battlefield for the early stages of what looks like a revolution in Iran.” That’s exhilarating stuff.

Yet, it’s not true, at least not in the way we would wish. Social and digital media have sharpened the focus of the world outside Iran on the massive post-election demonstrations, and the pictures and text messages that have emerged are very moving.  The fact is, however, that the overwhelming majority of those living in Iran lack access to those reports, and it’s naïve to think they’re fomenting protest.
For Iranians, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Friendfeed, and other social networks remain blocked.

Transmission of SMS text messaging through mobile phone networks is impossible. Internet access via satellite is shut down. Some within Iran have been able to get messages out through proxies, and the real heroes may be the hackers.  But, it’s a narrow slice at best. There’s also the fact that, even in ordinary times, social media is used by the young, urban, and privileged…not the masses.  The tweets and texts that have emerged from Tehran represent a very narrow slice of the Iranian population.

So, where’s CNN in all this?  It’s there, of course. But, since its journalists are forbidden to leave their bureau, it had to make do with Christiane Amanpour’s stand-ups, re-runs of her last interview with Ahmadinejad, and assorted talking heads. (Many don’t realize that the protests 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square were captured by CNN because it had permission from the Chinese government to report on a schedule visit by Mikhail Gorbachev. It was a lucky break – if you can call it that – that the cameras were rolling as the tanks rolled in.)

No such luck in Iran. And while the CNN-watching Twitterers demonstrated its ability to harness and focus media criticism, it also proved that the real credibility still rests with “traditional” media – yep, the journalists who actually travel to the site of the action, often at considerable risk and expense, to try to get their story.



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